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Literary Fiction: No, I Don’t Know What It Is, Either

Writing.ie | Guest Bloggers | The Lighter Side

Tara Sparling

Here’s a quick literary joke for you:


Q. What’s the difference between Literary Fiction and Crime?

A. Two empty coffins.


Isn’t that a brilliant joke? Aren’t you rolling around the floor laughing? Isn’t it crammed full of the sharp wit of the universe?

Of course it isn’t. But if enough people said it was, you might believe it. Which seems to be increasingly how Literary Fiction once worked.

Nobody’s saying that Lit-Fic (I know such snazz-tags are annoying, but I’m terribly lazy, so I can’t keep typing things out in full, sorry) isn’t worthy. Nobody’s saying it isn’t good. Even I’m not saying that Lit-Fic isn’t sometimes so brain-strokingly brilliant that it can make me laugh, cry, love, and uncharacteristically glad to be alive, all at the same time. Some of it can. But I do have a problem with the classification.

A lot of what is unclassifiable is marketed as Lit-Fic. It doesn’t even have to string sentences together in pretty ways, half the time. In some cases, it’s classified as such because it uses forty-two subordinate clauses in every seventh sentence, and words such as solipsism, crytoscopophilia, or compound beauties like ‘crumpled life-shards’.

Lit-Fic: Like The Social Media Profile You Created To Impress People You Never Speak To

In fact, simple words are the hardest to write. Particularly if you’re trying to avoid cliché. And sometimes, work which looks deceptively simple is dismissed: proclaimed to be “genre fiction” with a wave, a sniff, and a wry eyebrow. So, if there’s a happy ending, it’s Romance. If there’s violence, it’s Crime. If someone gets a new lease of life past the age of sixty and stops a freight train with an elephant, it’s Scandinavian Humour.

Granted, there are some more helpful genres and sub-genres, such as Historical Crime, Time Travel Romance, and Spanish Accountancy Noir. (Not really. I made the last one up.) But when it’s simply impossible to classify, then it’s Lit-Fic. For example:

  1. The male anti-hero parboils quinoa for a local wholefoods distributor, keeps a Mastiff hound in his thirty-eighth-and-ninth-floor duplex, and suffers terribly because of unrequited love for his estranged nephew’s cello-playing neighbour;
  2. The female protagonist is an eighteenth-century bipolar shepherdess with a talent for mathematics, and a yearning to bake salted brioche for the French Dauphin;
  3. A book called The Newspaper Man Goes Walking is composed entirely of adverbs and the word “concupiscence”.

Categorising this as Lit-Fic means that the following scene took place:

Publisher: I haven’t a rashers’ who might read this. We couldn’t think of a single predefined section of the market that would want to buy this book. Let’s make out it’s really brainy. That only book clubs full of brainy people should buy it. And wait for the stampede.

Publisher’s Factotum: Fair ‘nuff, Boss.

The issue here is that if Lit-Fic is overused as a category, it’s implied that other books are somehow less worthy, less well-written. That the majority of genre fiction is frothy and derivative, knocked out in two months, without any real thought or effort.

This is not only nonsense, it is achingly unfair. Crime is not less well-written than Literary Crime. It’s not even different in style. The quality may vary widely. But that’s not a characteristic of the genre.

Part of the reason why publishers – traditional and self-publishers alike – no longer seem to feel comfortable with classifying a book as contemporary or general fiction, is of course the problem of shelving a book on Amazon. The less specific the genre, the harder it is to get your book seen. The more specific the genre, the more likely a book is going to end up on the bestseller list (beating all other contenders to reach #3 on the Erotic Gardening Mystery list, for instance). But when it comes to more obvious contenders, such as books with big budgets, big authors, or a big movie on the way, they don’t need this kind of ill-fitting genre categorisation.

Shelving problems aside, classifying a book as ‘General Fiction’ won’t preclude it from winning any literary prizes; it won’t turn off lovers of Lit-Fic, who tend to buy according to what a book is about, who wrote it, or whether it’s been nominated for any prizes, rather than by genre; and it might even garner a few lovers of plain old storybooks, who are turned off by the idea of literary prose which might take too long to tell them what they want to know.

The worry also is: if a book doesn’t win any prizes, will the label do it more harm than good?

Anyway, I’m off now to invent a few more overly specific book genres. So far, I have the aforementioned Spanish Accountancy Noir; Trainspotting Horror, and Killer Pigeon Romance. I’ll be back.

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