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July 13, 2006

What's wrong with "literary"?


So I belong to a big discussion group devoted to mystery novels. Usually, I enjoy the discussions and get some good book recommendations from the reviews posted. But this time, there's a "discussion" that's bugging me enough to write about it.

I don't even remember how it started - maybe a discussion of the distinction between "mystery" and "literary thriller"? Probably something like that. Anyway, this became a discussion of what makes a book "literary," which is sometimes seen as the opposite of "genre." Now, I work in a bookstore; I understand that these sorts of labels often have at least as much to do with marketing than anything else. But I still don't think the term "literary" is meaningless.

A few people suggested reasonable definitions of "literary." But the majority said something along the lines of "badly written" or "incomprehensible" or "nothing happens." Some of the responses were even more extreme. Sure, some literary fiction is badly written, but that's true in any genre, and this went beyond that. This was saying that all literary fiction was bad, and perhaps that it was trying to be genre fiction and failing. Which seems absurd. What's going on?

Now, the people who said this were primarily self-identified mystery readers and/or writers. Is this just some kind of reverse snobbery? Genre fiction is sometimes looked down on as not "real fiction." So genre people say all literary fiction is bad? Hmm. That's part of it, I'm sure. But that doesn't seem to be enough to explain it.

Two other "definitions" struck me. At least one person (and these are all paraphrases, by the way; I'm not trying to quote anyone in particular) said that literary fiction is "about people you don't like," and someone else said it's "those books you have to read in school that no one gets anything out of because no one can relate to the characters." Hmm. First of all, I'd totally disagree with this, honestly; maybe this person felt he couldn't relate to the characters, but many people (myself included) have related to and gotten lots out of many "classics." Would this person insist that we're lying in order to sound intellectual? I'm not sure.

But I also wonder whether this is related to the explosion of "hobby/lifestyle mysteries." There are cat mysteries, dog mysteries, knitting mysteries, cooking mysteries, ice skating mysteries, antiques mysteries. There are mysteries for wine lovers and soap opera watchers and tea drinkers. And these series are often labeled right on the cover. More and more often, they are series that are deliberately crafted to BE "a needlework mystery," say, rather than having a character who is into needlework as genuine aspect of her personality. The idea, of course, is that people who are into the "concept" will buy the mysteries.

Is this spoiling us? In these series, the character is being written to relate to the reader, so the reader doesn't have to work very hard to relate to the character. Is this why literary fiction is "bad"? Because it (theoretically) depicts characters that are crafted for their own sake, rather than being designed for a very specific demographic? Do we only want to read about people who are Just Like Us? It seems like that would be very, very bad, both for literature and for society as a whole.

Posted by Kat at July 13, 2006 05:00 PM

People make my brain hurt. There are the people who don't watch TV, people who don't read, people who only read works published prior to 1947, people who only read bestsellers, only read non fiction, only read fiction, are dismissive of science fiction.....etc, etc.

I hope that we're not heading into the equivalent of fan writing. But I doubt it. There are enough intellectual snobs out there to counter act the brain fluff and vice a versa to keep them both on their toes.

Posted by: Carrie K at July 13, 2006 06:21 PM

Having gone to school to read all of these books that no one can relate to , I'm a wee bit offended by the concept. There are two great sins when it comes to books, disregarding an genre as something that you are too good for, and disregarding anything because it's a wittle too hard for you to understand. I'm more guilty of the latter than the former, myself.
It reminds me of the time I had a customer ask me to first explain the difference between fiction and non-fiction (which is of course quite easy) and then asked me to define Literature for him. It's not a word that is easy to define, and I think by having the conversation at all the door was opened to expose people's prejudices. I'll be the first person to admit that some Literature is truly horrible. Truly. Beyond words. But a great amount of it has universal themes that reach across time, space, gender and nationality to evoke feeling in all people. At least they would if these people could forget the experience they had reading Arrowsmith as a freaking sophomore in High School and move on with their lives. Rant completed.

Posted by: vickie at July 14, 2006 12:54 AM

"Literature", in my opinion, differs fron genre fiction in that it's usually character-driven instead of plot-driven. There is also more of a tendency to experiment with writing style and voice, etc. As such it may require more attention from the reader, more thought. (I say this as a mainly genre reader.) Couple this with what IMHO is a culture of anti-intellectualism in the US and you get tons of people believing anything that requires effort is bad. *shrug*

Posted by: Christine at July 14, 2006 09:47 AM

If we can't "relate" to particular book, it's OK, that happens occasionally. If we forgo an entire genre based on a stereotype we developed in high school English, or because our families made fun of snobby book people or whatever the excuse is, then we have a problem. We are narrow minded, or worse yet, shallow minded, excluding all from our lives that somehow doesn't directly relate to us and constantly seeking refuge in the familiar. Pity we can't harvest wool from this particular kind of sheep. Unfortunately, people suffering from this condition will never understand the wealth of experiences and opportunities they have deliberately chosen to forgo.

Or maybe I'm just a book snob, pontificating from on high.

Posted by: Erica at July 14, 2006 01:27 PM

I just clicked on the YarnWench link and realized she's the author of the promo sitting on my desk. Another reason to carry her book.

Posted by: Erica at July 14, 2006 01:29 PM

Did I ever get around to my point that Literature should be read? Not every word of it, by everyone, but I think everyone should read something that's more than just a book. You can't expand your comfort zone if you just sit inside of it.

Posted by: Carrie K at July 14, 2006 05:19 PM
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