Movable Type 3.2
July 13, 2006
What's wrong with "literary"?Bookish
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