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Literary Fiction Must Go

I hate literary fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, I read a lot of books that would be considered literary fiction. And I often enjoy these books. I have nothing against serious books, or intelligent books, or realistic books, or books about educated middle class people cracking up. (I’ve written one or two of them myself.)

No.

What I am against is the idea of literary fiction. The idea that it is – or should be – a category. A genre, something separate to, say, books about werewolves or books set in space or books revolving around love stories. And as the publishing world becomes ever more paranoid about its future there seems to be a renewed attempt to turn it into a genre of its own. This is wrong. This is dangerously wrong.

I’ll tell you why:

- Books should not be gated communities. Culture is always at its richest when it is mixed up. Genres never help this.

- Literary fiction is synonymous with serious fiction. By turning serious fiction into a genre you are automatically devaluing every other type of book.

- Genres are straitjackets. Genres say this is what you can and can’t write about. A genre imprisons imagination.

- If Hamlet was a debut novel, written today, a literary publisher would sit down with Shakespeare and say ‘there’s some really great stuff in here William, but to be taken seriously you should probably get rid of the jokes, and all the murder stuff, and the ghost. Literary readers don’t like the supernatural.’

- Genres make for worse writing. I once wrote a novel that I wanted to be taken seriously by all the right literary gatekeepers. The novel was called The Possession of Mr Cave. It obeyed most of the rules for literary fiction. It got good reviews in the TLS and the New York Times and the Guardian. I hate myself for writing that novel. You see, people always talk about writers selling out but I bet just as many are being a different kind of fake. The kind of fake that wants good reviews, and credibility, and a gold star from teacher.

-Genres create rules. And the only rule a writer should follow is truth. The truth of their own instincts and imagination.

- It is outdated. We do not live in a bubble. Our minds aren’t VIP rooms that only allow Virginia Woolf and DH Lawrence passed the velvet rope. They are are filled continuously nowadays with a riotous carnival of influences whether we like it or not. TV shows, pop songs, graphic novels, movies, blogs, tweets, pop-up advertising, Youtube videos, Tumblr quotations, the news, our Facebook friends, the postman, our dreams and nightmares.

- It is about snobbery. It is about that worst aspect of human nature, the one that says ‘I read this type of book because I am this type of person which is a better type of person than the type who reads fantasy books/thrillers/romances/whatever’. It is book fascism.

- It goes against creativity. I don’t know how other writers work but I feel at my most creative when I am busting convention. In The Humans I write about intellectuals at Cambridge University. I also write about dysfunctional middle class family relationships. So far so Franzen. But I also write about an alien, and immortal beings. And I tell jokes. I can honestly tell you I have never felt so energised or passionate writing anything and I honestly think that energy came from allowing myself to be free. About forgetting about being a ‘literary’ writer or a ‘commercial’ writer or a ‘fantasy’ writer.

- People who put fences up between things damage culture. People who say there are certain types of films/plays/ballets/paintings/books for certain types of people put people off those things. And the last thing anyone needs to do is to put people off books right now.

- Art and stories should be inclusive. You know, like Shakespeare – playing to the groundlings and royalty. We tell stories around campfires. We shouldn’t leave people in the cold.

11 Comments

  1. Pingback: Link: “Literary” fiction? | Adventures With Words

  2. Love this, Matt — and I couldn’t agree more!

  3. I can see the point of genre up to a point. There’s so much stuff to sift it can assist. I agree it’s a constraint on creativity. My agent thought it was the reason my book wasn’t taken on: it didn’t quite fit tried and tested (tired and tested) formulae. I find an occasional genre-busting indie gem that publishers would skirt warily. It’s far more exhilerating to read and write with the gloves off.

    • Well, I wish you hadn’t said that about The Posession of Mr Cave because I just now got it from the library.
      I have wondered if the books that are written for children are often more fun, more imaginative, more pretty much everything because of what you’ve written above. There doesn’t seem to be genres in the Books for Kids world. At my local library there’s the Science Fiction section, the Romance section, the Literary Fiction section, the Thriller (or is it crime?) section, and some other sections, maybe. And then over on the far right, there’s the wonderful Children’s Section! Books that contain happiness and sadness and family relationships and grieving and books where uncles turn into dogs and back again, and aliens and robots and they’re all on one shelf, heck, they’re all in one book if they want to be!

      This seems rare in the world of adult books, unless maybe you’re in the sci-fi section…

  4. Sorry, I didn’t mean to put my comment as a reply to Ana’s

  5. Matt, your post reminded me of my own take on the issue, “This Might Be Literary Fiction Because There Are No Dinosaurs” (bit.ly/litfiction).

  6. Pingback: ‘Literary Fiction’ as a Genre… | Savidge Reads

  7. Pingback: Weekend reading | A bookworm's life

  8. Yes to all of this. As both a reader and a writer I am appalled at the snobbery within the literary media about something that should bring joy. As a reader I don’t want to be told what I “should” read – half the pleasure of reading is in discovering new stories, regardless of labels. And as a writer I detest being boxed and constrained when, as you rightly say, the beauty of the craft is in making our own roads regardless of boundaries. If this isn’t addressed soon, there is a very real danger that potential readers will be dissuaded from picking up books and writers will become disillusioned about pursuing their passion. Down with labels!

  9. S. A. David says:

    This is it! You nailed it! Without further belaboring, ‘whatever writing that springs off the writer’s head is a literary work of art. It’s Literature and not Physics, Astronomy. . .For chrissake, it’s LITERARY FICTION!’

  10. This was awesome. Thank you.

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