L is for Literary Fiction: Genre Prejudice and Canon

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Today’s strange thing, might be a little counter intuitive for many, but to me the genre of Literary Fiction is a truly strange thing.

I don’t really have anything against the genre existing, or it being defined in certain ways, what gets me is the automatic, no exception, prohibitions against certain other genres being considered literary fiction, regardless of how many of the supposedly literary characteristics it may contain.

So most people definite literary fiction as including works that are more focused on the craft of writing, and the art of words, than any other aspect of writing.  Literary fiction may not always have a clear cut conflict, or even a clear cut plot.  But if the words are artfully crafted, then it can still be artistic, and thus literary.

Literary fiction is also generally considered to include the canonical literature generally taught at universities.  The great novels, plays, and poetry of past eras.

If you disagree with this definition of the literary genre, I would love to hear your thought on what it really consists of.  However, my defininition seems to hold true for everything I’ve seen labeled as such.  It may be a lay persons idea of the genre rather than a publishing or literary agent understanding, but for the purposes of my discussion, the above definition is what I’m walking about.

What I find so immensely strange, is that nothing that can be distinctly labeled as some other genre is allowed to also be labeled literary.  Romances are too low brow to be literary fiction.  As are science fiction, fantasy, and any number of other genres.  These whoever are the bug ones that usually get mentioned specifically.

My argument for why this is so strange, reaches back into canon.

Canonical works that have been universally agreed to be the height of literature are generally classified as classics and understood to belong to literary fiction.  This includes works like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (I bet you can find a romance in there if you look), and all of Shakespeare’s poetry and plays (How is A Midsummer Night’s Dream not a fantasy story?).

And that’s where the strangeness hits for me.  If Chaucer can write about a love affair and a cuckolded husband in a bawdy and funny tale and it’s lauded as a literary classic, then why can’t a well written, well crafted, romance tale that has beautiful, lyrical prose and all the other earmarks of the literary genre be included?  If Shakespeare’s tale of fairies and a man literally having a donkey’s head for most of the play can be held up as a literary masterpiece, then why can’t an epic tale about kings or queens, or dragons, or whatever other fantasy elements that has carefully crafts plot and characters with masterfully written prose not be included?

It’s the exclusionary nature of the literary genre that I find so troubling.  Yes, there are trashy romance novels (not that they aren’t fun to read and often best sellers all the same), there are cliché filled fantasy stories, and formulaic science fiction tales, but so what?  Any novel or story can fall into being cliché, formulaic, or appeal to our baser selves, but that doesn’t man that everything written in a given genre will always have one of those characteristics.

I see the division as just another kind of prejudice in the world.  Prejudice against what is popular because if it’s popular it can’t possibly be literary.  Well that’s a total crock.  Shakespeare was popular.  He still is.  Chaucer’s works were popular.  So popular that he wanted them eradicated after his death as not being religious enough.  What’s so wrong with being popular?  Why does being popular mean you can’t be literary?  Everyone can appreciate good art.

There’s a possibility that some of my annoyance with the literary genre is because I have basically been told over and over by publishers, creative writing teachers, and so many others who claim to uphold the literary tradition that I can’t be included just because of my subject matter.  Just because I happen to include some fantasy elements or I set my tale in the far future in the depths of outerspace, I can’t be literary, so they don’t want to see it and they don’t want to read it.

Thankfully, my very first creative writing teacher didn’t make this distinction.  She used Harry Potter novels to teach us about archetypes (they’re very clear in those books) and she had us performing Hamlet in class with a square on the rug standing in for a grave and her very own Yorick from the shelf at the back of the room.  She encouraged me to submit a young adult fantasy novel I’d written after sophomore year to a competition for first time novelists.  She encouraged me to keep writing and never stop.

My second creative writing teacher was far different.  On the first day of class, he banned all genre fiction.  He didn’t want to read it.  We were only allowed to write contemporary and literary fiction for his class.  If we were good, then maybe he’d let us do a genre piece for the last story of the class.

I almost dropped the course I was so mad about that restriction.  What was so wrong with genre fiction?  Why couldn’t I make just as much progress and learn just as much about the craft of writing in a genre?  What was my teacher so afraid of?

These experiences may have shaped my opinions on literary fiction, but it doesn’t change the fact that I feel that the exclusionary nature of literary fiction is built on a false premise.  A work’s literariness should be judged based on the nature of the prose, the depth of the emotions conveyed, the height of the language, not the subject matter itself.

This post turned into a bit of a rant, but it’s how I really feel about the seemingly arbitrary boundaries of the literary genre.

How do you feel about genre boundaries?  Do you think the boundaries are helpful or harmful?  Have you run up against those boundaries in some way?

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4 thoughts on “L is for Literary Fiction: Genre Prejudice and Canon

  1. I agree, but I think it’s opening up a bit. I think ‘people’ would call Anne Rice’s work Literary, even though it’s Vampires. But there are people who doing even consider Genre writing, writing at all. Which I find very sad, and strange. 🙂

    • Writing is writing in my opinion. You can be great at it or horrible, your subject matter doesn’t necessarily affect that. I think genre is used as just another type of gate-keeping in the publishing industry.

  2. *shrugs*
    Your guess would probably be better than mine, Heather. I definitely find it strange how publishers and bookstores market titles.

    One time I was looking for this NA romance and I tried the romance section and found it among the ‘General Fiction’ section. Why? I have no clue. It wasn’t any different than what Harlequin publishes for its single titles.

    Happy that you had a writing teacher who was genre fluid and not a stickler for dividing commercial from literary fiction. It really does make all the difference sometimes hearing it from another professional. 🙂

    • I’m with you on the confusion. I think sometimes they pic things just to be on a certain shelf in the book store rather than what’s inside the book. Who knows.

      Having open minded writing teachers (especially that very first one in high school) was very helpful for me. I’ve also found some MFA programs that specialize in genre and commercial fiction too which is pretty neat.

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