Why I Hate the Term “Literary Fiction”

“So, what kind of books do you like to read?”

If there’s one question I dread, it’s this particular chestnut. I get asked this about once a week, and inevitably find myself mumbling something along the lines of: “uh… I’ll read anything.”

I’ll read anything. It’s not a precise response, nor is it accurate. I’ll read anything suggests two possibilities: that I’m lying when I claim to enjoy reading, and don’t know enough about literature to summon up a convincing answer, or that I’m telling the truth and genuinely have no preferences, no focus, no literary taste; that I’m essentially a shapeless blob absorbing fiction indiscriminately.

Of course, neither of those characterizations is correct. So why do I struggle to define my literary tastes? I’ll tell you: it’s because whenever someone asks me what kind of books I like to read, what they’re really inquiring about is genre. Do I read fantasy? Mystery? “Literary” fiction? I’ve never thought about my reading habits in those terms, not even as a child, so I invariably find myself at a loss for a humble and honest answer.

The truth is that when considering whether or not to read a book, I don’t find genre classifications particularly helpful. Therefore, I pay them little attention; in fact, I managed to reach the age of twenty-three without ever hearing the term literary fiction. It wasn’t until last year, when a friend mentioned it casually in reference to a book she was reading at the time, that I became aware of this unsettling classification. More startling was the realization that about 75% of the books I read have been categorized in this way.

Initially I was nonplussed. Literary fiction? Wouldn’t that, by very definition, be all fiction? Apparently not. Over the past year or so, I haven’t been able to escape the term literary fiction; it’s proven to be one of those phenomena that, once you become aware of it, you see everywhere you go. This is partly due to the fact that I’ve joined Goodreads, where genre classifications are stamped over every corner of the website. Speaking to friends and fellow book club members, too, has forced me to acknowledge genre as a generally unquestioned element of the twenty-first century bookworm’s experience.

But this hasn’t always been the case. The term literary fiction didn’t emerge until the 1960s, when it was adopted as the official euphemism for “serious literature.” Before then, books were either good or bad or somewhere in between, and their content was beside the point. But the modern elevation of the novel to the level of art eventually warranted a classification system, a literary separator of wheat from chaff.

This is hardly surprising. After all, what’s any medium without a furious debate over artistic merit? While I generally don’t believe in objectivist ranking systems, I won’t deny that the song “Heartbreak Hotel” is superior to “Achy Breaky Heart.” Objectively. So if we can acknowledge that some pieces of music are more powerful, groundbreaking, or original than others, it stands to reason that the same must be true for literature.

The problem I see with the literary fiction designation is that it fails to offer any definition of what constitutes “serious literature.” The novels that receive this categorization lack unifying qualities: instead, they are defined in negative, by what they are not. Literary fiction is not genre fiction. It is not fantasy or sci fi, not mystery or horror. It is not romance, historical fiction, children’s literature, or adventure.  Literary fiction is positioned as the antithesis of genre fiction, characterized by everything it is not.

So what, if anything, do any two works of literary fiction have in common? The publishing industry will have us believe that the characterizing element of literary fiction is not its content but its elevated artistic status. Literary fiction, we are told, is more concerned with form or metaphysical questions than its genre counterparts. It strikes me that this distinction is comparing apples to oranges. From what I can see, content and artistic merit are separate issues. Do supernatural elements in a novel disqualify it from serious consideration? Of course not. So why should a fantasy novel of literary merit be forced to choose a camp?

The answer, of course, is that publishers believe novels are more marketable with genre classifications stamped on their covers. Maybe they decided that the term “literary fiction” is less boring than “mainstream” or “realistic,” and thereby more viable.

But I take issue with this predilection for genre-stamping. While a book labeled “fantasy” is no doubt highly marketable to the established fantasy audience, labeling it as such decreases the likelihood that readers outside of this audience will ever pick it up, due to either snobbery, the belief that they won’t enjoy it, or a mere lack of exposure. And if the novel is genuinely good, then that’s a real shame.

But more critical, in my opinion, is the opposite phenomenon: readers of genre fiction feeling hesitant to pick up a book billed as “literary.” The term literary fiction is not only snobby, it’s intimidating to many readers. I imagine this must be a particular problem for younger adults transitioning from children’s or YA fiction, especially those adults who miss out on the facilitating benefits of a college English class. For these people, a book with a sword or a spaceship on its cover will feel more comfortable, more familiar, than a wistful-looking book cover sporting some paint splotches and a faded font. That’s too bad, since the paint-splotch book could have the potential to alter many young readers’ perceptions of life, if they got past their trepidation long enough to actually read it.

Kitty Reading

Serious literature can be enjoyed by all.

Speaking as a young person myself, I’ve had countless edifying and even, at the risk of sounding cliché, life-changing reading experiences. Books of all genres have forced me to appreciate the power of language, to reevaluate my internalized systems of morality and to consider the experiences of people vastly different from me. The majority of these books have been deemed “literary fiction,” but certainly not all. And, interestingly, a vast number of my favorite “literary fiction” novels commit some degree of genre-bending. From David Mitchell’s painstakingly crafted fantasy universe, to Julia Alvarez’s rich historical detail, to Kazuo Ishiguro’s imaginative futuristic society, to the magical realism of just about every acclaimed author you’ve ever heard of, there are plenty of approachable elements to be found in “serious” novels.

But by obscuring these elements behind a patina of sober cover art and Very Important Blurbs, publishers close the gateway through which countless readers might enter a brave new world of literature. And by herding those same readers toward books with taglines like “What does it take to survive aboard a spaceship fueled by lies?”, they exacerbate the problem.

I firmly believe that a person shouldn’t need a degree in literature to feel comfortable reading a thought-provoking novel. But if I hadn’t studied literature myself, would my current bookshelf look the same? Perhaps not.

So, what books do I like to read? I’ll tell you. I like to read books that challenge my thinking. I like to read books that challenge my attention span. I like to read books that teach me about new topics. I like to read books that immerse me in a rich literary world of well-crafted characters. I like to read books that increase my appreciation for language. I like to read books that are beautiful.

To sum up, I like to read good books. I dearly hope that, as genre-bending continues to gain popularity and the publishing industry continues to be challenged, good books will gain a greater audience.

Some of my books.