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July 12, 2006

More on Lit Fic

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The whole "literary fiction" thing, eh? What a ... confounding phenomenon. Is the term "literary fiction" a sign that we ought to pay attention and offer respect? Or is it merely a label for pretentious books that are too high-falutin' to bother delivering engaging and absorbing plots? In a piece he shared with us not long ago, the western novelist Richard S. Wheeler noted that, when he was growing up, no such thing as a contrast between "literary fiction" and "genre fiction" existed. A fiction-book might be more or less refined, but they all existed on the same fiction continuum. So what's with this lit-fic thing anyway? Maybe it's all a great big ...

Anyway, I was surfing Wikipedia the other day and was made very happy when I read their entry on literary fiction. Fun passage:

Literary fiction is a somewhat uneasy term that has come into common usage since around 1970, principally to distinguish 'serious' fiction (i.e. work with claims to literary merit) from the many types of genre fiction and popular fiction. In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character, whereas mainstream commercial fiction (the 'pageturner') focuses more on narrative and plot.

1970 ... Hmmm. That would be right about when the creative-writing schools started to make an impact on book publishing ... England's sensible Robert McCrum (in a piece about BZ Myers' infamous anti-lit fic rant "A Reader's Manifesto") is similarly straightforward and frank:

Nowhere has literary fiction been more fiercely entrenched than the United States. Here, the establishment I've described has been reinforced by a network of creative-writing communities, from Iowa to Yaddo, each devoted to turning out publishable examples of literary fiction.

I just ran across another piece -- dating back to a 1993 issue of England's irreverent The Modern Review -- that points out another element in the equation: changes in the structure and makeup of the book-publishing biz. Characteristic passage:

One useful way of thinking of this kind of literature [ie., "literary fiction"] is as a category that won't admit it's a category ... The fantasy is that the culture of books is guided by people of talent and taste, and that while decency may not always prevail, it has a fighting chance. But the fact is that trade publishing is now run almost entirely on the business' terms. The rout began about 15 years ago is now close to complete. Trade publishing is a thoroughly professionalized world. Publishing lists are constructed under the same kind of constraints and with the same kind of conceptualizing-editor guidance (and interference) that glossy magazines are, and the fiction writers who contribute their work to these lists tend to have an academic preparation comparable to that of contemporary journalists and business people.

It appears that word may finally be getting out to the public at large that -- despite its intending-to-awe name -- "literary fiction" represents nothing more than another shelf in your local bookstore's Fiction section. It's one menu option among many, and nothing more.

I do recognize that there are talents and brains a-plenty engaged in the lit-fic thing. I even have some lit-fic tastes and prefs of my own. (Read about 'em here.) So I'd love to make an even-handed argument that lit-fic -- even if nothing more than just another category of fiction -- is as legit a category of fiction as any other. But in fact I can't.

There's a problem with thinking of lit fic as a legitimate genre. It's this: Real fiction-genres arise out of something alive. They're the result of an informal collaboration between audiences, publishers, and writers. They're based in live tastes, live markets, live creative urges, and live audience enthusiasm.

They arise semi-naturally, in a word. "Literary fiction" has no such organic basis. It's a willed creation, one that has been given form from the intellect on down. Its audience is largely made up of students, educated people who attend creative writing classes themselves, and people who are still young and credulous enough to read what the magazines tell them is important. (This behavior usually stops at the age of 30. It's at about that age that it dawns on even the most earnest of former English majors that they no longer have to read anything, at least on their free time. Profs and gold stars don't exist outside of school, and in the real world you're -- gasp! -- allowed to read for pleasure.) Lit fic is an artificial world, without any vitality or pulse of its own, and in need of ever-renewed artificial respiration. Which is also to say that it's constantly on the verge of collapse and annihilation. Should it fall into its grave, I won't be among its mourners.

What have you come to expect of literary fiction? Generally speaking, it seems to me, the reader can expect that the writin' will be fancy, that the themes will be radical-chic, that the tone will be elevated, that the characters will have no life-force of their own, and that the story will suck. Why do we let ourselves be taken in by it? And ain't it interesting that lit fic's very existence is a product of A) the '60s, and B) the academicization of fiction-writing? Yet much of the book press (and the critics, the editors, and the prize-givers) want us to believe that it's in the "literary fiction" category that the real writing of our age is to be found.

"Literary fiction" ... Is "hoax" too strong a word for it? Perhaps "self-willed hallucination" would be better?

My favorite of the bookblogs is Rod Lott's Bookgasm. Lott and his fellow Bookgasmers are smart and low-down; they're both appreciative of what they read and shrewd in their appreciation. God knows you can't accuse the rowdy lot at Bookgasm of dealing with books that have no basis in real audience passion!

I notice that a new book by Toby Young has just come out. Toby Young was the trouble-making and brainy editor of The Modern Review, and is the author himself of "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People," a hilarious memoir of some years he spent screwing up as a staffer at Vanity Fair magazine. At Young's website, he's giving away a podcast version of "How to Lose Friends." I hope his new memoir, which concerns misadventures in Hollywood, is fun too. Here's an article about The Modern Review, which Young co-founded, and which had a short but influential life.



posted by Michael at July 12, 2006


"Literary fiction" ... Is "hoax" too strong a word for it?"

So much for Kafka,Mann,Gide,Sterne,Swinburne,Chaucer,Shakespeare,Dos Passos,Eliott,Joyce,Dante,Sophocles,Flannery O'Connor,Proust,Stevens, etc.

I consider these to be in the genre of "lit-fic."
Part of the appeal is in its difficulty, challenge, that the intellectual rewards are at least as important as the emotional, elitism, alienation and the preference of preferring a historical tradition and continuity to belonging to a popular elite or subculture. It may not be a "better" subculture than the ones built around mysteries or romance or punk-rock or baroque classical or bluegrass...but I see no reason for this arrogant attitude that the lit-fic subculture is inferior to your own little niche.

I like Townes van Zandt and Delbert McLinton too. I do not thereby feel superior to those devoted to Ravel and Satie. This was an amazing post.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on July 12, 2006 3:31 PM

Bob -- I put quotes around "literary fiction" and referred to it as lit fic to mark out my subject as a post-1970 publishing-world phenomenon, not literature in the more general sense. Taking the contempo "lit-fic" thing to be the inarguable and inevitable extension of the literature of Gide and Kafka is a common mistake -- it's no such thing. It's also a mistake that the publishing/creative-writing industry is eager for you to make. Don't let them get away with it!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 12, 2006 3:38 PM

I read fairly broadly across the B&N aisles - mystery, horror, literary, whatever, and the notion that the post-1970 novels being published under the rubric of "literary fiction" have "sucky plots" seems a bit unfair. Some of these novels have wonderful, twisty, engaging plots - Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Edward P. Jones, - all are pretty much ensconced as "lit-fiction" authors, and yet all can spin a plot with the best of them. And yet even if "lit-fiction" novels can often sacrifice plot in favor of character or theme, so what? "Mystery" novels often sacrifice theme or style in favor of plot, right? To me, whether or not "lit-fiction" is a legit genre or not, it offers pretty much the same mix of good and bad as any other genre.I guess in the end, I'm not sure why you are elevating plot so far above any other attribute of fiction.

Posted by: Tosy and Cosh on July 12, 2006 4:28 PM

A faux-populist attack on the "elites." I'll agree about the precious-ness of the marketing around these books.

Posted by: the patriarch on July 12, 2006 4:42 PM

T&C -- Hey, that's how I read too! Anyway, the mystery isn't why I'm speaking up in favor of the place of story in prose fiction -- story is basic, after all. (It's a strange world in which this needs asserting ...) The mystery is why the lit-fic world has so devalued story. Some exceptions (as you point out) noted, many lit-fic people are flat-out contemptuous of the traditional satisfactions of narrative even while knowing little about how to deliver them, and while encouraging naive kids to turn their noses up at a lot of remarkable work. In any case the lit fic world can and will go its merry hothouse way. I just marvel that so many of us buy its pretentions.

Patriarch -- Elaborations, please. I don't know what to respond to in your comment.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 12, 2006 4:48 PM

My argument was that the whole idea of a superior "literary" fiction is very modern, rising in academia in the 60s. It is also dubious. I know of nothing that makes "literary" fiction innately superior to popular fiction. I don't know how one places Shakespeare or Swinburne or Dos Passos in a category that was defined only a few decades ago. Dos Passos would have scorned the distinction. For that matter, so would his friend Hemingway. They both prided themselves on the universality of their writing.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on July 12, 2006 6:00 PM

"I don't know how one places Shakespeare or Swinburne or Dos Passos"

Dos Passos & Shakespeare were popular in their day;Swinburne not so much. I was putting my named authors in the category of lit-fic on two grounds:at the time Dante & Mann were writing, their audience was likely the same percentage and the same type of people that read lit-fic today. How many people read "Doctor Faustus" and who were they? Was Mann writing for the masses? That Dos Passos was writing for the masses does not mean the masses are the ones reading him today.

2) How many people today read Dos Passos and untranslated Shakespeare without being assigned the reading? Who are they? There have been periods in which art-lit and pop-lit marginally overlapped, but they were pretty unusual.

3)I would contend that the current audience for Fielding, Sterne, Wordsworth is that precise lit-fic crowd you so condemn. Art literature has become another genre, it includes both current posuers, writers of quality that no one except their friends read, and the classics.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on July 12, 2006 6:23 PM

I don't condemn literary fiction at all, and that was not the thesis of the talk reprinted above. If I've been interpreted as condemning literary fiction, then I've failed an author's primary duty, which is to be clear. My apologies.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on July 12, 2006 7:25 PM

Bob -- I'm not sure I agree that the people you're referring to are doing such a great job of promoting Fielding, Sterne, etc; what with their love of PC fads, they seem to me to have done a lot of damage. But the English departments aren't the same thing as the creative-writing industry/ lit-fiction industry in any case. What tends to happen is that Eng Dept kids wind up in the publishing biz (or in the bookchat biz), believing that the products of the creative-writing industry are today's examples of what they loved in college, and eager to serve the cause. They often finally wake up to the fact that no, something else is going on. But, because the publishing industry and especially the bookchat-biz industry are heavily invested in promoting the illusion that the usual suspects are creating and highlighting the great literature of today, word of the actual facts of the matter almost never gets out. It's one reason I find so many of the litblogs and bookblogs disappointing. Many of them seem to be written by people who don't want to call it as they see it, but who instead aspire to joining the elite teams of propagandists. We don't need more such. We need more challenges to the propagandists. IMHO, anyway.

Who knows, btw, what the great literature of today is? No one is able to read all new books published, thank god, and no one has any magic predictive powers about what the future will decide anyway. And then the future will change its mind anyway. The point being that the whole "what's today's significant or worthwhile fiction-writing" topic is *far* more up for grabs than the usual outlets want you to know. Because, after all, if more people woke up to the fact that it's up for grabs, they'd lose their authority, and much of their hold over the culture. Can't have that!

Richard -- I've only got you down in the posting as recalling a time when "no such thing as a contrast between 'literary fiction' and 'genre fiction' existed." I can't see how anyone's going to take that as you condemning literary fiction. (I'll take on that onus!) But if you want me to amend my sentence about what you said in your piece, I'm happy to do so. Let me know what tweak you'd like.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 12, 2006 7:59 PM

Michael: That was my thesis, accurately portrayed by you. My thesis was, of course, that good fiction requires all the qualities that were artificially separated in the 1960s into literary and popular fiction, and I expressed my hope that the broken pieces of American fiction will be welded back together in the near future by novelists who see the need to make fiction whole again.

I just published a literary novel, The Honorable Cody (Sunstone Press), which depends on character and conflicting recollections of Buffalo Bill Cody, rather than a storyline, to hold my readers. So it would scarcely be in my interest to condemn literary fiction.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on July 12, 2006 8:11 PM

Now you bookish types know what we painters have had to deal with for the last 100 years. Don't think for a minute that this artificial distinction will disappear. On the contrary, it will only grow, and the "highbrow" types will continue to heap praise, major prizes, and media coverage on those "serious" writers, at the expense of their far more talented, readable, prolific, and "middle-to-low brow" peers.

Sucks, don't it?

Posted by: BTM on July 12, 2006 8:39 PM


This post seems to me to be attacking a whole genre on the basis of (what to me also are) its worst examples. Pynchon, Rushdie, Gaddis, Wallace and a lot of other seriously entertaining post-seventies writers also fall under the category of literary fiction*.

If you admit that literature is being written today, or that there are writers whose sheer firepower defies any efforts at generic categorization, then it seems like they should have a section at the book store to themselves, so that customers will know how to find/ avoid them. It would be chaos if Gravity's Rainbow could only be found, say, in the espionage section.

*I don't agree, as you suggest in a preceeding comment, that we are completely in the dark today about what will be considered the literature of the future.

Posted by: paul on July 12, 2006 8:46 PM

What do I know? As you mentioned in your post, I stopped looking for and reading lit-fic when I hit 30. :)

I do remember finding, somehow, works I consider good in the 70s:Gaddis, Gass, Pynchon, Coover, Alex Theroux. Coincidentally, one of the last I read was "Book of Laughter and Forgetting" by Kundera. In that book IIRC is a writer's conversation with a cabbie, each trying to push the book they have written, neither having the time to read each other's books.

Welcome to the world of blogs.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on July 12, 2006 8:52 PM

Richard -- We're sharing that hope!

BTM -- I have hopes that the opening-up of the general cultural conversation that's happening on line will undercut some of the usual pomposities. Or at least give people who are annoyed by them vehicles of their own. You don't think that's likely to happen?

Paul -- It's good to see you discussing lit fic as a genre! That's already a pretty radically populist stance. I think your proposal about recognizing writing firepower is a nice one too. Practically speaking, though, there's a problem with it, which is (as always): Who gets to decide who the transcendentally-gifted, beyond-categorization writers are? I know the book publishing biz pretty well, and, although there are a lot of bright, well-meaning people in it, they're no more qualified (and no less, of course) to make such judgments than you, or me, or Bob, or the Patriarch. So why not us? This isn't nuclear physics, it's art, and therefore a matter of taste and dispute. As a matter of day-to-day bookbiz operation, lit fic has become as cliche and convention-ridden a genre as any other. What's weird about it (by comparison to the other genres) is that the cliches and conventions of lit fic aren't based in audience pleasure. They're based in workshop and critical and intellectual (and prize-chasing) fads, and often in politics.

Bob -- Our '70s readings lists seem to have been pretty similar! I loved early Kundera ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 12, 2006 8:58 PM

A new category called "Literary Fiction" is now showing up in the Audie Awards. They have no category for history, yet they have a category for lit-fic. Go figure.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on July 12, 2006 8:59 PM


I read only out of curiosity and for pleasure. However, I would think that anyone who made publishing books their actual profession, their business, would be able to distinguish between books with firepower and those without it; and would be very disturbed if this was wrong. However, I understand that you are not criticizing books with firepower; but those that seek to conceal their lack of it beneath the title of 'lit'. Thank you for the post.

Posted by: paul on July 12, 2006 9:17 PM

Michael B,

I don't know. A lot of it revolves around money. In the painting world, there is a system of influential galleries, critics, high money collectors and museums, government-funded academics, and so on. Since painting really isn't popular anymore, public input doesn't act as a corrective influence. So the insiders tend to pick out who they want to become a big shot, buy the early work, rave it up, award the new big shot prizes, and then sell the early work later for big money. Its really kind of corrupt. Of course, there is always a market for the smaller collectors who really love stuff. But the art market is manipulated to a degree by insiders, like any other. And they use the same modern advertising techniques to get money out of moneyed, but ignorant collectors-the appeal to celebrity, obsessive concern with the "new and improved", the appeal to supposed "authority", etc. I don't think its a coincidence that so-called "modern" art sprang up at around the same time the Industrial Revolution was taking off. Modern advertising was developed to distinguish and sell the surplus goods that were available from mass production. Now the cultural world has the same problem of tons of product, with relatively fewer buyers.

You'd think that the arts with more popular followings, such as books, movies, and music would be more immune to this, but I'm not so sure. A number of musicians have told me that the big record (corporate mega-conglomerates) companies control the airwaves, and drive a lot of the repetitive, crummy music that we hear. Good bands are overlooked because they can't be mass or cross-marketed into movies, videos, etc. So they get no big company recording contracts, and you never hear of them.

Will the internet blow this up? It seems that the money issue is paramount here too, with the issue of copyright violation, and people not wishing to pay for content. Also, organizations act as filters. We hope that filter is merit or talent, but oftentimes we see it is mercenary. Who will spot real talent, and then promote it after they find it? What's in it for them? How can we prevent it from being corrupt? How will the artists make money? How will they get attention? I don't know.

You bibliophiles know the book world far better than I do, or ever will. But what I see in the painting world is that the more competitiors there are, and the less truly educated the buyers are, the more easily the market is manipulated and the more dependent artists are on the existing channels of prizes and awards to somehow "credentialize" the value of their work. Otherwise, you sell your work for not much, and have the added problem of trying to cut through the crowd, while having a day job and producing work on the side. This is why it is so important to keep the existing channels as free from corruption as possible.

Posted by: btm on July 12, 2006 9:53 PM

I've pretty much given up on "lit fic". My last attempt was Don de Lillo's Underworld, which I struggled through thinking "oh for god's sake, surely something has to happen soon". It never did.

Posted by: Alan Little on July 13, 2006 6:14 AM

"The story will suck." True enough. But worse, in my opinion, is the story will be a downer, designed to remind us of how America has gone down the tubes, civilation is cratering, nothing has meaning, blah blah blah. As FvB once said, anyone who doesn't understand the importance of a book being entertaining and escapist doesn't have anywhere near enough stress in their real life.

Posted by: annette on July 13, 2006 10:30 AM


Amen, brother. Can I get a halleluiah?

Posted by: Yahmdallah on July 13, 2006 10:43 AM

Michael - Interesting observations. What strikes me is that since the 70s we haven't had many "serious" fiction writers who have had the broad, genuine appeal of guys like Gore Vidal, Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe, and Norman Mailer, or more middlebrow-y writers like Herman Wouk or James Jones. Kind of a bummer, really.

Posted by: Jon Hastings on July 13, 2006 10:47 AM

MB - I guess where I disagree is in the seemingly blanket statement (and maybe I'm misreading you) that a novel must have a strong narative to be any good at all. While I certainly love a good story (I've been tearing through Dennis Lehane's Kensie and Gennaro mysteries as fast as I can), there are also novels and short stories I've loved in which not much happens, storywise. And books with very strong narratives that failed to grab me because the characters and style were so threadbare.

As for some lit-fiction types being contemptous of narrative, well, sure, but aren't some "genre fiction" types contemptuous of theme/characterization/style as well? The best books, as Wheeler points out, do it all well, but many a fine book does one very, very well at the expense of the others, and that can be OK too. Dan Brown and James Patterson have greatly entertained a staggering number of people by ignoring pretty much everything but, plot, no? (It's not quite a rhetorical question, either - I've never read either, so am only repeating what I've heard alleged elsewhere).

Posted by: Tosy and Cosh on July 13, 2006 10:53 AM

Charlton -- That's hilarious, if in a tragic kind of way. History, it's so yesterday, I guess.

Paul -- Be disturbed, be very disturbed! Publishing people are plenty bright (hardworking, etc), and they're good judges of what's publishable and what isn't, at least in certain terms. But after a book's published, it's really up to the rest of us to yak about what we like and what we find moving. Otherwise it turns into a spectacle as absurd as the Oscars -- the people who created the products deciding which of the products they created was "the best." Surely the consumers/customers/audiences should have a say in this? Anyway, fun yakking about all this, and thanks for pitching in with interesting thoughts - and for giving me the chance to carry on.

BTM -- That's a very shrewd and succinct sketch of how the official art world works! I'd love to see that printed up and handed out to beginning art students.

Alan -- So page after page of magnificent writin' didn't sweep you along, is that what you're saying? You wanted characters, actions, stories, and all you got were sentences and paragraphs? You uncultured hooligan.

Annette -- You're saying you like it when fiction delivers an "up" sort of feeling, and that it's tedious that lit-fic so often delivers the opposite? How unlettered of you.

Yahmdallah -- A bunch of us should get together and set up a network on non-lit (or a-lit, but still book-y) blogs or something, don't you think? Discuss openly and frankly what we like and don't, and have some fun at the expense of the overpraised bigshots?

JH -- That's a good point. Segmenting things up seems to have taken the core out of the whole enterprise. At the moment, I'm missing the old middlebrow blockbusters more than the grand-vision highbrow stuff ... What happened to the big ol' blockbuster novel anyway? Did it vanish into the TV miniseries and there die?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 13, 2006 11:05 AM

T&C -- We hit the post button at the same time. Lehane's good, isn't he? I don't think we disagree at all. By no means do I think all works of prose fiction have to foreground a story with a lot of drive and suspense, and I like a fair number of highbrow non-narrative or even anti-narrative novels that are selling something else. But narrative in a very general way does strike me as fundamental to the fiction enterprise, and it seems to me that any genre that deliberately defines itself in contradistinction to narrative (as American lit-fic currently does) is depriving itself of its own lifeblood. Audiences (and audience responses, interest, expectations, and enthusiasm) are basic to the fiction enterprise too, and current American lit-fic is almost defiant in its contempt for conventional audience pleasure (and as a consequence is read mostly by students, recent grads, creative-writing types, and wannabes). That seems suicidal too.

As a practical matter -- your experiences may differ here -- I've generally found that genre writers and professional fiction writers are far more open to the variety of fiction than lit-fic writers are. The genre/pro bunch often feel irked that they get so little respect, but most of them think it's cool that people write all kinds of fiction. Go-go-go, is their attitude. The lit-fic crowd is often amazingly snobbish about what constitutes "real literature," and is often quite contemptuous of "mere storytellers." They wouldn't be caught dead reading a Western -- or they might have a favorite crime novelist, but really, that's not literature, that's just ... entertainment.

But I think you're making a lot of good points, and I'm signin' on to all of them. All I'm really doing is having some sport with some of the claims and pretentions of the lit-fic set, and trying to set the whole lit-fic thing in a bit of historic context.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 13, 2006 11:18 AM

I have to commend you on an excellent post, and not because of your favorable mention of Bookgasm (though many thanks are in order), but because your words mirror my thoughts.

What bugs me most about "literary fiction" is that is equated with "important fiction." Why that bugs me most is that most not all, but most of the stories told are dry, dull and a chore to read. And I'm no dummy.

As a result, we've been made to believe that if we're reading anything but this "literary fiction," we're not reading anything worthy. Thus, people are ashamed to admit they read sci-fi, horror, comics, cheap paperbacks, etc. or stop reading altogether. That's one of the two main reasons I started Bookgasm, because reading should be fun and celebrated, no matter what you're reading.

I still on occasion read novels that are pegged as literary, and some are quite good. The most recent examples are THE CHINATOWN DEATH CLOUD PERIL by Paul Malmont, THE LAST WITCHFINDER by James Morrow, THE CONJURER'S BIRD by Martin Davies and ARTHUR & GEORGE by Julian Barnes. Interestingly, though, one could argue that all the above could be placed into the "dreaded" genre sections as well.

Posted by: Rod Lott on July 15, 2006 5:09 PM

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