23 September 2011 - 7:21 pm

On literary and popular fiction

I recently attended a talk on writing literary vs popular fiction at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. When I signed up, I was hoping for answers to a number of questions, like:

  • What is considered literary fiction?
  • What is excluded?
  • What is literary fiction for?
  • Why is popular fiction classed as low-brow entertainment?
  • How has literary fiction changed with the times?
  • How does popular fiction become literary fiction?
  • Who decides?
  • Can fiction be both?

Sadly, the discussion was not what I had hoped. I don’t think they touched on any of the questions above, apart from a brief flirt with how literary fiction can move with the times (which told us little except that it cando it).

I had a far more interesting, pointed discussion about literary and popular fiction with my two well-read writing-inclined friends afterwards than I heard inside the auditorium.

Part of the problem was that the chair of the panel gave long, rambling monologues that had a question buried among his many, many phrases, and no-one had thought to bring a shovel. The panelists didn’t quite know what they were supposed to be answering, so tended to speak on their best guess about what they were there for.

Another problem was that the one popular author on the panel had come from a background of creating popular television, and the talk skewed towards her screen stories rather than her novels. It wasn’t a good examination of popular fiction today, because they didn’t spend much time actually discussing popular fiction writing. Comparing literary fiction to TV shows is like comparing an egg to a piece of cheese.

They didn’t once mention the place of different genres of fiction, or the struggle to get non-mainstream (or any fiction not classed by a bookstore as ‘literary’) viewed as quality or well-crafted writing. It is rare for a science fiction book to win a literary prize, for example (and until relatively recently, it was unheard-of). But nope, that didn’t rate a mention. Not even a little rant about trash like Twilight becoming so popular.

I’m disappointed by the talk because I don’t read much literary fiction any more and don’t tend to follow the big literary prizes. They’re not relevant to my life or my writing at this point; I don’t consider myself a reader or writer of literary fiction. However, I am interested in the distinctions that are imposed upon literature in the modern climate. Sadly, I have enough trouble squeezing in the things that I want to do right now!

I have a degree in English Literature and can decode literary fiction if I choose to, but it’s simply not the kind of reading that I enjoy; I prefer to read for entertainment rather than intellectual gymnastics. I like intelligent writing, but not the forced way that literary fiction often comes out. I prefer story over stylistic flourishes (though I enjoy literary techniques that enhance the story).

Plus, a lot of that stuff is aspirations to high-falutin ideals dressed in pretentious clothing, containing little of value except a reason for educated people to sound educated at each other. It doesn’t help that all the writers I know who aim to create literary fiction are pretentious, snobby twits who look down their nose at every other kind of writing. (Maybe it’s just the writers I know that are like this!)

To be fair, I don’t think that literary fiction is a waste of time. It has its place; the nature and purpose of that place is what I’m curious about, as well as how big it is (or could be). For me, it’s like the statue of David: important as a piece of art with the potential to be beautiful and instructive, but I wouldn’t want the sucker standing in my living room.

As a writer, I do take a certain pleasure in crafting words onto a page using literary devices. There is something beautiful about weaving text in that kind of way, the subtle layering of subtext and meanings.

However, it doesn’t always fit with what I’m trying to achieve; it might not suit the voice I’m using or the kind of piece I’m creating. First and foremost, I write for character and story (usually in that order). If I can work in devices, craft clever bits of phrasing or imagery, then I’m happy, but it’s usually subtle and not the point of what I’m trying to convey. I use them to support the story, not the other way around, whereas in literary fiction, the opposite is the norm.

After the talk, I made a joke about starting up a review site for literary fiction, done from the perspective of someone who isn’t enamoured of the form. It’s very tempting! If I had the time and the will to do it, I would. Of course, that would mean reading at least some literary fiction, which sounds more like a job than fun to me. But if I had the time, I’d still do it.

Literary fiction remains an enigma on the periphery of my vision, a voice that expounds away to itself in a posh accent and has little relevance to my life. I am curious, and disappointed that the talk did nothing to illuminate the closed halls of literary fiction. I am left with my assumptions and knowledge from a years-ago degree, and can only consign literature to a corner of my world that I don’t look at very often.

One of the panelists quoted an author (in another talk), who was asked, “What would you prefer: a literary prize or high books sales?” Her answer was, “High book sales, because that means reaching more readers.” (This was the highlight of the talk.) It got a laugh from the audience, but I wonder if that’s because she’s right as well as mercenary.

I can’t remember her name now, but I completely agree with her. I’d rather be read than acclaimed. I write to touch people’s lives, share something with them and hopefully entertain them in the process. That’s part of why I (currently) give my work away for free.

I hope to craft my work well but I don’t need an academic (or a highly-educated critic) to tell me that I can write. It would be nice, I admit, but I’m already fairly confident that I have some skill. I’m constantly learning and seeking out new avenues to gain new insights.

I prefer to create more accessible art. I don’t want to produce some untouchable, coded thing that has to be unpicked like a puzzle box. And I write science fiction, because that’s where my heart lies and I don’t care about literary acclaim.

One day I hope to master both, as I suspect that many writers strive for, because it’s good for us to aim for the stars. I don’t know if it’s possible to get there, but maybe we’ll catch an updraft and fly a little way.

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  1. dieta says:

    .Literary fiction is also known as serious fiction though personally I dislike both of those terms implying as they do that all other fiction – in particular – is somehow less literate and less serious..Still literary fiction is the term that is universally used to describe these types of books and so we are stuck with it… ..Im generalizing here but if you go into a bookshop you can usually tell the genre novels from the literary novels instantly..Whereas the genre novels have eye-catching covers – handsome men on the romances dripping blood on the horror novels – literary novels are more subtle more arty. They sometimes have stickers on the cover too saying that the novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize or won the Orange Prize or something similar..The titles will also be different genre titles tend to be more direct and encapsulate perfectly what the novel is about literary titles are more offbeat more arty again but just as eye-catching in their way.

    October 4th, 2011 at 2:46 am

  2. Mel says:

    Very true! I don’t like the implication that non-literary fiction is not ‘serious’. Many non-literary fictional stories are very serious in subject matter and literary intent, including a lot of genre stories. Many serious subjects are dressed up in funny clothes, like sad clowns. Just because a story makes sense or is pleasing or isn’t set in the modern world, doesn’t mean it’s not ‘serious’.

    October 4th, 2011 at 1:25 pm

  3. Aleta says:

    Great article Melanie, must have been frustrating to watch though!

    October 14th, 2011 at 3:14 pm

  4. Mel says:

    So true, Aleta! Glad you like the article. 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

    October 17th, 2011 at 11:56 am