Thursday, August 12, 2010

Literary Fiction Dead? Really?

I could link to a bunch of recent posts about the death throes of literary fiction, but they're easy to find and we've all likely seen most of them by now anyway. In perusing this wordcloud I have noticed some trends and assumptions on the part of posters and commenters, and I'd like to say a few words about those assumptions.

Most of the time the literary fiction death knell is being rung by people who don't even read literary fiction and wouldn't know it if it bit them on the ass. How do I know this? They tip their hand by trotting out all the usual cliches about literary fiction ("It has no story" "It's navel-gazing" "It's incomprehensible" "It's changed radically in the last X years/decades and has lost its way") that are not supported by the actual corpus of works. To all the people who make these false claims about literary fiction, I have one thing to say: You don't know what the fuck you're talking about. Sirs and ladies. But that's a different screed; I'll stick to today's rant, ta awfully.

What sparked this rant is something I just saw on another writer's blog. He claimed that literary fiction was no longer relevant, because people read mostly genre or nonfiction. This is--and I'm sorry I have to announce it--a stupid thing to say. It's akin to saying that blood is no longer relevant because most people use bubble wrap to ship breakables. They have nothing to do with each other. Literary fiction's value is not based on its market share, especially in today's godawful market. If your child was not as popular as your neighbor's child, would that mean your child is irrelevant, or has less intrinsic value? No, it would not. My child, literary fiction, is a beautiful, painfully honest, linguistically advanced, brilliant child that most people just don't "get." Most people like the cute, vapid child who tapdances and says things they want to hear. She's a nice enough kid, the tapdancer, but even the fact that there are 1,000,000 kids who all want to be just like her doesn't mean my child should've been drowned at birth. No, it does not. The tapdancer and her boyfriend will letter in sports and will never gain weight and will be prom king and queen. My child will be the valedictorian of her class and I will be proud of her even if she never learns to dance and puts on a few pounds and has bad skin.

Enough with this metaphor. My point is this: Literary fiction is an increasingly smaller part of the market, but only because the market is being flooded with more and more books that are more and more identical. Literary fiction is not dying off. Like it or not. Literary fiction may bore you. That's fine. But if it bores you and you never read it, you are not anything like an expert on literary fiction so keep your fat mouth shut when you talk about how it needs to change to become more in line with populist tastes. Literary fiction doesn't give a fig about populist tastes, which is one of its great strengths. In a hundred years, Stephanie Meyers will be forgotten, but people will still be reading Shakespeare. Why? Because Shakespeare is more important to us as a species. Even if you personally don't "get" it. Shakespeare isn't snooty or elitist. Literary fiction isn't snooty or elitist. But it may be too good for you. And that's fine.

So just remember, haters of literary fiction: when you talk about the death of literature, literature is not listening to your foolishness.

There are also those people who love literature and see the decreasing market share of literary fiction and demand that writers change what they are doing and "return to the values that made literary fiction meaningful to a great number of readers." This is all a bunch of cowardly wank, and a pack of lies to boot. Great literature has always been of absolutely no immediate interest to most people. And that's fine. You guys who are panicked about market share need to chill out and stop telling Michael Chabon or whomever to write like Tolstoy. That's a great idea, but it's beside the point. We don't need you running around mongering fear, either. It feeds the flames lit by the folks who don't like literary fiction. Knock it the fuck off.


  1. Scott,

    Am I the writer in question? I hope I am because I've been blogging about literary fiction being less relevant lately and I love reactions like this (one of the reasons I blog).

    No matter who the writer is. I believe literary fiction is less relevant than it has been and less relevant than it can be.

    I just don't think it's because more people are reading genre fiction. That is only a sign and not the cause.

    Writers are still putting out great literary fiction today and literary readers like you and I (and plenty of others) will always be able to find these stories.

    We are only a small exception though. For the vast majority though, all of our elegant prose, brilliant plot structures, emotional depth and honesty goes unnoticed. That sir, is a tragedy.

    We can fold our arms and claim that those people are dumb philistines and we don't need to cater to them. We can rest secure in our belief that our 5% of the population is smarter/better/more educated/not addicted to reality tv/more interesting than their 95%.

    Or we can examine ourselves and our writing, search for places where we have gone astray. I don't mean for us to dumb down literary fiction or to cater to the majority. I just know that great books touch the people, great books can voice the collective angst or soothe collective worries. Great stories have been around since man could pee circles in the sand and they never need to shut people out through complexity/boredom/navel gazing.

    Maybe literary fiction is the best it can be right now. It is certainly not perceived that way and if all our the claims of literary fiction's death achieve is that we focus on changing that perception then I say let their be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

    We can always be better.

  2. I agree with everything except that Stephanie Meyers will be forgotten. Time does strange things to books. It makes literary books widely-read (at least in schools), and it makes folk art (low-brow, popular, trash, call it what you like) into "classics." Not always, and maybe I'm wrong about Meyers specifically, but often.

    One thing I wonder about is whether literary books do open up new ways of reading. (Wouldn't that be exciting if they did?) I mean, have the techniques used in literary novels of sixty years ago percolated into the popular novels of today, and might the techniques considered esoteric be used in popular fiction tomorrow? I'm thinking of things like Lolita's unreliable narrator. Although one could apply it to the very form of the novel itself, if one goes back a century or two.

    Or is this an illusion of mine?

  3. Tara: I hold to the idea that Meyers' books will be forgotten. Remember in the 1970s when everyone and his dog was reading James Michener's 1000-page novels? Where's Michener today? There is always some flash in some pan going on. I think Steig Larsson's books will be forgotten, too. Neither he nor Meyers seem to be saying anything that will resound through the ages. And while you're right that you never can tell what history is going to do, I think it's pretty clear that stuff that seems exceedingly important right now often just seems goofy a few years down the road.

    I will say that I think the techniques of literary fiction do pass into popular novels, and further I'd say that the best popular/genre fiction is good primarily because it aspires to qualities associated with/borrowed from literary fiction. But I'm not bashing pop/genre fiction; I'm merely defending literature and saying that I'm tired of people who don't read it calling it dead, because they consistantly display their ignorance of the subject and I wish they'd shut the hell up.

  4. This post is hilarious! You go, Mr. Bailey! I'm sorry if you're truly angry--but then how can you be so funny if you were truly angry? I think the reason some people think literary fiction is dead is because of how long it lives, actually. You're basically saying this same thing. Literary fiction survives through the centuries, so when modern readers look back, all they see is literary fiction. Then, when they look at contemporary writing, they see that it is a smaller subsection of the whole compared to the past. They don't see all of the dead books from the past because they're dead.

  5. Davin: Yes, that's a lot of it, the falling away of the chaff over time. People point to Dickens and claim that he was the "Stephen King of the Victorian age" and I think that's a mis-statement. Dickens was the most widely read author of his time, it is true, but that's because there were 200 books published every year in England during his time that weren't very good. Dickens is the guy who survived (along with the Brontes), and his books are full of social commentary and satire and were progressively dark as time went on. He stood out from the pack, and now the pack is dust, and so he's all people have for a picture of Victorian fiction so they generalize from him and that's a big mistake.

    The same thing happens with classical music. People claim that Mozart was the pop musician of his day. That's factually untrue. There was a separate popular music during Mozart's life. That music is forgotten by all but music historians, which nicely supports my claim that 100 years from now, nobody will listen to the Beatles, but people will still know who Mozart and Beethoven were. That's just how history sorts things out. We forget, as a species, that what we like most right now is not necessarily very important or very well made or even very interesting to anyone beyond ourselves. Blah blah blah.

  6. The problem with the bulk of readers at any given point of time in history is that they read to be entertained, to escape, which genre fiction helps them to do.

    Literary fiction (I believe it is another genre, btw) makes people think, and sometimes confront unpleasant realities. In short, it is not very easy work reading literary fiction.

    So, literary fiction will always have fewer, though more discerning readers.

    That said, I do find that some works of literary fiction lack a sense of "yearning" in the protagonist or the others, which makes them very easy to put down....I'm with you on the rant though. People who don't read literary fiction at all should not condemn it to oblivion, just as literary readers should not look down upon the genres.

    For me I read most kinds of books, literary or not, though I've mostly written realistic, literary fiction. So far.

    Back to writing, sigh.

  7. I finally got to this post. Yay! I love this post. I agree with what you say, and it irritates me to death when I hear anyone say that literary fiction is dead, as well as poetry. You've already seen my post on the Lit Lab about the poetry. I agree with Davin that all people see when they look back is the "classics" and it subconsciously scares the sh&* out of most of them because they know deep down that in 100 years their own work will be long gone and only new "classics" will remain, and they will be of the literary caliber...not what they are currently writing.

    I happen to writing work that will probably be forgotten because I don't personally think it's "literary" enough to last the test of time, but maybe later I'll write something really great in that sense, who knows.

    I like to celebrate all forms of writing, but literary fiction does and always will remain closest to my heart.

  8. Hooray for this post! I love the tone.

    And I love the observation that it's the ones who don't know what they're talking about that say lit fic is dead. If you don't know anything about it, why be afraid of it? Well, maybe that's why.

    Maybe it's also the case of so many "non-lit fic" writers blogging and their need to justify their importance in an online universe that most non-writing readers don't know or care about.

    I don't mean that having a writing blog is bad, either. I just mean it doesn't make anyone special.

  9. Wow! I love this post. I only disagree with you about one thing: if literary fiction was a child, she wouldn't be valedictorian. She'd be expelled for graffiti'ing the bathroom -- and ten years later she'd be invited back to give a talk on art to the senior class. Things of beauty aren't often understood until it's much too late.