One of the debates that comes around quite often is the literary versus genre debate. It can take the form of “which is better and why”, but it can also take a step back and look at things from a higher level. Such a post has been discussed a bit today, in which Dr Sanjida O’Connell, accepting that “literary fiction” is a genre, then attempts to define what its parameters might be.
A few points in response.
The suggested parameters – intellectual content, depth, character and style – are familiar but lacking. For one thing, there are too many “Y-genre might sometimes do this too” caveats (whether spoken or unspoken) for the overall definition to be worth much. What’s required at the end is really a fifth point, “… all the above, and the book isn’t recognisably genre”, rendering the whole enterprise a tad futile.
The fourth parameter – style – is especially problematic. Are we to interpret this as poetic prose? It’s a hard thing to pin down, because – obviously – the language used is just the medium for the message, and should, on an artistic level, be appropriate to or revealing of the subject matter its describing. None of it is real, after all; whether you use a thousand words or ten, it is still just words designed to create a particular effect. It is not clear to me why a swift, plain and bare-bones description of a gun-fight, for example, should not be considered an effective and appropriate use of style for that subject matter.
At best, it doesn’t seem to me that style (what style? used where? for what?) can be used as a parameter without an enormous amount of expansion. What angle should the photo be taken from, and with what lighting? Well it depends what the photo is of, surely, and what you want to say with the image you’re creating.
Here is a list, on Wikipedia, of some recognised genres and subgenres. (Wikipedia, like literature, can be edited by anyone). Good luck with all that. Synchronise your definitions! Get, set, go!
So how do we categorise individual works?
Leave “literary fiction”, with all its cultural baggage, out of it for a moment and think of the other genres. Is Work X horror or crime? Is Work Y SF, Fantasy or crime? A lot of the time, we’re happier for the matter not to be settled, aren’t we? Within the genres, in fact, we see these as intriguing questions and encouraging quirks – examples of cross-pollination that can only benefit everyone involved. Writing at the edges of genres and subgenres finds both common ground to explore in new light, and perhaps even new ground altogether. Of course, there are issues of jurisdiction (crime with a hint of SF is more likely to be categorised as SF, for example), but I think the basic principle holds.
I think that, within genre, we broadly use these definitions in an inclusive rather than exclusive way. So Work X might meet the criteria for both crime and horror, and we simply recognise that it can be (and in fact is) both at the same time. But it seems to me that one problem with attempts to define literary fiction is that the definitions most commonly given are intended to be exclusive: “this is why Work X is literary fiction and not genre-Y”. And such definitions inevitably run into trouble.
While we might speak of “literary horror”, say, I don’t think by that people mean “this is at once both horror and literary fiction” so much as “this is a particular style of horror”. Similarly, literary fictions will be discussed as using SF tropes or ideas, but there is a reluctance to simply say “it is literary fiction and it is also SF” in the way we would naturally say “it has elements of horror and also of SF, and it could feasibly be described as either”. These endless discussions of what makes literary fiction literary fiction generally tend towards the exclusive: here is what makes it x and only x.
A related problem is that while those defending literary fiction might wish to distinguish it utterly, they’re reluctant (understandably) to concentrate on the fixtures and fittings that would most easily make it a describable genre, so they turn to issues of quality instead (such as intellectual content, depth, theme, character, prose, etc) even though those are obviously not distinguishing if-and-only-if characteristics that will stand up to even the slightest scrutiny.
In the second paragraph, O’Connell claims “In a tautological definition, literary works are often defined as those that win literary awards, such as the Booker Prize for Fiction”, basically dismissing the idea. I’m not sure that is, strictly-speaking, a tautology, although we might extend the definition to all of what a certain shifting literary culture, with all its pieces of framework, decides is literary fiction just to be on the safe side. It’s no more nebulous a definition than any other, and it seems to place the cultural weight of the term fairly realistically. It doesn’t help anyone, of course, but does any of it? *Gets on with writing next book face*.