The “literary genre”

…either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral…

–          From Hamlet, II, ii

We’ve always had genres. Even Homer, I imagine, knew that The Iliad and The Odyssey belonged to different genres. Over time, genres appear and disappear, sub-genres develop: there’s nothing particularly new about any of this. But one genre appears to have emerged over the last few years that I find a bit puzzling: the “literary genre”. A few years ago, the W. H. Smith chain of shops in the UK displayed their books under the various genre labels – “science fiction”, “romance”, “crime”, etc. – and then lumped everything else under “literary fiction”. They don’t do this anymore, but the idea of a “literary genre” appears to have caught on. And I am very confused. For, surely, a genre is defined by content: to judge whether a novel is a Western, say, or a whodunit, or science fiction (with its various sub-genres), or erotica, or whatever, one must examine the content. And, as far as I understand it, the adjective “literary” is applied to works that exhibit what we may judge to be “literary quality”, just as the adjective “artistic” is applied to works judged to have artistic quality. Of course, I accept it is not possible to define in so many words precisely what we mean by “literary quality”: that is what literary criticism is for, and that is why those of us who care about such matters engage in endless discussion. But however we define quality, whatever it may mean, it is this, the quality, the perceived quality if you will, and not the nature of the content that determines whether or not a work is “literary”. That, at least, is how I understand it. And if the definition of the word is changing – as definitions of words do tend to change over time – we must consider whether this particular change is in any way helpful. As far as I can see, it isn’t.

For instance, I see that science fiction author Stephen Hunt “has declared war on the idea that the only good book is a ‘literary’ one”, and has a formidable array of writers backing his cause. Obviously, Mr Hunt does not define “literary” in the way that I do, for if he did, he would not be declaring war on what is not merely a self-evident truth, but a tautology: a good book is “literary” by my definition, and a “literary” book is a good book – a rose is a rose is a rose. But if Mr Hunt does not subscribe to this definition of a “literary book” – i.e. a book that exhibits literary qualities, however we may define these qualities – then what exactly is his definition of “literary”? For all his indignation, he does not appear particularly forthcoming on that matter.

Meanwhile, on the actual BBC programme to which Mr Hunt was objecting, entitled “Books We Really Read” (as opposed, presumably, to books we only pretend to read) thriller writer Lee Child told us that genre writers could easily write literary books if they wanted to, but literary writers couldn’t write genre books. How strange! If Mr Child really could, if he wanted to, write a book exhibiting literary qualities then the obvious question to be asked is “Why the hell doesn’t he?”  And if the books he writes do indeed exhibit literary qualities, then is he not already writing “literary fiction”?  But, to be fair, I doubt Mr Child was defining “literary fiction” as “fiction exhibiting literary qualities”: the idea that there exist writers who could write well if they wanted to, but who just don’t want to, is too absurd even to be contemplated. But once again, what exactly Mr Child meant by “literary fiction” is anyone’s guess, for he certainly did not define it.

All this is a somewhat typical state of affairs: an awful lot of rage and spluttering indignation over terms that no-one even attempts to define. I’d guess – and this is only a guess, since my internet searches so far have not shed much light on this matter – that the term “literary fiction” is applied merely to define any fiction that does not obviously fit into any of the currently established genres. And I really can’t see that this is at all useful.

In the first place, most books labelled “literary” in this manner will not exhibit too many qualities one may recognise as “literary”:  mediocrity is, after all, the norm in any field of human activity, and the mere fact of not belonging to any established genre is hardly in itself an indicator of superior quality. But if this is, indeed, what the likes of Mr Hunt and Mr Child are referring to as “literary fiction” – fiction that cannot be categorised in terms of the currently existing genres, the leftovers – then it’s hard to see what useful function such a definition could serve. Unless, of course, we are to see literary criticism as an act merely of taxonomy.

The whole thing seems to me to reach the height of absurdity (unless, of course, anyone can point out absurdities of even greater heights) in this piece written by science fiction writer Daniel Abrahams. Mr Abrahams’ conceit (if I may be forgiven for using so literary a term) is that of Genre Fiction writing a letter to Literature, the implicit assumption being, presumably, that fiction written within a particular genre cannot be termed Literature. A trifle snobbish and elitist, if you ask me, but let us move on. What does this somewhat dubious assumption lead to? A mere protracted and rather pathetic whinge, as far as I can see. It is hardly worth rebutting, especially as so much of it is well answered in many of the below-the-line comments. But one particular whinge of Mr Abraham’s did, I must admit, make me smile:

You take the best of me, my most glorious moments – Ursula LeGuin and Dashiell Hammet (sic), Mary Shelly (sic) and Philip Dick – and you claim them for your own. You say that they “transcend genre”. There are no more heartless words than those. You disarm me. You know, I think, that if we were to compare our projects honestly — my best to yours, my mediocrities to yours, our failures lumped together — this division between us would vanish, and so you skim away my cream and mock me for being only milk.

Aw, there, there … who’s been mocking you? I have, over the years, looked around and even contributed to various book blogs around the net, and while I have seen much mockery of books that require intellectual effort, mockery of – or even well-argued criticism of – anything that is popular is effectively to pull down a ton of bricks upon oneself. But leaving that aside, is Mr Abrahams really objecting to writers such as Ursula le Guin and Philip K. Dick being regarded as “literary” – i.e. regarded as “good writers”? Shouldn’t he be pleased that the genre he practises, and which he obviously loves, is regarded as capable of producing works of quality? Mr Abrahams thinks it “heartless” to speak of works “transcending the genre”, and I am at a loss to understand why: all it means is that these works are of interest even to readers who do not normally care for the genre. Is that not a good thing? Is it not a good thing that writing of literary quality within his favoured genre is recognised even by those who are not aficionados of the genre?

Now, as I have explained in a previous blog post, it has been established by exhaustive clinical tests that I am incapable of enjoying science fiction. I admit that the shortcoming is all on my part, that the loss is all mine, etc. etc. Indeed, I will admit to anything rather than have to read one of those damned books ever again. But why any admirer of science fiction should object to certain works of their beloved genre being enjoyed by many who don’t normally read the genre is beyond me. I am, myself, an aficionado of the genres of Gothic horror, and of supernatural stories, and I find it thrilling that the stories of the likes of M. R. James or Algernon Blackwood, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, are considered literary classics; I am delighted that people who don’t normally read ghost stories nonetheless read and enjoy The Turn of the Screw. So what is it exactly that Mr Abrahams is complaining about here? Doesn’t he want people who don’t normally read science fiction to enjoy nonetheless the works of Ursula le Guin or of Philip K. Dick?

This, I fear, is the sort of absurdity that I find myself encountering all too frequently these days, and it seems to me a direct consequence of banishing from literary discourse considerations of literary quality. To parcel off writing into various identifiable genres, and then to parcel off all that remains into another genre called “literary”, is to diminish our ability to discourse on literature; and it diminishes our ability precisely because reducing discourse merely to this dubious taxonomy sidelines the vital issue of literary quality. Instead of considering literary quality of any book, all we end up considering is whether or not the book is serving its purpose, whether or not it is meeting the expectations of its target market. And this cannot be healthy. Nowadays, bookshop shelves are groaning with books that are frequently atrociously written, but any criticism to that effect, even when backed up by detailed argument, is met with the riposte “You are not the intended readership”. As if it mattered. As if pisspoor writing could be any less pisspoor because its intended readership doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care even if it does notice. We have always had genres, yes, but I don’t think we’ve ever had the kind of ghetto-isation we are seeing now. It is conspiring, with various other forces, in helping lower the standard of literary discourse.

33 responses to this post.

  1. I suppose we should be glad that ANY books are read. I ‘d rather see someone reading a Lee Child book than fiddling with their iPhone. At least Child can tell a good story. I picked this article on the benefits of reading from another blog – you may be interested in it


    • Oh, I didn’t mean to denigrate Child as a writer, and I’m sorry if I gave that impression. And, yes, I too would prefer to see a kid read one of his books rather than fiddle with their i-Phone (Which, incidentally, is a bad habit I’ve got into these days.) But I did think Childs’ prose was rather flat and lacking in variety; and I thought also the comment he made was meaningless, and, actually, pretty insulting. It was, to say the least, uncalled for.


  2. Stephen Hunt’s general quarrel appears to be with publishing and marketing distinctions (and any specific bitching to do with that show, which I can’t see and which honestly sounds rather silly), which seems fair enough to me, even though it seems a little much to blame so-called “literary” fiction. The same divisions apply here in the States–there’s romance, crime/mystery, fantasy/sci-fi, and then “fiction/literature” (as Barnes and Noble would have it). That’s how books are marketed and generally selected, both by publishers and customers. As you observe, it’s a sad state of affairs that results in increasing literary segregation, though I think this started out as a result of changing reading tastes and publisher reaction thereto.

    One reason I pine for the “weird fiction” of the early twentieth century (an idea some lonely voices are trying to restore) is that it lacks these boundaries. The line between sci-fi, fantasy and horror was gauze-thin in the case of people like Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, and even Lord Dunsany, who enjoyed quite the “literary” reputation in his time. As a result, it’s hard for me to get *too* worked up over the concerns of people like Hunt or Abrahams, as they appear to thrive or depend on a literary regime that enforces and even celebrates these distinctions. I *do*, however, understand some of their concerns.

    Child, for example, quails at the idea of “literary” writers writing “genre” (or presently recognized genre) works. I wonder whether this reticence isn’t more down to pique than anything else. The American literary journal McSweeney’s released an anthology of supernatural tales several years back to which I had two mutually opposing reactions. On the one hand, any attempt to break down these distinctions was welcome. On the other hand, the effort–edited by Michael Chabon and a mixed success, by the way, but *much* better than their surprisingly awful “humor” collection–raised surprisingly strong hackles for my part. There was a powerful whiff of “ironic” condescension about the project, like adults playing in a sandbox or watching “Voltron.” The impression I had? “We can write *your* stuff, but you can’t write *ours*,” pretty much exactly Child’s view, only in reverse. The idea that critically acclaimed writers such as Chabon and Heidi Julavits could “slum it” in the playground of genre fiction before heading back to their real, “adult” jobs was really annoying for someone who enjoyed the work of certain genre writers who doubtless wouldn’t be accorded the same consideration from publishers. I hasten to add that such was my *impression*; the heart said one thing, but the head scolded that many of these writers probably had similar favorites and perhaps wanted to pay homage. That I had that reaction, though, probably had the same historical roots I suspect gave rise to Hunt and Abrahams’ views on the subject.

    In this age of the comic-book movie and big-budget spectacular (which inevitably impact on publishing trends and popularity), it can certainly seem like “high fiction” (or so-called “literary fiction”; I generally interpret “literature” much more broadly) is dispossessed and even marginalized, but a lot of these guys either come from or still operate in the mindset of an era when it was very much the other way around (or appeared to be so). Science fiction, fantasy, etc. were in the “ghetto” for decades; even relative outliers such as the works of Tolkien were more like the tip of an iceberg than central monuments of culture (or even largely acceptable in the mainstream). Those memories last long, I’d think. It was only around the turn of the millennium that the LOTR films, Harry Potter and the avalanche of superhero movies (the last of which I certainly find tiresome) started to make it more acceptable for such interests in the mainstream. It’s hard (I suspect) for geeks to get used to power.

    I also wonder whether changing technology has something to do with it. Whatever the staying power of the Kindle or Nook (both of which I’ve manfully and so far successfully resisted, though I’m dangerously close to getting a TV again), I expect it’s making publishers a little skittish, and therefore established, published writers as well. To at least one aspiring, little-published writer, it all seems terribly exciting, but to those with a larger stake in the status quo, even pissant “snubs” like the literary tastes of two British TV personalities may well seem like “the asteroid approacheth.” I like certain “literary” writers and certain “genre” writers. I don’t like lumping all of either into a single category (something I *have* noticed literary writers to do on occasion with genre fiction; Hunt and Abrahams may be unjust, but it’s not as if they’ve been the only ones). So in conclusion (this turned out to be a much longer reply than I’d thought), these objections may be silly and reinforce an outmoded system, but they’re not entirely without cause.

    I think.


    • Hello Wendell, and my apologies for the delay in replying to your post.

      I honestly don’t think all barriers can be broken down. Some barriers don’t really matter, of course, but while I, like yourself, enjoy what you refer to as “weird tales” – i.e. tales of the supernatural, the uncanny – there will be many others who – inevitably, given that we all have different tastes – detest the stuff. So the label becomes important: it is important for aficionados such as ourselves, as we can be directed to the kind of thing we like; and it is important also for those who dislike the genre, so they know what to keep away from.This barrier – which helps us classify – is therefore doubly useful. Would it serve any purpose if it were to be broken down?

      Whatever one writes, one should take the writing seriously. I have not seen the anythology you mention of non-genre writers “slumming it” – but it sounds awful to me. Henry James and Henry Rider Haggard – who were contempraries – have both lasted, and for very different reasons. Of course Rider Haggard could not have written The Ambassadors, but neither could Henry James have written King Solomon’s Mines. Comparisons are pointless, as there is no literary criterion that could be applied equally to both. I will say, though, that while King Solomon’s Mines would be my preferred bedtime reading out of these two, it is The Ambassadors that satisfies more deeply, for reasons I cannot articulate.

      I think I need to think more carefully about this idea of “transcending the genre”. I had said in my post that a work transcends its genre when it has appeal even to those readers who are’t normally interested in the genre, but the question remains: in what way does a work belonging to a particular genre have appeal to non-aficionados? Now, what follows is very tentative: I have not thought it out yet fully.

      It seems to me that there are two ways in which genre works can achieve excellence: one is by meeting the expectations of the genre superbly, with intelligence, imagination, and a degree of craftsmanship of so high a level that the distinction between craftsmanship and artistry becomes irrelevant; the other way is by delivering something other than what the genre requires. The stories of H P Lovecraft, M R James, Algernon Blackwood etc I would place in the former category: all wonderful stuff, but it is hard to imagine any of it appealing to people who don’t care for supernatural stories. The Turn of the Screw belongs to the latter category, in that as well as fulfilling the expectations of the genre, it delivers various other things that are not required by the genre – e.g. exploration of certain types of psychology, a study of the metaphysical nature of evil, depictions of shifting power relations between individuals, etc. And i would go on to argue that works belonging to the former category, wonderful though they are, do not transcend the genre: they can be of no interest to anyone not in sympathy with the genre. It’s only works of the latter type that can be said truly to transcend the genre.

      As I aid, I have not really thought this out, so de feel free t tear my hypothesis to pieces!


  3. Posted by Caro on January 4, 2012 at 5:30 am

    As someone who has argued that you are not the readership for the pisspoorly written books I feel obliged to respond to this. No, it doesn’t make the writing any better, but it does mean that is the writing the readership of these books WANTS. If they wanted a better written book they would read that – there wouldn’t be gallons of rather ploddingly written books on the shelves if no one was buying and reading them. And while some people (like me) am not unhappy to indulge in such writers sometimes (expecially if they are in a genre like crime that I enjoy) and in strongly literary ones at other times, some people prefer one or the other. The people who read only those simply written stories often have no desire to read well-written books with interesting language and vocabulary – they want their books to be total relaxation and thinking beyond the storyline doesn’t provide that for them.

    It doesn’t make the writing better – it makes it what is required by that reader. It’s not you, Himadri.

    On another point I think when people object to phrases like ‘transcending the genre’ they are feeling a little defensive about implied criticism both of the genre and the usual writing in it. (I prefer to know in advance if the book is going to ‘transcend the genre’ since I might just be wanting an ordinary simple little crime novel not a brilliant sociological study, though a good writer, like Minette Walters, can combine the two well.)

    Cheers, Caro.


    • Hello Caro, I was hoping you’d find this. I do actually agree with you that high sales of a title do indicate that the book in question is what its readership wants: indeed, I don’t see how it can be possible to argue against this! My point is simply that the mere fact of popularity should not exempt a book from criticism from a literary perspective. If I think a book is poorly written, I reserve the right to say so. (As long as I can back up my opinion with proper argument, of course!)


  4. I think “literary fiction” is an overused term and means little since it covers such a vast range of books (some excellent and some rubbish). To be honest, if I see the term applied to a book, it tends to put me off.

    Emma at Book Around the Corner argues that genre isn’t the BIG DEAL in France that it seems to be in N. America. I find the pigeon-holing of some books confining. Take The Killer is Dying by James Sallis–a genre-transcending book if ever I saw one, but it is labelled crime fiction when that, sadly, doesn’t do the book justice at all.


    • Hello Guy, I think “literary fiction” is a term to be avoided completely, as all fiction – whether or not it belongs to any particular genre – should aim to be well-written, i.e. to be “literary”. I have a friend who is a successful genre writer: he writes (under a pen-name) erotic novels (you may care to look up books by Aishling Morgan, if you’re not too prudish!) And yes, he takes his craft very seriously indeed!

      In my reply to Wendell above, I said that genre barriers can be useful, but the down-side is that works that may transcend the genre – i.e. works that may be of interest to those not normally in sympathy with the genre – get overlooked. I enjoy the crime genre, although I am certainly noweher as well-read in the genre as you are, but, on your recommendation, i’ll make a point of seeking out The Killer is Dying.


  5. Perhaps the concept of “literary fiction” owes something to F. R. Leavis’ notion of the canon espoused in “The Great Tradition”; which has been interpreted as a didactic presentation of what does and does not constitute worth. Genre fiction (respectively, genre cinema) was long regarded as something separate from literature (respectively, arthouse cinema), which perhaps made it easier to wrongly assume that it was also automatically inferior.

    But genre distinctions have become more blurred, in both literature and cinema; as Kim Newman points out in his book “Nightmare Cinema”, classifying films as horror films has become increasingly problematic – is “Apocalypse Now” a war film, or a horror film, or a literary adaptation, or all of these and more? Similarly, a book such as Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” crosses many genre boundaries and is also “literary”, the assimilation (elevation?) of “genre” writers such as Jim Thompson, Philip K Dick and J G Ballard into the modern canon of quality is complete, and the work of writers such as Michael Moorcock shows an ability to work equally comfortably in literary, genre and experimental forms (often at the same time). The question is no longer whether a book belongs to a single genre or is literary, but whether it is any good.


    • Hello Alan, distinctions between genres always were a bit blurred, weren’tthey? The editors of Shakespeare’s First folio dividied the plays up into comedies, histories and tragedies … but is Measure For Measure really a comedy? Is Antony & Cleopatra, for that matter, really a tragedy? Why is Julius Caesar classed as a tragedy rather than a history, or richard II a history rather than a tragedy? etc etc In the little speech given to Polonius at the start of my post, Shakespeare seems to me to be poking fun at genre distinctions.

      As for cinema, I remember when i was a teenager in Glasgow in the 70s, wondering why films such The Godfather Part Two or The Last Detail weren’t regarded as “art films” when they wwere clearly far more artistic in content than many a film shown in the Glasgow Film Theatre. I remember one memorable eveningwhen I watched Nic Roeg’s “Bad Timing” in the commercial cinema, and then went to see Fellini’s “Amarcord” in the Glasgow Film theatre late night showing.Despite the venues, it was Fellini’s film that seemed to me to have greater potential for popular appeal, and, were it not for the subtitles, could easily have been a popular – not to say populist – hit.

      I agree with you fully when you say “The question is no longer whether a book belongs to a single genre or is literary, but whether it is any good”. Sadly, given current trends, we appear to be increasingly in a minority.


  6. I have little to add to your post (or to these other insightful comments) other than to agree that this indignation about a perceived slighting of “genre” as opposed to “literary” fiction seems unhelpful, specious, and even luxurious. Most of us will go on reading widely, hopefully deeply, and always generously, from the classics to the texts on the sides of cereal boxes. In an epistolary story by Antonio Tabucchi entitled, “’The following phrase is false: the preceding phrase is true,” Tabucchi responds to an appreciative reader’s lengthy letter by writing:

    “You confer on my little book, and hence on the vision of the world which emerges from it, a religious profundity and a philosophical complexity which unfortunately I do not believe I possess. But, as the poet we both know says, ‘everything is worth the trouble if the spirit be not mean.’ So that even my little book is worth the trouble, not so much for itself, but for what a broad spirit may read into it.”

    At the moment, I’m reading – with the broadest of spirits and no small amount of pride, since it is the first published adult book written by a dear friend who retired from writing children’s books some 50 years ago – a novel initially written for submission to Harlequin romances. My friend, at least, would recognize that her novel has no pretensions to being great literature and that it’s designed for a commercially intended readership (as well as for the pleasure she herself has derived in writing it and that her readers may take in reading it). While I have no doubt that she’s grateful to her readers and happy to be writing, I can’t imagine that she would ever feel slighted by the exclusion of her novel – or even its genre – from a discussion of the year’s best books (even though hers contains enough of what Abrahams would call “cream” that Harlequin rejected it due to its realism). For a “commercial” writer (a term that Hunt, I note, uses to refer to himself) to feel otherwise would betray some lack of understanding of what it is exactly that he or she does – not to mention of what great literature can do. But to be more generous, perhaps the pique is really aimed at the growing commercialization even of what Hunt and Abrahams would call “literary fiction,” as even that – when I see what book clubs are reading or what often gets touted as the year’s best fiction – is increasingly aimed at particular commercial markets. If the question of commercialization isn’t raised, if discussion of quality is limited, if arguments rest on presumptions about literature’s success being measured only in terms of its ability to entertain, provide escape, garner media attention, or – gods forbid – sell well – then the discourse cannot help but be low.


    • Hello Scott, you articulate a great many things that have been worrying me: “…If discussion of quality is limited, if arguments rest on presumptions about literature’s success being measured only in terms of its ability to entertain, provide escape, garner media attention, or – gods forbid – sell well – then the discourse cannot help but be low.” I have spent much time lurking on various book discussion boards, and even particpating from time to time, and this is very much the trend I have been observing.

      I do not (and neither do you, I know) look down upon the ability of a book to provide escape, or to entertain, even if the entertainment is on a relatively superficial level. I am, for instance, a huge fan of PG Wodehouse, and while no-one would make any claim for profundity for his books, the world would be a much poorer place without them. But whatever one writes, whatever one aims for – whether to explore the human condition, or to provide diversion and amusement for a while – one must take a pride in one’s craftsmanship. And there are many, many occasions when craftsmanship reaches so high a level that the distinction between craftsmanship and artistry becomes irrelevant. And yet, any criticism on the ground of quality is almost invariably these days met with “The book is not aimed at you: people who read the book don’t care for quality, and therefore it serves its purpose”. I really cannot accept this. This can only diminish and eventually render pointless the very act of literary criticism, or of discussion of literature.


  7. Thank you, everyone, for all your perceptive comments. There is much there for me to think about, and I shall most certainly be responding to them all. But right now, after a long day in the office (today was my first day back at work after the Christmas break), I can hardly keep my eyes open, and all I can think about is bed! But i shall most certainly be responding to everyone’s comments within the next few days.


  8. Posted by Caro on January 5, 2012 at 12:09 am

    Some time before Christmas I was rather offended by an article about book buying in New Zealand. I don’t have it in front of me and can only remember the broad gist, but it wondered why NZers, big book buyers and readers, didn’t buy books published in New Zealand much, but do buy overseas books. Its conclusion was that NZ writers don’t write enough popularist novels to appeal to people. No one like Lee Child, Maeve Binchy, Wilbur Smith, Sophie Kinsella. It’s true that NZ novelists have always tended to be at the literary end of the market, but I’m dubious of the figures used. But also it seems to be natural that more popularist books will be more popular, just as lighter music sells more and pretty realistic (and often cheaper) art sells more readily.

    But that doesn’t seem a reason for NZ novelists to have to write such books – there’s already plenty of them. There are perhaps more crime fiction and chick lit books being written here in recent years but still much in the minority. The site here shows the best-selling books in NZ, catagorised into NZ and overseas, and the NZ novelists are very much serious writing with serious (mostly) NZ themes.

    The Conductor was the book I rated this year (out of about 50 read) as the best. It was excellent in all respects. I haven’t read the others, but Witi Ihimaera writes brilliant Maori-focussed stories, Lloyd Jones is a Booker-nominee, Owen Marshall is considered one of our top writers and Hone Tuwhare is a very well-known poet, sometimes rather raunchy but in the top echelon. Laurence Fearnley (a woman) writes books with a narrower more domestic focus which are both popular and worthwhile, and are carefully written. I can’t see why these writers should for a second try for something less than they write now. I would be very miffed if I bought a Witi Ihimaera and it was badly written and not thoughtful.

    One reason I tend to gravitate to ‘literary fiction’ is that it is usually shorter! I hate wasting days on long trivial novels (happy sometimes with very short romantic nothings and like plot-driven crime novels with or without good characterisation) and long serious novels are a little daunting. I have just started reading The Moonstone and am thoroughly enjoying it (after 20 pages) but there are 420 fairly small print; it’s going to take me a long time, and meanwhile other books await me.

    Cheers, Caro.


    • “One reason I tend to gravitate to ‘literary fiction’ is that it is usually shorter!”

      Ooh – i don’t know that the likes of Samuel Richardson, Tolstoy, Proust, Musil, etc. would agree with you on that one!

      Of course, any writer is free to write what they want, as long as they take some pride in their craft, as not to do so seems to me to display contempt for the reader.

      The Moonstone is a great book, and was instrumental in creating the genre of detective fiction. I love the Woman in White also.


  9. Posted by alan on January 5, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    Genres are like other categories, a way of dividing the world up into manageable chunks by finite creatures (us).
    The cleverer you are then the more categories you can cope with.
    Of course there are categories that end when their cultural support ends – whatever happened to the pastoral, anyway ?
    Sadly, I see Science Fiction going the same way as the pastoral, except for the occasional fashionable dystopia, which we will be sternly told isn’t anything as low brow as Science Fiction, and anyway is really a political commentary about now. Somehow the future doesn’t bear thinking about any more…or maybe that is me getting old.


    • Despite my personal inability to enjoy science fiction, it is not regarded as “lowbrow”: science fiction writers are respected by the literari (see for instance the praise heaped on Stapledon by the likes of Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Jorge Luis Borges, etc.); is taght in literature courses in prestigious universities; is published by the likes of Penguin Classics and Library of America, etc etc.


  10. Hello. There is much to reply to here but I came here to offer a reply to this question:

    >>If Mr Child really could, if he wanted to, write a book exhibiting literary qualities … then … “Why the hell doesn’t he?”<<

    I believe Lee Child writes for money and novels that are labelled 'literary' don't sell. Writing anything is hard work so I'm sure he also enjoys what he does and takes pride in it.

    I also don't care for his writing but a lot of people like it, even quite discerning people who read a wide variety of fiction. And I agree with him that a lot of so-called literary writers couldn't write good thrillers or crime novels. A lot of contemporary 'literary' novels are just dull novels. In fact there should be a "dull novel" section in whatever bookshops are still in existence and it should gradually shrink to make more room for the other genres.

    Incidentally, not wishing to be controversial, science fiction is in a very vibrant state right now and is one of the most exciting of all the genres if you are looking for writing of merit. I won't be bold enough to recommend any authors, though. I'm a great believer in reading whatever you like because you love it, regardless of what others may say. Every book we pick up should be picked up with enthusiasm. There are so many great books out there.

    One of my favourite writers is a genre writer. I have learned a lot from him and I think, like Conan Doyle, he is great because every sentence he writes pulsates with life. He is the creator of the other Conan, Robert E. Howard. Howard wrote in many genres and was good at all of them. In my view he is a literary writer because my appreciation of him is very literary.

    By the way, it's interesting that when some literary novelists write genre works under a pseudonym in order to make money, they very often don't make money, or so it seems to me, so perhaps Lee Childs is right. They sell out but don't cash in.


    • Hello Joseph,

      As you say, a great many issues to untangle here.

      When discussing the concept of “literary”, we should, I think, attempt some sort of definition of the term. My definition is as follows: a “literary book” is a book that displays literary qualities. By this definition, the fact of a book being a science fiction novel, or a thriller, or a romantic novel, or whatever, does not prevent it from being “literary”. The only thing that disqualifies a book from being literary is lack of literary qualities. And that is all.

      But this is not the definition of “literary” that is used by Lee Child. Or by Stephen Hunt. They appear to be using the term “literary” to denote anything that does not belong to any currently established genre. And this worries me. Why should a book be considered “literary” simply because it doesn’t belong to a genre? Does the fact of not belonging to a genre confer upon the book literary quality? I find the idea absurd.

      I have no doubt that those who do not specialise in writing, say, adventure stories, or police thrillers, or ghost stories, are likely to be pretty bad at them were they to try their hand at these genres. As I said in response to Wendell above, one should not expect Henry James to be able to write like Rider Haggard. I have no problem with this at all. But I do find my eyebrows rising considerably when the opposite claim is made – when it is claimed that Rider Haggard could, had he wanted to, have written like Henry James.

      Similarly, while I accept fully that the likes of V. S. Naipaul or Doris Lessing (to name a couple of contemporary Nobel Laureates off the top of my head) could not write a thriller in the manner of Lee Child, the assertion that Lee Child could, if he wanted to, write like Naipaul or Lessing strikes me as nonsensical.

      (As for Child’s writing, perhaps I shouldn’t have commented on that, as I have only sampled it while browsing in bookshops; but from the extended excerpts I have read, I think I stand by my assertion that his prose is rather flat. This is not to put down the quality of writing within genres: the prose of someone such as, say, James Ellroy, is extraordinarily rich and inventive; and I cannot think of any writer of the last 50 or so years who was a more accomplished prose stylist than, say, George Macdonald Fraser.)

      I agree with you fully that “a lot of contemporary ‘literary’ novels are just dull novels”. But is it right, in that case, to apply the term “literary” to them? For if a book were truly “literary” – i.e. if it displays literary qualities – then by the very fact of having those qualities, it wouldn’t be dull. If a novel lacks literary qualities, if it is dull, let us not classi it as “literary”.

      What I am arguing for is proper application of the word “literary”. A “literary book” is a book that displays literary qualities. By that criterion, James Ellroy and George Macdonald Fraser are “literary authors”, and dull authors whose books lack literary qualities aren’t, no matter how many literary awards they may happen to win. It is only when we apply the term “literary” correctly can we get back to discussing books in terms of their quality, regardless of what genre they may happen to belong to. Then, books within specific genres that display literary quality may be discerned as “literary”, while books claiming to be literary but lacking qualities can be called for what they are. And, equally, shoddily crafted works within the various genres (and yes, they exist too – in legions, for they are many) can be criticised without fear of accusations of snobbery.

      Incidentally, I would certainly nominate George Macdonald Fraser – who specialised in the genre of adventure stories – as among my personal favourite writers. And when Kirsty Young eventually invites me on to Desert Island Discs – I really don’t know why that invitation is so late in arriving! – and asks me to choose a book alongside Shakespeare and the Bible, I will be choosing the Sherlock Holmes stories – genre literature if ever there was.

      As for science fiction, I was, I admit, a bit flippant in writing about it above. This is partly for the benefit of a good friend of mine, who is a great fan of science fiction, and who reads this blog. But, sadly, we cannot all like everything. There are many genres I enjoy – the adventure story, thriller, and, especially, ghost stories – but, for reasons I cannot analyse, something in my mind switches off as soon as it comes to science fiction, or fantasy. I have no doubt that there have been, and continue to be, many fine writers – indeed, many “literary” writers, at least by my definition of “literary” – in the science fiction genre: the problem, I acknowledge, lies entirely with me. But there is so much else out there that I love, it seems pointless to repine.

      And finally, I cannot agree with you more on the following:

      “I’m a great believer in reading whatever you like because you love it, regardless of what others may say. Every book we pick up should be picked up with enthusiasm. There are so many great books out there.”



      • I agree with you about the term literary, Himadri. James Ellroy and George Macdonald Fraser are both brilliant writers and the Flashman books are a terrific way to unwind for those of us who like to be stimulated by some vigorous verbal entertainment. I also agree that you are right to mock misguided Daniel Abrahams, whose position is ridiculous.

        Another observation I’ve made, though, is that some writers excel in a books of a certain type, and sometimes their writing disintegrates when they attempt something else. (Raymond Chandler’s attempt at ‘literary’ writing was not a success, for example, and — others will disagree — but I think Doris Lessing’s science fiction is really boring.) So whether it’s genre writing or ‘literary’ writing, the challenge for a writer is to find something that flicks that turbo switch in their brain that inspires them to write their best and in many cases they are unable to consciously control exactly what that is or change the type of writing they produce, no matter what genre they attempt.

  11. “Literary fiction” is essentially a marketing category. It emerged, in the UK at least, in the late 70s and early 80s. Some people argue that it’s a genre in its own right. In my view it is and it isn’t. It isn’t, because it lacks a clear set of defining concerns and conventions; it is, because it identifies itself as being heir to a particular tradition (the canon of English literature, as taught in our universities).

    Why do genre writers object to the perceived higher status of “literary fiction”? Well, I think it’s fair to say that some of them regard it as a racket. Successful writers of literary fiction enjoy better advances relative to their (usually pretty modest) sales, are much more likely to win prestigious awards (when did a genre novel, marketed as such, last win the Booker? Or even make the shortlist?), and enjoy greater coverage in the book review sections of the mainstream media. Furthermore, it’s perceived that the reviewers and judges that give them this exposure tend to be fellow members of the social and intellectual elite (typically middle class Oxbridge graduates). The whole thing is seen as an Old Boys (and Old Girls) network.

    One more thing that annoys genre writers: when “literary fiction” writers do decide to dip their toe into some genre or other, they generally don’t know the genre very well, and sadly, neither do their reviewers or readers. The resulting novels are invariably marketed as “literary fiction”, and heralded as “groundbreaking”, whilst the genre people grind their teeth running through the list of authors that covered all this stuff 40 years earlier, and generally made a better fist of it.

    Of course, all books ought to be judged on merit – but the reality is that too many books are being published for all to get a fair hearing. As a consequence, a marketing category is applied to whittle down the number of books one has to “take seriously”. Shame, but that’s the reality.


    • Hello Mike, I actually do agree with you on a number of points. Writers who dip their toes in a genre that they are unaccustomed to – “slumming it”, as Wendell says above – are highly unlikely to produce anything of a quality comparable to that produced by the best practitioners of the genre. I remember, for instance, giving up on Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country For Old Men” – not because it was bad, as such, but because it wasn’t a patch on the writing produced by the best crime writers. As I say in one of my responses above, it is unreasonable to expect Henry James to have written adventure stories as well as Rider Haggard did. And the critical acclaim given to genre works written by non-genre writers does indeed indicate an ignorance and arrogance on the part of the critics. No argument there.

      But my main gripe is the idea that “literary fiction” is actually a genre in itself. You say it may possibly be seen as a genre because “because it identifies itself as being heir to a particular tradition (the canon of English literature, as taught in our universities)”. But the “canon of English literature” covers an awful lot of ground, and certainly includes what we may identify nowadays as “genre writing”. Frankenstein, the stories of Poe, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Dracula, etc are all horror fiction; the novels of H. G. Wells are science fiction; The Moonstone and The Woman in White are detective novels; King Solomon’s Mines and Lord Jim are boys’ own adventure stories, and The Secret Agent is a spy thriller; and so on. The English canon includes examples even of the genre of erotica -Fanny Hill, say. (All of these books, and more, are published by Penguin Classics and Oxford World Classics, and I cannot think of any more significant criterion for determining canon fodder! 🙂 ) I’d argue that books written within the various genres that display literary quality are very firmly within the traditions of the “canon of English literature”. It’s a broad canon, and encompasses a great many traditions, including genres –although I am sure this won’t please those genre writers who cherish flattering images of themselves as outsiders and rebels and iconoclasts, fighting valiantly against the stultifying tyrannies of tradition.

      So this definition – “works that identify themselves “as being heir to a particular tradition (the canon of English literature …)” – does not, I think, hold. So we return, I think, to the initial question: How can we speak of “literary” as a genre when it cannot be characterised in terms of content?

      You say “successful writers of literary fiction enjoy better advances relative to their (usually pretty modest) sales”. Taking “literary fiction” to mean “non-genre fiction”, I’d guess only a very small percentage of non-genre writers get advances of the kind you mention, and that successful genre writers wouldn’t even wipe their bottoms with such paltry sums. Even the earnings of the top “literary” authors are a joke compared to the royalties pocketed by their genre counterparts.

      As for the Oxbridge coteries, I really don’t know what proportion of successful non-genre writers are Oxbridge graduates: I suspect this proportion is considerably lower than that in the upper echelons of the civil service, say, or of the government. (What would be the US equivalent of the Oxbridge coterie? Do they have an Ivy League mob, I wonder?)

      Recently, Peter Carey made a few statements in a speech deploring the low quality of so many books in the bestsellers list. I can’t find a full transcript of his speech, but you can find a report on it here. I don’t agree with his point on analysis in the classroom, as I don’t see how one can study literature without analysis – but that’s for another day; but the rest of what he said seems to me unexceptionable, and is the sort of thing one would expect from someone who cares about literary standards. Now, do a search on the words “Peter Carey literary snobbery” to see something of the hysterical response. Here’s Bryce Courtenay (Australia’s most “wildly popular writer”) not mincing his words (and saying some very ignorant and foolish things about Shakespeare in the process). Courtenay appears to repeat the Child Claim that he could write a “literary book” if he wanted to, but he just doesn’t want to. Child himself makes this claim quite explicitly here: “(literary authors) know, in their heart, that we could write their books but they cannot write our books . . . I could write a Martin Amis book. It would take me about three weeks.” Now, I’m no great fan of Martin Amis, as you know, but I hate to imagine the accusations of snobbery that would have been made had Amis made similar comments about Child. It seems that anything that is popular is now more or less exempt from criticism: if you dare to criticise that which is popular, you become, by definition, a “snob”. But where, in all this, is the consideration of literary quality?

      I think this is what upsets me most about all this – the sheer level of contempt and derision directed towards the concept of “literary”. One may say that this contempt is not directed to what I regard as “literary” – i.e. writings displaying literary quality – but at writings that don’t belong to identifiable genres; but that depresses me even more. If the term “literary” no longer refers to works displaying literary quality, then critical language – and, indeed, the very concept of quality itself – is devalued. How can one love literature and not find that depressing?

      Whatever the marketing bods say, let us, as individual readers, ignore them, and judge whatever we read by its own literary merit, or lack of it. I think it’s quite easily done actually!


      • Hi Himadri, no time to reply in detail at the moment, but to clarify my point about advances etc. – most writers get advances calculated against expected sales; writers of “literary fiction” enjoy a more generous remuneration, based on the belief that they bring greater prestige for the publisher. They certainly bring more column inches in the broadsheets, and they are much more likely to be longlisted for prizes such as The Booker. Only if they are shortlisted are they likely to actually generate a serious amount of sales (unless also picked up by Richard & Judy or similar). Now I don’t have a problem with bestsellers subsidising quality literature; but I think the criteria for what constitutes “quality literature” have more to do with branding than actual literary merit.

        Nowhere is this more evident than in the Booker prize, which frequently overlooks superior literary works because they are marketed as genre and therefore considered too embarrassing (a recent example would be China Mieville’s “The City and the City”, which actually has more in common Kafka and Borges than any SF writer, but as Mieville is effectively an SF brand he’s unlikely to make the shortlist).

      • Hello Mike, I imagine Mieville’s novel is not the first – and nor will it be the last – work of literary quality to be overlooked by the Booker Prize. Many highly regarded non-genre works have also been overlooked by the Booker, but given that no genre writer, no matter how highly regarded – John le Carre, George Macdonald Fraser, etc – have been so much as nominated, it seems likely that Mieville was indeed overlooked, as you say, simply because he came with the wrong label. However, it is worth noting also that the Booker prize has been going since 1969, while the Hugo Award (specifically for science fiction) has been going since 1955; the Gold Dagger Award (specifically for crime fiction) has also been going from the mid 50s; and so on. It is hard to escape the conclusion that if genres really are screened off from the mainstream, then the genres themselves have played no small part in this.

        But yes, of course, I agree wholeheartedly that all works should be judged by literary standards. This is why it is important, when discussing books, to use the term “literary” correctly to refer to books displaying literary quality, and not get drawn into the pointless Genre Wars. This will mean that we recognise the literary quality of various genre writers; and that we see through the lack of literary qualities of many writers labelled as “literary”. It will also mean, I suspect, that we also see through the bluster of certain genre writers who seem to think “literary” is a dirty word.

  12. There are the genre writers who used the term “literary fiction” with contempt, but there are also the avant-gardists who also do the same, perceiving “literary fiction” as in some way lacking precisely the “literary” qualities which someone like you might be expecting to find in it – an idea which appears a little in this article today in the Guardian:


    • Hello Obooki, and thanks for the link. On the article in general, I don’t know that we are seeing the “end of literature”: it may or may not be that we are going through a bit of a barren period right now – posterity will judge on that – but that is no reason to assume that literature itself is on its last legs. Similar pronouncements had been made in the past before various works were written which we now regard as masterpieces: that, I think, tells its own story. These pronouncements seem to be based on the very dubious logic that goes: “I cannot think of anything new; therefore no-one can, and no-one will be able to, ever.” It reminds me of the Hjalmar Ekdahl character in Ibsen’s Wild Duck, who likes to imagine he is an inventor, but who eventually admits that he isn’t: “What do you want me to invent?” he asks. “Everything has been invented already!”

      As for the avant-garde writers, it’s virtually mandatory for the avant-garde to be contemptuous of the establishment – or, at least, of what they perceive to be the establishment. But if they are serious about their writing, then they should be careful about the words they use, and how they use them: they should consider carefully what the words mean that they are using. For words, after all, form the basic material of literature, no matter what one is writing, no matter who the intended readership may be. And I wonder very much whether the avant-garde writers slagging off “the literary genre” have considered what the word “literary” means. If they mean what I mean by it, then I can’t say I have any desire to read writings of those who sneer at the very concept of excellence. (I’d expect avant garde writers to dissent from accepted criteria of excellence and propose their own, but I certainly wouldn’t expect any writer, avant garde or otherwise, to denigrate the concept of excellence itself.) But if they mean something else by “literary” – and I take it they are – then they should have sufficient regard for language to explain clearly in what sense they are using the word.


  13. Mike, Obooki, thanks both very much for your posts. There is much there I need to think about before responding, but once again, I doubt I’ll be able to respond before this weekend. It certainly would be pleasant to be able to devote all my energies to this blog, but sadly, there’s a mortgage to be paid! 😦 but I’m enjoying the discussion this post has been generating, and I’ll definitely get back to you both this weekend.

    Cheers, Himadri


  14. Posted by Caro on January 11, 2012 at 5:46 am

    I sometimes want a name for the sort of books that are a cut above some fiction, without fitting a specific genre (and lots of crime books – the only specific genre I read to any degree – certainly have literary merit or at least strong characterisation and thoughtfulness to them). I have used ‘literary fiction’ for this in the past, but now have decided to call it ‘serious fiction’ in contrast to light fiction. Then it doesn’t have to necessarily meet the highest standards of writing, but does meet my expectations of talking about something more important than boy meets girl, or who shot whom. I don’t read science fiction or fantasy or ghost stories so don’t know what their lightest premise is.

    Still leaves very good genre fiction a little uncertain how to label it and how to find it.

    I would consider the Flashman books literary anyway. They are well-written, detailed in characterisation, place and event, mix humour and serious intent, use stylistic devices (if only in the character of Flashman), and my friends who like light books wouldn’t enjoy them at all. What more do you want in literary writing?

    Cheers, Caro.


    • Hello Caro, I find in general that when I am browsing in bookshops, the blurb at the back of the book gives me a rough idea of the nature of the content, and reading a few pages chosen at random gives me a rough idea of the quality of the writing. Of course, these are but rough ideas, but they are likely to be more useful, I think, than yet another meaningless category created by the marketing chaps & chapesses.

      I certainly agree with you about the Flashman novels. I read them, and am lost n admiration, and realise that not in a million years could I ever write something as accomplished as this. And this is my very point: if the term “literary” is to be denied books such as these, then what meaning does the word have?


  15. Posted by Erika W. on January 13, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    Alright, I have begun to read “Our Mutual Friend”. Are the other sign-ons still out there? The very first chapter has sucked me right in and I’ll be commenting later.


    • Hello Erika, I have just finished the first of its four parts, and will be putting up a post on it this weekend.

      In the first six chapters, Dickens introduces no less than 5 different environments, and 5 different sets of characters. (Only Chapter 3 followson directly from teh previous chapter.) Introducing a milieu and a set of characters at the start of a novel is difficult enough, but Dickens does it 5 times in a row, and each time with breathtaking assurance.

      Sorry aboutthe delay in getting this going – but this weekend, definitely! 🙂


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