Is Literary Fiction Dead?

According to a recent essay in The Nation by Dan Sinykan, an English professor, literary fiction might soon be dead.

I’m probably one of many who will be glad to dance on its grave. While it is certainly true that not all fiction is great literature, the implication that only “literary” fiction is the truly good stuff made me furious long before I started writing science fiction.

Sinykan defines literary fiction as “fiction that privileges art over entertainment.” I find that definition ridiculous, given how much art I have found in science fiction and other work relegated to “genre” and how little I have found in some supposedly literary works.

I mean, are you really going to say that Ursula K. Le Guin didn’t create art? Or, for that matter, Joanna Russ or Octavia Butler?

And while F. Scott Fitzgerald had a lovely way with words, his subject matter was less than enticing. I remain unimpressed by The Great Gatsby, though I suppose the struggle between grifters and the more established rich is still a ripe subject for exploration.

When I was at Clarion West, Chip Delany told us that literary fiction was just another genre. It was a revelation. Of course, Chip’s work certainly reaches the standard of art.

I began to read science fiction at about the time literary fiction became a term – which Sinykan says happened in 1980 – because so much of what was supposed to be good fiction back then was boring the hell out of me.

Now granted that was back in the time before the internet and I was living in a small city in North Texas. Walden Books was about the only bookstore around. I was trying to keep up with books by reading the New York Review of Books, but it managed to infuriate me by having Gore Vidal trash Doris Lessing’s Shikasta, which was a very good book by an eventual Nobel Prize winner and happened to be science fiction.

Like most good science fiction, it was about something. There were ideas in it. It was not about upper middle class people who spent their summers in the Hamptons and were getting divorced in a semi-civilized manner. It was also not about editorial assistants living in New York City and having affairs with older, married editors.

There was work being published back then as literary that was about something more substantial – Marge Piercy comes to mind – but I hadn’t run across any of it.

These days, I actually read some books that are published as “literary”. I have James McBride’s latest book in my to be read pile and I am a huge fan of Colson Whitehead.

I will point out that their books often have a fantastical element and are about something. As near as I can literary fiction has become very influenced by “genre” and that has improved it quite a bit.

Sinykan has noticed the influence of genre on the literary, but he seems to think this is a commercial influence.

I think it’s a sign that some writers have figured out that speculative elements in particular can give a story a deeper truth and meaning than supposedly realistic stories about middle and upper class white American life.

Now I know there is crappy science fiction and fantasy out there. I also know there’s nothing wrong with writing stories for the purpose of entertainment rather than as art. In fact, I have many writer friends who are very clear that their purpose is entertainment.

My own purpose in writing is not so clearly defined. There’s usually just a story I want to tell. It tends to have some ideas in it. I hope readers find it enjoyable to read, but I also hope it makes them think.

When I’m looking for something to read, I want much the same. The genre doesn’t really matter that much to me.

So I’ll be glad to see literary fiction disappear as a genre. Maybe Professor Sinykan and others who are looking for “art” might find more of it if they’re not restricted by a publishing category that supposedly defines it.

2 thoughts on “Is Literary Fiction Dead?

  1. Nancy, I love this essay: it’s short, effective, and makes the important point that the difference between enjoyable fiction and literary fiction is genre, not quality. My own view of fiction has taken on better definition thanks to your brief and bold insight. I’ve long thought that a novel, painting, or dance should leave us feeling glad to be alive, encouraged to achieve our best; and your contrast of Fitzgerald with Le Guin is apt. I look forward to sharing your view.

  2. Thanks, Rick. My attitude about this goes back to being bored by so much of the fiction I was reading and finding in science fiction in particular both art and substance. I’m glad my feelings came across so well. I should note that I re-read The Great Gatsby about a dozen years ago when I once again heard huge praise for it and decided that it was still the slight work I’d found it when I was a teenager.

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