“The term literay fiction has been invented to torment people like me” – John Updike

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I can only speak for myself but I feel pretty much the same as Updike and mostly agree with the full quote below which is taken from an interview with Lev Grossman in Time magazine in 2006 (you can find the whole interview here)

I think America is an increasingly book-free country. In the world of my boyhood, there were books everywhere. Your piano teacher had books, and there were lending libraries everywhere–your department store had a lending library. Books are still bought, and you see them being read in airplanes, but it’s a last resort, isn’t it? And the category of “literary fiction” has sprung up recently to torment people like me who just set out to write books, and if anybody wanted to read them, terrific, the more the merrier. But now, no, I’m a genre writer of a sort. I write literary fiction, which is like spy fiction or chick lit. I was hoping to talk to America, like Walt Whitman, you know? Address it and describe it to itself.

I have seen quite a few debates circling around the questions about the end of literature and/or what “literature and literary fiction” means. Is it so-called literary fiction that is about to end? The modernist novel? Surely nobody can say that story telling will end? And what is literary fiction anyway? Isn’t that an absurd expression? For me, being a French/German native speaker the term “literary fiction” is an oddity. In French and German it is much more pragmatic. Literature is pretty much the same as what English-speaking people call literary fiction. If you want to be precise you can add “demanding”, “challenging” or “sophisticated”  or to describe the opposite “entertainment”. Or you can add a school or movement like “nouveau roman” which already excludes “genre”. But that seems to be a continental European perception.

Lately I came across a term I found even more absurd “literary genre”.  It was used for books like Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. In German we would call that “gehobene Unterhaltungsliteratur” , meaning sophisticated entertainment literature. It’s a term used to tell the interlocutor that you’re not exactly reading trash, but nothing too demanding either.

In his extremely interesting book Writing 21st Century Fiction (I’ll need to review that some day), literary agent and writer Donal Maass argues that “literary genre” is the thing of the moment. I’d say it’s nothing new, it’s just another word for bestseller or mainstream fiction. Because being slightly more literary than the average genre novel, without being crime/fantasy or romance,  but accessible and well constructed, has always been the recipe for bestsellers.

In any case, literature is still alive and kicking, whether genre or literary. What seems to be dying is the patience of the reader, hence the popularity of so-called “readable” fiction, which means a lot of different things like simple sentences, short paragraphs, many chapters etc. Probably one of the many legacies of TV and other newer media that can be asborbed quickly. It’s no surprise that a lot of the current bestellers have been written by MFA graduates. They are well-constructed, have a stronger emphasis on metaphors and similes and take the short attention span of the reader into consideration.

Do you agree with Updike? Do you think literature is dying? And what about the terms literary fiction and literary genre?

My cat, as you can see,  couldn’t care less. Maybe he has a point.

92 thoughts on ““The term literay fiction has been invented to torment people like me” – John Updike

  1. To be perfectly honest, I find most modern novels hard to read because I find them flimsy. I think it’s definitely a trend arising from the fact that people have such a short attention span – thanks no doubt to the Internet, gaming and social media. I find myself always going back to 20th century writing and beyond because there is something of substance to get my teeth into, The new stuff I read is more often than not translated rather than written for the English speaking market. I will find it sad if new literature does die, but there’s little that’s written nowadays that sparks my interest, alas.

    • I still read a lot of new fiction but I prefer novellas and short stories as they seem to be much more artful.
      There are great new novels too but to find them you have to read a whole bucnh that’s not worth it.

  2. “Literary fiction” was the subject of many interesting discussions that we had when I was an MFA student. I tend to think that these days literary fiction is more of a marketing term. It tells bookstores (real and virtual) where to shelve that title. But the term “literary fiction” scares some people away, I think.

    Or maybe it’s more along the lines of what the Supreme Court said: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see (read) it.

    Maybe I shouldn’t feel this way, but the cover artwork has much more impact on whether or not I will pick up a title than how the book is categorized.

    PS – Love the photo of your kitty. 🙂

    • I agree about the marketing term. Like YA, I tend not to look at labels all that much either. I guess there are a lot of things that will tell you more about the book, cover included, editor of course and, as we discussed recently on Vishy’s blog -even the font size can tell you what you’re holding in your hands.
      I’m sure those were interesting discussions.
      Thanks, I had to add a photo. A blog post without any pictures is not my thing and he looked so utterly “not bothered”.

  3. Did Updike later yell “You kids get out of my yard?” He sounds like an old grump.

    But I see how “literary fiction” would be an annoyance to him. It was a late innovation in his career, likely coined in 1984 by Michiko Kakutani.

    The great competitor with literature is movies and television. So no, story-telling is not threatened. But it has moved, and the movement is likely ongoing.

    There is no way – no way no way no way – that Americans can use “demanding,” “challenging,” or “sophisticated” to separate science fiction from so-called “literary fiction.” Can you imagine the screams? The angry profanity? Tell the reader of Game of Thrones \ Ian Rankin \ 2312 \ Watchmen that their book is not sophisticated etc., unlike my book The fur will fly. It should fly.

    • He’s probably a bit grumpy, yes. thanks for the link, I’ll have a look later.
      “Sophisticated” etc is of course not used as a term, more conversational when you tell someone what you are reading.
      Because you can’t really say “I’m reading John Banville, it’s literature.” But in the book store you’d find “literary fiction” just in the section fiction and every thing else then can be classified like crime . . . in other places.

    • Oh funny. I just saw that the author of the post you added mentiones Banville of all authors. I haven’t finished the book I’m reading. Once I have, I might have another opinion.

  4. I find that I have to be very careful selecting most modern American fiction. The term literary fiction (a term I loathe incidentally) seems to be used as a handle in marketing to pull in a particular crowd. IMO, the term gives an aura that appears to indicate that the books are ‘better’ than the average stuff–when that is not often true. So in other words, a lot of American fiction is dressed up as something it’s not by the use of a term that is highly suspect.

    No I don’t think literature is dying, and I take a lot of hope from the way more translated fiction seems to be entering the market. I disliked the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but it was good for something if it makes publishers look for the next foreign hit (not just crime).

    • That’s very interesting what you are saying. I guess, yes, we’d often not even call some books literary fiction. Come to think of it, in some ways, literary genre does actually even mean more.
      I don’t think literature is dying but the market for “not readable” books does seem to shrink.

  5. Great post Caroline.

    I think about this stuff a lot. I do not believe that literature is dying. I do think that there is such a proliferation of books out there, inevitably of low quality, that the good stuff is just obscured. I often wonder if a hundred years ago, or two hundred years ago, if all that many folks were really reading great literature as opposed to the percentage that are reading it today.

    In theory I like the term “Literary Fiction” but I think that it is taking on a meaning that is different then what I have in mind. I look it as anything that reaches a certain intellectual or aesthetic quality as literary fiction. Of course that is subjective and subject to wildly divergent opinion but in that context I find a very useful term.

    Classifying “Literary Fiction” a genre should be decried and many books that fit into many genres arguably qualify.

    I think that your cat actually cares a lot, but as cats often do, he just ACTS like he does not care.

    • He certainly is a great actor. I think his major goal that morning was how to get sun and sleep anyway – hence the face turned away from the light.
      I know what you mean and I’ve srtated the use it like that as well but I don’t find it works as a genre. I think the term “literary” added to a genre can say a lot. If someone tells me he’s reading literary crime, I know, the emphasis is on the writing and the plot.
      I studied French literature from the Middle Ages to 18th Centiry and I can tell you that even then the production was big and hardyl anything is still read nowaydays. I suppose most of it is’t all that good but some of it might be well worth rediscovering.

  6. Updike’s elitism oozes from that interview selection you quote, and his concern seems less about this alleged mysterious disappearance of books (maybe someone should get him a subscription to Wired or some other means for him to keep up with technological changes?) than about his own work being lumped in with that of other writers (icky!). I’m with Carolyn See – of all living American writers, why John Updike, why – despite his considerable talent – such a relatively narrow, even disdainful writer to be revered the way he is? Walt Whitman? I don’t think so.

    Jackie is right: “literary fiction” is really a marketing term. The problem isn’t so much the disappearance of books (I’ve no idea what all those people might be reading on their Kindles) as their commodification. And even that doesn’t stop one from reading Chekhov, or Woolf, or Walt Whitman – or even John Updike, for that matter.

    • I like that – commodification of books. I’m not as familiar with Updike as you are. I’ve only read very little and I don’t really know the man, that’s why, I didn’t see that it might be elitist. And I wasn’t aware he was that revered, sure, highly appreciated but not more. The comparison to Whitman didn’t go down well. It certainly seems to point towards a very high appreciation of himself.

  7. The death of literature is a perpetual hoax. People will continue to write, publish, and read. It’s in the genes. The end of the world is … well, another matter.

    I like categories. “Literary fiction” is a convenient term, though often abused. If not for these categories then there will be no issue, hence no debate. All labels of genre whatever are suspect, but they make for interesting (sometimes passionate) bookish conversations.

    • I certainly did generate some discussion.
      I think it’s in some ways a convenient term but it’s very clearly abused. I wonder how long they will continue to write, publish and read. I don’t think that storytelling will eve disappear but I think there will be a bigger shift towards other means than the written word. Not today and not tomorrow.

  8. Your cat is beautiful, but then that is the nature of cats.

    I don’t think literature is dying. In fact, I think that’s a slightly absurd idea and deeply parochial. I see it in the UK and US press quite a lot, it’s cheap copy but it ignores the state of the non-English language novel. The novel for me is in a perpetual state of reinvention.

    Literary fiction though, well, that I think has become a bit of a genre. The quiet novel of middle class angst and emotional epiphany. The oh-so-tasteful widescreen novel showing us the exotic without the bother of the heat and the dust, frequently through the eyes of someone whose parents were from the exotic place but who themselves grew up in Manhattan. The novel about a man facing ageing or death or some other intimation of mortality which is seen as somehow universal (as opposed to the novels where women undergo those things, which are of course seen as domestic).

    Write what you know. Such terrible advice. Make something up.

    I do think exciting new fiction is still being written, always will be, but it’s rarely tasteful. Look at Joyce, Bukowski, Heller, Rhys, Vonnegut, Ballard, Winterson who I’m currently trying to write a blog post about, Lispector (who I’ve yet to read but am already excited by), I could easily keep going. What do they have in common? Not genre, not style, not subject matter, not even quality of prose. What they have in common is their own voices. They each wrote (still write, in Winterson’s case) themselves.

    The problem with literary fiction as a genre is that it’s boring. Tasteful, one of the worst insults I have in my vocabulary. Literature though is not boring, because it is someone’s truth. Truth is still being written, which is why I remain optimistic about the future of literature as an art form.

    • Thanks, Max. He’s very tall but graceful. Did you know he’s called Max?
      Maybe this whole “literature is dying” discussion is often doomed because people use the term, like other terms indiscriminately. One perosn means that experimental literature is dying, another one thinks of the book as an object.
      And one journalist copies the next.
      Then there is production versus sales. If you want to sell you better follow the advice given in various courses but – be aware you might be killin g our voice. At least that’s how I ssee it and I find you’re really right.
      Style and voice are obvioulsy linked but there are more ways to be original than in using far-fetched metaphors.
      I’m reading John Banville at them moment and already know I will nt be able to do him justice once I will review him.
      I have to think of “tasteful” one of these days, although I liked beautifully written books but then that’s not exactly the same.
      Exotism is something I can really not stand.

  9. Max’s precise description of the “genre” of “literary fiction” shows the problem perfectly. Traditional genres label content while “literary fiction” tries to label style. All sorts of content fall into the heap, even if they have nothing to do with each other. So it won’t last. Some other desperate word will come along someday.

    Classical music goes through the same cycle. “Classical” is a designation of a period, so it grates to call Debussy and Steve Reich “classical.” But the alternatives that have been tried have all failed for obvious reasons. For a while, there was a vogue for the term “serious music” – sorry, jazz musicians, your music is not serious. “Art music,” “advanced music” – all duds.

    Banville – I have read a lot of Banville. Some of his books are better than others. That is a bold judgment, yes? He always writes interesting sentences.

    • When I label something literary I mean style but I see that nowadays it’s used for some content. I think in a context it can be a useful term but as a label or even as a genre it’s pretty useless, maybe more so than the term classical for music. But that’s another debate.
      It’s not my first Banville and I for one I’m grateful to find an author who makes me use the dictionary. Something that hasn’t happened since I read Angela Carter. Very interesting sentences.

  10. I have divided emotions and “literary” reactions to John Updike anyway. I’ve read oodles of his books, and he always seems to be stuck on the one subject of adultery. The most genuinely literary of his adultery books in my mind is “The Centaur,” a really well-crafted and at the same time well-paced and “readable” book which I’ve heard is somewhat autobiographical, but I don’t know enough about Updike’s life to be sure. Granted, I did at one point meet a young woman (in my own “salad days,” as they used to be called) who told me that she used to live next door to him when she was a teenager, and that he spent all of his time leaning over the fence spying on her and her young girlfriends while they were sunbathing. While this might explain a lot of incidents in his texts, I think she may have been paying herself and friends a huge compliment, since unless he had a pen and notebook handy while he stood there, he couldn’t have written all the books he did of such generally good quality if he had been what she really honestly referred to as the stereotypical “dirty old man.” These trifling biographical matters aside, I think he falls just a little short of being as literary as the best, but he’s certainly a notable stylist, as it is called when we speak of anyone who has clearly crafted a particularly recognizable or notable voice. So there you have it, my opinion, for what it’s worth. And I agree with you (and your cat) that as long as fiction is billed somewhere by someone as literary genre or literature, or literary fiction, it’s likely to be the same beast described differently by different people (and beware to those people who don’t take the beast’s fangs seriously, and try to treat it as another more or less dismissable popular category!).

    • I’ve not read nearly enough Updike (although judging from your and Scott’s comment I could read much more sophisticated American anuthors and I suppose I will). I liked “Of the Farm” a great deal and can’t remember any adultery.
      I always thought I’d enjoy The Witches of Eastwick but never thought it wold be all that literary. I’m not keen on Roth’s take on sexuality and I think he really is a great writer, so far less am I going to read Updikes take on all of this.
      A funny story you mention. Probably not too far away from the truth. The cat, although he is French, only reads Russians btw.

  11. Dear Caroline,
    Please be advised that this response is addressed to your commenters and not to you personally. If you feel it unworthy of your blog, I beg you, please delete it.

    I am an American reader and writer who would like to say that I love reading contemporary British literature as well as European literature in translation. Yet…

    I must say that British and European readers would find more American novels to their liking if they were to pay attention to and examine the great American novels being published today, and if they were to read the great American writers producing today. Among the older folks, there’s Paul Auster and T.C. Boyle. Then there’s Richard Ford. In their 70s now there’s Philip Roth and Tobias Wolff. I hesitate to mention a woman writer for fear she will be deemed less worthy, but what about Ann Patchett and Barbara Kingsolver?

    What do Americans of my vintage think of John Updike? As a reader and writer, I personally cast dull eyes on Updike’s pronouncement. If you will grant me the privilege, I would like to say that he was an exceptionally privileged white male who had no need to whine about the lack of or the decline of literature and letters in the U.S.

    John Updike has never been a favorite of mine, perhaps because of the attitudes as represented in the words that have been quoted. As a creator of literature, I believe he is highly overrated. Yes, he may have expressed succinctly the emotions and goals of the business elite of my parents’ generation (Yes, think of the television show Mad Men), but this does not make him an artist. He spoke for very few people in this country. And today, he is not a revered writer among young Americans or baby-boomers, born after World War II.

    Caroline, I admire you for reading his work and writing about how you feel and think about his writing. Absolutely! I’m sorry to say that I took umbrage with some of the comments, and not your blog post!

    Best wishes always,
    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

    • Very interesting Judith. But you are actually together with shadowoperator and Scott the third to explicitly sayy ou don’t think Updike is all that literary.
      When I took the quote, I must admit, I was far more interested in what he said and didn’t put it in a context because I’m not sufficiently familiar with Updike. I always thug he Rod and Roth were about the same caliber but I’m glad to hear it’s not the case. I think very highly of T.C.Boyle and am beginning to like Roth. Ford I always admired. Oh but the women must be mentioned as well.
      Put in the context of your and other comments – Updikes quote has an entirley new meaning.

    • Dear Judith,

      I don’t know how it is in other European countries but in France, all the American writers you mention are very famous and widely read. (Roth sold more that 300 000 copies of The Humain Stain in France)

      If you have a look at this site, http://www.10-18.fr, you’ll see that many excellent American writers make it in cheap paperbacks.

      Emma

    • Judith: There are some marvelous American writers today: I second your TC Boyle and I’ll add Stewart O’Nan and J Robert Lennon (Familiar is fantastic). A couple of names off the top of my head. Alison Lurie is another but I don’t think she’s written anything recently. Alix Kate Schulman’s recent Menage was very clever.

      I’m with Leroy, the whole MFA thing, these novels that follow an arc… Some of the big names are such a disappointment.

  12. It is a fraught term I agree, and I’ve discussed it a little on my blog. The problem for we anglo people is that literature really means written culture – so it includes drama, poetry, essays and, technically, non-fiction (though usually we mean by this “high” end like histories, and not how-to books or self-help, but of course there are always grey areas.)

    Consequently, literary fiction is the best term we’ve come up with to describe non-genre fiction or genre-fiction than breaks the bounds of genre in some way. It is about style and form, I think, and to some degree subject matter. In literary fiction story may be important, but plot doesn’t take precedence.

    • That’s how I interpret it as well. For me, when I use the term “literary” I mean writing that pays more attention to style than plot.
      From a non-English perspective it’s odd. Literature can include plays too but it’s still clear that it’s mostly novels. I find the term “Unterhaltungsliteratur” useful. That’s how it’s always been labelled in German. Here you have Literature – literary fiction – and there you have mainstream -a
      escapist fiction plus the different genres as other categories. We seem to take the literary fro granted making a category for the escapist. THey contrary of the English use.

  13. Love your cat photo, Caroline. They love to laze about wherever they want, don’t they?

    I think it’s silly to mis-label mainstream fiction as “literary.” Booksellers want to sell as many books as possible, so why add a label that could potentially turn off the masses? Intelligent readers aren’t going to fall for that at all.

    Personally, I think Updike is overrated too.

    • Poor Updike’s really not what he thinks he is.
      Oh that cat, he will find the most extraordinary places. This is quite high up but he manages always.
      As I just said to Gummie, in German we label the “escapist- entertainmebnt fiction” not the literary. I always thought it made more sense.

  14. I do not believe that “business elite” description is accurate. That is Rabbit Is Rich? Definitely not Rabbit, Run. Maybe more as Updike got older? He wrote so much, not all of it so good. Too many novels. His Hamlet novel is dreadful.

    Updike was an influential short story writer. I do not know if he is revered, but he is taken seriously, even by the youngsters, the ones who write short stories. His stories are coming out in Library of America editions in September, so there will likely be lots of reviews and overviews. “A&P,” to pick an obvious one, is a classic, right? It is anthologized a lot, at least.

    Judith – every writer you name is at least as popular and esteemed in Germany and France as in the U.S.

    • Well the Updike I like Of the Fram is a novella and I thought it’s well-worth reading.
      Writing too much can be a problem. Too quickly may be a reason as well.
      After everything that’s been said., I think I’ll read his short stories but won’t jump on his novels.
      I’d be interested in that collection.

  15. “Literary fiction” is just a marketing term that enables people to feel pretentious about what they read. Any genre can have books that are challenging and contain deep thoughts about the human condition.

    • I really think it is more than that Grace, though it can carry a connotation of pretentiousness I know. It is an attempt to define a particularly type of writing for those who like what it means. I would call Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the bodies literary historical fiction. If that’s pretentious, I truly apologise but it distinguishes it from say, Philippa Gregory’s books which are great stories I believe but which follow the genre conventions fairly closely? But, perhaps I am wrong?

      • Gummie, this shows exactly why the term can be troublesome. I think Grace would be the first to agree that there is let’s say literary science fiction versus “just” science fiction or the excellent example you choose.
        I think what bothers her and me is that it’s not only the use “literary” but a whole category that was created and is applied to just anything.

        • Thanks Caroline … perhaps it’s the fact that it’s “applied to just anything” is more the issue? I’m still struggling to find a term for what I like to read. When people say, “what do you like to read?” it’s hard if you’re not a crime reader, or a fantasy reader, etc. Perhaps it shouldn’t matter, but I find it helpful for conversation if I know what sort of books people like to read?

          • That’s exactly what I said in my answer to Tom. Many of the labels I mentioned in the post like “sophisticated”, “demandin”g etc that we’d use in French or German are used in conversations. I’m not only someone who buys, reads and writes about books, I also love to talk about them. So what do I say to someone who raves about Fifty Shades iand asks me if I liked it as well. I don’t want to be too mean, so I’m not going to tell the person I don’t read trash but I’ll let her/him know I prefer sophisticated literature. In an English speaking environment I’d probably use the term “literary fiction”.

      • In the US, Philippa Gregory’s books are shelved in the same “literary fiction” section in bookstores. Here at least, it’s more for marketing than an actual distinction in quality. It might be one of those terms that’s defined differently in different countries though.

    • I agree, Grace, there are great books in every genre and I feel the lable lately was used for anthying that isn’t genre but not badly written. Too much was stuffed into it.

  16. I’m not a big fan of why we need labels for absolutely everything. I know with Amazon and their algorithms, genres and categories are becoming more and more important. when what’s really important are the stories. Twenty something years ago I heard Mary Higgins Clark speak and she told a story of when a young reader said she loved her books but didn’t mind the boring details. Clark asked what she meant and she said the paragraphs that didn’t have dialogue. How do you write a mystery or any novel with only dialogue? And that was 20 years ago. I can only imagine many more younger people have less attention spans with the internet, twitter, facebook, and other things I’m not cool enough to know about.

    • I agree TBM. As I’ve mentioned in other comments, I’m reading John banville at the moment. He’s a Booker Prize winner and some think he should get the Nobel Prize. I love it but some of it is heavy going and yesterday I paid very close attention to the strcuture and I found this .
      – Long sentences
      – Arcane vocabulary
      -Long paragraphs (several pages)
      -Hardly any dialogue
      -Not a lot of plot
      On the plus side – accurate descriptions and a lot more.
      All this clearly is something you don’t find in a genre novel.
      And that has always been more or less ike that only nowadays, in genre it’s sometimes overdone.

      • Nice to know that you are reading a John Banville novel now, Caroline. Which one are you reading? He is one of my favourite authors and I think he is one of the greatest prose stylists around today. I totally agree with what you said about his style (no plot, no dialogue, long descriptions or monologues) except for the arcane vocabulary part (I think it is not that arcane 🙂 But I may be wrong). And I totally love him for defying the trend today and continuing to write in his own signature style. I also think that he totally deserves the Nobel prize. Well, I can’t wait to read your review of his book.

        • I read his last, Ancinet Light. I wasn’t aware it’s the third of a trilogy but it does really not matter. It’s juts that he wrote three books with some of the same people. He uses a lot of words I’ve not come across that often, so I thought “arcane” would be a good term. I like that he does that, his precision is enviable.
          I didn’t know he was one of your favourites. Did you like The Sea? I’ve still got that.

          • Nice to know that, Caroline. I haven’t read ‘Ancient Light’. I will keep an eye for it. Hope you are enjoying it. I will look forward to hearing your thoughts on it. I have read ‘The Sea’ and ‘The Infinities’ and liked both of them very much. Mostly for his prose 🙂 I have ‘The Newton Letter’ and ‘The Untouchable’ and I hope to read them sometime. I didn’t know that ‘Ancient Light’ was part of a trilogy. That is really interesting. Happy reading!

            • Thanks Vishy. I’ll finish it tomorrow, I think. The prose is very beautiful but it has some weird elemnts but it’s very much a typical Banville and I like it. The other one I read was “Athena”. I can’t really remember it.

  17. Judith, I think it kind of goes without saying that there are great contemporary US writers. Three out of the eight authors I namechecked as good were US writers (I just counted), which is a pretty healthy proportion there. That said, I do think the US crime fiction scene is in much better health than it’s literary scene (I’d say the same for the UK actually).

    The only species of US fiction that I see as in terminal decline is SF. It’s vibrant in the UK, but I don’t think the US scene ever recovered from the realisation that faster than light travel likely really is impossible, so space isn’t the final frontier after all. There’s still lots of SF being written in the US, but most of it doesn’t engage any more with the world as we actually understand it, instead it has largely become a species of fantasy. So it goes.

    Returning to literary fiction, I read Ben Lerner’s recent novel Leaving the Atocha Station and thought it utterly brilliant. I’m critical of the English language literary scene personally, but I don’t think it’s any better in the UK than the US, I think it’s pretty similar with both countries producing some great work but a wider scene in terms of newspapers and literary culture that’s fairly moribund. Excessive regard for aging writers whose best work is long behind them.

    Anyone who would think that women writers were less worthy doesn’t have an opinion worth considering.

    • Seen from a non-native speaker’s perspective, I still find in the UK there is more emphasis on word choices. Not sure if you agree but I find the vocabulary is richer. Not sure where that comes from. Of course, there are exceptions. A very rich vocabulary can also hide pure artifice and I’m still not sure where to place the Banville I’m reading at the moment.
      I looked at the link that Tom attached yesterday and that critic who wrote about the term literary fiction also slags off Banville. I looked at the names on his review list and frankly, I don’t care how intelligent he is, I’m not going to follow someone whose reviews focus to 95% on male writers. It’s interesting as it’s purely implicit. So, sadly, Judith pointed to something that is still a huge problem.
      I got Lerner’s book by the way.
      Interesting what you say about US SF.

      • I’m not sure it’s more emphasis, but rather a different sort of emphasis. I think in the US the shadows of Hemingway and Carver (rightly) loom large, and still influence style. I think in the UK and particularly Ireland Joyce is a much greater influence.

        Hemingway and Carver are much flatter writers than Joyce (I’m not saying worse here, but neither delights in the exploration and evocation of language in the way Joyce does). Their prose is translucent, whereas Joyce’s is intended to be right up in the forefront of the reader’s attention.

        The gender thing is interesting, and is something I’ve been thinking about myself recently. I think historically, and to an extent still today, there’s been much greater opportunity for men to pursue writing than women (one needs after all a room of one’s own). Even more than that though, male writing is often marketed very differently with much fiction by women being marketed as Women’s Fiction while the male is simply marketed as fiction.

        The result is that even if I read without knowledge of gender, I suspect I’d still read more great works by men than women. I don’t think talent is linked to the Y chromosome, I simply think that more men have had opportunity to express their talent or to have it nurtured by the publishing world.

        I wouldn’t though be reading 95% men. It’s easier for men to get their books out there and to avoid a marketing cul-de-sac, but it’s not twenty times easier.

        The other issue though is that I can’t actually read without knowledge of gender. If I follow the newspapers, the literary scene, it’s incredibly male-biased so naturally what I know about will be too. That’s a problem, because that will bias what I read (if I don’t know about a great book I can’t read it).

        So, what to do? Do I consciously read more books by women? If so, is that tokenism? Do I simply carry on, aware that my reading may be gender biased? If so I’m missing out on great books (though there’s enough great books that one could make almost any arbitrary exclusion and not run short of amazing reading – no books by Italians! No books by skinny authors!). My answer presently is simply to be a little more aware of the choices I’m making, but whether that’s the (a?) right answer or not I don’t really know.

        • If I had to chosee between the writers like Carver and those like Joyce, I’d probably go for Carver but since I don’t have to choose, I like diversity and find it refreshing to read writers who have another emphasis. It’s not even simpler to write like Carver. On the very contrary.
          The gender aspect is not easy. I saw an interesting article recently that compared book covers. I’m sure you remember that awfull book cover of Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it? That’s a typical example, no book written by a man would ever recive such a horrible cover. I also noticed the trend that more and more female writers use only initials instead of the name, notably in crime writing. S.J. Bolton, S.J.Watson . . . But not only crime.
          So yes, it’s difficult for women writers, still.
          I don’t choose books for the gender of the author, I just choose what appeals but I guess I read a bit more written by women but it’s not a conscious choice.
          On the other hand I’ve seen the one or the other male blogger mention he feels he’s underread and asking for womeone writers to stat with. I think that’s a good way. But tokenism as a general rule, no thanks.

  18. Interesting debate and comments.

    As a French native speaker, the term “literary fiction” still puzzles me. I can’t help thinking that Anglo-Saxons love boxes, categories and putting label on things and especially on books. Hard-boiled, modern classics, Noir, women’s fiction, novella, pulp, chick-lit, lad-lit, fantasy, gothic, YA…It’s endless.

    Personally, I never seem to find the right category and I tend to be satisfied with the basics: Littérature / Polar / SF. I’ve seen a new corner in a book store “Littérature de divertissement” which means literally “literature for entertainment” (you know that but someone else could read my comment) and it covered what it means (chick-lit, easy novels,…) I’m fine with these large categories.

    Tom wrote before “Traditional genres label content while “literary fiction” tries to label style.” He’s right to point that out. This is why the term “literary fiction” seems to cover a kind of books that look down on the others as not being as worth as they are. It’s a category that emphasizes on the quality of the style more than on objective criteria such as “crime fiction” or “gothic fiction”. I have the same problem with “modern classic” : how does a book qualify for that? What’s the objective criterion that tells you it’s a “modern classic”?

    The existence of the category “Literary fiction” in itself fuels the everlasting debate between “intellectuals” looking down on JK Rowling and S. Meyer and “non-intellectuals” yelling at snobbish “intellectuals” who only rave about boring books. I don’t know how to phrase this properly but I guess you understand what I mean? It’s like making a distinction between “real books” and “others”

    PS : Your cat is more than cute.

    • Thanks, I will tell him. 🙂
      But that’s exactly how it’s done in Germany you have Literatur and Unterhaltungsliteratur and then some bigger categories like Krimi, Science-Fiction, Fantasy.
      As I said in another comment in Germany and France we have literature first and anything that’s not that is labelled, while the Anglo-Saxon’s wanted a lable for wat we do not label.
      Modern classic is a fuzzy term as well, I suppose that nowadays, anything that’s called claissic means “meant to last”.

  19. Like Emma, I agree with Tom’s point about content vs. style when it comes to “Literary Fiction” as a descriptor. What that term conveniently ignores is that many genre writers are fantastic stylists, much more so than the producers of bland MFA-purée could ever be. Example: George V Higgins’s novels are overwhelmingly “told” via dialogue. That’s a style decision, a bold one, and he carries it off superbly. And it doesn’t just mean interminable pages of one-liners and back-and-forth, it means monologues, the rhythm of speech, things in the character’s eye-line intruding on what he/she says, making the internal external, convincingly. Is Higgins considered a stylist? No, he’s a crime writer.
    Now I’m probably over-egging the argument to make a point, but I think it stands. Good writing is interesting writing, specifically interesting to me as a reader. Updike I find profoundly uninteresting.

      • You know that I wasn’t referring to you, right, but to that list on the blog link you added and he reviews mostly newer books. You read (or write mostly about) 19th Century fiction. Bit hard to read a lot of women. But you could make it to 20%. Anyway, I don’t believe you’re down to 5%.

        • Sorry, Leroy! Wrong button, wrong thread, wrong “you”! The 95% thread is up a little higher.

          I completely agree that many – well, some – genre writers are real stylists, aside from whatever fine imaginative gifts they might have. The Derek Raymond novel I read recently, a genuine London noir, was as well-written as much of what gets nominated for the Booker Prize.

          • Cheers Tom, I figured it out eventually..
            Raymond I’ve not read, but would like to mostly due to the high regard Max has for his stuff. There is of course plenty of crime-dreck written as well. But the idea of style being divorced from genre so absolutely is bizarre, and that is what the “lit fic” moniker implies.

    • Poor Updike. I was never drawn to his novels, maybe no coincidence. Bland MFA purée is well said. Not that I don’t read some of it and of course there are great people graduating too. In the US an MFA will guarantee your survival, especiylla when you don’t wrote mainstream as it allows you to teach. I often forget that. I certainly agree about good writing being interesting writing. I’ll have to look up George V Higgins. Thanks.

      • Yes, the MFA thing is a bugbear of mine, but it’s unfair to generalise to such an extent.

        If you’re interested in Higgins, try The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

        • Thanks, Ian, I am.
          I also got a Derek Raymond after I read a review on Max blog. Since we are now officially thread-hopping I can add this comment here.
          I was very confused too at first as I didn’t see you mention the same percentage.

  20. So far this year, almost exactly 95% of the books I have read have been by men. Last year I ended at about 88% men.

    Myers’s review list is actually 73% men. I knew 95% did not sound right. He does not review anything close to everything he reads.

    • 73% isn’t that bad. I must have overlooked a lot of names. Most male bloggers come up with similar statistics at the end of the year. Maybe a bit more, maybe a bit less. There are a exceptions but they focus more on very recent books. I still think your area of interest is your reason. When I look at German literature there is still quite a look of really good stuff (that you’d probably appreciate ) by women that isn’t trabslated, the sme goes for other countries.

  21. Interesting and fascinating post, Caroline. The attention span of new readers is definitely lesser than experienced ones because during old times people started reading before learning other things while these days people first learn how to use a gadget like a smartphone. I agree with John Updike on one thing. During old times writers used to write books on topics they wanted. The same writer would write a social novel, a romance novel, a philosophical novel, a murder mystery, a gothic horror novel. Those writers were not slotted in a particular genre. But now a writer is slotted and it is difficult to get away from that. I read a beautiful book called ‘What Good Are the Arts?’ by John Carey a few years back. It explores questions on what is art (including literature), whether there is a difference between high art and popular art (in literary terms whether there is really a difference between literary and genre fiction) and whether art is useful. A very fascinating book. I think you might like it.

    I will read all the comments and come back and comment again later. You have opened a Pandora’s box 🙂

    Love the picture of your cat. Taking a nap on that spot of sunlight – he seems to be enjoying the morning 🙂

    • It’s a bit of a Pandora’s box, I agree and we all have our different interpretations of the term, Updike and many other things as well.
      I hadn’t thought of that but yes writers were free to choose the genre but the writing was still measured.
      I haven’t heard of carey, thanks for the suggestion.
      Thansk, Vishy. The cat is enjoying the warmth and yes, it’s morning. How did you know that it’s not afternoon sun? That spot only ever gets sun for an hour or so in the early morning.

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  23. I agree with your cat! I couldn’t care less. I read what I like to read. For me, it always lies in the storu, not the writing. I get a bonus if the writing is good, like The Lord of The Ring…but the main focus is always the story. I don’t even care if they call King a popcorn writer (meaning not literature at all), I still love his works…I didn’t care when I mention him as my fav writer, why should I satrt caring now? For me, book is something I enjoy to read.

    • 🙂 Sometimes it’s good to know how to cal something when someone asks you and then, a term like that can come in handy. But it will not determine my choice. I read popcorn and literary fiction.

      • I like the other term of genre more…like YA, Children book, horror, etc. I find literature and literary fiction stuff both difficult to comprehend and somewhat degrading the other one. It’s like higly educated people read literature and not so educated people read literary fiction…I know, it’s probably just me who think like that 😉

  24. Such an interesting post and equally interesting comments. I think I need to come back and read them all more closely. I’m not sure I have anything to add really since I am not sure how many of the books I read fall into that “literary fiction” category–a lot of what I read is genre or older books–not so much contemporary fiction. I thought the Updike quote interesting, too. It’s one of those arguments that seems to pop up time and time again–the worry of the fall and decline of western civilization, that seems to be argued with each new generation. I think there has always been really bad/though maybe also really popular fiction and fiction that rises above the ‘average’ whatever that is (one of those terms that is hard to define but we all have a good idea what is meant by it!). But I do think there is lots and lots being published these days and some of it is really very, very good, and probably more of it just really mediocre. But I think, too, people will always buy books and there will always be ‘serious readers’. Just look at the discussion you manged to raise from one short quote! 🙂

    • It struck a chord with many, be it because they really don’t like Updike or because they hate the term literary fiction.
      I agree with many that, like YA, it’s turned into a marketing term.
      I think as a term it’s more valuable added to a genre novel. If you want to precise that it’s more than genre, for example. You could call Hammett or Chandler literary crime. I think used like that it tells anyone that, yes, it’s genre but it’s very well written.

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