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.