Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The truth about literary fiction

with 5 comments

Last month, the critic Arthur Krystal published a piece in The New Yorker titled “Easy Writers: Guilty Pleasures Without Guilt.” I’ve held off on talking about this essay until now because even after two readings, I’m not quite sure what Krystal’s point is—he seems to be saying that we think of certain novels as guilty pleasures, but we really shouldn’t, unless perhaps we should—and because Lev Grossman has already done such a fine job of responding in Time. Yet the fact that Krystal felt capable of weighing in on such an ancient debate makes me inclined to share a few of my own disorganized thoughts. (Krystal, incidentally, commits a basic gaffe when he writes: “Preferring Ken Follett’s On Wings of Eagles to Henry James’s Wings of the Dove is not a negligible bias.” This neglects the fact that the Follett book is actually a work of nonfiction that has no place in his discussion of the novel, guilty pleasure or otherwise.)

There are three points I’d like to make. First is the obvious fact, which nonetheless bears repeating, that while our very best novels are properly defined as literary fiction, simply stating that one book, or even a group of books, is “literary” and another is “genre” gives no indication of their relative quality. A literary novel like The Magic Mountain—which, incidentally, cares a great deal about story and suspense—clearly stands head and shoulders above most other novels of any kind, even as paperback smut stands more or less clearly at the bottom. But in the middle is a vast gray area of novels of varying quality, including very great genre fiction and rather trashy literary fiction, and a lot of books that fall somewhere between the two extremes. “Literary” and “genre” aren’t statements of quality, but of intent. And if, by literary fiction, we tend to mean contemporary realism, then we’re talking about a genre with its own formulas and rules, as James Wood has accurately, if smugly, pointed out.

My second point is that these classifications are unfairly skewed, because whenever a genre novelist shows signs of exceptional quality, we immediately promote him into the literary sphere, creating a kind of reverse survivorship bias. My favorite example is Ian McEwan, a great suspense novelist who has been embraced by the literary camp because of the quality of his prose and ideas. Atonement aside, most of McEwan’s books are essentially thrillers—they often end with a home invasion or a man wielding a knife—that happen to be written with impeccable style and intelligence. The same is true of Borges, who writes fantasy and mystery fiction on a higher level than any author in history. To say that they aren’t really part of the genre because they’re so good is to impoverish the genre label, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we automatically exclude all great writers from the category in which they belong, it’s no surprise that the category will start to look a little thin—but that’s only because we’ve defined it that way.

And my last point is that if literary fiction tends to receive certain kinds of recognition that genre fiction does not, this is less out of its inherent quality than a case of simple economics. If we agree that it’s a good thing, in general, to have a steady supply of both genre and literary novels, we need to find nonmonetary ways of encouraging the latter. Genre or mainstream fiction sells better, on the whole, than literary fiction, so a separate, noncommercial system of incentives needs to be set up for the literary side. These include prizes, fellowships, and reviews in prestigious publications. If these were portioned out equally to both sides, the attraction of the literary novel would disappear—which is why giving a National Book Foundation medal to Stephen King was perceived as such a threat. Literary novelists need to feel special, and to be treated as such, because otherwise, there wouldn’t be any at all. And if classifying all other books as guilty pleasures is what literary novels need to survive, well, that’s a price we should be willing to pay.

Written by nevalalee

June 12, 2012 at 10:12 am

5 Responses

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  1. So true. Borges, one of the greatest writers of all time, was essentially a hyper-intellectual fan boy obsessed with riddles, puzzles, mysteries, fantasy, and the like, but by sheer virtuosity of prose and by dint of intellect, managed to transcend any cages of genre into the canon of geniuses like Mann, et al.

    Literary Man

    June 12, 2012 at 10:22 am

  2. Exactly. It’s no accident that “The Garden of Forking Paths” was first published in English in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.


    June 12, 2012 at 10:30 am

  3. I particularly like your point number two. “Hamlet” is a revenge play, a common genre in his time and ours. “Pride and Prejudice” is a Cinderella story. Both are elevated to literature by their author’s skill. Graham Greene is another good example of the genre writer transcending his genre.

    Peter Galen Massey

    June 12, 2012 at 10:47 am

  4. Greene is an interesting case, because he saw his own work as consisting of both serious novels and “entertainments”—but I don’t think he could have written one without the other.


    June 12, 2012 at 11:48 am

  5. No photos of mystery man Arthur Krystal?


    May 19, 2015 at 10:49 am

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