Maybe literary fiction is just bad fiction

Earlier I mentioned this Gamasutra article which I disliked, and one thing I disliked about it was its discussion of literary fiction. According to the author, literary fiction was the epitome of cultural elitism, defining itself as simply better than “genre fiction”.

As someone who likes literary fiction and dislikes genre fiction, the discourse around literary fiction constantly annoys me. Hey, maybe I just like it because I like it, not because I think I’m better than you. Why does it always have to be about elitism? Why can’t it just be about differing tastes?

I am also complaining as an aspiring author of literary fiction. I do not consider myself to be very good at writing fiction. I have barely made it into writing the novel I started three years ago. I’ve encountered two obstacles: First, nobody I know likes to talk about literary fiction, so I don’t get the ideas I need. Second, there’s an expectation that literary fiction is “good” and that it’s hard to write. At this point I’m writing it for myself and don’t care if it’s good–why can’t I write “bad” literary fiction, what makes people think that’s a contradiction in terms?

But I realize that the elitist image of literary fiction often comes from lovers of literary fiction themselves. I wish to turn that on its head, by reframing literary fiction as bad fiction, bad fiction that I happen to like.

What’s the rationale for saying literary fiction is bad fiction? Quite simply, it’s unpopular. I don’t know many people who will talk about it. It doesn’t make much money. It’s not really large enough to contain many works catering to niche interests, such as fiction written for queer audiences.

You could say that literary fiction is popular among certain elite audiences, such as academics and people in high culture. But what does that do for me? I don’t interact much with academic literary criticism. I’m not really part of high culture. I mostly associate with geeks, where sci-fi/fantasy is king.

You know, there’s another genre that I’ve been reading lately: romance. I like stories that focus on characters, and it seems that literary fiction has this characteristic, and so does romance. For some reason romance is considered a trashy genre, something about being mostly targeted at women. But romance is clearly popular, and large enough to encompass many niche interests. Like if I want to find asexual gay werewolf romance, I can find that. It’s harder to find something like that in the literary genre.

The Gamasutra article discusses the notion that video game storytelling has finally “made it” once it has the ability to tell stories in the literary genre. But is that because literary stories are good stories? I say no. If it really is true that literary stories function as a “final frontier” for video game storytelling, it is because literary fiction is bad, not good. The ability to devote resources to bad fiction is in fact the height of extravagance, only possible when video games make it easy to tell stories of all sorts. It’s not about telling “better” stories, it’s about telling more stories, each story striving to be loved by its particular audience, however small.

By the way, if I say that unpopular fiction is bad fiction, does that mean I would also describe, for instance, queer fiction as bad fiction? Oh yes, definitely. This is in fact a perpetual problem in searching for queer fiction. It’s easiest to find queer fiction in the media with lowest barrier to entry. Think of fanfiction, webcomics, (low budget) indie films. These kinds of media have all sorts of problems, because the low barrier to entry allows many flawed stories through. But at least there are some stories with the kind of flaws that I like.


  1. anothersara says

    I am surprised that you have trouble finding queer content in literary fiction. Maybe my definition of literary fiction is different from yours? I’m part of a book club which more often than not reads literary fiction (we also read non-fiction and occasionally genre fiction) and even though the book club does not place any particular focus on queerness, I can think of at least three literary books I read for the club with queer characters – Frog Music by Emma Donoghue, The Bell by Iris Murdoch (Iris Murdoch herself was bisexual/pansexual, and apparently most of her novels have at least one queer character), and The Gods of Tango by Carolina de Robertis (I don’t know what de Robertis’ orientation is, but I do know she is married to a woman – also, this is NOT an ace-friendly novel). The Gods of Tango also won the Stonewall Book Award or something, so I guess looking up that award would be a good way to find queer literary fiction? But maybe Frog Music doesn’t count, because a) it’s historical fiction, which is a genre (albeit the genre most likely to be considered ‘literary’), and Emma Donoghue is a bestselling writer, even though Frog Music itself is not a bestseller (actually, those same considerations apply to The Gods of Tango too).

  2. says

    I have trouble finding fiction that I like of any sort. I mean, there’s stuff out there but there’s enough I don’t like that searching for and vetting fiction becomes a foreboding task. My reading rate has dropped by a lot in recent years.

    The last queer literary fiction I tried to read was Middlesex. I got bored halfway through, and decided in retrospect that I hated it. I think that happened with one or two other highly recommended works. Maybe the problem isn’t that queer literary fiction is absent, but that I haven’t liked what is there. But still, I think it would help if there were more queer literary fiction to choose from.

  3. Martin Zeichner says

    Ironically, literary fiction can also be seen as a genre.

    These are just labels. Sometimes labels are applied as a shortcut to having to actually think about the specific members of the group.

    Supposedly, Theodore Sturgeon, a prominent science fiction writer in the 1940’s and 1950’s was confronted by a critic who said something to effect of “How can you call yourself a science fiction writer? Ninety percent of science fiction is garbage.” Sturgeon answered, “Ninety percent of everything is garbage”. And thus was born Sturgeon’s Revelation aka Sturgeon’s Law. You can google it.

  4. says

    @Martin Zeichner,
    I 100% think of literary fiction as a genre. One thing though is that sometimes it functions as a “garbage bin” category, with books being placed there when they can’t be placed anywhere else.

  5. Cicada Cycle says

    I thought of this post in particular when I heard Kazuo Ishiguro got the Nobel for literature. I just recently started reading “When We Were Orphans” a couple weeks ago, and the other two books of his that I read were “The Buried Giant” and “Never Let Me Go”. Despite being shelved as literary fiction in the bookstore, we have here what seems to be a detective novel (or perhaps a romance, I haven’t gotten that far into it yet), a fantasy novel, and a science/speculative fiction novel. Perhaps the “literary fiction” label is just a way to encourage a fan base for an author who can’t be pigeonholed?

  6. says

    @Cicada Cycle,
    I think of Kazuo’s books as being primarily literary, and borrowing some elements from other genres. I believe this is an aspect of his writing that people consider innovative. Although of course there are other writers who have done the same thing, notably Kurt Vonnegut.

    I don’t think either the “literary fiction” or “science fiction” is a label to encourage a fan base. Authors write what they write, and then use genre labels to match up the right books with the right audiences. Like, if I’m looking for books to read, the most informative thing I can learn about a book is not its review scores, but its genre. The Buried Giant is clearly fantasy but if people read it only knowing that it was in the fantasy genre, they’d be very surprised about what was in it, whereas people would be less surprised if they were expecting literary fiction.

  7. Cicada Cycle says

    I adore Vonnegut, as well. But I do also love some authors, like Sheri Tepper, for example, who very clearly get placed in a genre, but to my reading also surprise the expectations of those genres she gets categorized within. I’m not well-read enough to speak on this at length, and I’m sure you’re right about finding the audience for a book, but I also feel the whole genre thing is a bit arbitrary, and for myself, mostly irrelevant to whether I like an author or not.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *