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.