Vulpes Libris

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Thursday Soapbox: Emma Darwin On Why Literary Fiction is Worth It

As a counterpoint to Clare Sudbery’s piece last week “In Praise of Popular Culture”, on the Soapbox this week we have the author of “The Mathematics of Love” and soon-to-be-released “A Secret Alchemy”, Bookfox Emma Darwin, putting the case for literary fiction.

Truffling Out the Riches by Emma Darwin

So, which way up is your literary snobbery? Of course it’s snobbish to assert that only the new-and-difficult is important in fiction, and anything easy and enjoyable to read is an immoral opiate for the masses. But it’s equally, if invertedly, snobbish to maintain that any book that’s hard to make sense of or which you, personally, don’t get the point of, is so much high-falutin’, deliberately obfuscatory nonsense. So how have we reached the point where both ‘sides’ look down on the other? In the genre wars the only thing the anti-chick-lit misogynists and the sci-fi-loathers agree on, is that literary writers are a bunch of w***ers, while the literati consider the end of the civilised world to be nigh because more people have always read formula thrillers than Booker winners.

There’s a whole other discussion about the emergence of fiction as a self-consciously literary form (blame Henry James and the Leavises, if you must), so let’s stick to now, and have a look at what’s going on. After all, what is any fiction but a story someone wants to read? Narrative – events and sensations arranged to have beginning, middle and end – gives us pleasure, and a familiar pleasure at that. And yet we also read stories to tell and show us new things: more exciting/funnier/more romantic versions of our own lives or, more radically, other worlds, other lives, other passions. And because humans are verbal creatures (it’s the thing which distinguishes us from the rest of creation) words give us pleasure too, beyond mere necessity, and newly arranged words give us new pleasures. If there were no new ideas or stories in a novel it would be boring at best and plagiarism at worst. If there was nothing familiar in the form or the way the words are used, then it wouldn’t make sense. All storytellers have to find the place on this spectrum, between originality and familiarity, which suits them, their story, and their listeners/readers best.

Commercial fiction satisfies the desire for new within a form that readers are familiar and comfortable with. That’s why ‘commercial’ and ‘genre’ are often used as synonyms, because those basic, classic story forms – thriller, romance, quest, whodunnit – are what much of the world wants much of the time, subdivided by the genre settings: contemporary, historical, space, fantasy land, foreign lands. There are rules – detective stories still need a body, romances are still about sexual love between two people – and the rules can be played with, but within those forms a book can be anything from tick-box banal to thumping good, thought-provoking read, to really original.

And the really original start being called literary, and suddenly the ‘rules’ of the genre begin to fray, because ‘literary’ is the one label that doesn’t define what a book’s about, it defines how the book goes about it. Some of that will be the unknown: new words in new arrangements; beginnings which ask us to keep going even when we don’t understand things yet; middles which don’t develop in familiar ways; endings we didn’t expect or don’t want; plot points and ideas that we have to put together from hints, and references which the author assumes we’ll get.

Most literary novels are more original in some aspects than they are in others, and the familiar things act as anchors while you work out the new. But arguably, the more that’s new, the harder it is to get the normal pleasures of story-listening out of a book that works this way. And yet, as humans we get pleasure from using our brains in the same way that we do from using our bodies, so working things out is entertainment. If you succeed, if you ‘get’ it, the pleasures are incomparable, because they’re new and exciting. If you don’t ‘get’ more than the most obvious things you’re either bored or frustrated. But the more you read that’s new, the better you get at doing what they need you to, just as you once got better at understanding grown up books. To borrow Francis Spufford‘s description of that process: “there seem to be no edges and limits to it, no sense of evolving shape, and so no urgency… [it needs] a retuning of your mind to those subtler, wider, but still ultimately decisive cues to meaning… an active, participatory judgement.’

It’s true that some of the most exciting things that writers want to do entail sacrificing ease of reading, and I think that’s where the snobbery comes in. Some exciting things don’t entail difficulty at all, but for some readers and critics and even a few writers, who are more concerned to make sure they sound superior than to look at a book on its own terms, difficulty has become the mark of literary merit, and ‘accessible’ a dirty word. This is nonsense: difficulty ought to be seen as a regrettable necessity if some exciting things are to be written. But I promise you, most writers don’t make it difficult on purpose to annoy the rest of us, or show off, or win prizes. They write as they do because that’s how they can best say what they want to say. As Nick Hornby says of Marilynn Robinson’s Gilead, ‘It’s not an easy book to read. She did it like that because she couldn’t do it any easier.’

Whether you think the new you’ll get in any given novel is worth the work is your call: it’ll depend on your nature, and how tired you are today, and how much practice you’ve already had at its particular kinds of difficulty. It’ll even depend on whether it’s a good or a bad book, because literariness as I’ve defined it is no guarantee of it being ‘good’ in the sense of doing what it does really well. It’s perfectly possible to set out to do new things, and do them badly. And if there’s more to be got in the end from a book, if the treasures need truffling out, the chances are you won’t find them all at the first read. Some people find that too frustrating to be borne: to me that richness is the chief test of whether a book’s worth reading at all.

So all that ‘literary’ means, to me, is that there’s more in the book that’s new and potentially exciting, so it might be harder work to get pleasure from, but that if I do, the pleasures will be deeper and more lasting, because I’ve been more involved in finding them. In the end you possess a novel you had to work out, in a way that you can’t a novel where everything’s served up on a plate. What’s so terrible, so pretentious, so obfuscatory about that?

About Emma Darwin

Emma’s website
Emma’s blog This Itch of Writing
Vulpes Libris’ Review of The Mathematics of Love
Interview with Emma Darwin

*Thanks to Ubookworm on Flickr for the image of the fox statue. Ubookworm says “In the Shinto tradition, foxes are considered to be gods’ messengers. This fox statue, just one among thousands silently sitting in the grove around the Sasuke Inari shrine, has a scroll in his mouth in which, supposedly, the message appears.” This image is covered by the Creative Commons license.

About Emma

Writing, reading, teaching. This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, also writes fiction; blogs @ This Itch of Writing. p.s. he's my great-great-grandfather

52 comments on “Thursday Soapbox: Emma Darwin On Why Literary Fiction is Worth It

  1. Rosy Thornton
    June 5, 2008

    Really interesting essay, Emma. It’s like crosswords. isn’t it? The quick crossword is fun: it’s just simple synonyms and it’s a familiar pleasure. The cryptic crossword, if you don’t know how to tackle it, is meaningless and annoying and even patronisingly exclusive and ‘clever’. But when you’ve learnt the rules for decoding the clues, it becomes a new kind of pleasure, which for devotees gives a more special kind of enjoyment – getting you further inside the compiler’s mind, into a kind of intuitive communication of verbal ideas – than just doing the quick crossword. I still get pleasure from doing both – they are different types of mental activity, both enjoyable. Just as I also read both commercial and literary fiction.

  2. Emma
    June 5, 2008

    I think that’s a really good analogy, Rosy, and as someone who is completely useless at cryptic crosswords, because I DON’T understand how to decode them, it rings very true. I don’t find them annoying, I just have never felt the urge to go on chipping away at them while I learn how to do it. But I can quite see why people do. And I, too read loads of ‘genre’ or ‘commercial’ or whatever you want to call non-lit-fic.

    I suppose the analogy doesn’t hold in that when you’ve read lit fic successfully the pleasures are emotional as well as intellectual, as witness anyone who’s wept over a novel that others couldn’t make head or tail of.

  3. Rosy Thornton
    June 5, 2008

    True – I’ve never yet cried over a crossword – of either variety!


  4. Emma
    June 5, 2008

    😉 I do see, too, why it gets up some people’s noses when a book or a crossword seems to be assuming that you’ll have some set of knowledge which you don’t – I remember my father saying of the Times crossword, which he loved doing, that it was like turning his intellectual change over in his pocket. But then, he was, culturally speaking, cut from the same cloth as the crossword setters. In other words, it assumes you use the same currency as the crossword-setter, and if you’re someone whose cage is really rattled by that sense of not-fitting-in or being excluded, it can get you thoroughly wound up. I get cross when books use languages I don’t understand without translation or at least offering me enough that I can deduce what’s been said. (which I suppose is a typical lit fic exercise in itself)

    Cor, what a lot of metaphors all bunged in together!

  5. Sheenagh Pugh
    June 5, 2008

    The other place the crossword analogy falls down is that you can only do any individual crossword once. There are in fact books in which the tricksiness is all, so that you can only read them once, but the best aren’t like that.

    Very commonsensical piece, Emma.

  6. Emma
    June 5, 2008

    Glad you approve, Sheenagh. Yes, I think it’s a test of a good detective novel that you want to re-read it, even if you remember whodunnit from the beginning, or at least after you’re three pages in.

  7. marygm
    June 5, 2008

    Great piece, Emma. You make a lot of sense. It’s not a question of one type of fiction against another. Good fiction in any category is enjoyable and valuable and as you say what you feel like reading often depends on your mood etc
    As for literary fiction, it can be irritating if you get the sense that a writer is trying to sound ‘literary’ for the sake of it (and I think this does happen sometimes) but when you feel that the novel is written that way because that’s the best (only?) way that writer could have done it, then there’s a real pleasure at discovering the ‘answer’ in yourself rather than on the page. (Beloved by Toni Morrison is an example of this for me. )

  8. Alex
    June 5, 2008

    Nice argument Emma, if slightly apologetic.

    Literary fiction stands and falls by its own rules and there are obfuscatory and elitist elements within it. It isn’t all about pleasure (of the cryptic crossword variety or otherwise) and this is what marks it out from commercial fiction and makes it more worthwhile. It is about reading and writing within a history of great and important writing, a history that is now (and, it could be argued, always has been) under threat from the homogenising populist tendencies of the cultures under which it is produced.

    I have no problem with pleasure, but pleasure can take care of itself. No-one need worry that commercial fiction produced to induce pleasure is going to go out of fashion, or that it won’t find a place on the bookshelves, any more than they need worry that people will fail to eat chocolate before they’ve had their five-a-day fruit and veg. Commercial fiction is commercial because people like it, not because it does them good (which is not to say that it won’t), and while I’ll scoff a 500g bar of Dairy Milk with the best of them, I still think it’s important to eat spinach [substitute with unpleasant but nutritious vegetable of your choice].

    Last week’s soapbox carried the underlying supposition that popular culture was somehow in trouble and needed defending – it isn’t and it doesn’t. This week the opposite contention seems to be at work – that ‘high’ culture literary fiction is happily chugging along and can afford to loosen up a bit – it isn’t and it can’t. Literary fiction is already beseiged with the necessity to become more commercial, popular and ‘pleasurable.’ What we are seeing published is not the difficult and interesting side of it – that side is being increasingly marginalised into non-existence.

    There’s no need to apologise for being difficult or to argue that it’s a “regrettable necessity”- it’s something that literary fiction is capable of defending. It’s not the only thing, but who else is standing up for it?

  9. Emma
    June 5, 2008

    Alex, good points. I didn’t think I was apologising for lit-fic being difficult, more explaining why sometimes it inevitably is. There is a puritanical streak in high culture which thinks that difficulty is meritorious in itself, that it’s somehow good for you per se (dunno how to to italics on here): the literary reader as Calvinist, you could say. (Sorry if I’m tweaking your tail, but anyone who feels the need to declare that they have no problem with pleasure is probably on the Genevan side of things themselves, perhaps…). As far as I’m concerned, if you don’t like spinach, don’t eat it.

    I DON’T think that difficulty is inherently virtuous, any more than being cold or hungry or ill are, though there may be good reasons for allowing oneself to suffer all three. I only think difficulty is good for you if it leads to good outcomes, which may be the reading experience of a lifetime, or it may be just more exercise at dealing with lit-fic, to be used on later reading. That’s why I said ‘regrettable’: difficulty isn’t good in itself, it’s only justified by the outcome. If the same outcome could be achieved by something easier, that would be preferable, not least because more people with less stamina (puritanism?) would achieve that outcome.

  10. Alex
    June 5, 2008

    In a vacuum, Emma, I’d agree with you over the ‘difficulty’ issue – but given our pap-feeding, instantly gratifying, late capitalist consumer led ‘culture’ I think there is a good case to be made for the valorisation of effort per se (I don’t know how to get italics either.)

    As for my religious tendencies, I was bought up a Marxist (I’m now lapsed), so any puritanism is strictly materialist.

    I’d also have to point out that man/woman/child cannot live on chocolate alone and if vegetables suddenly ceased to be available then we’d all be in trouble.

  11. adele geras
    June 5, 2008

    I’ve arrived here to read this from your blog, Emma and find the whole discussion very interesting…but I’m really writing to take issue with Nick Hornby, with whom I don’t often disagree! He’s quite wrong, I think, about GILEAD. I can see that there are people who would be uninterested in the story or be bored by the narrative voice, perhaps, but to say it is ‘difficult’ in any way is not right in my view. Robinson writes prose that’s as clear and delicious as iced water from a pure spring…it’s (not a word I use lightly, conscious that it sounds PRETENTIOUS!) pellucid. Not a sentence there nor a thought that’s obscure or difficult or HARD in any way. I actually also found it completely PAGE-TURNING, just as unputdownable as a thriller. DO read it, all you Foxy readers. It’s brilliant, as is her first book Housekeeping.

  12. Emma
    June 5, 2008

    Marxism IS the Calvinism of the twentieth century, didn’t you know? 😉 Complete with theocracy, and social ostracism for non-conformists…

    By contrast, having been brought up a woolly-liberal-with-an-Anglican-streak, well, the via media (otherwise known as sitting on fences and trying not to piss anyone off) is second nature.

    I tend to think that people will put in the effort IF you show them why it’s worth it, in a way that makes them discover the benefits pretty quickly. Just telling them it’ll be good for them doesn’t work, except for the natural puritans. As an example, I never understood people who said that exercise, of itself (as opposed to walking somewhere beautiful or playing a sport you enjoy) ‘felt so good’. Until I joined a gym, and discovered just how high you can get on exercise endorphins. Now the only problem is to remember that for the first ten minutes of tedium, before they kick in.

    But I’m missing the puritanical streak, I’m afraid, and I think it’s one of those really fundamental temperamental differences. Of which more, anon (aka, in the new novel…)

  13. Emma
    June 5, 2008

    Crossed with you, Adele – Hello!

    I haven’t read the whole of Gilead, but dipping in (after hearing Nick Hornby discuss it in those terms in a very engaging and illuminating lecture at Goldsmiths) I was indeed a bit surprised that he’d chosen that as an example – it certainly doesn’t seem difficult to get into at the basic level, at least. But his point remains, I think, that it’s fair enough for a book to be difficult – inaccessible, if you like – if what it’s trying to do can’t be done any more easily.

  14. Alex
    June 5, 2008

    Unfortunately, I think you might have meant that ‘Marxism WAS the Calvinism of the twentieth century’ 😦

  15. Emma
    June 5, 2008

    Well that’s why I write historical fiction, or maybe it’s a consequence of the fact – I’ve never really got to grips with my own century/ies. And the last eight years have been something of a blur…

  16. Alex
    June 5, 2008

    Took me right back… Will dust off my copy of the ‘The Condition of the Working Class’ and pretend Gorbachev never happened…

  17. No Answers
    June 5, 2008

    To pick up on just one point, I find literary fiction a problematic term, since it can refer to two quite different things. On the one hand, there is “literary fiction”, a publishing genre that defines itself more in terms of its perceived readership (or perhaps more accurately, if you’ll forgive the convolution, in terms of a perceived readership who perceive themselves as readers of a genre called “literary fiction”), rather than in terms of any commonality of content. On the other hand, we also sometimes say “literary” fiction when attempting to apprehend literature with aspirations to that flexible “canon” of writing we classify as “literature”, though that’s less common.

    I feel you tend to conflate the two classifications. You argue convincingly for “literary” fiction as part of a general continuum of commercial fiction, but when you point to its exemplary originality of method, novel/arcane vocabulary or innovative form, I feel that you’re maybe thinking of something slightly different. Of course, “literary fiction” can certainly demonstrate all these traits, but I see it mostly as a psychosociological phenomenon.

    It’s on these terms that I dislike “literary fiction”: I dislike it precisely because I dislike the way it requires me to view myself in order to believe that what I am reading has genuine literary merit. But, of course, that’s simply my personal reaction to it.

  18. Emma
    June 5, 2008

    Well, the two definitions overlap, don’t they. I agree that the book trade sees ‘literary as a genre, as I said in a blog piece a while back:

    “Genre as opposed to literary. This is a book-trade rather than a literary distinction. Commercial fiction has to be jacketed/packaged/sold as a known quantity: as crime, lad-lit, sci-fi, fantasy, saga, mum-lit, and so on. ‘Women’s fiction’ is probably the broadest church (why is there no equivalent label of ‘men’s fiction’?) but they all have their rules which readers expect, and have covers and PR campaigns to match. … As Valerie Shaw says, ‘Where originality comes over is in the skill with which a writer can simultaneously meet the demand for comforting sameness and divert it into new and often disturbing areas.’ The odd result of the opposition between ‘genre’ and ‘literary’ is that books which clearly belong to a genre are somehow disqualified from also being literary. ‘Not just a good detective novel, but a really good novel’ they said of Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, and Margaret Atwood’s recent dismissal of much Sci-fi writing was greeting with some scepticism, given The Handmaid’s Tale. And yet, to the book-trade ‘literary’ is just another genre with covers and PR to match: one where prestige and prizes make up for relatively modest sales, and which you can’t classify by plot-style or setting, but only by its style, where the quality of the prose and the complexity of the ideas are as important as the drive to tell a story.” (the whole of the post is here: )

    The booktrade likes to separate things out, but as someone whom the booktrade considers a ‘crossover’ writer, I see it as a continuum in commercial terms too, in that things which are ‘genre’ in terms of plot-style or setting can be ‘literary’ because they’re written in a certain way.

    But I wasn’t primarily talking in book-trade terms for this piece. I think it’s also a continuum in literary-critical-historical terms, only they’re more likely to talk of an opposition or continuum of literary-to-popular. Conan Doyle’s made it into the canon now: with the rise of cultural angles on literary study, the idea that it’s all about the ‘best’ books or the most significant moments in literary history isn’t the only way to see things any more.

    I don’t think it’s inevitable that literary fiction is self-reflexive category, though it’s true that apparently the book trade has a category called ‘faux literary’, which looks gratifyingly literary but is actually extremely easy to swallow. But going back to the non-book-trade definition, that implies that you only pick up a book if it reinforces your idea of yourself as a literary reader, and I simply don’t think that’s what most people do, except the ones who are so hung up on their self-image as intellectuals that they can’t bring themselves to read something which sends out the ‘wrong’ signals. It is possible to read a book because you think the story looks tasty…

  19. Tris
    June 5, 2008

    I have to say I’m not for books as spinach – I was once ‘told off’ quite sternly by a fellow reader as a readers day who was insistent that a properly brought up reader should finish everything on her plate – however indigestible it might be.

    I happen to enjoy fiction that makes me think or laugh or cry – and you can find that in all genres? It is all too easy to say I don’t like a or b or c – and ultimately it is reductive?

    That sense of excitement – a great story perfectly told – finely crafted language – a sentence that lingers in your head because it is so beautiful or true.

    I am all ‘for the tales that really matter’ and they can be universal in their appeal? I am all for writers taking risks – there is a thrill in reading a bold experimental work that maybe doesn’t succeed on all levels but which shows you what can be done?

    As a reader it is fabulous to come across an image that catches at the heart or makes you smile – a character you love – a book that gets you through the long winter nights, emotional or physical.

    What turn me off as a reader isn’t difficulty in language – use of second person, present tense or whatever bete noire you happen to have. For me it is either when the author lets you see the strings – I don’t mean post modern author intervention but rather cheap emotional effects – or where you sense that an author is not truly engaged with their story but has self consciously picked an on trend topic or theme that does not ultimately convince.

    I also think it is misleading to think that authors in other genres aren’t trying so hard – there are literary qualities in all genres of fiction? This goes back to Harriet vane – so determined to assert that she hasn’t dropped her literary standards by writing detective fiction? There is an art to any tale told well?

  20. kirstyjane
    June 5, 2008

    *suppresses rant about the difference between Marxism and Soviet socialism, Marx and Lenin, the lack of timeframe and specifics in the classical Marxist historical analysis, etc and etc*

    I do wonder about the tag “literary fiction”, although when you’re thinking about questions like this it’s pretty much impossible not to employ labels. But “literary”, rather like “culture” is one of these difficult words to which people attach a whole host of presuppositions and value judgments. I wonder if the literary/commercial fiction divide isn’t an example of false consciousness. Terry Pratchett has a wonderful line about “often being accused of literature”, which springs to mind every time people get into these distinctions. Can’t light reading be literary too?

  21. kirstyjane
    June 5, 2008

    (I now see that since I typed that, the debate has progressed. Never mind!)

  22. Alex
    June 5, 2008

    kirstyjane, don’t suppress any rants on my account – it’s ages since I had a row about the dictatorship of the proletariat (although perhaps this isn’t the place…)

  23. kirstyjane
    June 5, 2008

    Alex, we should probably do this elsewhere. I shall put up a rant on my own blog in the next couple of days and you can feel free to rant back!

  24. Emma
    June 5, 2008

    Well, well, well – not only the best book blog on the net, but a political dating agency…

    How’s this for a definition of ‘light reading’? A book which is easily enjoyable without putting heart and mind through a wringer, or taking a lot of work to truffle out the riches.

    Define it like that, and I think light reading can be literary in the sense that there’s no intrinsic reason that a book shouldn’t be easily enjoyable which most people would aslo consider conforms to some definitions of literary originality etc. etc.. If you personally don’t find that a book’s particular originality or mangle-like tendencies prevents it being easily enjoyable in that sense, then yes, it can.

  25. kirstyjane
    June 5, 2008

    I’d agree with that, Emma. Literary originality can certainly come in simplicity. I have always found Camus easy and enjoyable to read; what’s profound is the reflection he sparks off in the mind of the reader. He’s light reading for me (he may not be for everyone, I admit); whereas someone like Terry Pratchett or Walter M. Miller requires a lot more effort to keep track (A Canticle for Leibowitz completely exhausted me). And yet I know many people who read the latter two for relaxation and fear Camus like the plague!

  26. Emma
    June 5, 2008

    Yes. I also think you can choose to some extent how hard you feel like working today on any given book. Assuming you can actually follow the story, you can just read it for that, or, as you say, go for the reflections.

    Beryl Bainbridge says she reckons that her readers all read as she does – fast, superficially, to find out what happens. Only if that’s satisfying does she go back and re-read the book in truffle-hound mode. (Why truffle-hound, when they use pigs, incidentally?) It probably helps that she was trained never to write a novel longer than 85,000 words…

  27. Emma
    June 5, 2008

    Though I think that simplicity in itself can be a difficulty, if you get the surface, but are being given very little help in perceiving the depths. I would imagine that’s going on with Camus-haters (I’ve only read some, but loved it): a sense of frustration that there IS more to be got, but you’re not getting it… Whereas very long, dense books, like recipes that look inordinately long and complicated, are actually like that because they’re giving you a lot more to go on in the process of understanding, than the equivalent of the cutting from a magazine which just says ‘Fillet the fish, then sauté till done.’

  28. kirstyjane
    June 5, 2008

    Yes, for certain. And I think this actually applies beautifully to Pratchett. You can read him for the story, the observations of human nature, the dragons and elves, the politics, the language jokes, the cultural references, the science… no wonder the man gets accused of literature! And yet he’s a “commercial” author. Whereas certain literary authors (*cough*Amis*cough*) always strike me as having a remarkably predictable nature under all the literary language. Don’t get me started on Koba the Dread… *grumblegrumble*

  29. kirstyjane
    June 5, 2008

    Crossed with you there, Emma! Yes, simple can be difficult because – in the case of Camus – you have to do the truffling within yourself. There aren’t all these lovely juicy prizes to find in the text. Of course (see example above) you can get immensely complicated literature that has very little in it to find…

  30. Emma
    June 5, 2008

    One of the trickinessess of lit fic (in both readerly and book-trade terms) I think is that because you can’t be so sure what you’ll get out of it (either because it’s simple-surface-but-deep, or because it looks immensely rich and dense and you can’t work it out while standing on one leg in the bookshop) until you’ve had a good try, it’s less reliable. Whereas, like Delia Smith, one of the things that sells commercial fiction successfully is that you can trust that it’ll do what it says on the tin, and if that’s what you want today (says the Heyer-fanatic) then you’re home and dry.

  31. kirstyjane
    June 5, 2008

    Yes, I think that’s absolutely right. It’s easier to buy a commercial fic book that you know you’ll enjoy. (As a German speaker it is kind of weird to write fic in a respectable comment. I think I’ll revert to the full term, without the amusing homophone.) Also, I suppose that “literary” authors are more likely to take risks from book to book, explore new things, try out new styles and structures. You can’t guarantee you’ll enjoy the next book by someone whose last you loved, or that you won’t enjoy one by someone you usually hate… It makes buying a book into a whole nervewracking thing!

  32. rosyb
    June 6, 2008

    Thanks a lot for that, Emma. Really enjoyed reading that.

    Interesting discussion going on too…

    Just quickly in answer to something Alex said – I’m not sure that commercial fiction can look after itself and it is important (to me as a reader). I think good quality non-literary fiction is very important too and we should strive to make that original and new and saying something or different or good quality within genre. For me, a good quality book in genre plays with the rules with flair and confidence and can use those rules or formula to surprise or express new things/new takes on the world and on the genre. A bad book within genre is constrained by the rules.

    I do have a question-mark about it being originality only that defines literary fiction though, Emma. I would argue that a lot of very successful commercial or popular books have been very original and have subsequently created certain genres – such as Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers or Bridget Jones. It is easy to see these as books in genre now, but they weren’t in genre at the time. Neither of those examples would be described as “literary”. I would say that Mark Haddon, again fits into the above. I wouldn’t call Dog in the Nighttime literary fiction. But it was so original it seemed to create a new genre from scratch. Angela’s Ashes might be another.

    I think literary fiction is perhaps not about “originality” in form and ideas as such, necessarily, but it is about a kind of consciousness, almost like a book having a conversation with other works of literature. And it is often, inevitably, about the consciousness of language for its own sake as well. Which is not a bad thing and some commercial books may or may not have that (as you say the spectrum merges anyway).

    So, I would say that commercial fiction can be just as original – indeed, often creating new genres. But it tends not to be for the same ends – to be appreciated as “literature” as such, which suggests a different kind of reading – looking for symbols and subtle levels and poetic imagery and expecting those things to be there, which would be wrong in another sort of book.

    Just some thoughts.

  33. Alex
    June 6, 2008


    there’s always a problem when dealing with terms. Personally, I have no truck with the ‘genre’ system at all. Commercial fiction for me is anything which is written primarily with sales in mind and literary fiction is anything primarily written with writing in mind – outside of that I’m absolutely free and easy. When Paul Auster writes detective fiction that’s great and when Doris Lessing does sci-fi that’s great too (same goes for PKDick, or Vonnegut, or Douglas Adams, or Raymond Chandler, or Elmore Leonard, or whoever). And the opposite is true – when Ian MacEwan got the booker for Amsterdam – a pedestrian, tedious piece of nothing with the worst ending I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot of bad endings) – it was not a good day for writing.

    When I argue for difficulty I’m arguing for it across the board, and not because I think its always intrinsically good, but because it’s under attack and its a valuable quality that shouldn’t be lost.

  34. rosyb
    June 6, 2008

    “Commercial fiction for me is anything which is written primarily with sales in mind and literary fiction is anything primarily written with writing in mind”

    Trouble is people call things “commercial fiction” or “genre” but that doesn’t necessarily mean the authors wrote them with money in mind. Hitchhikers is commercial, surely. And it was written after the radio series which they already knew was a hit…But doesn’t mean it’s not a brilliant piece of writing.

  35. Alex
    June 6, 2008

    But is its brilliance a function of Adams’ desire to make money or his desire to write the story well?

  36. marygm
    June 6, 2008

    “Commercial fiction for me is anything which is written primarily with sales in mind and literary fiction is anything primarily written with writing in mind”

    I don’t agree with this, Alex. IMO, most writers (there are exceptions, I suppose) write what they feel inspired to write AND most of them would like their book to sell well. And that’s no matter whether they write genre or literary fiction.

    It’s very difficult to define what literary fiction *is* although genre fiction is more easily identified. For me I think the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction (the term as applied by publishers/booksellers as opposed to ‘literature’) is that in genre fiction a particular set of known and understood rules are applied that make it easier to fit a book within a category of other books so that the potential readers can more easily identify what kind of read it is likely to be. Literary fiction breaks enough of these rules to set it outside a particular category. (And for Rosy’s benefit 🙂 I just want to emphasise that these rules are not necessarily restrictive ones and it’s perfectly possible to produce an original, ‘different’ book while remaining with the rules) But in order for a publisher to believe that a book can plough its own furrow and stand alone, they need to believe that the book does something else exceptionally well, like use of language, characterisation, humour, intellectual insight,, distinctive voice or something else.
    Out in the market, these literary fiction books can work so well that they create a whole new genre, or they can be appreciated by a small enthusiastic readership or they can be rejected as pretentious tripe. So I think the notion of ‘literary’ fiction being ‘better’ comes from the fact that someone in the industry believes that it does something so well that it’s capable of surmounting the difficulties of finding its solitary way to a particular readership rather than because the writer had any particularly highfalutin’. grandiose intentions.

  37. RosyB
    June 6, 2008

    I’m just saying that the term “commercial fiction” is used as in there is “literary fiction” and “commercial fiction”. Personally I prefer the term “fiction” but that’s just me. I think that Adams would be included under “commercial fiction” as a category if you are forced to split things that way…

    Obviously I don’t like ANY of these terms but then I also see it is hard to have no terms or genres whatsoever. See RosyT’s soapbox piece to see the strange places you end up then…:)

  38. RosyB
    June 6, 2008

    Sorry crossed with you Mary.

    “Out in the market, these literary fiction books can work so well that they create a whole new genre”

    You see this is the problem. I don’t see that litfic has anything necessarily to do with rule-breaking at all. And as soon as it is seen to be a genre, it starts to have its own rules the same as any other genre… (I would also question whether everything called literary ficiton in the bookshops is literary ficiton, but that might be a whole other discussion.)

    I think it is more to do with the consciousness when writing of what kind of writing it is and also the expectation of how it is supposed to be read.

  39. marygm
    June 6, 2008

    Rosy, maybe ‘rule-breaking’ is the wrong term. I don’t mean that any writer sets out to break or respect rules when he or she is writing their novel. It an instinctive thing they do when they write their story. I don’t think they think about rules at all. But when the novel is finished and if it doesn’t actually fit properly in any existing category then literary fiction is often used as the catch-all category.

  40. Alex Pheby
    June 6, 2008


    that’s why I used the word ‘primarily’ and the phrase ‘in mind.’ Everyone wants their book to sell, not everyone thinks about that while they are writing.

    In the ideal world every book would be taken on its merits, but in a climate in which there is intense pressure on writers (off all types) to produce ‘commercial’ work, sometimes you have stand up for those things which aren’t going to appeal to the widest readership.

  41. marygm
    June 6, 2008

    I had noticed those precisions, Alex, in your original statement but I still disagree with it. I think the vast majority of writers regardless of what they write don’t write primarily with sales in mind.

  42. Alex Pheby
    June 6, 2008

    I didn’t say they did.

  43. Emma
    June 6, 2008

    I agree that the best writers of any kind of fiction are the ones for whom it’s the natural way to write that way, sales or not. Of course once they’re established there’s enormous tacit and explicit pressure to go on with what sells well (and don’t forget that means what real readers really want to read), rather than taking a chance on something off-piste. Which they may genuinely not do very well – as I said in the original piece, greater daring isn’t always rewarded with greater success. I reserve the right to write a short, sharp techno-thriller one day, but no doubt my agent reserves the right to say, ‘Emma, this really isn’t very good. I don’t think it’s saleable, even under another name.’

    Rosy, I agree, of course that there can be originality in all sorts of fiction – as I suggested (or thought I had!:-)) there’s plenty of scope in fiction that conforms to a set of genre rules in some ways to be original in others. It’s how many elements of fiction – plot, characters, writing, ideas, structure – that pushes it towards the literary end of the spectrum. And that’s why, the more elements and the more original each element is, the more difficult the book becomes. What was original in Bridget Jones certainly wasn’t the plot – it’s P&P – or the writing, good and funny though that was – it was a certain pinning-down of the zeitgeist and of a group and its neuroses that was extremely recognisable but that hadn’t been pinned down in fiction before. It’s ages since I read Hitchhiker, and it never lived up to the sublimity of the radio series (yes, I heard the first ever episode, radio wedged under my pillow). But the originality seems to me in the ideas, the mad combination of things that are familiar from our world… I haven’t read the Haddon, but perhaps it’s significant that it was extremely difficult to get published (I have that from the horse’s mouth – we share an agent), because he was trying to do something really very unusual – original – and it was therefore difficult for publishers to see how to sell it.

  44. Emma
    June 6, 2008


    It’s how many elements of fiction – plot, characters, writing, ideas, structure – ARE ORIGINAL that pushes it towards the literary end of the spectrum.

  45. RosyB
    June 6, 2008

    BUT (hehe forgive me Emma you know what I’m like ;)) so many examples of what would be called litfic aren’t at all original – particularly plots. I don’t think it is actually to do with originality at all, but to do with consciousness. Not that that is bad. But to do with thematic, imagistic, language consciousness. Closer to the kind of consciousness poetry requires maybe…but I wouldn’t say what makes poetry poetry rather than prose is that it must be original. But rather that the narrative is perhaps less important and the images, themes, language etc more so…



  46. Emma
    June 6, 2008

    But I never said that everything about a novel has to be original for it to be literary. In fact I said if everything was completely original it would be incomprehensible. It needs some familiar elements to be our anchors while we work out the more challenging new stuff. One of those elements might well be plot (there are only seven plots, after all, as they say ;)), or it might be that the language is very simple and easily apprehended, or whatever. What I said was that the more elements are original, and the more original they are (originality isn’t binary, after all, it’s analogue) the further the novel probably is towards the literary end of the spectrum.

    I think that literary fiction often does edge towards poetry in the sense that poetry makes very explicit its demand – request? – that the reader make connections other than narrative sense – prosody, image, consciousness of language, etc. So you could say that if a novel makes similar demands, at least if you’re going to get the most out of it or even perhaps if you’re going to understand (put together) the basics of the story, then it has that in common with poetry. But I don’t think it’s a given that a literary novel must be or must be read as a quasi-poem at all.

  47. Emma
    June 6, 2008

    I realise that techinically, originality is binary, if you take it to be that either something’s original, or it’s not. At the level of a single word, either that word has been used in that way, or it hasn’t. But as soon as you’re talking about combinations of words, there are degrees of originality about the total sentence, and so on.

  48. rosyb
    June 6, 2008

    “But I don’t think it’s a given that a literary novel must be or must be read as a quasi-poem at all.”

    Sorry, no, I don’t either. I think I just meant that perhaps the requirements/expectations for how something is to be read is different in litfic and that is more of the issue, to me, than originality.

    I suppose I was just thinking to myself if there was an unoriginal plot (relationship breaking down say) and unoriginal form (as in done before – maybe stream-of-consciousness, multiple narrators, linked short stories or even just A to B) and themes that have been treated by many works before (say the impossibility of really connecting or the betrayal of living a life that society tells you should satisfy you as a woman, say, and finding that it is unsatisfying, or pulls you away from your real fulfilment) and yet the whole thing is written beautifully, full of thought-provoking images and lyricism, alluding to other books…then I reckon that would be classed as literary fiction. Whereas a book that has a highly original plot (say Hitchhikers) and idea (taking the piss out of bureaucracy by putting it in outer space) but doesn’t have those images and that lyricism because…well it’s trying to make you laugh…then it wouldn’t be called literary fiction.

    I think that’s what I think at the end of the day (though I’ll prob change my mind again). But I know you disagree. So I’ll shut up now. But thanks for a really interesting article and debate! I’m sure this one will run and run on Vulpes and in future soapboxes too.

  49. Emma
    June 6, 2008

    “then it wouldn’t be called literary fiction.”

    I agree, it wouldn’t. But that’s not because it isn’t literary fiction, by my carefully genre-neutral definition, however the book trade and the review pages treat it. I think it’s probably true, if unfair, that some elements of a novel carry more weight, in how they’re handled, in pushing a novel – for most publishers/readers – towards what they think of as literary.

    The trouble is that for whatever reason (usually to do with the milieu in which they were first written) the world at large seems to feel that certain subjects and forms are more lit’ry than others. Which by my definition is nonsense, but then I never said I was saying how the world thinks literariness works, only how I do. So, The Nine Tailors isn’t ‘just’ a good detective novel, the reviewers say, surprised, it’s a good novel. And I suspect that it’s harder to persuade people that comedy is literary (which is maybe the problem with Hitchhiker. Either that or its radiophonic origins). Tragedy finds it easier to take the moral and aesthetic high ground.

    This, from this week’s TLS, pins it down

    “Like Japanese soldiers fighting the Second World War long after it ended, some still draw a cordon sanitaire around “literature” to protect it from “genre”, regardless of how closely the two commingle. Jeanette Winterson proclaims “I hate science fiction”, even though her recent The Stone Gods includes robots and a post-apocalyptic future. Certain critics still insist that Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize primarily for The Golden Notebook (1962), even though this Guest of Honor at the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention considers her futurist “Canopus in Argus” novels “to be some of my best work”. (David Langford gleefully tracks anti-genre comments at

    (the whole piece is here, and recommended: )

    What Winterson et al are doing is buying into the notion that particular subjects and forms that first emerged in popular fiction cannot almost by by definition be used in a literary way, and so that if you’re foolish enough to put the future, say, into a novel you might not – perish the thought! – get reviewed in the broadsheets. (I exaggerate, but not much. Margaret Atwood said something similar to Winterson, despite The Handmaid’s Tale). The only way such authors can see to separate themselves from being included in a genre which has its share of dross (which genre doesn’t?) is to deny that they’re writing with some of the materials of that genre – and therefore that the genre-label might be appropriate – at all.

    Genres are defined by setting (sci-fi, historical…) and/or by plot-style (romance, thriller…). But there’s no setting and no plot that by definition disqualify a novel from being literary, as I see it, because literariness is in how its done. That probably means that my list of literary novels is rather different from the book trade’s. But when did authors ever agree with the book trade for more than five minutes?

  50. clare
    June 7, 2008

    Emma, I agree with everything you say.

    Probably a bit redundant now, as I’ve arrived at this piece rather late, but my piece was NOT intended as a polemic against literary fiction, and I don’t believe commercial fiction is better than literary fiction, or indeed that there is any point at all in trying to compare the two in that way. My only point was that some people look down on commercial fiction, and think literary fiction is better. Whereas I think that both are good, and value judgements should not be made in this way.

    But yes, I do find SOME literary fiction pretentious and hard to read, obfuscatory, etc. Not all. And some of it is down to my own taste, and I accept that others will disagree, and I’m very happy about that. I love disagreement, what I hate is prejudice. On this subject, you say this:

    “for some readers and critics and even a few writers, who are more concerned to make sure they sound superior than to look at a book on its own terms, difficulty has become the mark of literary merit, and ‘accessible’ a dirty word.”

    This is what I was trying to say. I agree. But I would never tar all, or even most, of literary fiction, with this brush. Indeed, some would say I write (or have written) the stuff myself.

  51. Jackie
    June 8, 2008

    Good Soapbox, lots of food for thought. I find it telling when people blame the book or author when they don’t “get” it. I always think it’s something lacking in myself, I’m not trying hard enough or being open enough to something different. It’s similar to art. Though I already read a mix of litfic, commercial fiction & non, your Soapbox has inspired me to try reading something a little more adventurous in the near future, just to expand my horizons. Thanks!

  52. Pingback: Dialectical procrastination « Revisiting Russia

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