Is Literary Fiction a Genre?

Via a comment which Steve Malley left on my blog, I discovered a vigorous — and very comment-rich — discussion by genre fiction writers on the perceived deficiencies of (some) literary fiction, a discussion carried on here after starting here. (Coincidentally, Polly Frost tackles the same topic from a different angle over at The Short Review.)

Apart from the debatable characterisation of Chaucer as some kind of early literary academic, I thought it was a very interesting discussion: and since I write both literary and genre fiction, and have even folded both in together in my short story collection Transported, I thought I would try to come up with a response.

At the core of Charles Gramlich’s complaint is this question:

Can someone please explain why “literary” writers get to freely eviscerate the normal rules of writing but don’t get called on it, while you or I would be pilloried soundly if we tried the same thing?

My immediate reaction was to say that “the normal rules of writing” apply to genre fiction but not to literary fiction, but that did not seem adequate. I’ve read plenty of books which are classified as genre fiction (in particular those genres I’m most interested in, science fiction and fantasy) but which break the rules Charles lists.

What’s more, literary fiction seems to have rules of its own. In a New Zealand context, these might be:

Write mimetic (“realistic”) fiction …
about middle-class and upper-middle class characters …
with no significant political interests or concerns …
who do not experience anything which could be labelled a “plot” …
and whose close personal relationships …
… and personal emotional development are of paramount interest in the fiction.

These “rules” have changed over time; formerly, working class characters were more common, and latterly, the stranglehold of realism has eased. But I think the most characteristic feature of literary fiction is the absence, or at least the downplaying, of plot, and of narrative in general.

After the fashion of Carrie Bradshaw, doyenne of Manolo Blahniks and really large closets, I ask the readers of this blog this question: are the set of characteristics I’ve listed above a reasonable description of much New Zealand literary fiction, and if so, are they distinctive enough to act as a set of rules for literary fiction?

In other words (Carrie sits cross-legged on her bed, looking down at her laptop):

  • Is literary fiction a genre?