One-Minute Book Reviews

May 31, 2012

Against the Term ‘Literary Fiction’ / Quote of the Day, John Updike

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:34 pm
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“I am dismayed by the recent rise of the term ‘literary fiction’ …” John Updike

By Janice Harayda

There’s a lot of competition for the title of the Worst Publishing Trend of the 21st century. Best sellers written at a third-grade level. Ebooks with no proofreading and bad formatting. Pink covers on novels by women when books of comparable quality by men don’t get bound in baby blue.

Then there’s a trend that, if less obvious, may be the worst of all — the increasing practice of labeling novels either “literary” or “commercial,” or high or low culture. The trend gained force about two decades ago as the largest bookstore chains were becoming more important. And it may exist in part because when you have thousands of feet of floor space to fill, you need an easy way to classify books.

But if the “literary” and “commercial” labels help big-box stores, they hurt others. The artificial divisions set up misleading expectations. All novels don’t fall neatly into one of two categories. The terms “literary” and “commercial” – if they are valid at all – aren’t absolutes. They are points on a continuum. Some “literary” novels sell millions of copies, and some “commercial” never find a following. And the terms often have little to do with the quality of a book.

Complaints about this taxonomy typically come from authors who rightly or wrongly see themselves as misclassified as “commercial” when they deserve better. So it’s refreshing that the late John Updike – as “literary” as they come – takes stand on the issue in his posthumous essay collection, Higher Gossip. Updike writes: “I am dismayed by the recent rise of the term ‘literary fiction,’ denoting a genre almost as rarefied and special and ‘curious’ in appeal, to contemporary Americans, as poetry.” His words a welcome reminder that no authors – even members of the publishing elite – benefit from capricious labeling.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Especially when you’re a writer yourself, or worse, a blogger, these distinctions matter little. These days, most of the really interesting new literature is genre bending, category crossing and trend hopping. Incidentally, I believe it has always been that way. Rules of popular expectations are easier to break and still find a large audience than rules, say, of grammar or cultural prejudice. Of course, the attitude you denounce is also a cultural prejudice, but it’s imposed by critics who matter little to the muse, I think. Overcoming such prejudices almost always has a liberating effect — the fact that “literary fiction” is turned into a protected species by some right now can only mean that it’s endangered in actual fact.

    Comment by Marcus Speh — June 2, 2012 @ 9:07 am | Reply

  2. I wrote a response longer than the blog post, [ha] and decided not to post it. Surely labels are more for the benefit of readers overwhelmed by the massive choice than to bolster the ego of authors. Romance authors are miffed because their popular work is not recognized as [L]iteracy genius. Well, it isn’t. Readers who expect Romance don’t care. Readers who expect Literary excellence do care.

    For me, Literary Fiction is simply one form of writing among many; it directs those who have high expectations of literary skill toward books they might find enjoyable. No lables are absolutes. While the bending of genre guidelines is gaining popularity in the free digital market – it is also angering and confusing some readers. Can’t win ’em all.


    Comment by Letitia Coyne — June 2, 2012 @ 11:04 pm | Reply

  3. I think that to some extent, the term “literary fiction” is a response to what I see as a worse problem than the literary vs commercial pigeonholes: genres. We can no longer say we write general fiction because “they” (publishers, bookstores, readers?) force us to declare a genre. The genres can be helpful, but once you attach one to your book, you chase away all the people who are either prejudiced against that genre or think they probably wouldn’t like a book in that category. Of course, the terms “literary and commercial” can apply to any book regardless of genre, but increasingly people are calling “literary” a genre and–in some cases–saying that if one doesn’t pick a genre, they have to call it “literary.” As an author, I dislike all of these terms because they slice and dice my work up into categories that narrow down and dumb down what I am trying to do.


    Comment by knightofswords — June 3, 2012 @ 10:06 pm | Reply

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