“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.
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© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.