High Class

by wjw on August 5, 2009

I’m off to Worldcon in Montreal for the next week, so I thought I’d leave you with something to chew on.

I was talking with genius New Mexico writer Daniel Abraham the other day, and once again he demonstrated why we all think he’s going to rule the world before he’s fifty. (And if not him, his kid.)

He announced that he’d figured out the difference between genre and literary fiction.

Which is really tough to do, if you think about it. It’s not subject matter any more, not with Philip Roth writing an alternate-worlds novel and urban fantasy/magical realist novels winning the Pulitzer Prize. It’s not the quality of the writing, because we can all name genre writers whose writing blows away most literary writers.

“Literary fiction,” sez Daniel, “is fiction written to be read by the upper class.”

Oh wow. I think he’s totally right.


Cambias August 5, 2009 at 12:19 pm

I'd amend that, because it runs aground on definitions of "class." In the U.S. (and the U.K.) the actual upper class — the superwealthy and the political elites who run things — are notoriously uninterested in literature. When they do read, it's mostly semi-popular history or memoirs of other rich and powerful people (to see if they get a mention).

Lit'ry fiction is for the intellectual "upper class" — the folks (like, um, us) without money or power who console themselves with the thought that they are smart and that's more important anyway.

Lisa August 5, 2009 at 2:23 pm

Cambias has a point there about class. I'd have to agree. It's not about how much money you have at this point because most people have free access to books and it's easier to get something published. So you can't be the intellectual upper class just by reading, you have to read the right books. Literary fiction is what you read to impress other people with the books you've read.

Margot August 5, 2009 at 3:57 pm

So, a genre book is one that you're a little hesitant to recommend to your coworkers, but that they're extra eager to hear about because likely the book is fun?

BTW, I don't know whether TINAG counts as genre fiction, but it's very easy to recommend — the topical elements are easy to describe and intriguing, and pretty quickly people decide the book sounds like fun.

Is the difference actually that genre fiction is *supposed* to be fun, whereas that's not a requirement for literary fiction?

Anonymous August 5, 2009 at 7:08 pm

Literary fiction doesn't have any plot outside that relating to relationships between the protagonists. SF, by contrast, has plot. And ideas.


Anonymous August 5, 2009 at 8:00 pm

To expand on Lisa's definition:
Literary fiction is written both by and for those with pretensions of intellectual superiority seeking to impress others of their ilk.

Margot August 5, 2009 at 8:44 pm

Anonymous, your remarks sound like they may contain some element of reaction to past slights.

I bet if you consider all the books you really like, some would generally be called literary fiction and some genre fiction. Or if that's not the case now, it will be eventually.

Anonymous August 6, 2009 at 2:13 am

I just put 'em into two piles: The would recommend/read again pile and the "boy, was that a mistake" pile. Having launched my reading career with my parents' Reader's Digest Condensed Books, who am I to judge what qualifies as Literary Fiction? Having said that, I have moved away from a lot of "genre" fiction because I like to be surprised and that doesn't happen often in genre work.


Margot August 6, 2009 at 4:36 am

Hi, Sash —

Gravity's Rainbow comes to mind as a book that counts as literary in a big way but that you'd probably relish. It's a wild ride, with everything from recording angels to talking lightbulbs and from slapstick to grievous slave labor.

It's big and shaggy, though, and takes some chewing.

Our host's novel Wired is a major page-turner, if you haven't read it. You might like Aristoi, too. And I think his new TINAG is terrific.

Dave Bishop August 6, 2009 at 10:28 am

I'm not sure that I agree with Mr Abraham's analysis – particularly from a UK perspective. In my country the 'upper class' are still the aristocracy, and I'm not sure that they read (drink claret and shoot pheasants, perhaps? In fact they're as foreign to me as they probably are to you).
Again, in the UK, literary fiction seems to be designed to appeal to the 'Arts Establishment' (which may contain a few aristocrats). This Arts Establishment dominates intellectual life in the UK and the BBC and the 'quality' newspapers are obsessed by it and its fruits – almost to the exclusion of all other intellectual activity. I sometimes think that we're a nation that is obsessed by 'the Arts' because we've wilfully rendered ourselves too stupid for science!

Dave Bishop August 6, 2009 at 10:46 am

I realised after I wrote that last comment that it comes across as a 'put-down' of artists! It wasn't intended to be – but it was a put down of the incestuous British Arts Establishment. These are, basically, people who went to a British Arts School and paint, sculpt, write etc. for each other.
In the case of the visual arts they also provide the 'licensed bandits' in the City of London something to squander their ill-gotten gains on.

Anonymous August 6, 2009 at 3:48 pm

Hey Margot,

I already read whatever of WJW I can get my hands on. I thought Aristoi was great.

Right now, I'm one of the jobless ones, so I'm having to hold off on new purchases and the local library doesn't do much in the way of SF. Oh well, I'm discovering new authors all the time.

I'll try to get ahold of Gravity's Rainbow. Thanks for the recommendation. I'm waiting impatiently for the latest Jonathan Carroll to appear on the library shelves.

(btw, I'm not responsible for all the anon. posts. I always put my name below my posts.)

Foxessa August 6, 2009 at 7:53 pm

Like any glib nugget upon examination there are so many exceptions that it doesn't hold up.

For starters, our favorite examples always pulled out as defense of genre's quality: Shakespeare and Dickens.

Ralf the Dog August 7, 2009 at 4:14 am

Literary fiction expands the mind (if not the brain). It encourages you to think or to view the world in different ways.

Genre sells action figures.

Margot August 7, 2009 at 6:00 pm

How about this: Writing genre fiction is like working in a verse form. The book has to embody the conventions of the genre, even if it plays with them.

Then there are categories like magic realism, which originated within literary fiction and thus isn't classified as a genre.

dubjay August 7, 2009 at 11:03 pm

Quick note (I'm at Worldcon and have limited time because the damn Hyatt is charing $5 for every two hours of Internet time. Why am I not at the Motel 6?)

I think it might benefit the discussion if we stipulate that the upper class for which literary works are written do not in fact exist, but are a construct.

Ralf the Dog August 8, 2009 at 7:43 am

I think the upper class is partially self selecting. If you have the ego to call yourself upper class and can meet the minimum standards defined by the club, you are in.

It is all about using big words and hoping everyone else does not find out you are a fake.

Anonymous August 9, 2009 at 1:48 am

Maybe 'upper-class' in literary circles could be defined as "one who would never admit to reading (and enjoying) genre fiction."


Daniel Abraham August 9, 2009 at 9:36 pm

I think my exact quote was "Literature is fiction which portrays the reader as upper class."

Daniel Abraham August 9, 2009 at 9:43 pm


At this point, Dickens and Shakespeare do portray their readers as upper class, refined, and sophisticated. It's not about the content (or even quality) of the story. It's about the story's role as a signifier of social status.

At least, that's what I'm thinking.

Mark August 10, 2009 at 2:27 pm

If you need dinner tonight in Montreal, Cafe Nizza is amazing.

I was transported by the grilled octopus.

RJS August 10, 2009 at 5:08 pm

So literary fiction is what we read on the train hoping that everyone will see it? (As opposed to what we read on the train with the cover bent back so no one will see it.)

Peter S. August 10, 2009 at 5:33 pm

How about this more cynical take on it:

Literary fiction is fiction written to impress the editors of the NYT Book Review?

Margot August 10, 2009 at 7:17 pm

I think RJS has it.

The key is how the reader feels about it, not how the writer felt about it. If I display what I'm reading to enhance my status, I'm treating it as literary fiction.

There's also the publisher. If the publisher can't market the book as genre fiction (= follows rules, meant to be fun), they'll consider whether they can sell it as a status aid. That's why so many tedious flashes-in-the-pan get highbrow jacket art.

dubjay August 13, 2009 at 4:40 am

Daniel has just schooled me completely, by reminding me what he actually said as opposed to my vague memory of what he said.

I'm never comfortable around this "literary writers are just a bunch of snobs" mentality, because if you were a true snob, you'd look for a job that could at least support yourself with dignity.

Most literary writers make insignificant amounts of money and have to spend their time teaching or scuffling for grants. That sort of lifestyle is supported by passion for the work, not by delusions of superiority.

Most literary writers/readers aren't contemptuous of genre, they're just ignorant.

Genre writers, if not always readers, read all over the map, because that's where you get your ideas. I'm re-reading Gravity's Rainbow right now for the umpteenth time, because the language and the energy is just so wonderful, and I'm also reading Minister Faust's first SF novel. So there ya go.

Ralf the Dog August 13, 2009 at 12:55 pm

Mr. Williams, please stop stalking me. Gravity's Rainbow should be arriving at my house from Amazon today. I am also reading Prometheus bound. For work I am reading Applied Cryptography (Bruce Schneier) and trying to remember to whom I loaned out my copy of Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (John von Neumann).

S.M. Stirling August 17, 2009 at 3:25 am

It would be more accurate to say that literary fiction is written by and for the intelligentsia, and read to give satisfactions that usually differ sharply from those most other readers of fiction seek. Among them is validation of one's status as a member of said group.

Note that as recently as a century ago, poetry had a mass audience similar to and only slightly smaller than that for prose fiction.

This ceased to be the case because poets stopped writing for that audience and started writing for the intelligentsia — essentially, for each other and their friends and social circles.

Artistic modernism (I'm using modernism in the strict sense, referring to the early 20th-century movement and its descendants) actively discounted any form of art that was accessible to people in general.

The highbrow/middlebrow/lowbrow division of art was established in that period, though of course there were intimations earlier.

The art modernism produced was sometimes very good, but it was — by design — clique art.

As Dave Bishop says, it (and its successors down to our postmodernist times) have come to dominate 'offical' art, the sort produced in or for public institutions and supported by institutional money of one sort or another.

That's why older paintings now outsell newer ones by immense margins, why writing clique-art books requires another job (usually with tenure), and so forth.

In a way it's a demonstration of how people can be willing to forego money for more intangible rewards.

Me, I'm content to toil in the vineyards of genre; it's what I enjoy doing. I'm currently making a fair amount of money at it too, which is a nice bonus.

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