Is "literary" still a valid category for fiction?
A working definition of "literary fiction" is fiction that does not fall easily into a recognizable category (mystery, romance, science fiction, etc.). It is NOT a measure of quality. In my experience, many consider literary fiction pretentious, self-indulgent "art for art's sake." Verbal artistry may take precedence over narrative. It is often assumed to be written for reasons other than entertainment.
I've always associated literary fiction with the more realistic and dense forms of writing. (Dense meaning that there is so much under the surface that it takes a college course to sort it all out.) Genre fiction, or 'popular' fiction, has the same capacity to be deep and realistic, but people don't generally associate it with either. Honestly, genres bleed together all the time, but marketing forces them into their respective categories. Literary fiction can be pretentious at times, and genre fiction can be stupid, but restricting yourself to one or the other is the worst thing a reader can do. The best books are the ones you don't expect to find and they can come from any corner of the writing spectrum.
I would suggest that literary fiction and literature are very real and alive. There are three distinctions to be made. Genre fiction has the primary purpose of entertainment; literary fiction has the primary purpose of art, which is seen many ways. A very useful one, from John Gardner, is that art shares my dream so that it can become your dream. Method of engagement is a second distinction. Entertainment engages by predictability that creates comfortable excitement, and primarily uses the human curiosity of "What happens next?" Literature, according to E. M. Forrester, uses that technique of engaging the reader least among all. Lastly, literature can relate to or come from any genre, but does not fit in it.
Literary fiction falls into two useful categories. One is traditional fiction, where the author succeeds by maintaining the dream. The other is metafiction, in which the awareness of being fiction is in some way expressed in the fiction. this breaks the dream but develops other arenas of exploration to exchange ideas and perspectives on life and literature.
The sharing of dreams is difficult business. Few are interested in art; the entertainment of genre fiction is, well, more entertaining. It is hard, also, to evaluate artistic literature. But the effort is worth it - as a writer, to be able to share one's dreams, even if only with a few, is a rare gift. And, for the reader, it is a gift to receive the dreams of others.
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