Literary fiction as described here is the fiction of a generation which discovered “good” novels via B-format in 1980. It is a fiction so very clearly generic that when I read John Mullan’s description of it (complete with successful business model, strict boundary conditions and committed fanbase which won’t read anything else) as not genre fiction, I weep with laughter at the sheer depth of his self-deception. Still, by the usual Freudian processes he has said what he really means, & that’s a step forward. The sooner literary fiction recognises & accepts its generic identity, the sooner it can get help. One of the more obvious results of generification is that–as with gentrification–blandness sets in, whether you’re knocking out no-fuck vampire romances or contributing to the high-performing post-Austen industry. Mullan’s genre is a generation old & already deep into predictability. There are ways out of this. The more established genres can show literary fiction how to set up the processes of perpetual lightweight detournment that have enabled them to keep churning away generation on generation, despite a restrictive audience & no economic wiggle-room. One of the benefits is that you need not lose your core content. Indeed, by definition, you mustn’t. So the good news is that, along with its liberal humanist programme, the Clapham arm of literary fiction can continue its project of watering down the linguistic fluency and technical agility of its genuinely interesting precursors from the oh-so-distant past of literature (that great age of Picador, King Penguin, and the Virago Modern Classic, which saw not just the invention of women writers but of magic realism & the euronovel too); while the hipster arm gets a bamboo chip & lemon grass latte & tries out its new neighbourhood app.
For me one of the sharper delights of the piece is its implication that along with “literary fiction”, literature itself began in the 1980s. As some below-the-liners at the Guardian comment, it seems shortsighted–especially on the part of someone whose academic specialism is the early history of the novel–to associate “literary fiction” not with actual literature but with a rebranding exercise from the Thatcher era.
Mullan’s snobbery is canonically based. He loves 18th & 19th Century fiction. Yet here he contributes marketing effort to a product that is shallow & trendy, as well as, at times, wafer-thin in terms of its own models and ambitions. His Guardianpiece is written into media time–gossip time–in which deep literary history is what your mum read when she was your age.
I’m not claiming that, just because literary fiction as described by John Mullan can be shown to have the features of a genre, some other genre therefore deserves to be the princess of everything; only that literary fiction as described by John Mullan (“What is literary fiction? It is not genre fiction.”) can be shown to have the exact features of a genre. It can be shown to have a successful business model, strict boundary conditions & a committed fanbase which doesn’t read anything else (except very occasionally and for something it calls “guilty pleasure”).
It is interesting to visit the Cheltenham Festival, literary fiction’s equivalent of the annual British Science Fiction Convention, & observe these parameters & constraints in operation. How is it that when conventional behaviour supports crime fiction, fantasy, romantic fiction or science fiction, it is a laughable, even disturbing thing; yet when it supports a certain kind of reader, in pretty, comfortable conditions, with nice food & wine, in a pretty English setting, it is a fine, celebratory thing ?
Don’t feel you need to answer that. The point is not intended to be divisive anyway, but inclusive:
If science fiction and “literary fiction” so clearly share the social, structural & economic qualities of a genre or marketing category–a clear & obvious commodification–is it any wonder that both so often represent the very worst of what writing has to offer ? The effect of “literary fiction” on literature has been as destructive as the effect of the sf & fantasy genres on the fiction of the imagination. It has reduced surface to a kind of Farrow & Ball blandness, experiment to some clever jokes & humanity to charm. It’s the fictional equivalent of John Lewis.
A few books to read if you are offended by the deep ordinariness of both literary fiction & science fiction: The Journal of Albion Moonlight by Kenneth Patchen,Ice by Anna Kavan, Manhattan Transfer by John dos Passos, Concrete Island by JG Ballard, The Erasers by Alain Robbe Grillet, The Naked Lunch by William Burroughs. & if you really can’t get the contemporary litfic monkey off your back, at least read The Bridge of the Golden Horn by Emine Sevgi Ozdamar or get yourself some Aleksandar Hemon.