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A glimpse of the ‘literary’ perspective

I’ve commented before on the fact the New York-centric publishing world seems to have more than a bit of disdain for the reading public outside that world. Part of it is a sense of an essentially pretentious perspective, one that seems based on the notion that if you aren’t part of the “literary” world you aren’t suited to the rarefied atmosphere of “literary fiction.” I recently came across an example of that.

Sarah LaPolla is an associate literary agent in NYC. She recently wrote about the difference between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction (aka commercial fiction).” Since she’s a NYC-based agent and has an MFA in creative writing, she must be qualified to define literary fiction for us readers.

“I like to compare literary fiction authors to runway designers,” she writes. “The general public isn’t mean[t] to wear the clothes models display on the runway. They exist to impress the other designers and show the fashion industry what they can do. Literary writing is a lot like that, but on a more accessible level.”

So, unless you’re in the fashion publishing industry (or perhaps have an MFAs), you aren’t meant to wear the clothes read literary fiction. Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re not sophisticated enough to grasp literary fiction. After all, the books apparently are meant to impress other authors and display the author’s talents in the publishing world.

Well, then, what type of fiction is meant for the hoi polloi? Genre fiction, which is “commercial” and “always focuses on plot.” There are more differences from literary fiction:

There is still character development in genre fiction, but it is not as necessary. Characters get idiosyncratic quirks, clever dialogue, and often learn something new about life or themselves by the end. The difference is that their traits are only skin deep. The reader stays with them in the present. Rarely do we see a character’s past unless there is something pertinent to the plot back there. Genre fiction has a Point A and a Point B, and very little stands in the way of telling that story.

(Emphasis mine.)

She also says there’s an intermediate ground — “upmarket” fiction, It includes books like The Help and Water for Elephants (I admit reading neither) and authors like Nick Hornby and Ann Patchett. Books in this category “appeal to a wider audience, but they have a slightly more sophisticated style than genre fiction and touch on themes and emotions that go deeper than the plot.”

It used to be that “genre fiction” was shorthand for science fiction, romance novels, fantasy, etc. Now it apparently encompasses anything the literati don’t consider “literary.” Now, I know that the bestselling books aren’t necessarily the “best” books. There’s plenty of times when I shake my head at what’s on the bestseller lists. Still, it seems a bit demeaning to say the unwashed masses don’t need well-developed characters because they just want to be led from A to B. And it isn’t much better to suggest that it takes a more sophisticated reader to grasp facets of story that go beyond plot but can’t raise themselves to the level of grasping literary fiction. I’m guessing, though, that the latter makes up the largest part of the book-buying and reading public in the U.S.

I’m probably being unfair and misunderstand what Ms. LaPolla is saying or taken it out of context. After all, her blog is aimed at writers and the post is about categorizing a work of fiction when pitching it to an agent. Still, I take offense at the thought that the books by Nobel Prize winners, Bolaño, McEwan, Marilynne Robinson or Murakami on my shelves aren’t meant for me. Of course, I’m such a literary bumpkin that I’m probably mistaken thinking any of these authors write “literary” fiction.


The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it.

Elizabeth Drew, The Modern Novel

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