Defining ‘literary fiction’

Geoff Burling says, in a comment on The Passive Voice (same article as the last):

One problem I have with Friedman’s post was that she insisted on an artificial distinction between “literary fiction” — I’m guessing she means fiction that is written well but is not bestseller material — & “genre” fiction (e.g., romance, mystery, action, science fiction): until a few decades ago, any fiction writer published with the hope her/his book would get on the bestseller lists, that everyone would want to read the book. (I bet even Herman Melville wanted Moby Dick to be a best seller, & was disappointed when it sold poorly.) A work is classed as literature long after the author is dead in most cases, anyway.

I reply:

Actually, the ‘literary fiction’ racket has been going for over a century, and it is, indeed, a racket. It is based not on quality of writing (though, to keep its rights to the moniker ‘literary’, it does tend to insist obsessively on fine details of prose technique at the sentence level), but on exclusion. That is, it is intentionally designed to exclude anything exotic, anything highly dramatic, anything that might, for instance, excite a young reader or send one on an imaginative journey.

Dave Wolverton, a.k.a. David Farland, traces this movement back to a deliberate decision made by William Dean Howells. In a very interesting essay. ‘On Writing as a Fantasist’, he describes Howells’ definition of ‘literary’ work in these terms:

[Howells] claimed that authors had gone astray by being imitators of one another rather than of nature. He proscribed writing about “interesting” characters–such as famous historical figures or creatures of myth. He decried exotic settings—places such as Rome or Pompeii, and he denounced tales that told of uncommon events. He praised stories that dealt with the everyday, where “nobody murders or debauches anybody else; there is no arson or pillage of any sort; there is no ghost, or a ravening beast, or a hair-breadth escape, or a shipwreck, or a monster of self-sacrifice, or a lady five thousand years old in the course of the whole story.” He denounced tales with sexual innuendo. He said that instead he wanted to publish stories about the plight of the “common man,” just living an ordinary existence. Because Howells was the editor of the largest and most powerful magazine of the time (and because of its fabulous payment rates, a short story sale to that magazine could support a writer for a year or two), his views had a tremendous influence on American writers.

But as a writer of fantastic literature, I immediately have to question Howells’s dictates on a number of grounds.

Howells contended that good literature could only be written if we did three things: 1) Restrict the kinds of settings we deal with. 2) Restrict the kinds of characters we deal with. 3) Restrict the scope of conflicts we deal with.

Oscar Wilde, whose plays are not often staged these days but whose fairy tales may live on for ever, had the good sense to laugh at Howells’ strictures and at the stories he liked to publish. He called them ‘teacup tragedies’. They might be called (for Howells was a good Socialist of the 19th-century type) ‘Socialist Realism for the bourgeoisie’. Like the Russian type of Socialist Realism, most of the stuff that fits in this narrow category is rubbish; but it is often very well-executed rubbish, and if you execute it skilfully enough, you can make a thundering reputation among the tiny circle of People That Matter, whilst being entirely ignored by the general public — whom you can then look down on as illiterate cretins.

The American branch of the Modernist movement, and the tight claque of highbrow publishers and reviews that constitute the so-called New York Literary Establishment, can all be traced back to Howells’ circle of influence. If you pressed me to name a date at which the Howells school definitely became an Establishment, I would probably name 10 October 1896, the date on which the New York Times inaugurated its book-review section. Once the most prestigious paper in the United States began reviewing books on a large scale, that was a citadel worth capturing; and the Howells school duly captured it.

From that time on, the Times has exerted its influence consistently on the side of the Modernists and their successors, and against works and authors that follow the much larger tradition of adventurous and imaginative fiction. Whole classes of books, for instance, have been systematically excluded from the Times bestseller list because the Times did not approve of their subject-matter. Whatever is left — whatever subjects the Times and kindred publications, in their awful and austere prestige, think Real Writers should be permitted to write about — constitutes ‘literary fiction’ in the technical sense. I am afraid that is an unflattering definition — but then, a definition arrived at by such a process is hardly deserving of flattery.

In all this, the N.Y.L.E. and the Times have played the role of Benjamin Jowett in the satirical quatrain:

Here come I, my name is Jowett.
All there is to know I know it.
I am Master of this College,
What I don’t know isn’t knowledge!


  1. A consolidating factor, I think, was the development of the writer’s workshop — or perhaps ‘degeneration’ might be a better word, since, despite good intentions and occasional successes, the history of the writer’s workshop has mostly been the development of machines for turning out writers who write out the kinds of things that are written by people who attend writer’s workshops (and get positive reviews in the Times, often by people who attend writer’s workshops themselves).

    • I agree. The writer’s workshop, and its big brother, the MFA program in Creative Writing, have a lot to answer for.

      By the way, welcome! I just clicked through to your blog, and it looks fascinating. I’ve bookmarked it and expect to return.

  2. Sherwood Smith says

    I think it predates Howell–I see distinct signs of this type of thinking in many of Henry James’s review/essays in the Atlantic during the latter decades of the 1800s, and also in his predictions about “the new novel” written around 1900.

    • Howells was editor of the Atlantic in the 1870s, so that part of the timeline does actually fit with what you say. I agree, of course, about Henry James and so forth; this was the avant-garde of the later nineteenth century, before it became the Establishment of the twentieth.

  3. Suburbanbanshee says

    To be fair, Howells had the right to declare that his mag was going to buy stories about ordinary Americans, especially because that’s what he thought back then that ordinary Americans were starved for. A lot of American writers were constantly writing in their own personal fantasy version of Europe, and that’s not the entire scope of read-worthy fictional material.

    The problem was that he and his disciples soon forgot that his mag’s tastes also weren’t the entire scope of read-worthy fictional material.

  4. I would like your opinion on this old essay of mine:

    • I found it fascinating, well thought-out, and, in so far as I am any judge, substantially correct.

      I was particularly glad that you identified the advent of cheap pulp paper as a technological factor in the development of ‘popular’ literature. I should venture to speculate that the development of cheaply reproducible gramophone records (the Edison cylinders were neither cheap nor mass-produced) helped to recreate the same highbrow-vs.-lowbrow divide in music.

      Thank you, Sir, for bringing your essay to my attention.

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