I have some things to say about “literary fiction.”

All right, folks. By now everyone knows my taste in fiction – running hard to fantasy and mystery. I dabble in other categories and subgenres – hard science fiction/space opera, steampunk, cyberpunk, alternate history/mythology (especially a morbid fascination with versions of Robin Hood, even though no one can get it right and that’s infuriating, yet I keep reading it), historical fiction, romantic classics (Shelley and Wilde, not Nora Roberts), beat literature, erotica, and anything that makes me giggle (Hugh Laurie, Christopher Moore). I’ve also got the aforementioned and inexplicable obsession with that postmodern nonsense – what did I call it? – postmodern unnecessarily starcrossed tragic doomed love litfic. Books like WRACK, BLUE NUDE – and, what the hell, let’s include LOLITA and HENRY AND JUNE in there, too. And maybe this is the sign of a deeper problem, but the main theme in all of these books is you can’t have what you want. They’re filled with emotionally unavailable people and I’ve loved this type of thing since high school. So, yeah, it probably does say something.

But as for the rest of it, generally speaking… pass. Sometimes the B&N Fiction section has good stuff – after all, that’s where Michael Chabon and Stephen Fry and Joe Hill and Jim Fergus and Stephen King and Edward Rutherford are. [Note to self: I should read more female authors.] But mostly it’s filled with schlock – Emily Giffin and James Patterson and Glenn Beck and Chunichi (whose name sounds like a euphemism for vagina; sorry, but it does) – all WHILE THE GREAT WORLD SPINS and THE HELP and THE SHOPAHOLIC DOES DALLAS or whatever. My old store manager, upon seeing whatever Laurell K. Hamilton book I had in my hands one day leaving work, said, “Sara, I thought you were a real book person.”

Um… I’m sorry?

And that is why I take issue with “literary fiction.” Because people who read Serious Fiction completely disregard genre fiction – as it couldn’t possible be serious. Tell that to Alastair Reynolds and Isaac Asimov and J. R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin and Tana French and Tess Gerritsen and Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and I could go on and on for hours about authors who take/took their writing seriously.

Perhaps they didn’t take it Seriously Enough. So much litfic is based in what seems to be the author’s desire to let the reader know that he or she does, in fact, know how to use a semicolon (so do I), and that they do, in fact, have an MFA in Creative Writing, thank you so much for being concerned. So much of it is self-aggrandizing masturbatory bullshit; if the writers could stop writing so much and tell a goddamn story, I’d be a much happier, far less judgmental bookseller/reader.

(See? I told you I know how to use a semicolon.)

I dread the days when women 50-75 come in and tell me they’re in a book club. Worse still, that they need suggestions. Jesus. Or, dear God, my worst nightmare – a young woman, maybe a little younger than me, told me she’d read everything by Jodi Picoult and really needed a recommendation.

Shitshitshitshitshit. Um, Stephen King blurbed one of those books, didn’t he? I can recommend Stephen King. NEEDFUL THINGS was awesome. But then, I don’t consider that litfic. That’s horror, and for some reason it’s shelved in Fiction. (Anne Rice’s SLEEPING BEAUTY trilogy is also in Fiction. Go figure.) Look, lady, all I can do is recommend crap I’d never read.

Or the guy, around Christmas, who asked me, “What do women read?” Really, man? You want me to tell you what I read and then you can go ahead and decide that your girlfriend doesn’t share my taste – because, mainly, she’s dating someone who assumes that everything with a vagina can be covered by blanket statements and authors. What do you say to that? “Chicks dig WATER FOR ELEPHANTS and omigod Edward is totes in the movie that’s coming out!!!1!”

Yeah… about that. What actually came out of my mouth was, “We probably don’t read the same things.” I really like CATCH-22 and MOBY DICK and FIGHT CLUB and ON THE ROAD and other things that would have generally been considered “boy books” on your handy 1962 school reading list.

When folks come in and say, “I’m looking for sci-fi/fantasy,” I rub my hands together with glee and Igor-walk them back to my lair and start shoving Neil Gaiman and Rob Thurman and Jim Butcher and Orson Scott Card and Patrick Rothfuss and Terry Pratchett at them. If they want mystery, I point them at Steven Saylor and Elliott Peters and Carl Hiaasen and Laura Joh Rowland.

So perhaps it’s not the litfic writers as much as the readers that piss me off. Because people that refuse to read anything that Oprah didn’t recommend or that doesn’t hit the NYT bestseller list are ridiculous. They’re close-minded and judgy – and I get I’m sort of doing the same thing here, except that I will consider a book if it looks good even if it falls into one of those categories – and that’s ridiculous. That’s pretention for the sheer, unabashed sake of it.

Grumble, grumble. Get off my lawn. And bring on the genre fiction, damn it.

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4 Responses to I have some things to say about “literary fiction.”

  1. freyabryson says:

    Best post ever? (This is Amy, former co-worker at Evil Corporate Empire, btw.)

    Women who read Jodi Picoult read Karen Kingsbury. Non-religious women who read JP read Annie Dillard and Anne Patchett and that one lady whose name escapes me – just look for an Oprah sticker, honestly. (Yes, I am judgy, and I make no apologies. I hate and resent those books.)

    I would like to just take this paragraph for myself, please:
    “So much litfic is based in what seems to be the author’s desire to let the reader know that he or she does, in fact, know how to use a semicolon (so do I), and that they do, in fact, have an MFA in Creative Writing, thank you so much for being concerned. So much of it is self-aggrandizing masturbatory bullshit; if the writers could stop writing so much and tell a goddamn story, I’d be a much happier, far less judgmental bookseller/reader.”

    Um…..yeah. I’ve got nothing more to say. FOR NOW.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. Did you ever read B.R. Myers’ essay on modern literary fiction, “A Reader’s Manifesto”? It first appeared in the Atlantic July/August 2001. You’re in good company.

  3. cdpung says:

    I write a lot of literary fiction and even I think the genre’s currently bloated and largely uninteresting (not the literature exactly, but what appears at most big book stores). A question I’ve had recently is, if there’s all these lovesick vampire books being targeted at tweens/teens and all this “literary” fiction targeted at older audiences, what’s there for people in their twenties and thirties? We’ve shoved genre books to the margins of the book world.

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