Why we must keep literary fiction alive

02:01, Jul 11 2014

I can't hide it any longer. I read literary novels. Not only that, I love many literary novels. It's taken me a couple of years to get round to this confession, mainly because I'm also a fan of genre fiction (the two are not unrelated, more on this later).

That's because it seems to me that in the age of fast churn fiction, when all the publishers are baying for the blood of YA authors...any YA writer, like vampires spying a tasty human from twenty paces, and you read stories about a young YA author from Wattpad who got offered a "mid six-figure" publishing contract - with the press release confessing that they'll need to "edit it down to get to the core of the story" (translation: we'll hire a ghost writer)...well, us literary readers need to make a stand. We need to start coming out of the woodwork.

We need to start defending our right to enjoy writing that is challenging, that makes us think, that toys with convention, that takes glee from playing around with novel structure, that have plots that ramble and frustrate, that needs a second or even third reading, that don't have neat endings tied up with a bow.

Why, you ask? Because that is how fiction grows. That's how we originally got writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou (R.I.P), Salman Rushdie, Douglas Adams, David Mitchell.

These are the authors who looked at literature and the way stories have "always" been told, with a beginning, middle and end and a Mr Darcy and an Elizabeth Bennet, and decided to light a fuse and blow it all up. And that's why I consider them literary. You may have a different interpretation of the term, and that's ok too.

They are agents of change, and because of them, many of us have been introduced to ideas and stories that we might not otherwise have come across. It's a trickle-down effect, because even to those who don't read -  a great deal of movies, Hollywood blockbuster types even, are based on novels. Many famous musicians and visual artists have been inspired by literary fiction. Let's put it this way - do we want ten Divergent look-alikes, or one The Matrix?

We have areas in our brains that light up, call them language centres, when we learn new words or perhaps even read a particularly beautiful description that makes us feel closer or connected to the human race, even if only for those minutes spent reading it.


The same kind of stigma that used to be attached to science fiction, romance, fan fiction, fantasy, horror etc now applies to literary fiction.

People think readers of literary fiction are snobs, failed English majors reliving the glory days of their Literature 101 classes, perhaps, or librarians and university lecturers who are out of touch with modern writing. And I get it, oh I do.

I hid all my trashy reading when I was at uni for fear of being mocked. But those days are gone. Now the tide has turned, and I'm not sure it's for the better.

There are literary books I hate too, but even they have more merit than former One Direction fan fiction that some poor editor at a publishing house will have to whip into shape. Most likely by rewriting the whole bloody thing. It's not the kind of writing that lasts.

Even the self-publishing industry that has risen up in the past five years or so have been cynical about the success of literary authors. The industry appears to be driven by people who can pump out a book every few months. Speed isn't necessarily an indicator of quality, I agree, but even champions of the self-publishing industry say that they're unsure there is room for literary fiction. There is no room for the kind of ground-breaking writing, sometimes taking years and the break-down of marriages or minds, in today's reading culture.

And that is something I don't think we as readers should stand for. You might think James Joyce incomprehensible, and find Ernest Hemingway an a-hole and think Allan Ginsberg boring, but these people are important because they represent, at their core, what reading is all about - the exploration of new ways of storytelling, of communicating, and of being human.

I'm not pitching literary against genre fiction. I read and enjoy books from both ends of the spectrum. I am actually asking everyone else to create room and space in their lives and minds for both kinds of fiction - but most especially, literary novels, because my reader friends, they need all the help they can get at the moment.

What do you think of literary fiction?

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