Guest post: David P. Elliot, What is ‘Literary Fiction’?

I suppose, not being an intellectual, I struggle with the concept of the categorisation of books as 'Literary Fiction'.

A few months back there was a discussion on one of the groups on LinkedIn when I asked the question what is 'Literary Fiction?' The question was a serious one as the issue had been exercising me for sometime.

As an author of fiction, I spent a long time concentrating on looking for an agent rather than a publisher as the conventional wisdom is that an unknown author of fiction will never make it passed a Trade

Publisher's 'Slush Pile' (that mountain of solicited and unsolicited dreams sent in by aspiring authors) unless it has effectively been pre-filtered by an Agent.

The theory is understandable; Agents make money based on a percentage of the author’s earnings. If the author earns nothing then the agent earns a percentage of that nothing, which is of course still nothing. So if the agent is respected, a publisher may take a more serious look at a book if the agent feels there is sufficient potential revenue from the author to make it worth his while.

There is still no guarantee the publisher will take the book on of course, but it raises the prospects.

But whether an author is talking to a potential agent or publisher the question of genre will certainly crop up.

It seems to me that people are obsessed with genre - and if you get it wrong, well you are pretty much banjaxed!

People are often very prescriptive - call it the wrong thing and many people will just refuse to read it! "I don't read - (horror/Sci-Fi/thrillers/crime/historical/romance)” - enter almost any genre you can think of - is often a knee-jerk response.

I called my book "a historical, supernatural thriller" my publisher called it "horror" - but then I think that's because he is a wimp!

Bookshops insist on knowing what genre it is - apparently unless they are told which shelf to put the book, on booksellers can be seen marching up and down their shops with a book in their hand not knowing what to do next until they collapse from starvation.

Then of course, what genre a book is, is very subjective anyway. Often people will tell me 'Clan' is fantasy. I try to explain it isn't - I don't even like fantasy, successful though they are Terry Pratchett and Tolkein leave me cold - I did struggle through The Hobbit once and I have read a Terry Pratchett - but I can't remember which one because it did very little for me - but at least I tried!

I have a deep respect for all writers - I know how hard it is so I feel the least I can do is finish it. I always feel I must get to the end even if I'm hating it - it is some kind of masochism I was brought up with - like finishing the food on your plate because children in Africa are starving. I even finished a Jeffrey Archer once - that's how dedicated I am!

You will see therefore I am the same as all other readers - by declaring "I don't like fantasy" I am making generalised and sweeping assumptions that I have no doubt will lead to me missing some excellent writing.
(incidentally the difference between fantasy and supernatural for me is that fantasy creates entirely fantastical worlds, Middle Earth, hobbit languages and all that kind of thing - supernatural is about strange things happening in the real world - hence SUPERnatural)

So genre is a minefield - but even that is not as difficult as this concept of so-called 'Literary Fiction.'

Agents and publishers will often tell you they are not interested in your book because they only handle 'literary fiction'.

So what is my writing - 'Illiterate fiction’?
That may sound a little defensive and maybe it is - but there is no doubt that the term is often used as some kind of intellectual snobbery. Ask twenty people what 'Literary Fiction' is and you'll get twenty different answers, I know because I've tried it.

Some will say it is beyond genre, it is about beautiful language rather than plot and story, it is cross genre, or simply that it can't be good if people actually want to read it - that's commercial fiction, no intellectual would be seen dead reading something that was actually enjoyed by the hoi-polloi. Popular means bad.

Some people have never forgiven the BBC for using Nessun Dorma sung by Pavarotti as the theme for a football tournament - God forbid that some builder/soccer fan should enjoy the tune without having dressed up in a dinner suit and paid £200 for a seat at the Royal Opera House!

There are still people who say Stephen King is not a "proper writer" because before he became one of the World's most successful writers he submitted short stories to Sci-Fi magazines. Whatever next!

One of my favourite quotes is by Robert Benchley "It was fifteen years before I realised I was no good as a writer, but by then I was too famous to stop."

So - until somebody can come up with real definition of 'literary fiction' that actually has to do with something other than intellectual snobbery I will continue to claim I write literary fiction as well as commercial fiction, thrillers, mystery, crime, romance, horror etc - even if in the end - they are actually all the same book!

So I think we should let readers decide what they like and spend a little less time trying to categorise things.