I am not at all convinced that “literary” is a proper genre specification of the novel in the same way that “science fiction” is a genre. It seems that perhaps a “novel” is inherently literary and so there are genres of fiction, the novel being one. If anything, this clarification of terms is simply to preface the following words on the current discussion of literary vs. genre fiction and the problem of audience and marketing that the former type is experiencing in the digital age.
It seems to be the general accord that literary fiction has become incredibly niche. It is the genre of academics: a community which creates both the writers of it, and the appropriately trained readers to receive it. And one of the biggest influences of this trend is the way that these novels are marketed by publishers. In today’s digital environment everything is becoming more niche because the Internet allows consumers to find exactly what they want and publishers are much more efficaciously able to target the perfect audience. In addition, there is a relativistic trend in thought that nothing is better or worse than anything else – it is always simply a reflection of individual preference.
Here is a very interesting blog post about the future of literature in this environment. Of most interest to me was the author’s idea that:
Literature, you could say, is the kind of narrative message that challenges rather than reinforces our background assumptions. If a given form of narrative reinforces assumptions, then it is quite simply not literature, no matter what it resembles. This is why we think literature has a special relationship with risk: a literary communication is one where the sender actively works against the coherence of his or her messagerelative to some reader. It is inherently unstable.
The niche created for the creation and reception of literary fiction is therefore counteractive to the very idea of what it is to be literary in the first place. But because of the current marketing and publishing environment is it difficult for literary fiction to be received by those with oppositional views – the pervading relativistic approach to fiction precludes opposition. The author goes on to say that:
Human beings are parochial, blinkered creatures, loathe to relinquish any number of injurious views no matter what their political stripe. The social value of literature has always turned on its ability to reveal and mitigate these shortcomings, to ‘shake things up,’ and so, bit by corrosive bit, effect cultural reform. But doing this requires forming stable communicative relationships despite the absence of ‘fit’ between the sender’s and receiver’s default assumptions. Not an easy thing to do. This is why ‘finding the reader’ has always been the great problem faced by literary fiction, so much so that posterity is ritually called upon to redeem its insularity: as a form of communication antagonistic to existing conditions of communication, it often has to wait for the rest of the world to catch up.
And so “The primary dilemma for the contemporary literary author is simply this: how do you find a reader who doesn’t necessarily want to find you?”
The author’s answer, unfortunately, is simply to embrace the even playing field of fictional genres and ignore the stigma that “genre” has for traditional literary writers. Writers should explore the world of genre as a means of tapping into a broader audience. This seems a somewhat subversive plan that does not directly address the problem, but perhaps if genre fiction is written with more serious aspirations of being “literary” then it will be able to break it’s own stigma, allowing literary fiction to be definitively more than just novels.