Friday, November 6, 2009

In Defense of "Literary"

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I've been hearing a lot lately about the decline in readers of literary fiction. The new philosophy in publishing seems to be, if you're going to write a novel, you're better off writing in some genre (sci-fi, romance, young adult, paranormal, etc) other than literary, which was more useful back when there was more of a general readership. This general readership has largely disappeared in the last ten years, with readers finding plenty of material, in book form and online, catering to their specific tastes. Hence, the general interest reader became the specific interest reader. If you don't write within a reader's specific interest, you don't exist.

As a writer, this is not terrible news for me--I don't really care what I'm supposed to write; I'd rather sell car insurance than write what I'm supposed to write--but it is weird to think of literary fiction as a thing soon to be of the past.

The first real book I ever read was Huckleberry Finn, in high school. I also read A Tale of Two Cities around the same time, and I seem to recall The Red Bad of Courage being in there somewhere, too. While I didn't dislike any of these novels, neither did they make me a great lover of literature. I was sixteen and deep in the throes of rock 'n' roll.

It was a lot to compete with.

At the time, I preferred the rock bios I read on my own. I loved Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga, and 'Scuse me While I kiss the Sky, about, yep, Jimi Hendrix. I liked finding out minute details about my favorites bands, and feeling like I knew them better.

It wasn't until I was eighteen and I took a course called "Introduction to Mode" in junior college that I began to see literature as more than just another subject. I was blown away by tour de forces like 1984 and A Clockwork Orange. I loved the characters in Tess of the d'Urbervilles and One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. We read eight novels in that class, and I loved all eight. It's safe to say I've been reading some novel or other--and almost always a literary novel--ever since. That was 22 years ago.

You'll notice, as you look at my formative years, that I had absolutely no experience with anything that might be called genre work. I've never had an interest in sci-fi (I liked Star Wars as a kid, didn't love it) or horror (I saw Jaws when I was seven...let's just say that was all I needed to know about the horror genre). I did struggle through two Stephen King books in another junior college course, but they seemed derivative to me. I didn't understand why people wouldn't just watch the movie. Nope, genre and I never mixed.

So now that fiction has splintered away from "literary" altogether, where does that leave me? I suspect literary fiction isn't really going anywhere, and is really just in need of a writing titan or two to reignite interest. I love Jonathan Franzen and will buy his next work of fiction when it comes out. I'm not sure if he has the ability to lead a resurgence in all things literary, but he certainly has the ego for the job. Besides him, what other current writer could be the new Faulkner, or Updike, or Morrison? That is the kind of presence we need if literary fiction isn't to become the new poetry in influence and market share.

Yours in laying down the law,


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