It was one of those air-punching moments that brought with it a sense of justification for the countless shelves and the innumerable hours ‘wasted’ with my nose in a book. Reading fiction is good for you. Officially and scientifically. According to a recently published study reading fiction increases empathy by opening a door on human experience. It transports the reader to situations beyond their own sphere, allows them to predict the characters’ responses and attunes them to the emotional reactions of their fellow man. Basically it says that reading fiction teaches you to read life and people.
Not that the report was needed by those of us who enjoy such works… we’ve known that all along; but there is a peculiar literary coterie who have always looked down bespectacled noses at the readers of fiction and a critical snobbery that renders the escapism of a good story an intellectually guilty pleasure.
Both those same critics and the aforementioned report do draw a distinction between popular and literary fiction. The latter is intellectually acceptable. We can sit at a pavement café, our limbs artistically arranged, reading Tolstoy, Dickens or Victor Hugo (but only in the original French, please) and draw smiles of approbation; but God forefend you sit there giggling at a Terry Pratchett or lost in something that smacks horribly of being genre fiction. There is, after all, no hope for the readers of such stuff…
Interesting point… what the hell is ‘literary fiction’ anyway?
We all know it refers to the classics; those beautifully written books that have withstood the passage of time and fashion. We possibly assume that for modern works to qualify they have to be prose poems or dark and deep explorations of the human psyche and whose covers frequently display ‘Booker Prize Nominee’.
Not according to the dictionary, which, in fact, holds no definition at all for this composite term. Wikipedia begins its definition by saying this is “a term principally used for certain fictional works that hold literary merit…” which to me says very little and manages to denigrate the literary merit of every book that fails to meet with critical approval somehow.
The Oxford English dictionary does however define ‘literary’ as ‘concerning the writing, study, or content of literature, especially of the kind valued for quality of form’ , ‘with literature as a profession’ and ‘associated with literary works or other formal writing; having a marked style intended to create a particular emotional effect.’
Which looks pretty much as if ‘literary fiction’ therefore should really mean ‘anything written by a writer using words’; more specifically if it is well written and seeking to elicit an emotional response from the reader. Of course, accepted idiom means that we all have a vague idea that there is more to it than that.
I suppose modern ‘literary fiction’ could best be said to refer to those works that will withstand the test of time and, in the opinion of critics and reviewers, become classics one day. The trouble is that they will then join the ranks of others guilty of producing recognised classics… people like Tolkien, Bronte and Shelley, for example… who wrote fantasy, Gothic romance, and science fiction/zombie horror respectively, if we were to classify them within modern genre fiction. Because the vast majority of our ‘classics’ were not written with the literary prize of critical or academic acclaim in view; posterity and the engagement of their readers gave them their place in out literary history. These works were created by writers in an act as old as Man… they were simply telling stories.