CLEAVE UNTO LITERARY FICTION AND FORSAKE ALL OTHERS?

  The litblog co-op recently began naming “Read This!” books with the aim of promoting “authors and presses . . . struggling to be noticed in a flooded marketplace.” A laudable goal, and the editors deserve huge credit for their undertaking. However, their selection of Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories engendered a discussion of (among other matters) whether the book was genre (mystery or detective in this case) fiction or “deserved” to be classified as literary fiction.

I acknowledge that these classification systems have their uses–shelving n bookstores, for example. However I found the tone of many comments almost comic in their assumption that literary fiction is ipso facto the highest form, that all others deserve at best a seat at the foot of the literary table, or should perhaps even be refused entrance to the main hall. I’m reminded of similar discussions about the sanctity of those books which are “character-driven” or “voice-driven” as opposed to (Oh, No!) “action driven.”

Back in the day–as you can see from my snapshot, that’s a way-back day, indeed–there were no MFA writing programs.  When I graduated as an English major, a few “creative writing” courses had popped up on the university scene. We laughed.  Who taught Faulkner creative writing? Or Joyce? Or Yeats? Was some earnest professor to provide the world with its next Fitzgerald? Despite our derision, of course, “creative writing” has grown into an MFA industry. What’s more, some damn fine writers have come out of those programs. At least one Pulitzer Prize winner that I know of–Michael Chabon via University of California at Irvine. Would he and other terrific authors have produced their high-quality work without their MFA’s? Impossible to prove, but to deny the schools all credit would be foolish at best.

Yet, the industry has also produced (predictably, I guess) some silly pretensions, and this business of holding no other writing gods sacred save whatever we hold to qualify as Literary Fiction is one of them. I suggest–just as was happening when my classmates and I sneered at the idea of teaching the art of writing fiction–that there’s more snobbery than quality-assessment going on here.