According to this nifty and educational infographic (from Hiptype via Galleycat), the top-grossing type of fiction is “literature.” While it’s easy to define romance, sci-fi/fantasy, and other genres, it can be harder to pinpoint what exactly literature is, especially in contrast to popular, mainstream, commercial, or just plain fiction fiction. After all, lots of classics of what might be considered genre fiction—Brave New World, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Handmaid’s Tale, to name a few high-caste examples—probably self-identify as literature, or are shelved as such by your local librarian.
Arthur Krystal of the New Yorker and the author Lev Grossman, writing in Time, faced off on this issue in 2012. Krystal differentiates between “art” (literature) and “escapism” (fiction), whereas Grossman insists that differentiating at all is, for the most part, increasingly arbitrary and unnecessary, since contemporary writers like Michael Chabon, Kate Atkinson, and Tana French do an excellent job of braiding the two. To which I would add, what’s necessarily lowbrow about escapism, anyway? Pride & Prejudice and Tom Jones are classics that are still engaging and transporting. Must “art” be solemn or difficult?
The argument boils down to differing views on the quintessential noir writer Raymond Chandler. Krystal argues that “Chandler’s novels are not quite literature,” despite being stand-out examples of the genre, because genre fiction itself is a more limited form with more modest ambitions. Grossman sees no problem in claiming Chandler as both genre and literature, because well-executed genre fiction is as moving and powerful as any other kind of storytelling.
Chandler himself is not available for comment. Meanwhile, the literary world seems to side with Krystal. It continues to draw distinctions between fiction and literature that can be harmless, even beneficial, since, as NPR reported earlier this year, literature (but not fiction) can do wonders for your brain:
On average, people who read parts of more literary books like The Round House, by Louise Erdrich, did better on those tests than people who read either nothing, read nonfiction, or read best-selling popular thrillers like The Sins of the Mother, by Danielle Steel.
Generally people don’t read to do better on tests, at least not after high school. We read for reasons that are social, personal, or, as Choire Sicha puts it, aspirational (“which means ‘I want to be the kind of person who buys this book,’ which is less obnoxious than ‘I want to be seen reading this book,’ which is less bad than ‘I want to tell people I’m reading this book.’ I mean not that I haven’t done all those things, so you know.”)
Literature targets the aspirational reader. It wins the big prizes, garners the highbrow reviews, and enjoys pride of place on carefully curated bookstore tables. And, unfortunately, it remains a bit of a boy’s club.
Krystal, guardian of the literature gates, uses masculine pronouns to refer to writers throughout his piece, whereas the more democratic Grossman is careful to refer to writers of both genders. Accidental? Irrelevant? Not when so much is at stake. Books by women shunted aside as mainstream or women’s fiction may not lose out on readers—Jennifer Weiner, with her commercially successful but critically overlooked books, is crying all the way to the bank—but they lose out on prestige, “Fresh Air” interviews, magazine profiles, and the like. For women writers especially, the innocuous-seeming practice of sending fiction one way and literature another has demonstrable, detrimental effects.
So while some armchair internet experts point to structure as the key distinction between fiction and literature, and others suggest sophistication, a recent article in the Guardian argues that there is a third, more insidious possibility: sexism.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that, although women read more than men, and books by female authors are published in roughly the same numbers, they are more easily overlooked. Their marginalization by top literary journals, both as reviewers and the reviewed, is confirmed in a yearly count by the organization Vida: Women in Literary Arts.
Perhaps the problem lies not with whether women are published, but how. Lionel Shriver complained when her “nasty book” Game Control was given a “girly cover,” and I’ve listened to female writer friends grouse when their books are given flowery covers at odd with their writing; when reviews, or even their publishers’ press releases, describe their work as “delicate” when it is forthright, “delightful” when it is satirical, or as “carving a niche” when it is staking a claim.
“My own feeling,” said Claire Armitstead, the Guardian‘s literary editor, “is that there is an issue of confidence among women writers.” Yet the female authors I know are bold and ambitious; I’m not sure the issue lies with them.
Jennifer Weiner, presumably, would agree. So would Meg Wolitzer, whose recent essay “The Second Shelf” maintains that “women writers are still fighting to have their work taken seriously and accorded as much coverage as men’s,” and that their books are shortchanged throughout the publishing and marketing process, from trivializing covers on down.
With that in mind, it’s worth revisiting Grossman’s argument for a literary meritocracy, where books are labeled as literature solely on the basis of their sophistication, ambition, and complexity—in other words, their quality, without regard to whatever genre conventions they may also include, or the author’s gender. True, it means that standard bearers like the New York Times will have to learn not to judge a book by its cover, but the rest of us remember that from elementary school. All they have to do is catch up.