Culture Writer Zenna Hussain argues that although reading literary fiction can be beneficial in many ways, we cannot disregard the importance of reading for pleasure
Literary fiction has often been held up as the standard for what we should be reading. Defined as novels with a concern for ‘social commentary, political criticism, or reflection on the human condition,’ it is first and foremost rooted in realism, with authentic characters, lifelike settings and writing technique that defies genre.
With more intricate themes and focus on life lessons and deep meanings, literary fiction is generally more difficult to digest. There is a participation aspect, where you must comprehend the implicit and dig deeper. To be fair, multiple studies have shown that reading literary fiction makes readers more able to understood others’ emotions, increase empathy and become better thinkers in terms of being able to deal with disorder and thinking more flexibly.
the fulfilment of genre tropes and expectations makes it seem less serious
This results in a sort of hostility between literary and genre fiction as the fulfilment of genre tropes and expectations makes it seem less serious. Is it better for a book to be universally but shallowly loved such as in genre fiction or well-loved by a few who appreciate every nuance like in literary fiction? This dichotomy can be seen even within the university with the optional module Guilty pleasures: Reading the Historical novel as opposed to the lofty compulsory prose choices of first year, including Crusoe, Austen, and more of the English canon.
The English canon depends on literary fiction. Originally the canon came from the English Catholic church; in the 18th century, there were ‘canon’ Roman and Greek texts to combat forgeries, and by the 19th century, it referred to a book written on a certain subject. But who actually defines canon or literary fiction? Publishing houses, artists, critics, students?
African writers Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Madubuike, in their book The Decolonization Of African Literature, highlight how African literature has to be universal – otherwise ‘what they don’t consider universal they denounce as anthropological atavistic, autobiographical, sociological, journalistic, topical ephemera, as not literary.’ For literary fiction to be literary then, it needs to be universal, but how universal are books written by a group of (mainly) elite white men, during a time when most books barely mentioned diverse characters, let alone have positive representation?
Surely the lasting quality of these books means they have an ability to connect with various audiences, and if they inspired generations, they must have endured for a reason. But did they just stay because we said they should? Did their definition of classics give them the ability to become classic or did they have a quality to them that genre writing just does not have?
Genre fiction is for entertainment, to escape reality and life, whereas literary fiction is meant to explore the work, to understand it better and the people within it. Maybe literary fiction is better in terms of perceiving and dissecting the world, but we cannot discount the value of pleasurable reading and enjoyability. If we want to expand the reader base and to dissolve feelings of English superiority and literary pretentiousness, we have to look critically at literary fiction and the merit of this categorisation.
Enjoyed this? Read more on Redbrick Culture!