The review comparing and contrasting the The Senator's Wife and Mermaids in the Basement got me to thinking about how publishers (and readers) classify fiction. For example, The Senator' Wife is considered by the publisher as literary while Mermaids in the Basement is genre (romance) fiction.
The publishing industry uses two broad categories:
- Literary fiction: loosely described as award winning and critically acclaimed. This is fiction that addresses serious issues and is more generally character centric than plot driven. And finally, these are works that use beautiful language that is rich in vocabulary and lyrical in description.
- Genre fiction or "popular" fiction: SciFi, Romance, Horror, Mysteries etc. This is narrative and plot driven writing which is often formulaic, uses simple language and is calculate to create an immediate emotional response.
Here is my rule of thumb: Has the New York Times reviewed it?
Yes, means it was either written by a mega-selling author or it is classified as a literary work. No, almost certainly means it is a popular/genre title.
The thing that keeps coming up for me is that Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Mary Shelly and Mark Twain were never considered "literary" in their time. I am not sure that Jonathan Swift, Alexander Dumas or Sir Thomas Mallory were either.
What these authors have in common is that they have have all written books that people are reading and enjoying decades later.
The best definition of literary fiction I have heard is:
Literary fiction is fiction that endures; books that are read and enjoyed a hundred years later.
I would love to be around in 2100 to find out what books have endured and are considered "classics".
What writers will be remembered and read? Will it be Nora Roberts, Steven King, John La Carre or (heaven forbid), Dan Brown?
Or will the whole idea of literary fiction and books be a quaint old fashioned curiosity?