November 19, 2014

BIBLIO-FILES | Literary vs. Popular

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By NATALIE TSAY

Contemporary novels are sorted into two loose categories: “Popular” (also called “commercial” or “mainstream” fiction) and “literary.” Popular fiction can generally be sorted in genres — romance, historical fiction, fantasy — while literary fiction doesn’t fit a specific mold. However, what makes a piece of fiction literary is far from clear and highly subjective. In part because of this, many members of the reading/writing community argue that the term “literary fiction” should be dropped altogether.

For starters, the very comparison automatically establishes that literary fiction is not for the masses. Superb writing, complex characters and often a lack of plot/action are usually aspects of literary fiction while entertainment value is the determining factor for popular fiction. Sticking the term “literary” onto a novel intimates that the majority of readers won’t get it; that they’re either incapable of or uninterested in appreciating the work. Literary fiction is for the aspiring writer, the established writer, the literature student — the scholar both by profession and at heart. What does that say about the people deciding what’s “literary?” Answer: They think higher of their tastes. Certainly it’s not true in every case, but branding fiction as either popular or literary encourages snobbery.

To shed more light on the subject, let’s look at the book that spent nearly two months on The New York Times Bestseller List: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. On the surface, it appears to fit nicely within the mystery/thriller niche. Wife goes missing, husband is the suspect, secrets emerge and plot twists abound. However, Flynn does it so much better than other writers in the genre. Yes, the book is driven by the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Amy, but the characters (arguably the most important part of literary fiction) pull equal, if not greater, weight than the plot. Both Amy and Nick teeter between clever and sinister, and the biggest question is this: Who’s going to prove most twisted? In addition, Gone Girl isn’t really about the crime at all — it’s about the relationship between the couple. The result is a narrative that keeps you on your feet, keeps you questioning every piece of information you’re handed because nothing is what it seems. Flynn’s writing is also laudable: Both characters’ voices are distinct, original and utterly captivating. Transitions between chapters and occurrences are seamless, and nothing is insignificant. Intriguing characters, solid writing, psychological depth — its widespread popularity obviously lands it in the popular fiction category, but could Gone Girl not be considered literary fiction as well?

According to almost every panel for prestigious literary prizes, it can’t. Why not? Because it can’t shake its roots in the thriller genre. Yet Gone Girl isn’t trash, and while it shares much in common with novels in both popular and literary fiction, I don’t think it can be defined as either. These are the kinds of books (entertaining and quality) that make me question whether the label of “literary fiction” is justified or not. The term touts books with real merit and, consequently, overlooks the ones that fall in neither category and completely devalues others.

I don’t want to turn into someone who book-shames people for reading what the higher-ups would deem insubstantial. “Literary snob” is not a name I’d like to call myself, but the emphasis on reading literary fiction, works with real merit, primes me to feel guilty when I read mainstream novels, and I don’t like that. I’m not arguing that we toss out the term altogether — there will always be people who pride themselves on having superior literary appetites, and that can’t be changed. However, sorting books definitively into the categories of literary and popular fiction should be done with caution because many novels make it pretty difficult to do so.

Natalie Tsay is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at ntsay@cornellsun.com. Biblio-Files appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

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