There are only two ways to use the word literature. Either it means everything that has been written (as in the “literary language” distinguished from the spoken language) or it means the best that has been written. Think of how the word is used in other contexts. In the sciences, a knowledge of the literature is a ready familiarity with everything that has been published on a subject — to know only some of it, to know only the “settled science” (in the partisan commonplace), is to admit to ignorance.
In certain clearly focused and well-defined fields, it is entirely possible to read and know the entire literature. You can master American slave literature or the literature of supraventricular and ventricular arrhythmias. In fact, the definition of the field eases the acquisition of the knowledge, because it gives rise to canons of relevance, levels of expectation, backgrounds of belief and agreement.
But there is writing that gives rise to a different kind of impulse altogether — the impulse to admire it, to express astonishment at it, to preserve it from loss or destruction, to pass it on to friends and family. This is writing that you like, quite apart from (or in addition to) any knowledge or benefit that you derive from it. As a class or category, as a field of human study, literature is simply that. Nothing more.
Critics have labored for centuries to single out the special qualities and necessary features of literature — it is mimesis, it is sublimity, it is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings — but even though it seems to refresh itself with each new effort, the labor has been defeated again and again. Give me a definition of literature and off the top of my head I can give you nine or ten literary masterpieces outside your borders.
Except as a way of saying “I like this book” (therefore it is literature) or “I don’t like that one” (therefore it isn’t), the word literature is feckless. Literature is simply good writing — where “good” has, by definition, no fixed definition.
For the past quarter century, though, the word has become attached to a species of prose fiction that can best be identified by the via negativa. “Literary fiction” is not “genre fiction” (crime fiction, science fiction); it is not thrilling, exciting, suspenseful, page-turning fiction, ripped from the headlines and set to serviceable prose for comfortable beach reading; it is, as Lev Raphael quoted a best-selling mystery author as saying, fiction where not very much happens to people who aren’t very interesting.
You know what I mean. Literary fiction is serious fiction, although the epithet serious has problems of its own. Some of the funniest writing on earth requires the most careful consideration and thought. The term literary fiction was popularized by the New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, and it has become standard usage for distinguishing fiction of deep and earnest intent from bestsellers and “genre fiction.”
The distinction is bunk. As Catie Disabato pointed out in a wonderful little piece at Full Stop last week, genres are not the niche markets that publishers have cultivated in order to sell books to readers who want to know in advance just what they’re getting: a genre is a “literary tradition that has thrived longer than the modern construct of ‘literary’ fiction.” The tradition of the novel includes mysteries, fantasies, science fiction, romances, horror, even Westerns. The question is not to what subgenre a book belongs. The question is whether it is any good. And if it is good only according to the conventions of a subgenre, and not in the larger tradition of the novel, then it is not any good at all.
Literary fiction — or what the British novelist Linda Grant has taken to calling LitFic — ought to be a haughty way of saying “good fiction.” But that’s not how the term is used. What, then, is it? Easy. Literary fiction (like 98.5% of poetry these days) is written by and for the entrenched bureaucracy of the creative writing faculty in the universities. There is good fiction, there is bad fiction, and there is fiction written in creative writing workshops.