Is the term “literary fiction” redundant?
“Popular does not necessarily mean poorly imagined,” writes Malcolm Knox in a thoughtful piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. “It’s the innovative language and ideas that define truly great writing.”
What is literary fiction anyway? Usually it is posed as an opposite for “commercial”, and so commercial fiction is what sells in large numbers, and literary fiction is what doesn’t sell. But this ignores the fact that most fiction that is written to a formula, for a mass audience, does not sell any more than non-formula fiction. Your average Australian thriller or chick-lit novel sells no more than a work of literary fiction. And sometimes, as in the case of Tim Winton, non-generic fiction sells in large quantities…
Original writing speaks from the real world, from the concrete. The hostility to cultural elites is based on a supposition that they are detached from real life, that their art is only answering other art. Another supposition is that cultural elites have no standards, that everything is relative.
I reject both suppositions. The best original writing… is grounded entirely in life. … Formulaic writing, on the other hand, is entirely grounded in other writing. This is what cliche is – writing that mimics other writing
… Original writing is always going to threaten such inversions. Formulaic writing on the other hand is going to entrench them, and entertain us while entrenching, by repetition and cliche, what we think we already know. Original writing strives to assign words their true value, not just today’s market price.
So why bother? Because art – invention, original thinking – is the answer. Why write? Because the alternative – silence – is unbearable.
You can read his entire argument here.