The genre debate: ‘Literary fiction’ is just clever marketing


In the third of our series on literary definitions, Elizabeth Edmondson argues that Jane Austen never imagined she was writing Literature. Posterity made that decision for her: The Guardian

“Genre fiction” is a nasty phrase – when did genre turn into an adjective? But I object to the term for a different reason. It’s weasel wording, in that it conflates lit fic with literature. It was clever marketing by publishers to set certain contemporary fiction apart and declare it Literature – and therefore Important, Art and somehow better than other writing.

The term sneaks back into the past in a strangely anachronistic way, so that, for example, Jane Austen’s works are described as literary fiction. This is nonsense. Can anyone think for a moment that were she writing today she’d be published as lit fic? No, and not because she’d end up under romance or chick lit, but because she writes comedy, and lit fic, with a few rare exceptions, does not include comedy within its remit.

Austen never for a moment imagined she was writing Literature. Posterity decided that – not her, not John Murray, not even her contemporary readership. She wrote fiction, to entertain and to make money.

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