For me one of the sharper delights of the piece is its implication that along with “literary fiction”, literature itself began in the 1980s. As some below-the-liners at the Guardian comment, it seems shortsighted–especially on the part of someone whose academic specialism is the early history of the novel–to associate “literary fiction” not with actual literature but with a rebranding exercise from the Thatcher era.
Mullan’s snobbery is canonically based. He loves 18th & 19th Century fiction. Yet here he contributes marketing effort to a product that is shallow & trendy, as well as, at times, wafer-thin in terms of its own models and ambitions. His Guardian piece is written into media time–gossip time–in which deep literary history is what your mum read when she was your age.
I’m not claiming that, just because literary fiction as described by John Mullan can be shown to have the features of a genre, some other genre therefore deserves to be the princess of everything; only that literary fiction as described by John Mullan (“What is literary fiction? It is not genre fiction.”) can be shown to have the exact features of a genre. It can be shown to have a successful business model, strict boundary conditions & a committed fanbase which doesn’t read anything else (except very occasionally and for something it calls “guilty pleasure”).
It is interesting to visit the Cheltenham Festival, literary fiction’s equivalent of the annual British Science Fiction Convention, & observe these parameters & constraints in operation. How is it that when conventional behaviour supports crime fiction, fantasy, romantic fiction or science fiction, it is a laughable, even disturbing thing; yet when it supports a certain kind of reader, in pretty, comfortable conditions, with nice food & wine, in a pretty English setting, it is a fine, celebratory thing ?
Don’t feel you need to answer that. The point is not intended to be divisive anyway, but inclusive:
If science fiction and “literary fiction” so clearly share the social, structural & economic qualities of a genre or marketing category–a clear & obvious commodification–is it any wonder that both so often represent the very worst of what writing has to offer ? The effect of “literary fiction” on literature has been as destructive as the effect of the sf & fantasy genres on the fiction of the imagination. It has reduced surface to a kind of Farrow & Ball blandness, experiment to some clever jokes & humanity to charm. It’s the fictional equivalent of John Lewis.
A few books to read if you are offended by the deep ordinariness of both literary fiction & science fiction: The Journal of Albion Moonlight by Kenneth Patchen, Ice by Anna Kavan, Manhattan Transfer by John dos Passos, Concrete Island by JG Ballard, The Erasers by Alain Robbe Grillet, The Naked Lunch by William Burroughs. & if you really can’t get the contemporary litfic monkey off your back, at least read The Bridge of the Golden Horn by Emine Sevgi Ozdamar or get yourself some Aleksandar Hemon.