• Amy Hay

Here's The Rub: Literature vs Popular Fiction

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

Like some dreadful Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole, you can delve so deep into the “literature vs popular fiction” debate that you disappear entirely, only to reemerge as bemused as you were before. I shall by no means attempt to rehash the old argument; rather, this blog post attempts to point out the subject that is truly missing from it.

Is It Literature or Popular Fiction?

For those of you who have never explored this topic, it's a core question for literary enthusiasts. Literary critics and academics classify works of fiction into two distinct camps: it’s either literary fiction or popular fiction — it can't be both. To keep the explanation brief, I shall direct you to a short Masterclass article on the rudimentary “distinctions” here.

But wait, you think as you recline in your chair and mull over the subject with more thought, most of the definitions and phrases in this argument are… generic. The arguments revolve around preexisting feelings toward certain books. It seems like only academics are the ones deciding what’s “literary” and what is “popular”. (This “genre” vs. “literary” makes me feel like I’ve wandered into the book world version of conservative vs. liberal.) Can’t literature be popular? And can’t popular fiction have literary devices? Do academics think popular fiction is poorly written? What if it’s well written? What is the definition of ‘well written’ anyway? I read mostly popular fiction … do they think I’m too dumb to fully understand and appreciate literary fiction? Popular fiction writers can be as perceptive of the human condition as ‘literary’ writers, right? We need to start hashing out some real examples that straddle both categories. But… would everyone agree with the examples I provide?

Welcome to the threshold of the rabbit hole.

I wholeheartedly agree with Douglas E. Cowan who states:

“As much as anything, these debates disclose the often petty and

manufactured distinctions between genre fiction and “serious literature,”

suggesting almost nonsensically that readers who embrace one cannot enjoy

the other. By ignoring or rejecting [certain] writers [and their work]… critics

reinforce these arbitrary notions of taste, of distinction, as the French

sociologist Pierre Bourdieu put it, of highbrow versus lowbrow art.”

Here’s the rub: this tiresome debate inherently dismisses the most important person in the room — the reader. Whether or not one’s work impacts the reader is, and should be, the most important factor in determining a work’s value to society.

Writers feel every experience deeply, intensely. The only way to fully extricate ourselves is to pour all of our emotions into the characters we create, shove them mercilessly into the strange and haunted places of our heart, and carefully document what happens. The agony of transcribing this process onto the page is only made worthwhile when it resonates with the reader. It is the most powerful and rewarding form of intimacy we have to offer.

Writers don’t make noise on paper to please themselves. Whether you write a little or a lot of dialogue, use plain symbolism or deep symbolism, develop plot or develop character (you should do both), writers long to communicate with their readers, to illuminate the way in which they see the world.

If the reader connects intimately with a work of fiction— regardless of genre, embedded literary elements, or its “assessment of the human condition”— you’ve done your job as a writer and storyteller.

Why Read?

At its core, the literature vs popular fiction debate attempts to subscribe what you should or shouldn’t read.

The late American literary critic, Harold Bloom, managed to rise above the debate and asked the more meaningful question: “Why read?”

In his book, How to Read and Why, Bloom provides the answer:

“Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you,

because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures. It returns

you to otherness, whether in yourself or in friends, or in those who may

become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates

loneliness. We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but

because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear,

overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial

and passional life.

“. . . We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot

know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves

better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way

things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading of the

now much-abused traditional canon is the search for a difficult pleasure.

“. . . I urge you to find what truly comes near to you, that can be used for

weighing and considering. Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to

contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads.

“. . .The ultimate answer to the question ‘Why read?’ is that only deep, constant

reading fully establishes and augments an autonomous self. Until you become

yourself, what benefit can you be to others?”

Don’t let anyone tell you what you should or shouldn’t read.

Read all of it.

Find those special books that speak to you and take you somewhere fantastical. After reading the final page, you’ll look up to find yourself back in the real world and realize you’re a different person than you were before.

Image credit: Enjoy this literary cartoon by Tom Gauld? See more here and support his work!

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