So What is “Serious” Literature, Anyway?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way we talk about literature and fiction in our society, how we perceive it and interact with it, and how we interact with others about it. Everyone consumes fiction in some way or another. Some people don’t consume literature much or even at all. But for those of us who don’t just like to read, but actually thrive on it, the conversation gets a little trickier. We book lovers tend to band ourselves together, us against the world, power to the nerds, and only after we’ve publicly aligned ourselves do we realize that we are still trapped in a world of judgement and stigma and shame.

Do you remember when you first realized some novels were taken more seriously than others? I don’t remember the moment, but I remember the feeling with painful clarity. I know I was in some sort of group situation, and that there was an adult talking to us about books, and so I assume it was an English class or a writing class of some sort. I remember that we’d all been talking about our favorite books, and I remember that one of my peers got a different reaction from the teacher than the rest of us did: the teacher expressed approval, even respect, and I was struck with a deep sense of shame over whatever middle grade or young adult novel I had raved about.

When I was just starting high school, or maybe finishing middle school, I asked my older cousin what literary fiction meant. “In literary fiction, the choice of words is just as important, if not more so, than the story is,” he told me. “Commercial fiction is just plot-driven.” I listened, but I didn’t understand. Some fiction was better written than other fiction, this I already knew, but lots of novels had beautiful words and exciting plots. Weren’t those naturally the best?

I’m a little older, now, and I do understand the value of what we call literary fiction; I’ve read it, I’ve written it, I’ve hated it and I’ve loved it. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve also come to better understand the stigma against “commercial” novels. I’m currently in the gray area between child and adult, where no one really knows how to treat me and every thing I say is used as evidence for one stage of maturity or another. Naming Chekov or Fitzgerald or Morrison or another literary great as my favorite author would place me significantly closer to the adult side of things; naming J.K. Rowling, or Sarah Rees Brennan, or another MG/YA author is roughly the same thing as painting the word “CHILD” across my forehead.

That doesn’t mean I’m not still going to name Sarah Rees Brennan.

The thing about stories, and literature, and all fiction, really, is that while there are many mechanical aspects that separate the good from the bad, the value of a story really can only be determined in the hearts of its readers. A novel that moved me, inspired me, changed my life, is a novel that has moved and inspired and changed me, regardless of whether the protagonist is a middle aged alcoholic undergoing a mid-life crisis, or a teenage girl slaying dragons. Harry Potter shaped the way I understand war and violence, family and love, bravery and sacrifice, even though it’s just a kids’ book. Pretty Little Liars held me in its embrace and taught me agency over my body and support for all women and all the different, beautiful, twisted, wonderful ways love can exist in this world, despite being a dismissed, ridiculed teen show. Books belong to their readers and stories belong to their audiences, and every work of fiction you consume is just as serious and significant and powerful as you experience it to be.

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