After setting aside Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road I started pondering what fits the definition of literature. Is the category mostly comprised of “old/dead, white guys”? Is the subject matter supposed to be dark, foreboding and likely to bring about a depressive episode by which you would then turn to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and contemplate suicide? Can any author be encompassed within this title of “literary fiction”? Why? Why not?
The first place I turned was Google. The definitions start off with the following courtesy of freedictionary.com: “the body of written works of a language, period, or culture”. Then of course it goes to the seemingly requisite circular definition “the art or occupation of a literary writer”. Big help there- thanks a bunch freedictionary. But it is this definition which really struck me: “Imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value: “Literature must be an analysis of experience and a synthesis of the findings into a unity” (Rebecca West).”
As you can see there is no mention of gender, nor genre, however I’m sure you could find many people who would feel their most favorite book EVAR fits the bill (popularity as definition of “best” will be Wednesday’s post). But, as I query my little heart out, I am forced into naming the category in which my completed manuscript falls under with these as options: “Literary fiction” or “Women’s Literature/Fiction”. I kid you not. While I understand this is for marketing purposes let’s for a moment evaluate what could be construed as what category. Why is their a separation? First, let me just say, my impressions are with the latter most definition of literature meaning there is artistry involved. It isn’t simply written story telling, but rather an artful use of whatever language in the telling of a story. There is a marked difference. You don’t believe me read an excerpt of Twilight then skip to one from Ahab’s Wife, or The Road.
Now the crux of this: If it is literary why does there need to be a separate category for “women’s literature”? Nothing for nothing here folks but I would assume by the title alone we are relegating a book which probably deals with something women relate to/deal with/live in fear of to the gender of interest while we market the, at the very least, gender neutral but usually masculine toned works to being applicable to everyone universally. Even if the protagonist is a whiny male dealing with adolescence (read: Catcher in the Rye) it is still somehow LITERATURE even thought it’s MALE oriented. So why not “men’s literature” eh there publishing world? [The counter argument here is, of course, books like She’s Come Undone and Memoirs of a Geisha but look up those authors and tell me what gender they are. Then tell me, if you’re a guy- have you read them? Why?]
Now, some classics have managed to evade this wretched excuse for categorization like To Kill a Mockingbird (Scout’s a girl in case you didn’t know) or Jane Eyre but for recent works, let’s say the last decade or so, I don’t know that would have been the case. Okay, perhaps To Kill a Mockingbird but I highly doubt a love story (*gasp*) like Jane Eyre would have been billed as “literature” if it were released now.
I look at literature as something ANYONE can take something from. I’ve read a great deal of masculine toned, male POV works and I’ve read many with women POV characters and the ones I would classify as literature do not fluctuate in quality, just possibly different style/voice/subject matter. The only thing I can think of is us, a society that supposedly operates under the premise of equality, is incredibly near-sighted when it comes to such matters. If it’s a good book then what does it matter?
Perhaps I am seeing this too much from my own bias- a woman who reads a book because she’s been told by a trusted friend/family member it is good- but I wonder… for those of you who don’t generally read genre fiction what are you drawn to? What will you steer clear of, what will you be drawn toward? Be honest…