Categorizing books

I am finishing up a post about Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector and I find myself with a bit of a dilemma.  I have all of these nice Categories where I can put fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, essays, classics, and mysteries.  But what do I call a book like The Cookbook Collector, which is a novel with a modern setting and no magic or sci-fi to speak of?

Bookstores and critics sometimes call this category “literary fiction.”  That term makes me cringe.  It carries a lot of implied genre snobbery, suggesting that a book like The Cookbook Collector or Freedom or My Sister’s Keeper is more worthy of being called “literature” than, say, Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky.  Google searching suggests the alternate term “serious fiction,” but that seems to have the same problems.  Subject matter alone doesn’t determine whether a book is “serious” or “literary.”

Do I simply call it “Fiction”?  That doesn’t seem quite right.  “Modern fiction”?  Maybe, but aren’t recently-written mysteries and fantasy novels also arguably “modern fiction”?

For now I’m going with “Realistic Fiction” for novels with modern settings and no other obvious genre category, but I’m open to suggestions.

What do you think of the “literary fiction” label?

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2 comments on “Categorizing books

  1. kerrylanigan says:

    I’m also not a fan of this term, probably because to me it sounds more like it’s meant to be “exclusive,” rather than “inclusive,” about what work carries “literary merit.” It sounds like something stuffy white dudes made up to make sure “chick lit” stays at the bottom of the literary pile. Sorry about all the quotation marks in this paragraph!

    Also, the term makes me wonder about crossovers – for instance The Handmaid’s Tale, or the wildly popular new book, IQ:84. Or what about impeccibly written YA-conscious books?

    (This reminds me to ask you if you have followed the crusade lead by Jennifer Weiner and Judy Piccoult in the last few years, to show the sexism against women authors by reivewing sources, particularly the NYT book review? It all started following the literary drool-fest over Freedom – which I’d LOVE to see you review on this blog. I’m so conflicted)

    • I’d read a Weiner essay on the subject of disdaining “chick lit” but praising similar relationship-heavy fiction by men. I think she’s absolutely right. I also think book reviewers for some of the big publications have really, really odd taste. For example, I remember that Special Topics in Calamity Physics got a ton of good press and major literary-magazine drooling, but as a fan of quirky mysteries I didn’t think it was anything special.

      I haven’t read Freedom yet — it’s on my list, just because it’s been so controversial.

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