One afternoon in 1984, an editorial colleague of mine came back to the office hugging herself with delight at the delicious linguistic artifact her film-scout companion had bestowed on her at lunch. The wonderful new movie-biz coinage she shared with us was the phrase “high concept,” which needs no explanation now, but which then contained, ab ovo, the whole subsequent history of the Hollywood film.
I can’t be as specific about the year when a phrase equally full of portent for the publishing business, “literary fiction,” came into use. Sometime in the early 1990s feels about right. You can’t use it without feeling mentally slack and lazy, but it is ubiquitous publishing shorthand. Push in on it, unpack the forces that have made “literary fiction” a necessary formulation, and you might just see why the writers and publishers of serious fiction are unsure whether its needle points toward commerce or art.
When I first started working as an editor in the late ’70s, there were categories of fiction, of course. “Commercial fiction” referred to thrillers and such aimed at the best-seller lists instead of the forebrain, and the genres and niches each had their designations—“crime” or “mystery fiction,” “romance fiction,” “horror fiction,” “science fiction,” et cetera. Everything else of a made-up prose nature was simply “fiction.” Differentiating judgments were made about such works’ high- or middle-browness, their appeal to a male or a female readership, but publishers and booksellers still felt comfortable with the baggy, inclusive term.
As vague a categorical designation as “literary fiction” is, it bestowed on non-genre novels the gift or illusion of a brand, a more secure niche and identity within the expanding universe of consumer goods. As critically meaningless as a term may be that can apply to such wildly disparate works as Sue Monk Kidd’s sentimental blockbuster The Secret Life of Bees and David Markson’s radical anti-novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, its acceptance and use signified publishers’ acquiescence to and accommodation of new marketing and retailing realities. It is both a comfort and a necessity for editors anxious to know what sort of books they are acquiring and for salespeople needing to know what sort of product they are selling.
I remember the meeting at Penguin in the middle ’80s when the notion of putting bar codes on our books first came up. I could see why such a thing would be helpful for our self-help and reference and practical books, but Penguin was a pretty high-toned place and for most of our titles it just seemed unnecessary. “What, do you think that Waiting for the Barbarians and The Grapes of Wrath are going to be sold in some supermarket or mall?” I sarcastically asked, demonstrating the same far-seeing percipience that a decade earlier had me predicting the swift disappearance of the newly launched People. Soon enough, our operations manager was reading Barcode News.
Both the publishing and the bookselling businesses have grown in size, complexity, and corporate sophistication ever since, in classic push-me/pull-you fashion. Most publishing houses of any size are parts of huge media conglomerates, which have imposed their own requirements for strict accounting, consistent growth, and managerial accountability. The bookstore chains now account for the lion’s share of book sales in the country, much of this business fueled by the proliferation of the 50,000-title (and up) superstore, itself made possible only by the digital technology (and those bar codes) necessary to track and manage a huge product inventory. Borders and Barnes & Noble now stand cheek by jowl off the interstate next to Bed, Bath & Beyond and Home Depot, and a surprisingly wide variety of books may be found at Target, Costco, and Sam’s Club (albeit saddled with a brutally short shelf life, which skews the selection decisively toward books that sell quickly—that is, already minted best-sellers). Even many independents like Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, and Tattered Cover in Denver have had to hypertrophy themselves to big-box size or focus on online sales to compete and survive.
In some ideal Republic of Letters, such a situation might obtain without significant literary blowback. The novelists would toil away at their visionary labors in their cabins in the woods (or, more likely, their university writing programs) and present them to their publishers with sublime indifference to the means of cultural delivery. But, to invoke T. S. Eliot, there is the mind that creates and then there is the man that suffers—and pays the mortgage and the kids’ orthodontist bills. A palpable pressure to perform presses in on editors and novelists alike, and a sense that one has to not only write and edit as well as one can but be adept at gaming the system.