The death knell has been sounded for literary fiction often enough that it's great to see someone cheering it on. But when Francesca Main added the words "Go print" to a tweet celebrating the strong performance of literary paperbacks, it was enough to launch a fierce debate about what literary fiction is really for.
For the ever-provocative Julian Gough, the fact that only 5% of literary fiction sales were electronic was evidence that "literary fiction has lost the next generation". "What is it that literary fiction does, that isn't done as well or better by other genres and newer artforms?" he asked.
Answers were many and varied. But as one of that literary ebook-buying 5%, I think Max Cairnduff hits the mark the closest with his one-word answer: "prose". Literary fiction can be about anything, so long as it's beautifully, intriguingly, surprisingly, gorgeously written, so long as it's brilliantly constructed – from the word, to the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, the novel and beyond.
What is unique about literary fiction? Basically, it has to be good: it doesn't matter what it's about or how it's told. And that goes for every topic under the sun. Obviously. I'll cite Tom Franklin's Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter as a case in point (partly because it's on my desk). It won the Gold Dagger award, so ostensibly it falls under crime fiction, but the quality of Franklin's writing would see off many a lit-fic wannabe. The arbitrary ghettos created for genre are ripe for razing, but let's not forget that the excellence of literary fiction is still worth celebrating.
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