I have this thing about novels being labelled ‘literary’.

What does it mean – ‘literary’? Critics and commentators and publicists and publishers and book blurbs use the term all the time but I can’t find a definitive definition of it. The most succinct I’ve come across (delivered with a metaphorical disdainful sniff) has been – ‘Not commercial’.

So, assuming ‘literary’ is not used pejoratively, it’s – er – good if a book isn’t commercial, so doesn’t sell? Which I suppose means it’s ‘good’ if it’s not popular.

Well a book can be as literary as all get out but if it’s not entertaining it’s not going to get read except by people who are paid to do so or by kind and long suffering family and friends of the author or by people susceptible to Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome.

I know I know. So called ‘literary’ novels do sell, at least some of them, which of course makes them both ‘commercial’ and ‘literary’, but that just reinforces my original question: What does ‘literary’ mean? Why bother to use the label? Is it some kind of literary snobbishness that makes it necessary for a book to be ‘literary’ for it to be ‘good’?

Sad thing is – I lay no claim to anything I write being ‘literary’, therefore it should fall into the ‘commercial’ category, which would imply that it sells prolifically, which it doesn’t, which makes it neither literary nor commercial, which means it’s consigned to a third category.

The Junk Heap of No Name Books by No Name Authors that Hardly Anyone Reads.


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