Litfic, Popfic and All That Jazz

By accident, I entered the murky world of literary debate over the weekend, becoming entangled in a discussion about the difference between literary and popular fiction – henceforth to be known as litfic and popfic.

Now I’ve always thought litfic to be just another genre of a sesquipedalian nature, centred on the human condition (whatever that is…a worldwide outbreak of dandruff?)with characters who are unlikely to live happily ever after, if they survive at all.

Of course I’m dispensing both igorance and prejudice in roughtly equal amounts here but I am genuinely intrigued by this concept of litfic.

Who decides what is litfic? The Writers and Artists Year Book reveals that there are agents and publishers who only…shock, horror…deal with literary works. So, is The Life of Pi litfic or popfic? What about the Kite Runner or Cloud Atlas? Do unfamiliar situations and characters a litfic make? Some in this weekend discussion held that litfic doesn’t have a strong plot and hence meanders aimlessly and bores the reader.

Are the classics litfic? If Jane Eyre were to be updated – young girl falls for married man and wanna-be bigamist; takes off for a gap year doing voluntary work with disadvantaged Northern kids, discovers her true heart through a slightly spooky moment and scampers back to now-widowed and redeemed man. Would this be litfic or chiclit. It’s all beginning to sound like varieties of chewing gum isn’t it?

Those who bat for litfic say that the genre is transformative – the reader is somehow changed through the experience of reading the book. Yet doesn’t popfic leave the reader happy, uplifted, satisfied?

I’m confused.

Oh for goodness sake does it matter? Well I suppose if you set out to be a litfic author maybe it does when you see the sales figures of some of the popfic authors. Then again I’m reminded of the Somerset Maugham short story – The Creative Impulse – in which for various reasons, Mrs Albert Forrester – litfic dame par excellence – decides to change genre and…well read it for yourself.

Isn’t the purpose of literature or even art as a whole to provide the reader, viewer, listener with an “experience” be it transitory or transformative,pleasurable or painful, satisfying or ambivalent, uplifting or depressing, sesquipedalian or terse (that’s just so you don’t have to look it up). I could go on but it’s time to leave the stage and go back to writing non-fic.