Can we or should we make a distinction between “literary” and “popular” writing?”


­­­It is an opinion commonly held that it is simple to distinguish the “classics” of “literature” from mere “populist” scrawlings, and that one can observe this bifurcation through the subject matter, format and author of whichever title is in question. However, on any sort of closer examination, the actual definitions of either of these so-called genres are indistinct and varied to say the least, appear at times even to overlap. Certainly, the general trend is towards an evaluation of the intent of the author, taking into account both style and the work’s elucidation of the human condition. This appears to be a relatively stable Cartesian foundation upon which to base a discussion of the paradigms of literary and popular fiction.

However, the literary merit of a piece of writing and being within the boundaries of “literary fiction” are entirely different matters, and need to be treated as such. This concept of “merit” is even more nebulous than the former, but seems as if it can be very roughly described as the competency with which the writer fulfils the requirements of literary fiction, coupled perhaps with the work’s emotional impact and relevance. “Popular” fiction appears to cover everything else, except in its more elitist use as meaning a successful, and therefore valueless, book. However, it is vital to note that these definitions are not personal opinions or indeed unassailable truths, but instead the product of varied observations, the purpose of this tract being to evaluate their conclusions, veracity and ramifications.


To many, it appears that literature (here used, or rather, misused, synonymously with the term “literary fiction”) is simply the collected works of Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare, give or take a 19th-century novelist or two. Indeed, this assumption that the provenance of the author is the sole credential required for a work to be considered literary is widespread even within this country’s educational system, demonstrating its verisimilitude. I hold this view to be not only rather blinkered, but also anathemic to the very process (for it is a process, rather than an institution) of literary fiction in English: it implies that it is not necessary to have read the work in order to judge its merit. It seems almost an insult to the developing craft of the writer to suggest that it is impossible to ever match the example of the “Old Masters”, to borrow a term. This point of view is paralysing to innovation and progress in any form; consider Copernicus’ irrefutable termination of the plausibility of the heliocentric viewpoint, and its revitalising effect on Western science and philosophy.

Therefore it can be not only invigorating but also illuminating to challenge, or at least review orthodoxies, and this is the method by which the nature of the titular distinction can be best examined.


Dickens is in fact a fascinating writer to consider in this context, because although his works are in the main considered indubitably literary, they appear to be “popular fiction” by definition. An excellent example of this would be his supposedly most mature work, Little Dorrit. Ostensibly, this is a “popular” work – a novel serialised in periodicals, featuring a class-ridden story of redemption by Christian qualities, a victory for virtue over vice and wealth. Moreover, Dickens’ use of caricatures is accentuated further in this novel, and in some cases can be dismissed for reasons of satire; for example Mrs Merdle and the Barnacle clan, but in others seem nothing more than cyphers playing to popular prejudice; exemplified by Monsignor/Monsieur Rigaud/Blandois, the proverbial ‘demonic foreigner’. Not only is this figure’s perfidious nature overadvertised in his appearance and deeds (he is a blackmailer, fraudster and uxoricide, complete with swirling black cloak, evil smile, eyes too close together, and treacherous facial hair), but he is also continually described as “insinuating”, as if to ensure that he does not deceive the reader with his mastery of disguise. This analysis is, of course, unnaturally biased, but it nonetheless serves to illustrate one very valid interpretation of the nature of the novel, and many of the observations therein are equally applicable to Dickens’ other work.


However, Little Dorrit should in fact be considered a work of literary fiction due to various vital features of the text.

It is rather fatuous to attempt to ascertain the author’s motives, as he does not detail them in his introduction, but it is clear that there is an autobiographical element to the work – Dickens’ own father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea, and the young author was the only member of the family not to live entirely within the walls of the jail. However, in the hands of a less skilled artist, the narrative could have easily become a sentimental dereification of a painful childhood. Dickens instead masterfully transmutes the raw experience into the minutae of prison life for a “Collegian”, and translates rather than transfers the emotional landscape of his youth to his fictional characters. The truly literary element is not in this movement of significance from the child Dickens to his adult self’s characters, which could be dismissed as mere ablation, but in the eponymous character. More explicitly, in the significance of the use of the character of Little Dorrit rather than a male avatar for the writer: although Amy Dorrit herself is more or less a simple 19th century “virtuous virgin” figure, her inclusion shows the continuing emotional import of “the Shadow of the Marshalsea” to Dickens himself. There is clearly latent pain here, but the author is manipulating it in new ways, both for resolution in art and to show a truth about the human condition. Therefore, here his use of cyphers is a literary rather than popular device, as it enables the translation of emotion and truth from the writer, through the characters and situations of the novel, to the reader.


To briefly summarise, Dickens uses “popular” techniques to create literary fiction, and this is a clear illustration of the lack of definition between the two supposed genres.


“Genre” fiction is considered to be by definition a “popular” enclave, or perhaps ghetto. Certainly, it cannot be denied without massive cultural relativism that the works of any number of “genre” writers are in the main either commercial products or narrative-driven “books of the film”[1]. However, it does not follow that it is impossible to create a work of literary fiction that is defined as a work of science fiction or fantasy (two much-maligned and separate genres in their own right).

Indeed, the only true difference between a work of fantasy and a magic-realist tract (a genre which many respect as literary in the extreme), is the expectation of the reader and intention of the author. One reads a magic-realist novel constantly searching for meaning among the Roman bus stops and lunatic parades, whereas if the same novel were read in the manner in which fantasy fiction is often treated, then the arch significance of the detail would be dismissed as the creation of a rather derivative secondary world.

This is not to say that the merit of a work lies with the reader, as the author’s intent and talent is also vital, needless to say; a truly shallow or badly-written piece of fiction cannot be analysed at the same depth as a work of genius, and

Is often easily recognised.


Nevertheless, it remains that the prime difference between a novel of fantasy and any other work with a varied descriptive world is that the latter’s metaphorical plane is the former’s ontological truth.

Therefore, the distinction seems to be rather unnecessary, as long as the secondary/fantastical elements of the narrative in question are intended in their significance.


Indeed, elucidation of the human condition can in fact be occasionally more effectively achieved in an imaginary environment. Any vaguely recognisable secondary world can very easily contain myriad “real truths”, because if a world has been generated by a creative and informed human mind, it informs others of the intimacies of that mind by its very fabricated nature. This is exemplified by the significance of mythology to sociologists; the dreams of a society can inform more than its artifacts.

Mervyn Peake uses this technique in a quasi-modernist manner to great effect in his “Titus” sequence of novels, that is to say, Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone. The semiotic density and occluded significance of these works is enormous, and the sometimes ponderous prose emphasises and enhances its presentation of the subject matter. Although the novels are considered ”Gothic”, and sometimes described as works of fantasy, it appears that they in fact easily transcend these boundaries to illuminate without allegory the nature of life within the then-British Empire as seen by the author. It is not that Gormenghast Castle is a metaphor or concealed satirical representation of Empire, or that the gradual ascent of the calculating Steerpike is a fable of working-class encroachment in the least. Here the subject matter is separate from but necessary to project the meaning while remaining a self-encapsulated unit, and neither is complete without the other. Again, this is not a transferring of truths, but a translation to universals: this secondary world is divorced from reality in order that its truths become applicable to any ordered society.


This is entirely the same technique employed by Dickens in Little Dorrit, extended from the provenance of one character to the fabrication of an entire citadel of demented tradition. Peake is using a technique attributed earlier to an indisputably “literary” writer in a work of supposedly “popular” genre. This establishes a degree of the author’s intent, and the technical ability and crypto-semiotic nuances of the text itself are distinct indicators of the novels’ deserved status as literary fiction.


Indeed, the text is in many places Dickensian in tone or content; certainly the use of caricatures with signifying or onomatopoeic names is common to both artists, and many passages in a descriptive or philosophical vein show various similarities.


From Little Dorrit (Ch.XXVIII, “Nobody’s Disappearance”:

“While the flowers, pale and unreal in the moonlight, floated away upon the river; and thus do greater things that were once in our breasts, and near our hearts, flow to the eternal sea”


This extract describes the end of Arthur Clenham’s love for “Pet”, an alluring but spoilt individual, betrothed to a man he knows to be a rogue. The tone is mildly morbid, and also elegiac throughout, enacting this symbolic death of an emotion. However, the implication of the subtext is that this young lady will eventually be somehow doomed by the nature of her fiancé, and so the images of gradual passing away are more significant and justified with relevance to the rest of the narrative. The use of “flowers” is evocative of the pristine state of life, perhaps, but also of life itself, and so their ghostly description adds to the feeling of melancholy permeating the passage and its preceding chapter, and the flowing, extended and mellifluous nature of the sentence enacts and perhaps prefigures the eventual dissolution of every living creature. Moreover, the image of ethereal foliage passing away unnoticed on a dark river is also applicable to the case of Amy Dorrit herself, a young girl remaining unbowed by her crushing and unfair responsibilities to her risible but well-loved father, but being somewhat lessened due to her neglect and misjudgement by her family.


From Gormenghast (CH.L)

“They saw that in the air above the basin’d forest there was a change of hue. In the darkness that brooded over the branches there was a subtle warmth, a kind of smouldering dusk that in contrast to the cold moon, or to the glints of light among the trees, was almost roseate”


Here, although the tone of the passage is very different, a similar technique of narrative super-relevance and encapsulation is employed: the extract describes the experiences of the bearers of the blindfolded protagonist as they carry him on a litter to his ritual tenth birthday celebrations. The ablation from the character of Titus here is vital, as it would perhaps be more traditional to describe his sightless impressions, but would detract from the implicit meaning: his experience is not described as this is a scene of immemorial ritual, and so the minutae of character and personality are entirely to be disregarded. The description of the forest as “basin’d” not only hints at the ideas of rebirth implicit in the traditional celebrations in its womb-like shape, but also harks back to the hoary and heady language of the King James Bible. Although the ritual of Gormenghast is secular, the idea of ancient and baroque tradition applies to both.

Moreover, the dichotomy between the “smouldering dust” and the “cold moon” shows the contrasting extremes of Titus’ character; his fierce loyalty to his sister and his rebellion, while also representing the conflict between the comforting but inflexible rituals of the citadel and the unemotional Machiavellian enlightenment incarnated in Steerpike. It suggests, but only suggests, a slight authorial bias towards the former, never fully articulated in the novels; the kitchen youth’s motives and mistreatments are always fairly represented, as shown by the character of the grotesque Abiatha Swelter.


These extracts were selected due to their common techniques, but also because of their quasi-chiasmic juxtapositions of style and author: the first passage seems more apposite to Peake in the shadow of Belsen, the latter appropriate to Dickens in the shadow of the Marshalsea.


Therefore, while the Titus sequence has many of the paraphernalia of the fantasy novel, especially in the third instalment, (floating surveillance devices, predatory owls, labyrinthine catacombs), it conforms in its style and overall intent and subtext to the template of a work of “literary fiction”. The same could be said of Little Dorrit, except that the prevailing orthodoxy has decreed it a literary novel. It appears that there is in fact a discernible distinction between “popular” and “literary” fiction, but it can only be identified on an individual basis of close textual study. Moreover, it is important that constant reevaluation of “accepted” texts takes place, for to do otherwise is to risk paralysis and stagnation in the ongoing process of literature.




[1] This is my own term, referring to the sort of novel that can be translated directly to the screen without any loss of detail or impact. A prime example of this is Max Barry’s Jennifer Government, a highly effective corporate satire which nevertheless, contains no metaphysical depth, and so could be represented with equal import in a film medium.