AdvertisementLike old Goriot's upwardly mobile daughters, literary fiction has had to turn its back on its miserable origins. Long ago, the novel was condescended to as mere entertainment, and could only envy the cultural status that forms like lyric poetry and verse drama enjoyed. Literary fiction only fully emerged as a self-conscious genre in the later decades of the 19th century, and the gap between it and popular fiction widened in the first decade or so of the 20th.Trollope, for one, cocked a snook at the trend, and in his autobiography he insisted that his "first object" in writing was to rake in the bucks. Bad move. The book's publication in 1883, shortly after his death, pretty much scuttled his literary reputation for years. Compare that Victorian scribbler to a popular British literary figure from our own era of candor: "What I care about is literary durability," Martin Amis has said. "That is all that matters to me, and I'm just happy enough when I have an advance of £250." You've got to marvel at how our most brazen talents go knock-kneed before the ideology of art. Because literary fiction is, by stipulation, fiction that isn't written for personal reward, ensuring its status means roping off the subject of status. To betray a non-ironic interest in money, power or fame would compromise its place in the culture.Not to worry, though. Literary novelists aren't about to run out of material. As for the sordid appetite for advancement, the sullying dream of making it? Leave ambition to us "commercial" writers, congregants of the wire racks. Honestly, she's in good hands. We'll treat her like a goddess.ESSAY Joseph Finder is the author of the novels "Paranoia," "Company Man" and the forthcoming "Killer Instinct."
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