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06-06-1999, 02:02 PM
While wandering around a new bookstore in my area a thought that had been niggling at the back of my mind for some time finally came to light as I noticed a " Literature" section and a "Fiction" section.

Who decides what book is literature and what is fiction?

Does anyone have any fiction book they think should be required reading in todays schools?


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Bigamy is having one wife to many. Monogamy is the same. - Oscar Wilde

06-06-1999, 02:42 PM
I've notice this as well. Who are the bookstores, to tell us what qualifies as literature?

Used to be that the only distinction beyond genres (mystery, SF. romance, etc.) was "classics". This was basically anything that was still in print some 50 years or more after its first publication.

But, now, bookstores seem to feel the need to let us know the difference between "light" reading (King, Crichton, Grishom, etc.) and "good" reading (Thomas Wolfe, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, etc.)

A library would never have the gall to do such a thing. Apparently some booksellers feel they know better than, we the unwashed masses, when it comes to deciding what literature is.

Don't even get me started on how they determine the difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy of Mystery and Suspence!

06-06-1999, 02:55 PM
It's not the booksellers, it's snotty academics who decide what is literature.

It's generally agreed that a work must demonstrate lasting merit in order to be considered literature. Thus, most of the writers found in that section are dead.

06-06-1999, 03:23 PM
There shouldn't be a distinction. I could be considered a snotty academic (see the "But is it proper English?" thread) but to me, if it's a story somebody invented, it's fiction, regardless of the time period in which it was written or how deceased the author is.

One of the few things I liked about working at Chapters (Canada's answer to Barnes & Noble) is that they had one big honking huge general fiction section that contained everything from Homer to Grisham. They also had smaller horror, mystery, erotica, romance and science fiction/fantasy sections.

That having been said, they were a little keen on classifying certain philosophical texts into "general fiction". I don't know how many times I had to reclassify Boethius' Consolation of Philosphy into Western Philosphy from General Fiction. After 3 tries I stopped sending section change requests to Head Office. Ignorant goons.

Part of the problem is that larger bookstores tend to hire people who don't know and don't care where books should be sectioned. Don't blame the academics, blame the store management that hires high-school dropouts who are happy to accept minimum wage.

06-06-1999, 03:38 PM
As a former elementary school teacher, I remember the curriculum guides (and assorted know-it-alls) refered to story books and picture books as "literature". This "literature" included THE CAT IN THE HAT and THE HUNGRY LITTLE CATAPILLAR. Classic books, yes, but I thought "literature" was pushing it.

06-06-1999, 04:19 PM
Let's not get paranoid here. Books are placed in different categories as a marketing tool. The idea is the customer should be able to find a section that contains the type of books he or she likes. So the bookstores are not making a judgment that "literature" is better or worse than "mystery" or "romance". They just figure some readers like V.S. Naipaul, some like Ed McBain, and some like Barbara Steele.

06-06-1999, 05:41 PM
Okay, webster says:


lit*er*a*ture (noun)

[Middle English, from Latin litteratura writing, grammar, learning, from litteratus]

First appeared 14th Century

1 archaic : literary culture

2 : the production of literary work esp. as an occupation

3 a (1) : writings in prose or verse; especially : writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest

(2) : an example of such writings <what came out, though rarely ~, was always a roaring good story --People>

b : the body of written works produced in a particular language, country, or age

c : the body of writings on a particular subject <scientific ~>

d : printed matter (as leaflets or circulars) <campaign ~>

4 : the aggregate of a usu. specified type of musical compositions <Brahms piano ~>


If ALL of these things are considered "literature", it seems to me that the whole store is one big "literature" section.

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The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
-- Henry David Thoreau

06-06-1999, 07:33 PM
It's all marketing. There is a certain segment of the population that will read "literature" that wouldn't be caught dead reading "fiction" on the plane. It doesn't matter what the books really are or who wrote them; it's the perception that's important. I suspect that what books are shelved in what section varies depending on the demographics of where the bookstore is located. (In fact, I strongly suspect there are some books shelved in both sections.)

Just to give an example, I would suspect that Poe is filed in literature probably because a good number of people who would read Poe would never go into the Mystery or Horror sections. (Note: I have no idea where Poe is filed in a bookstore; I've never looked.)

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"You can't run away forever; but there's nothing wrong with getting a good head start." --- Jim Steinman

Dennis Matheson --- Dennis@mountaindiver.com
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06-06-1999, 10:28 PM
Personally, I think they divide literature and fiction for the sake of the borderline illiterate. There are plenty of folks that want to find the latest Grisham or Robbins without having to wade through all the Thoreaus and Dickens.

Might I point out (as another poster did earlier with the "literature" definition) that not all literature is fiction.

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"The day after tomorrow is the third day of the rest of your life." -George Carlin

06-06-1999, 10:47 PM
May I recommend some outside reading on the subject? Being as 'What is Literature?' is indeed a question snotty academics have been professionally pondering for eons, there's been quite a bit written on it.

The forward to Terry Eagleton's book 'Literary Theory' is one of the few specimens of said pondering that doesn't actually hurt your teeth when you read it.

Currently, there are significantly fewers writings on the process and theory of arbitrarily chosen corporate bookstore divisions. This is an unfortunate lack. Perhaps somebody should get on that.

06-07-1999, 01:54 AM
Well, I happened to be in a bookstore today, looking for a certain book* and, not finding it where I expected it to be**, checked the "Literature" section***. The books shelved there were those that might be considered "Classical Literature" (e.g. Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Steinbeck, Twain, etc.) rather than contemporary authors.

Papabear: Some avoid that problem by having combined Science Fiction/Fantasy and Mystery/Suspense sections, rather than separating them.

*101 Dalmations.
**The juvenile section was where I looked first.
***It wasn't there either.

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"We're gonna have lawyers here. It'll be a fun time."
--R.R.S.

06-07-1999, 10:31 AM
Generally, the publishers put the category on the side of books. So the decision is purely marketing, and is often not made by the bookstore.

F'rinstance, most of the Straight Dope books have the category "reference" printed on the spine, but at least one is labelled "humor."

The idea is that the publishers consider that most of the folks working in bookstores are to ignorant to know where to put books on the shelves, so they (the publishers) tell them.

06-07-1999, 10:40 AM
This is one of the reasons why I rarely go to any bookstrores anymore. I'm a complete Amazon whore (or B&N). Sure, I miss out on the $4 coffee, but I can find what I'm looking for in seconds and have it delivered to my door in just a few days. Now, if I could just get them to bring a pizza with it...

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"I think it would be a great idea" Mohandas Ghandi's answer when asked what he thought of Western civilization

06-07-1999, 11:01 PM
I could never give up my bookstores. I've found some of my favorite books browsing shelves randomly. That's how I discovered Robin Hobb (Farseer), L.E. Modesitt Jr (Recluce), Lisanne Norman (Sholans)...

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"We're gonna have lawyers here. It'll be a fun time."
--R.R.S.

06-07-1999, 11:28 PM
Literature:when fiction copy rights run out, and it's still reprinted, it's literature.

06-07-1999, 11:38 PM
And how come autobiographies about non-famous people (i.e. Angela's Ashes) are under essays or literature and not non-fiction or biography?