As you can tell from the preceding sentence, I am not among the lit-crit crowd. I love genre fiction, which has been my preferred reading matter for my entire life. As an English major, I put in the required four years of reading literary masterpieces. Some of them I loved--I've read and re-read Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and War and Peace several times each--but many of them I hated. (Get thee behind me, House of the Seven Gables, Moby Dick, and Portrait of a Lady!)
David Lubar's hilarious A Guide to Literary Fiction expresses my point of view on most literary fiction I've read. As he concludes,
One final hint. If you're ever in doubt about whether a story is literary, there's a simple test. Look in the mirror immediately after reading the last sentence. If your eyebrows are closer together than normal, the answer is yes.
(This is off-topic, but funny: According to Lubar's Little-Known Literary Facts, "Research into the archives reveals that Herman Melville was far ahead of his times. His working title for Moby Dick was actually Whaling for Dummies. His publisher changed it without informing him.")
I like books that have a happy ending, or at least an optimistic ending. I've experienced enough tragedy in my own life--I don't want to wallow in the miseries of others. Obviously, negative dramatic events are essential to a book's plot--how else do you put your main character in jeopardy? If I read about someone else's tragedy, however, I want the story to end on a positive note. I don't want to toss and turn through a sleepless night after reading a book whose ending can be paraphrased as, "Abandon hope: life is futile." That seemed to be the message in a lot of the literary fiction I've read.
Booksquare has had a couple of interesting posts recently on genre. Check out "A Rose By Any Other Name: Has Genre Become Irrelevant?", by Pam Jenoff, who "has experienced the ping pong nature of genre designation firsthand (and survived to tell the tale!)," and Why Did the Reader Cross the Aisle?, in which Booksquare (a.k.a. Kassia Krozser) wonders, "The question roiling in the scary place that is my mind is whether or not strict genre categorization serves a book well."
In an excellent post on Teleread, Isabelle Fetherston discusses "Why libraries should offer popular fiction--in both print and e-book formats." She points out that in the 19th century, most libraries didn't carry fiction at all, because librarians believed that reading novels weakened the mind. After libraries began admitting fiction to their collections, many librarians still limited their fiction purchases to classic or educational literature, disdaining books that had popular appeal. In the last 50 years, however, "reader choice has gained more acceptance among librarians—as an important aspect of intellectual freedom." Fetherston says,
The American Library Association even promotes a “Freedom to Read” statement, which includes the following quotes: “The freedom to read is essential to our democracy” and “There is no place in our society for efforts to coerce the taste of others, to confine adults to the reading matter deemed suitable for adolescents, or to inhibit the efforts of writers to achieve artistic expression” (emphasis mine).
She notes, however, there is still a cadre of librarians who believe they should choose what their users read:
In an opinion piece in the December issue of American Libraries, David Isaacson does not object to all novels. But he does “question the argument that libraries should go out of their way to acquire romance novels, thrillers, and other kinds of literature whose primary purpose is escape and titillation.”
Now that makes me angry. If escape and titillation are what I want, it's not Isaacson's place to say I can't have it. I want libraries to include all kinds of fiction in their collections, whether classic, "improving," or "escape" novels.
Let's face it, popular fiction IS genre fiction. Although literary fiction does hit the bestseller lists, those lists are overwhelmingly populated by genre novels. These are the books that satisfy reader fantasies. Including mine.