For a good while as Wet Asphalt was coming together, I was operating under the mistaken impression that I was the first person to describe the sort of boring, watered down prose-product written by graduates of MFA programs as "workshop fiction." This was naive, I admit.
Elizabeth Clementson, the co-owner of Ig Publishing, used the term as early as June 2005, and I suspect that there are earlier instances.
That a term is necessary for the genre is abundantly clear to anyone who is half awake. For a long time, the sort of fiction that wasn't Mass Market, Genre, or Popular fiction was described by publishing sales people as "literary fiction" in order to distinguish it from the traditional Pulp genres as well as the more recent genres, like Spy Thrillers, that dominate the paperback rack at the supermarket. I think what the marketing types who came up with the descriptor had in mind was that this would be the catchall for the ambitious or Artfully Written novel that didn't neatly fit the in some other genre like Adventure or Science Fiction. The not so subtle implication of the term is that this is work that matters, that is written in the grand tradition of Melville, Hemingway, Shakespeare, Proust and Milton. The unspoken but heavily implied sentiment being that literary fiction is the Great Literature of the Future; the stuff that might turn up in an English Lit Canon written by Harold Bloom had he been born a hundred years from now. The idea is that all those other genre's are concerned merely with being product to be sold in order to make the writer and publisher, and their agents and lawyers, money. But this genre, the ad execs imply, is for those writers whose aims are higher. This is the art-for-art's-sake writing. These books are important
Of course, this connotation, as it winks coyly at the book buyer, renders "literary fiction" a gross misnomer. What's worse is that its ingrained usage as a marketing term has so debased the once normative word "literature" simply by cheap etymological allusion that, unfortunately, "literature" now means "literary fiction" means—in contemporary letters—"workshop fiction."
So where does that leave the writer who wishes to write ambitious, interesting fiction but does not want to have anything to do with the conventions of the writing workshop?
Obviously a new term is needed and one that doesn't apply to a genre so much as a class of work. It's a tall order. Whatever phrase was used would have to embrace Herman Melville and Joseph Konrad as equals with Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald and place them all on a level with William S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick. For a while I thought that Fine Art Fiction might be workable, but it sounds much too academic. I have to admit that at this point, I'm at a loss, so I'm going to open it up to Wet Asphalt readers, all fifty of you, to register and make suggestions. You will not win anything and no victor of this "contest" will be declared, but if somebody comes up with something particularly good, I'll certainly start using it, and who knows, maybe it will catch on. And then you too can be Elizabeth Clementson.