Perhaps I was always naive, but when I was growing up I didn't really pick up on the differences between literary fiction and not literary fiction. Probably this had a lot to do with my strongly trashy reading tastes: from Anthony Horowitz to James Patterson via Jodi Picoult, I was never in much danger of accidentally bumping into a Booker Prize winner.
Two things have opened my eyes to this gap. Firstly, I very strongly considered studying Popular Literature at Trinity College Dublin. The course (which, from what I saw of it, I enthusiastically recommend) covers everything from horror to erotica (which was the case before Fifty Shades of Grey), but with the puzzling caveat that if it's something you could study in an English degree, it's probably not an option.
Secondly, my exposure to the publishing industry has backed up this division. Without leaking any details, it's striking that, even before a book is acquired, there is a keen focus on working out who it's to be targeted at. This obviously makes a great deal of sense, but it did surprise me that on more than one occasion concerns have been raised that a book will struggle because it is neither a genre book nor a literary book, but rather a blend of both. The consensus (which, I would stress, I see no reason to doubt) is that the readers of these books have very different tastes, indeed to the point they are not compatible.
Now, genre distinctions make a great deal of sense most of the time. Some readers like romances, while some readers like crime novels - we have long-established conventions in areas like titles and cover designs that enable you to quickly tell which of these categories any single book falls into. Equally, there is almost certainly a sub-genre of 'romantic crime' (or at least there will be, once the current trend for publishing fan fiction expands to include Holmes/Watson slash fiction), and this can again be compartmentalized. You might think it would be nice if we all branched out a little more, but we don't seem to want to, and that's what it is.
My problem is more with the concept of literary fiction as a distinct genre in it's own right, and the implication that if something is 'crime' (or romance, or horror...) it by definition isn't literary. This kind of distinction might look loosely appropriate from a distance, but up close it is both illogical and counter-productive.
To start with, literary books throughout history obviously do have genres. We need only look to Shakespeare, who wrote comedies, histories and tragedies. Even if we follow more recent genre distinctions the same point is true: Hilary Mantel's novels are indisputably historical fiction; Toni Morrison's Beloved is a family saga (with horror elements). The supposed distinction doesn't work.
But the bigger problem is the implication that goes with this mistaken assumption. A typical argument would be that genre fiction is about people doing, and literary fiction is about people being. Genre fiction, you could argue, is all about following through a particular situation, obeying convention and producing a satisfactory conclusion. Everything is predictable, even (in the case of spy thrillers, for example) the necessity of it being unpredictable. It is left to literary fiction, then, to explore big questions. Most readers aren't interested, of course, they just want their weekly dose of angsty romance, masterful sleuthing or kinky sex.
The problem is that all of the best bits of literature lie in the gaps between these two categories. It's all well and good that we have deep-but-inpenetrable literary fiction furthering the minds of the pretentious elite, and that the vast majority of us are reading happily away. But wouldn't it be better if our best, most interesting writers were targeting the mass market - able to lure in thriller readers with a gripping plot that also had time to reflect on the infinite complexity of human life?
This, of course, is what many great writers do - just this week we reviewed Justin Cronin's The Twelve, which is both indisputably apocalyptic sci-fi horror, but simultaneously in many senses a literary book in its grasp of character. But this might well be more true if the book industry desegmentalised itself a touch, which of course is contingent on readers being willing to push themselves from time to time, rather than reaching for the book with the most similar cover to their last read.