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Literary Vs Genre Fiction: Why The Controversy?

What is literary fiction? How about popular fiction? In this blog post, I'll discuss the controversy behind the divide.


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You walk into a bookstore, and find a section titled ‘Literary Fiction.’ Or, you submit your application to a creative writing postgraduate program, only to be told they don’t accept ‘genre.’ An author complains that a ‘popular, erotic author’ is getting a higher advance.

Welcome to the ongoing debate in publishing: the difference between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction. In this blog post, I’ll answer four questions about the divide. Although I will not provide all the answers, I hope that I’ll stimulate a wider discussion.

What Do Those Terms Mean?

Writers, critics and publishers will rush to tell you that ‘literary’ fiction is serious, artistic, and that deals with big themes that dominate our society. For example, Jeffrey Eugenides The Virgin Suicides is an example of literary fiction. Other authors include Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Toni Morrison and Zadie Smith. Often, these books win prestigious prizes such as the Man Booker prize, or even the Nobel Prize in literature. 

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Overall, literary fiction is marked by difficult prose and endings, as well as unlikeable characters and not belonging to a strict genre category.

On the other hand, genre, or popular fiction, fits nicely into groups. Romance, science fiction, crime, children’s, etc. They tend to sell well, and these books have likeable characters and satisfying endings. J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a fantastic example of genre fiction, both fantasy and children’s literature (at least for the first few books). Key authors include James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Orson Scott Card and Stephen King.

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Genre Fiction is rarely, and I mean rarely, listed for prestigious prizes.

What About Authors Who Do Both? Like David Mitchell?

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There is nothing stopping an author from writing a story that has a science fiction setting, but still is character-driven. David Mitchell is a fantastic example, with books such as The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas proving that genre can tell stories that are just as compelling as a novel by Nabokov.

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Yet ultimately, Mitchell’s work, as well as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, McEwan’s Machines Like Me and Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant are still listed as literary fiction. Why?

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Because they still share many traits of literary fiction: uncertain endings, emphasis on prose, and are significantly character driven. Unfortunately, you can’t use Never Let Me Go as proof that the literary world is embracing science fiction. They treat the sci-fi elements as a mere accessory, or as something the author is ‘above’ being.

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It seems that eventually, authors must choose between literary or genre. And that is draining. Books aren’t meant to be divided into two neat categories.

What Are The Positives And Negatives Of This System?

The biggest upside is that it makes publishing and promoting books alot easier. Whilst we may loathe science fiction and fantasy being at the back of the bookstore (although things are changing), it’s there because it must work for the respective store.

Considering that millions of books are published yearly, there must be a system that shifts through books, and divides them into categories. But there should be a better one. 

The negatives outweigh the positives, in my view. To list a few:

  • It teaches genre authors that they can never produce art, and because of that, they write in a way that does not aim to be ‘literature.’ Really: it encourages genre authors to be mediocre, and punishes readers who dare to have expectations
  • It presumes that character-driven storytelling is superior to plot-driven novels. (Whoever believes that clearly never studied Shakespeare or the Greek poets.)
  • It makes the assumption that books that are miserable or with dull, unsatisfying endings are superior to those with ‘happy’ endings. (Why? What is so realistic, or better about misery?)
  • It argues that books ought to not meet reader’s expectations.
  • It favours realism over fantasy and imagination.

All of these are utter nonsense and lack any credibility. I’m an avid reader of books, as well as a writer myself, and I want a good, meaningful story. That means accepting both ‘genre’ and ‘literary’ fiction, as both genres can produce both. Yet the division limits the creativity of authors, creates elitism, and teaches destructive messages about art.

I believe it is possible to write an epic fantasy novel with the prose style of John Steinbeck. Really, what is stopping me? Why must stories have ‘realism’ in order to have worthy criticism about society, human nature or the political landscape? Why are literary scenes- which by all means, should embrace creativity- limiting literature by dividing it into two easy categories?

My argument is to not stop writing or publishing literary fiction. What I’m arguing is that we need a better system for contemporary literature.

What Makes A Book Have Literary Merit? 

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This is a tough question to answer. As said prior, any book can have literary merit, and should be eligible for major prizes. Being character-driven, or bleak, doesn’t mean your book is automatically a work of ‘art.’

For a work of fiction to have literary merit, it must fulfill the following:

  • Well written, with remarkable prose
  • Original thought that presents compelling concepts or ideas
  • An element of beauty- well fleshed out characters, engaging plot or hypnotic symbolism.

That’s it. I can even name some genre works that fulfill them.

Well-written: Anything by Agatha Christie, but especially And Then There Were None.

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Original thought: Different Seasons by Stephen King

Element Of Beauty: Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings

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My point is that ‘literary merit’ is not dictated by a division between genre vs literary. And I wish English professors, publishers, bookstores, and even writers would take note.

Conclusion

This is an introduction to future blog posts about the division between literary and genre, with the aim of building a better system in regards to looking at literature.

Comment below with any thoughts you have about the current state of literature. I intend for this blog post to start discussion, rather than being the closing comment.

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