• Member Since 11th Aug, 2013
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A writer should be like fine wine: get better with age.

More Blog Posts180

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Genre Fiction vs Literary Fiction · 12:56pm July 8th

This is a curious topic that popped into my head yesterday, so I thought I'd write about it. That topic is the supposed dichotomy between genre fiction and literary fiction. This is especially pertinent on a website dedicated to writing fiction, in which some authors may even have aspirations to be recognized as published writers. Pretty much anyone who's even remotely familiar with literature should know what I mean by genre or literary fiction, at least intuitively.

Genre fiction (a.k.a. speculative fiction) is fiction written with categorical subject matters that have little to no correspondence with reality; or to put it more simply, fiction written with clear genres in mind. Things like fantasy, sci-fi, horror, comedy, and so on.

Literary ficiton (a.k.a. "serious" fiction) is... well, there's a few prerequisites. First, it's usually written with strict correspondence to reality. If you think about it, real life doesn't have a genre per se. Genres are things always associated with genre fiction, unsurprisingly. The same principle applies to literary fiction, in the sense that it doesn't have a real genre. Sherlock Holmes is mystery. Lovecraft is horror. Anna Karenina? Hard to say, aside from realism.

Second (and more importantly) is the intention and purpose. Genre fiction is more or less written for the sake of escapism and/or consumerist entertainment. You read it to have fun, to "escape" from the burdens of the real world—and this is often accomplished with fast-paced plots, large-scale conflicts, simpler (that is, invisible) prose, and so on.

Literary fiction is written with the aphorism of "art is pain." It's serious business. You write it to make some grand point, or reveal certain truths, about real human affairs, the sort of thing that makes you think about the place you live in, not escape from it. This isn't to say that genre fiction can't tackle complex themes, but the main (and perhaps only) purpose of literary fiction it to tackle complex themes. It's not there to tell an entertaining, page-turning story.

I think the intention behind writing literary fiction is best summed up with these Orwell quotes:

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality.


Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

Another thing that's necessary to mention is familiarity. Genre fiction on the whole adheres more to familiar plot structures, prose styles, and general conventions. This makes sense, since a story that breaks every convention is a hard sell. I doubt someone like Dostoevsky would get accepted in the modern day publishing industry.

Meanwhile literary fiction pretty much invents the conventions. All the different literary techniques that we know of, or the conventions behind how we ought to write prose or dialogue, can ironically be attributed to writers who did not care for mass market conventions in the first place. There's a reason why, in the 100+ years the Nobel Prize has been around, only one genre/speculative fiction writer has ever verifiably won it.

This is all to infer that genre fiction is treated as a product of entertainment, whereas literary fiction is treated as art, the sort of thing you study in university departments.

But listen, it's really not as clear-cut as that. This is better viewed as a spectrum. You can clearly blur the lines, such as proposing The Iliad or The Divine Comedy as potential genre fiction. And there are mass market books that take place in the real world and involve real people. This is why I raised that second point. The main thing that differentiates the two are not necessarily the content (despite some obvious correlations between one thing and another) but the purpose and intended audience.

So then comes the other question: which one is better? Our intuition tells us that literary fiction is better, insofar as we measure literary merit by depth, character nuance, thought-provokingness, and influence. When we talk about depth or nuance in regards to fiction, we're always talking about qualities as it relates to real life. What is depth? How much a story makes us think or feel? Thinking and feeling do not exist in a vacuum, it has to be founded on something, and that something is the real world. It's like how we measure good acting by how it would compare to a real person genuinely behaving that way.

So when you talk about how nuanced a character is, or how complex the themes are, then reality (assuming reality is a story) would have the most nuanced characters, the most complex themes, and so on. Therefore, literary fiction blows genre fiction out of the water. It's not a comparison. Unfortunately fast-paced plots just don't exist in real life, and human complexity is much more than a character being driven to address a conflict within the confines of a genre.

On the other hand, genre fiction is a lot more fun and accessible. It's understandable when some people accuse literary fiction of being boring, stale, even pointless in the sense that it's just not entertaining. But there's a very clear double standard going on here. Genre fiction will always get a special level of praise when it has so-called "literary merit." Take Dune or LOTR, for example. That literary merit is apropos of the qualities associated with literary fiction which I've described above. But if you're one of those people, you can't possibly rag on literary fiction for being boring, because literary fiction, by definition, has the most literary merit.

I suppose you could make a best-of-both-worlds argument, wherein genre fiction imbued with literary merit balances out both sides, that is, it manages to be page-turning while also making you think. But it depends on what you're looking for. If you just want to read literary fiction, then you're going to hate even the most page-turning Stephen King novel.

I think by now it should be fairly obvious why literary fiction is considered more serious than genre fiction, the same reason why Citizen Kane is considered more serious than Marvel movies. The whole field of literature—what it's made of, what pushes it to exist, what changes it throughout the course of history—is an egotistical art form where you want to be remembered as deep, intelligent, wise, and so on. It's like paintings or sculptures. It's meant to be high-brow. And without that high-browness it basically wouldn't exist, at least not in the way we understand it as.

Let me repeat myself. Genre fiction can tackle big questions, but it does so in a streamlined way that anyone can understand, which in turn undercuts the value. When literary fiction tackles big questions, you generally have to be educated in a lot of different things to get it. That makes it less accessible (and therefore less commercially popular) but everyone, even genre fiction enthusiasts, recognize it as more respectable and "serious," even if they may not get any personal enjoyment out of it.

Point is, if you're a serious writer, or you regard yourself as a serious writer, or you want to one day became a serious/great writer, you have to ask yourself, "Do I want to either win the Nobel Prize in Literature, be nominated for one, or be considered to sit within that standard, if not surpass it?" If not, then you really can't call yourself a serious writer, no more than a fry cook can call themselves a serious chef. It's a narrow set of ambitions that doesn't come to everyone, which incidentally means most fiction is badly written, because the lofty ambitions just aren't there.

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Comments ( 3 )

Interestingly, the classification and "categorization" of what is a "genre" fiction and what is a "literary" fiction, technically forgets that "literary" is a kind of genre. Despite the high brow critics who might have previously upheld this idea that literary is somehow separate and different, the truth is that the term is anything but definitive.

Someone like Mary Shelley, considered one of the first woman writers, technically wrote a "genre" fiction story in the form of Frankenstein, but she's still considered a studied "literary" author. Other examples include Cormac McCarthy, Edgar Allen Poe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, etc. The term isn't solid enough to avoid the blending of other "modes," I guess.

The alternate classification tends to use the terms "popular" vs. "literary", but runs into the same problem, anyway. For example, we'd consider Shakespeare a "literary" figure, but he was a "popular" writer back in his time, and in the 19th century of America. How else could one parody him in folk tales and stage productions if he was not popular with the audience that would view such things?

Of course, this isn't to suggest that distinction doesn't exist. As you point out, literary tends to be "character" driven, i.e., focused on the inner nuance of characters; they tend to be slower paced, more thoughtful, less "active." Genre is more "plot" drive, faster, and active.

It's a curious dilemma that critics make - meanwhile, I think the average reader probably doesn't care about the distinction. So long as the story can be read and accessed - even if it requires a bit difficulty, as is the case with some literary fiction - the story gets read, and the reader and writer may even end up satisfied.

(It's funny you should write this blog now, because it's actually the topic of my senior thesis paper, and this has been on my mind since I began starting to research for it lol)

Yeah, you can blur the lines and point to things like 1984 or Frankenstein. Genre fiction isn’t necessarily about taking place in the real world, that’s just a common pattern you can notice. There’s a familiar heuristic bias of confusing a statement with its inverse, that is, if you notice virtually no literary fiction has fantastical elements, it’s easy to think literary fiction is defined by not having fantastical elements.

Aside from popularity, which like you said isn’t a very good metric, I think literary fiction is better defined as when the author undertakes to set out some vision of life, something which has insight into the human condition and that will hopefully make us think about the real world in a different way. Genre/speculative/commercial fiction is more about the author playing upon and releasing stock emotions and stereotypes already present in the mind of the audience, so that they can be entertained in that way.

Literary fiction is also, most probably, a more "modern" invention. I'd argue that many of the oldest stories in the world are primarily genre, if only because they kind of invented all the stock items of today.

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