The Literary/Genre Divide

What are “literary fiction” and “genre fiction”—and do these classifications even mean anything?

Dale Stromberg
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On occasion, confusion arises among authors about the definitions of “literary fiction” and “genre fiction” and whether these classifications mean anything, or even whether “literary” isn’t just another genre. Here’s my take on the terms:

Literary fiction makes the familiar unfamiliar.

Genre fiction makes the unfamiliar familiar.

These definitions are far from perfect—humor writing, for example, doesn’t necessarily fit well into either—but I find them helpful in framing the debate.

Making the Familiar Unfamiliar

  • Literary fiction finds insight and poetry even in prosaic matters, discovering magic in the mundane, tragedy in the typical.
  • It holds up a mirror to the reader. Its goal is to make reality new.
  • Sometimes it employs innovative language which draws attention to itself—one way of jogging readers into new perspectives.
  • It may commit narrative leaps on the assumption readers will know about or infer what is skipped.
  • A common reader reaction: “I’ve never thought of it that way, but that’s exactly how it is.”

Making the Unfamiliar Familiar

  • Genre fiction is generally written to be read not by cowboys or gumshoes (to say nothing of dragonslayers or asteroid miners), but by readers from outside those worlds.
  • It holds up a portal to the reader. Its goal is to make new realities.
  • It often uses ‘invisible’ prose since elaborate or figurative language can confuse when portraying an already unfamiliar world.
  • It may require extensive backstory or ‘worldbuilding’ to fill readers in on context.
  • A common reader reaction is to wish never to come home again.

Not Either/Or

Naturally, plenty of work satisfies both these requirements—making both the unfamiliar familiar and the familiar unfamiliar—which is why the literary/genre divide is an oversimplification. If the author so wishes, genre work can illuminate the human condition. And literary work can include vampires and hyperdrives. Whether to market such work as genre or literary is a marketplace decision, not an artistic one.

(About those marketplace matters: Yes, there is a genre of books for sale labelled Literary. This is a misnomer—one might as well claim there are genres called Nuanced or Straightforward—but, thanks to the industry, we’re stuck with it.)

What about Neither/Nor?

There is also a species of amateurish fiction we might call Bland Contemporary Realism, which eschews the tropes of genre but fails to achieve the texture of the literary. In other words, it “makes the familiar familiar” and is generally a slog to read. Yet somehow, it manages to get published from time to time.

The existence of Bland Contemporary Realism is one argument against thinking of literary fiction as a genre. Badly done science fiction is still sci-fi, while bad so-called literary fiction isn’t really literary, no matter what the bookshelf label says. The literary is a quality that any fiction may possess.

15 Comments

Rellrod

Dale – a fascinating and insightful piece.

To make things even more complicated, frequently genre fiction – SF and fantasy, at least – make the familiar unfamiliar by rendering it through the perspective of the unfamiliar. It’s a truism in those fields that one can address real-world topics by relocating them to the future, or an alien world, or a non-mundane situation – the X-Men as metaphor for racial discrimination, say – and perhaps bypass the filters of readers who might otherwise reject an overtly political, or sexual, or religious work. At that point, the genre work is performing some of the same function as the literary work. But that still fits within the analytical framework of your commentary, I think.

Rick

Dec-20 2020

Onalimb

I applaud the analysis and especially love the term “Bland Contemporary Realism.”

Dec-20 2020

Amichelle

Could you give an example of bland contemporary realism? What I think of as bad literary fiction is generally overwritten, maybe heavy-handed in trying to include themes or make political or social statements. To me bland suggests literary themes that elevate the familiar are missing or too understated to be effective but I can’t think of anything I’d categorize that way. Except for some first-drafts I’ve read but I give those a pass since the writer is still working on them.

Dec-20 2020

Imenuza

I actually think a “Straightforward” aisle in the book store would do quite well. B-)

Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

Dec-22 2020

Fran_clove

So if anyone likes this book don’t come at me this is just my opinion but This Is Not Your Story a literary novel by Indian author Savi Sharma is what I consider a straightforward novel to be.

My cousin recommended it to me so I borrowed it. It revolved around the day to day life of three very boring people-

The man who starts the book wishing he could be a filmaker has a moment of passion and goes to do filmmaking.

The man who was going to kill himself (and I swear he has no other role in the book, no characteristric except being suicidal and a good buisinessman.) this man decides not to kill himself. And it’s not even some good reason like he realises that loss is a inescapable part of life. The reason he survives is three random people come and tell him that suicide is not a good option and then he falls in love with one of them.

The girl who lost faith in love finds love with the above mentioned character.

And that’s all I can tell you about the characters journeys. There’s nothing else. It was like the characters were just there to fulfill the goal the writer has given them and then she forgot to give them character.

They had no other problems in life accept those singular problems and then they solve those singualr problem in single steps. Real people’s struggles involve several problems and several tries to solve them. Everything they do revolves around the theme, so they don’t seem like real characters. I get that the main theme was to fulfill your dreams but it was too on the nose. The book is just theme and no plot if that makes sense.

I am not hating on the writer. I give props to her for publishing four books (four more than me) but I finished this book and went ‘wait, is that all that happens? There must be more pages.’ The plot and characters left me unfulfilled and wanting more complexity.

It IMHO was a book trying to be deep but which ended up being really straightforward.

This was Fran’s book review of This Is Not Your Story, thanks for watching, hit that like button and subscribe. (I’ve been watching too much booktube, sorry.)

Dec-22 2020

Prophecies

Great article, Dale! I think your terminology will help readers ask: Was this book actually successful in its goals? And it’s also fun to figure out what makes certain novels ‘work.’

I haven’t read her works (So no comment from me), but I’ve seen Sally Rooney fall into the label of ‘bland contemporary realism.’ It was from a Spectator article that I read a few months back. Tbh, I should read more lit fic considering I’m writing it…

Dec-22 2020

Rmadhira

I’ve been thinking about this all day and I have a reason to believe that the one I am writing is literary fiction which is now up for crit on newbie page. But for some reason, I am hesitant to call it yet.

This article was helpful in understanding: A Beginner's Guide to Literary Fiction | NY Book Editors

Dec-24 2020

Lavinia

Awesome article Dale, and thanks for sharing

Dec-26 2020

Dougp

Nicely explained! I learn something new every day.

Dec-27 2020

42ndrhr

“I’ve never thought of it that way, but that’s exactly how it is.” Bravo Zulu for nut-shelling this topic, Dale.

Dec-29 2020

Lgn2001

I’ve never heard of Bland Contemporary Realism. It sounds like a failure on a writer’s part when trying to experiment without understanding what makes literary and genre fiction work. I’d love to hear about examples of this.

Jan-06 at 00:13

Llamaking

I’m not sure the term Bland Contemporary Realism adequately covers everything that might fall into that category. I recently beta read a novel that was exactly as described, but also technically counted as sci-fi. The author considered it a literary masterpiece with sci-fi elements. According to him, the book was simultaneously an exploration of the genesis of AI, a noir-style mystery and a satire of modern social media culture (among other things). The one thing it wasn’t, was enjoyable to read. I wouldn’t categorize it as bad sci-fi, since it had very few sci-fi elements. Calling it literary sci-fi would be erroneous, as it failed to provide any new insight into the many ideas it explored. Perhaps a better term would be Attempted Literary?

I think that a more encompassing explanation of this idea of Bland Contemporary Realism might be any work where themes and symbolism take precedence over character and story. In my mind, true literary fiction can achieve both. The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, can be appreciated solely as an excellent story without any interpretation of the themes or social commentary present in its pages. Exploring those ideas simply adds to the reader’s experience. I would argue that in order to achieve literary status, a book must first provide its readers with an enjoyable experience, elevating itself to a more thematic plane only once this basic requirement has been met.

Jan-10 at 01:46

Arkansas

Really interesting - especially as I am someone who likes to read and write literary fiction, I had never thought about how it’s making the familiar unfamiliar and it’s something I do all the time (well, hopefully)… this feels a little meta. Maybe it’s just me

Jan-25 at 23:13

Stromberg

It’s been interesting and enlightening to read the replies to this post. I now feel as though my final thoughts on what I was calling Bland Contemporary Realism were a little half baked. I suppose I’m still searching for a way to understand the difference between the literary, which I feel any fiction might possess, and the Literary Fiction category in bookselling, which is treated like a fenced-in genre. I’ll keep thinking…

Jan-26 at 05:24

Hollydae

When I read “Bland Contemporary Realism” all I can think of are bad Hallmark movies…

I know that’s a visual art form, (and probably doesn’t belong in this discussion exactly) but it is often, very much, making the familiar familiar. I know a lot of women love it, and I am not one of them (not to mention how fraught they are with terrible acting, but I digress).

I think this explains a lot about why some writing pieces work and some pieces don’t. The overly flowery genre fiction where they go on about the flickering lights in the dark hallway, can feel heavy handed when you have an entirely new world to explore. In our own world, that we all know, staring into the sunset becomes something quiet and sincere.

Just my thoughts, as a new member to CC, I don’t know if I’m on the same page as everyone else. Interesting blog post though.:smiley:

Jan-26 at 16:46
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