The Literary/Genre Divide
What are “literary fiction” and “genre fiction”—and do these classifications even mean anything?
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.
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.
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