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.
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.)
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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