The distinction between “literary” vs. “genre” fiction is one that has always made me want to grab a pitchfork and start a riot. The entire argument is riddled — on both sides — with superiority complexes and egos so inflated that you could fly Mr. Fredericksen’s house to Paradise Falls.
So, what exactly is the distinction?
There are a lot of arguments about it, and even a simple Google search isn’t going to help much.
I posted the question on the closed forum critique site Scribophile. Little did I know that I was essentially opening Pandora’s Box, and a shitstorm ensued.
Once you got around the arguments, their definitions had some, but not many, similarities. Many agreed that literary fiction is well-written, prefers characterization over plot, and focuses on the “higher art” of writing. It likes to explore ideas and doesn’t have to depend on the conventions of genre. Genre fiction was described as having simpler prose, reliance on tropes, and a focus on plot rather than characters.
While I’m sure I will receive a lot of backlash for this, I think we should abolish literary as a concept completely.
The books that are considered literary works of art are ones that are taught in schools: 1984, The Red Badge of Courage, The Tempest. However, these books were all considered genre when they were first published. 1984 was science-fiction, The Red Badge of Courage was war, and The Tempest was fantasy. Frankenstein was science-fiction, too, and Edgar Allen Poe’s works were horror. It wasn’t until years after publishing that their works were considered literary.
So why are we having this argument in the first place?
In my creative writing class at college, we are banned from writing “genre fiction,” but that seems ridiculous. Everything can be put into at least one group, and there are many genre stories that do, in fact, have beautifully crafted characters and elegant writing. Genre does not mean that one cannot explore the complexities of the world’s many nuances. Literary does not mean that it can’t have a rich plot or poor style. The distinction comes from preconceived notions that a single story cannot be both genre and literary, but that’s not fair. As many things in life, the quality of books does not exist in a binary.
Do many genre fiction novels follow the same tropes? Yes. However, that does not discredit the entire genre as a whole, and a story that does not strictly follow these tropes should not immediately be classified as literary. Neither categorization is better than the other. The fact that many literary classics existed as genre is enough for me to say that we should abolish the distinction entirely. The same range of quality exists in both sets, but the classification leads to heated arguments, pomposity, and angry college students. When deciding whether the book we just read is good, we should not already have a voice in our head whispering categorizations that will influence our judgment. If a book is good, it’s good. That’s all that matters.
Do you agree with me? Do you think I’m totally wrong? Do you have a differing view altogether? Leave a comment and start a conversation.