The concept of “literary” and “genre” fiction is bogus.



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.

bella-literary-fictionThere’s a lot of arrogance in this debate. Genre advocates say that literary fiction is snobbish, and literary advocates say that genre is limited and merely escapist.

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: 1984The 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.

8 comments on “The concept of “literary” and “genre” fiction is bogus.

  1. Took me a while to get that first metaphor about Mr. Frederickson’s house. But then it came to me.

    If there was an officer for President of Books, I would nominate you. This was excellent. You take a brilliant argument and reduce it simply, elegantly, to its finer points, and provide a clear idea that I can imagine anyone arguing with. In my mind, Dune is a great example of literary science fiction. Great characters, brilliant plot, and sci-fi. My own book falls into this category, though we’ll omit it because I’m obviously biased.

    “If a book is good, it’s good. That’s all that matters.” How can you argue with this? Quite simply, there’s nothing further to add. Categories DON’T MATTER. Let the book stand on its own merits, for god’s sake.

    • I thought about putting an edited picture of his house, but then decided against it. Glad that you got the reference in the end, though!

      Thank you! I think we’re all biased when it comes to categorizing our own books. If we’re looking at the definition of literary fiction, I believe my own WIP would fit, too. Strong characters, good story, destruction of common sci-fi and fantasy tropes. But like I said, we shouldn’t be categorizing our stuff like that. In my opinion, all fiction books should have at least those first two traits. If we got rid of the literary categorization, there would be no need for writers to have that knee-jerk reaction of wanting to rank our own stories as literary or genre, when the past has shown that it’s really just a way to elevate a piece of genre fiction above its peers.

  2. Having taken part in your experiment in stirring a wasp’s nest, I thought it appropriate to come see the result.
    I agree.
    good article

    • Thank you! Coming back to the thread, I felt like Troy form Community coming back to his apartment with a pizza to find that everything is on fire, but at least it gave me stuff to talk about!

  3. […] myself as a “trope and genre breaker.” I’ve said before that I think the idea of “literary” and “genre” fiction is crap, and my goal as a writer is to continually redefine the readers’ expectations in genre and […]

  4. I resent having to choose a BISAC genre-marketing code for my books. My first novel crosses literary and a half-dozen genre lines, so I call it Fusion Fiction. What happened to letting people just write fiction because they have stories to tell?

    • I understand that it makes it easier for people trying to find books and categorize bookshelves, but it’s still obnoxious and elitist, when you throw in the “literary” genre.

      • The BISAC genre inventors like to say their marketing codes make finding books easier, but before BISAC we had the perfectly good, functional and infinitely update-able Dewey Decimal System. The BISAC was invented over lunch at a trade show in the 1970s, by marketers who didn’t like Dewey. The BISAC people refuse to define their codes, they arbitrarily decide what to code and when a code is discontinued, and “too bad, how sad,” if your book’s code disappears – they just shrug and say, “Oh, well, why worry about it, when all books eventually go out of print, anyway?” They also don’t list authors among the people they consider to be “best qualified” to assign codes. Obnoxious and elitist! You got that right.

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