Thursday 7 April 2011

G is for Genre v. Literary Fiction

Probably one of the most polarising topics among writers is the issue of genre. Among readers too. There is a set of stereotypes that surrounds each genre. Mills and Boon/Harlequin? They're for repressed women. Science fiction? For oddballs who spend more time on the internet than interacting with actual people. Literary fiction? That stuff is for people who would rather observe life than actually live it.

Popular fiction gets bad press. A small but vocal group of literary fiction writers would have us believe that in order to bring out a genre book, all you need to do is stick to a certain template and you could write it in your sleep. Authors of popular fiction point, saying that literary fiction is like the emperor's new clothes; nobody understands it but everyone is afraid to admit it in case people think that they're stupid. So which is true?

The problem is that the term literary fiction is actually quite an arbitrary concept. The works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were considered popular fiction, and their books weren't seen as having much literary merit by their contemporaries. Yet both these authors are seen as classics now. There are also a lot of literary novelists who borrow themes and structures from so called genre fiction.

These kind of distinctions bother me, because some proponents claim that one type of writing to be superior to another, and run down other types of books in the process. Some of us have favourite genres that we stick to, but most of us read widely depending on our mood. I don't particularly like westerns, but I think it's a valid genre. I think every book offers something to a reader, and each reader's idea of value is different. 

But I think the whole thing is summed up quite nicely by Daphne Clair: "Readers of literary fiction expect to be challenged and like to be entertained; readers of popular fiction expect to be entertained and like to be challenged. They're often the same readers in a different mood."

Well said.


  1. I've always found Literary fiction as distinct from Genre fiction to be very confusing. I think you are absolutely right--the term Literary fiction is an arbitrary concept.

    In fact, some define Literary fiction as fiction that falls outside the categories of genre fiction. Much fiction falls into the so-called popular commercial genres of romance, mystery, suspense, thriller, Western, horror, science fiction, and fantasy. Writing that falls in none of these categories is often called "literary."

    Literary, may encompass a wide variety of writing styles, yet it is often thought of as somehow Highbrow and exclusive, perhaps more amongst the community of writers. But when it comes to pitching a story to an agent, it appears to be a catchall genre whose definition varies from agent to agent.

  2. And don't forget cross-overs too. I asked an agent what my book was and she said literary fiction crossing over into commercial women's. Cross-overs make a lot of "new" niches!

  3. I love your blog! The background is breathtaking! Where did you find this little peace of heaven?!

    Nonetheless I am here as a newbie and have thoughts I should share! This was a brilliant post! I think Daphne Clair did say it best. I am often in a different mood. Before I began writing I just assumed a book I didn't like was all about bad writing now I know half the time it has everything to do with the mood I am. Literary fiction and commerical fit just that! I give every book a change however I prefer to be entertained over challenged :) Depending on my mood, hehe.

    I do hope you'll stop by my neck of the woods to say hello!

  4. The problem is that the term literary fiction is actually quite an arbitrary concept.

    AGREED. Your comment on the malleability of the 'classics' is especially true.

  5. A thought-provoking topic -- well-written.

    MM the Queen of English

  6. Great post. Thank you. I agree with you. I like to read all different types of fiction, both literary and genre. I have my favorites (which probably explains why I write what I do), but that doesn't stop me from reading beyond those genres. It's frustrating that people can only see one group as having merit when they all contribute to our lives in many ways.

    East for Green Eyes

  7. I like the emperor's new clothes analogy. Great post.