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On literary vs genre fiction

The New York Times recently ran a feature piece on Justin Cronin's The Passage (which I read and liked VERY much, except for the last page where I suddenly found out IT WAS ONLY BOOK 1). Cronin started out as an author of what many people would probably call literary fiction (e.g., Mary and O'Neil, also very good).

Then he wrote a behemoth of a vampire novel (oh, and two sequels) and sold it for a gazillion bucks, so of course people started saying he'd sold out. But really, what is this artificial distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction? There are tremendously talented and literate authors writing horror, science fiction, fantasy; there are appalling hacks who still get billed and sold as lit fi. Isn't what matters that it's a great story well told?

From the article:

the difference between a literary novel and a genre-oriented one is not usually of much consequence to readers — nor is it particularly apparent to most writers, who tend to see the same blank page no matter what kind of book they sit down to work on. “You write how you write,” Cronin told me. “If I were a calculating careerist, I would not be a novelist.” When I contacted Colson Whitehead, the MacArthur-genius-award-winning author who last year released “Zone One,” a literary novel about a zombie takeover of Manhattan — my message to him included the words “literary” and “genre” — he replied politely that he’d “rather shoot myself in the face” than have another discussion about the difference between one category of literature and another.

On a related (i.e., zombie) note, I'm on Letter 8 of Ora et Labora et Vampires and am quite enjoying it.


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Oct. 9th, 2012 03:25 pm (UTC)
Isn't what matters that it's a great story well told?

Indeed. It seems to me that it's a distinction that's useful primarily to marketers and not much of anyone else.

If there's a difference in the work itself, I'd say off the top of my head that "genre" fiction tends to start off with slightly more outlandish (not the right word, but I'm too busy to find another) "what-ifs" than "literary" fiction. (To borrow from the aforementioneded Zone One: "What if Zombies took over Manhattan?" rather than "What if there's this disaffected guy who has to work his way through a difficult job in a military zone?")
Oct. 13th, 2012 07:27 pm (UTC)
Maybe the distinction is reading level. Lit fi seems to be written at a higher reading level than genre fiction. Again, there are exceptions (e.g. Hemingway), but in general lit fi seem to be more demanding texts to read.*

Then you have some titles or authors which seem to have moved from genre into literary if they stand the test of time and become classics, like Fahrenheit 451 or Childhood's End.

It's all very puzzling. I'm sure there are dissertations that have been written on this very topic LOL!

*Of course, that might just be because the average quality of fiction today is pretty deplorable...

Edited at 2012-10-13 07:29 pm (UTC)
Oct. 9th, 2012 04:07 pm (UTC)
I'm of two minds about this distinction -- on the one hand, it's artificial, and as squibstress says, as much a marketing ploy as anything else. And if course, it has the problems of all binaries in that it can create a false either/or situation, and we inevitably end up privileging one category over the other.

But on the other hand, I think there *are* differences in writing -- broader vs. narrower audiences, different expectations, different topics -- and it can be useful to have a vocabulary that allows for distinctions. If only we could do it without the automatic assumption that one form is better than another, of higher writing quality, etc.
Oct. 13th, 2012 07:24 pm (UTC)
My gut reaction about lit vs genre fi used to be "Well, sure they're different," but then I when I try to formulate exactly what those differences are, I haven't been able to do it. For any feature (e.g., "simple plot structure") that I think characterizes the one, I could just as easily come up with a title that's obviously in the other category but that shares that feature.

The only thing that seemed like it might work was reading level. Lit fi seems to be written at a higher reading level than genre fiction. Again, there are exceptions (e.g. Hemingway), but in general they seem to be less demanding texts to read.

Maybe genre fiction is like pornography: "I can't define it but I know it when I see it" ?
Oct. 13th, 2012 08:16 pm (UTC)
I think it's more a matter of the expectations for each type than the particular style, necessarily. With "popular" or genre fiction, especially of the best-seller type, it seems to me that those works are expected and meant a) to be fairly predictable, b) not to do much to challenge the status quo, and c) to end relatively happily. For instance, you could write the most well-written formula romance ever, but it can't end with both protagonists miserable or dead. When people read popular fiction (and they are often the same people who read "literary" fiction; I'm not constructing a hierarchy of audience) -- when people read popular fiction, they do so because they expect certain things and want a certain effect (they want to be comforted, or they want escape, or they want to be reassured, or they want to be scared in a safe way, or the want a cathartic good cry without too much misery, etc.) Thus writers of popular or genre fiction need to produce that effect. With so-called literary fiction, though, we're often reading for different reasons and with different expectations. Thus the works can be can be less predictable, less expected, can be unsettling or disturbing in ways that we don't usually want popular fiction to be.

There are exceptions, of course, but in general, I see the distinction as more one of what we expect each work to do and not necessarily about the complexity (or lack thereof) of style or plot or theme.
Oct. 13th, 2012 09:36 pm (UTC)
I hadn't thought about defining them from the reader's perspective rather than the writer's, but yes, that makes a lot of sense!
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