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What’s better? Genre or Literary Fiction?

April 28, 2010
New novels in a Berlin Bookshop (Dussmann, das...

I’ve overheard it said that literary fiction is chiseled out with blood and tears over six years whilst genre fiction is thrown out in a matter of six weeks. Whilst it’s also said that literary fiction is mostly drawn from novels written before the 1940s, there is a small stream which are added to this list every year via Literature Awards such as the Pulitzer or Booker. Genre Fiction on the other hand, is generally overlooked within these arenas.

It can be argued that all stories no matter how literary they may be, will fall into one genre or sub genre.  Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is ultimately a romance, Shelly’s “Frankenstein” easily slips into Speculative Fiction and any of Jules Vernes’ work within Science Fiction. Does the pigeon holing of these literary works lessen their value, their high brow status or diminish their messages?

So whats the difference?

Very broadly speaking, Literary Fiction has a specific market and appeal; where as Genre Fiction appeals to a wider range of readers. Literary fiction is presumed to have greater artistic merit and a higher cultural value. Where, by comparison, genre fiction is considered to be formulaic, commercial, sensational, and melodramatic, which tends to heighten its appeal to the mass audience. In some circles, those who write literary fiction are deemed as the professionals and those who write genre fiction as amateurs. It would seem too that the length of time it takes to produce a work has some bearing upon its merit – that texts which are painstakingly laboured over for years may, in some circles, be more ‘worthy’ than novels which are “knocked up” in a matter of weeks.

Did you know that Handel wrote “The Messiah” in under a month?

(I dare anyone to call him an amateur.)

Whilst it is difficult to pin a specific definition upon one or the other, again broadly speaking, commercial or genre fiction tends to emphasis the plot whereas literary fiction emphasis’s characters and their inner struggles or thoughts.  Where as Literary Fiction tends to focus on the writing style and psychological depth or its characters, Genre Fiction focuses on the tension built from narrative and plot. Literary fiction uses plot to reveal its themes, whereas for the most part, genre fiction is the plot. Each have their success and pitfalls in reaching and capturing their readers.

Literary fiction can be more challenging to read than genre fiction as in many cases it requires the reader to infer a great deal of the plot rather than simply sitting back and watching the plot unfold. Literary fiction emphasis’s unique prose whereas Genre fiction tends to be more straightforward. Literary Fiction tends to require readers to have some understanding and appreciation of higher educational processes and knowledge. Literary fiction often requires its readers empathy in order to relate to the characters as humans and to deduce the hidden motivations and desires that lurk beneath their actions. In this style, the reader has to recognise the small turning points and the low points and the high points based on what they know of the character and about human nature.  This is not to say that Genre fictions characters are any less complex; however, generally speaking, Literary Fiction forces the reader to think about the character, where as most Genre fiction will spell it out or spoon feed their audience.

Which really is better?

If you were to believe what the prestigious awards and media has to say – you may be lead to think that the only type of fiction ‘worthy’ of pursuing either as a read or as a writer is Literary.  Certainly thats where the money and public acclaim tends to be. Many readers are guilted into think that they *should* be or *aught to * be reading *this sort* of book or ones by *that* author; simply as they have a pile of gold stars and awards.

How often have you heard someone say that they’d be embarrassed to be caught reading *title* on the bus/ train/cafe? Usually that *title* is drawn from Genre Fiction and usually inferred as if there was something wicked or wrong in admitting to reading it. We all have our guilty pleasures in reading material.  Obviously too we have our guilty pleasures in our writing styles.

These announcement of being embarrassed to read or write a certain style comes down to the admittance that you are concerned more about what others think, than what you want or need. Honestly, as long as you aren’t exposing full frontal images of a sexual nature to a cabin of children; no-one is going to notice what you are reading. I’d much rather be (re-)reading one of the Twilight series than scratching my eyes out with War and Peace whilst on commuter transport.

However, to answer this question, you’ve first got to look at the outcomes you as a writer have in writing a certain style of novel or story you have in mind.

  • Which style of writing are you most comfortable reading?
  • Which structure (language, terminology, psychological depth) are you most comfortable in using?
  • What is your message – and who do you want to reach with it?
  • Are you looking for literary acclaim amongst a certain set of peers or groups?
  • Are you looking for commercial success?
  • Is it possible to have both?

Image via Wikipedia

The last two weeks posts were dedicated to exploring Literary and Genre Fiction.

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Annie Evett wonders – are you kidding?  She wants it all – the fame, fortune and literary acclaim.  Is that such a bad thing? Plus – for the record, she’d be delighted if she were able to “knock out” a raging success in the matter of a few weeks…. and yes she has read War and Peace.. its not an experience she would gladly do again – especially on a bus. Follow Annie here on Twitter and start your escape into her world here

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3 Comments
  1. April 28, 2010 7:21 am

    Annie, do you really think literary fiction is “where the money and public acclaim tends to be”?

    I think more people will have heard of Dan Brown than Ian McEwan (to pick two authors who might both be reasonably considered to be at the top of their respective genres. And I suspect John Grisham earns more per book than Hilary Mantel. Of course, there may be more intellectual acclaim which goes along with literary fiction and the prize money tends to be for such authors but as far as the public general public goes, I think genre fiction is probably more important.

  2. May 2, 2010 12:52 am

    Dear Annie, I always enjoy your Write Anything articles.

    In my genre loving world, the terms ” High” and “Low” literature seem as pointless and arbitrary as trying to describe the word “cool”. If a book gives your brain a stitch don’t finish it. And if its a piece of crud, don’t hesitate to tell everyone you know to steer clear of that piece of crud.

    Now that said, I’m off to phone up the Booker Panel and suggest they adopt this criteria for next year’s prize.

  3. May 5, 2010 4:07 am

    I think the term ‘better’ is misleading. Their appeal is different…though publishers would say genre is better since they sell more copies.

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