The Debate: Literary vs. Genre Fiction, and Is There a Chasm Between the Two?

SERIOUS fiction, you guys.
(Book covers, by Lars Aronsson. Licensed under Creative Commons ShareAlike 1.0 License.)

When I began submitting stories to fiction magazines, I was amazed to find there was a large gulf between “genre” fiction and “literary” fiction, and that literary fiction was usually considered to be the superior kind. As a person who enjoys reading all types of books, I’d always thought a good story was a good story, whether it was a mystery story, contained dragons, or examined the inner life of American housewives circa 1950. In my inner hierarchy, Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, and The Secret Adversary could all comfortably sit on the top tier of “greatness” together, despite belonging to the Fantasy, Classic Lit, and Mystery categories respectively. This clearly exposed my ignorance of the conventions of the literary world. “Genre” fiction panders to the market, and the clamouring hordes’ lack of taste. “Literary” fiction deals with real issues. Therefore, certain literary magazines refuse to even consider “genre” fiction.

Therefore, if your work can conceivably be slotted into a category such as Romance, Fantasy, or Western, it is not literary. I still find that weird. I think you can still explore serious issues, even if unicorns are a main feature of your prose. But I can see it’s an easier way for editors, who are flooded with thousands of submissions from basement dwellers who think being a writer is easy, to weed out the stories that merely hit every cliché of a specific genre. They want something that makes the reader think. The regurgitated pap can be published by some more commercial magazine.

However, in the last year or so there’s been several articles about the resurgence of genre fiction. The claim that some genre writers are now, finally, being taken more seriously. The typical sort of internet argument between those who believe there is a wide divide between literary and genre fiction and that this divide should always be maintained, and those who think the walls should be broken down.

To illustrate, here is one article which argues that though the difference between genre and literary fiction is hard to describe, it is not a difference between an “artistic” work and a more pedestrian one. Lev Grossman claims the skill of plotting is much more required in a typical genre novel, whereas standards for style and characterization might be higher in literary novels – and this might be the dividing factor. He also argues there is a great blurry space between literary and genre fiction, inhabited by authors whose work doesn’t fit into either. And I agree. Trying to slot every work of literature into some prefabricated category is always a dumb idea. And Grossman ends by suggesting genre fiction may yet overturn the world of literary fiction.

Arthur Krystal, in The New Yorker, takes up the other side – insisting that there’s always been hybridization in literature, and just because there’s a middle ground between genre and literary fiction, doesn’t mean the differences between the two will be erased. He claims, “Writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know are not going to write horror tales or police procedurals.” (And I say – why not? But I am not a highly acclaimed author, so what do I know?) Literary fiction, he insists, tackles the difficult side of reality in a way genre fiction can never dream to. And there will forever be a difference between the two.
So the question remains – should I shoot for the literary or the genre side of the target, or wager on the fact the lines between the two will become increasingly blurred?

Or maybe I should just concentrate on writing great stories. Let the chips fall where they may.


Do you think there’s an impassable chasm between literary and genre fiction?


Filed under Bookish Thoughts, On Writing

4 responses to “The Debate: Literary vs. Genre Fiction, and Is There a Chasm Between the Two?

  1. Oh my! I had no idea about this divide. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. From what I can understand Literary Fiction is more about the struggle within a character instead of an external struggle? It sounds like it’s addressing a characters reaction more lifelike mesh of genres. Or rather, genres now calsified in terms of self-discovery. From what I think I get, it seems like it’s an excuse to be snooty, haha.


    • Yes, it surprised me too! I think you’re right, it is more of an internal struggle vs. an external struggle. And maybe the loose ends aren’t all tied up as neatly as in a commercial novel? I agree, I personally don’t think one is better than the other, and that there can be a place for both.


  2. Great post. I just read a similar post by Jami Gold. I say write great stories and sod those who would or wouldn’t rate them as ‘worthy’ in the literary sense. Honestly, it beggars belief. The latest Batman movies explore character and are filled with imagery and nuance, yet as a comic, they couldn’t be more genre fiction. I have read some very bad literary stories and some very good genre stories, it’s a matter of preference not genre. And a matter of craft not categorisation. Snobs are everywhere, but true appreciation of craft and story is seemingly rare 😦 .X


  3. Sissel

    I learned about this divide about a year ago, and I still can’t get over it. I will try my best to ignore it and focus on my story like others in the comments,


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