Genre Fiction vs. Literary Fiction – Let there be Peace
Disclaimer: I originally wrote the following essay for my MFA program at Seton Hill University. I was a rogue “literary fiction” writer amongst genre fiction writers and that is exactly where I needed to be to pick up my pace and lose my purple prose.
“Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt”
. – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Austrian Philosopher
(The boundaries of my language are the boundaries of my world.)
When I first moved to Austria several years ago, I was quite surprised when the Vienna city registrar snatched up my residency registration form and promptly proceeded to black out my response. “Austria does not recognize Bachelor of Arts degrees.” In two seconds, a permanent marker wielded by a dusty woman in a polyester suit negated thousands of dollars and years of study. Since then, Bachelor degrees in Austria are not only accepted but granted, but I haven’t been able to overcome my skepticism of categories created by mysterious powers that be.
As writers and readers, we accept without question how agents, publishers, websites and even educational institutions categorize what we read. In fact, many avid readers unquestioningly and so readily have adopted the labels that they raise their fists to declare, “Literary fiction is too flowery, I can’t stand reading five pages about how the light reflects in a raindrop,” or “Genre fiction has no substance, someone always gets hurt and at the end, the bad guy is dead and the hero and heroine marry.” Categories give readers a group with which they can immediately identify. But in literature as elsewhere in life, while categories and groups can ease processes, they can limit them as well. In efforts to rally and defend the merits of their selected writing style, are writers, readers and people of the book industry foregoing the opportunity to combine them to produce better books?
With action-packed plots and easy-to-understand characters, genre fiction is considered the fiction of the masses read for entertainment. Using stereotypes and clichés to tell a story, genre fiction includes the subgenres romance, mystery, adventure, paranormal, science fiction or any combination of these. In romance novels such as Never Less Than a Lady or Coming Home, a skilled former soldier or federal agent, handy with weapons but exhibiting a soft side, arrives on the scene in the nick of time to rescue the heroine in her instant of dire need. The formula is used so frequently that many readers critiquing the writing may ask themselves as one student did in the Seton Hill program, “Have romance writers left any soldiers in Fort Bragg to fight battles not related to his girlfriend?” Despite the academic world’s turning up their noses at genre fiction, it is what sells. Books like the paranormal fantasy novels of Sherrilyn Kenyon, tend to dominate the New York Times Bestsellers List. For this reason, genre writers can often make a career of writing much easier than their literary fiction colleagues.
Literary fiction is described as a sophisticated style of writing with themes that teach lessons that can often be painful. Characters, rather than plots, drive the book forward. The lives of the characters are explored in-depth and change in a major way from the beginning to end of the novel like in the book Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. Plot is more subtle and slower moving than in genre fiction and the conflicts that drive them are internal. Nathan Bransford, author and former literary agent, writes that plots in literary fiction, “happen beneath the surface in the minds and hearts of the characters.”
A comparison of the two categories reveals obvious differences. A genre novel like the paranormal romance, Hidden Currents might have a mission to retrieve the heroine from an isolated island, a daring ocean rescue of her drowning sister, a helicopter fast rope maneuver of her brother-in-law and, last but not least, a methane gas scheme of her hero to sink the villain and his yacht, all in one story. A suspenseful literary fiction novel like Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad might be an in-depth examination of a character like the jungle-isolated Kurtz. But the differences between the two extend beyond plot-driven vs. character-driven books.
Academic circles tend to focus their discussions, debates and writing assignments more on the literary fiction style of writing because of its complexity. Though the books might not have the mass appeal of genre fiction, they tend be longer lasting than their genre counterparts, with works that can outlive their authors for generations.  Genre fiction can be written in a more straightforward language but books are expected to abide by certain rules of the genre. In romance fiction, for example, the hero should enter the scene quickly and no matter what the obstacles – and there better be some – a happy end is expected. Therefore in a multicultural novel like Shirley Hailstock’s The Secret, Stephanie (the heroine) and Owen (the hero) will have to be united by the last page, but in a literary fiction romance like Ethan Wharton’s Age of Innocence , no final union of Newland (the hero) and Ellen (the heroine) occurs. Instead, Newland gazes up at Ellen’s apartment, contemplates going to see her and then instead returns to his hotel.
By placing books that are similar either in the category of “romance” or “literary fiction,” boundaries are erected to books outside the category and large volumes of books are broken down into manageable units. Foreign language textbooks categorize vocabulary in chapters according to themes like a visit to the doctor or family members. Grouping together like items makes the brain associate more efficiently, memorize faster and learn easier. Libraries and book stores classify books to help readers locate them faster. Readers recognize the sections for children’s literature, young adult fiction, non-fiction, sub-genres and literary fiction. Knowledge of the classification system help readers navigate shelves painlessly. Subsequent trips to the same library or store will lead the readers directly from the front door to their preferred section. A fan of Harlequin Romance books will expect to find the books in the Romance section.
Readers expect to find books grouped in a certain location and share similar predictable characteristics. When an author like Meg Cabot writes the young adult romance novel Jinx, she knows her audience expects a fast-paced story in which, against all odds, the young heroine gets her guy and grows a bit in the process. In her Fantasy Drake book series, Christine Feehan knows readers expect her Drake sisters to have some kind of supernatural power or they will not be buying the sequel. However, literary fiction readers who pick up Little Women and discover that Amy, Beth, Jo and Meg can speak telepathically to one another might hurl the book across the room. Indeed, such expectations change how readers approach a book and can lead to disappointment when such expectations are not fulfilled. The lengthy dialogues, detailed descriptions and slow moving pace of Mariah Stewart’s romance novel Coming Home is tolerable if viewed as a literary fiction piece but unbearable when read as a genre fiction. But readers aren’t the only ones who have adapted their behavior and expectations to the distinctions given to the categories.
A visit to any agent or publisher’s website quickly reveals how important it has become for writers to write and be able to sell their books according to how they fit into a certain category.
“A full-service literary agency specializing in biographies, business, crime, science, history, and reference/information books, women’s issues. This agency does not generally handle juvenile books, poetry, or screenplays and is currently not taking first novels by new clients.” 
“I do not represent Literary Fiction”
Agents may have a business or personal connection to a certain kind of book or publisher. Shakespeare probably would have been rejected just as readily by Harlequin as Nora Roberts would by Penguin Classics. Agents and publishers get hundreds of manuscripts every year. Narrowing the scopes of the type of manuscripts they are seeking contributes to a smaller slush pile. This in turn, helps them pitch the right books to the right publishers. And who can blame them?
Publishers spend years of hard work and hundreds of thousands of limited marketing dollars on building a certain image of what they sell. Their websites, their book jackets, their posters, and their magazine ads are all geared toward cultivating this image. The right image, they hope, will target the right audience. Will my reader buy the book in the supermarket or at the airport? Will my reader be attracted to a book with a cover displaying two people grinding on a dance floor as the multicultural genre fiction, The Secret by Shirley Hailstock, or the blurry silhouette of a woman outstretching her arms as she stands in front of the ocean as in the literary fiction novel The Awakening by Kate Chopin?
Categories mean ease. Categories mean efficiency.
Categories are inherently arbitrary.
The ones that currently exist could have easily been something else. Rather than genre and literary fiction, books could have adhered to the foreign language texts and been categorized as medical or family fiction. Little Women and the Drake Sister novels could coexist happily side-by-side in the sister section, perfectly suited for the next holiday present for that hard-to-buy sibling. Or they could be categorized by emotions. Emphasis would no longer be on plot-driven books or character-driven books but rather on the emotion evoked. Jilted by your partner for another woman and looking for a good book to spend Saturday evening with? Go straight to the revenge section where you will find Olivia Goldsmith’s The First Wives Club, and Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. But would placing genre and literary fiction side-by-side mean the end of what makes readers like these books? Would something be lost?
In addition to those in the genre camp who adamantly oppose literary fiction and those in literary fiction who reject genre, are others who consider the threat more severe. They lament that literary fiction is a dying art and not being published anymore. In her blog, The Red Room, author Victoria N. Alexander , bewails, “The big presses just stopped doing literary fiction, unless it wasn’t really literary fiction but you could somehow say that it was….” She writes that publishers, “…all had ‘literary fiction’ departments but what was coming out of those departments was just everything that wouldn’t fit under some other genre heading.” She continues to argue that this causes literary fiction readers to no longer trust the label of literary fiction, “ having been burned too many times by an Updike novel or an Amy Tan.” But maybe the labels should have never been trusted in the first place. Why would a form of free artistic expression such as writing choose to confine itself to a practice inherent with restrictions? Categories can create expediency but shouldn’t the ultimate goal be quality?
Does the equation have to be either or? Can’t it be both? Or none of the above? (Remember infamously annoying choice “e” on the SATs?)
Can’t writers combine the essential ingredients of good genre fiction with the essentials of interesting literary fiction in order to provide readers with an ultimate reading experience? By venturing outside their sphere of comfort, students often learn the most. When studying a foreign language, a student invariably learns more about his or her own. Questions like: ‘What are the similarities?’ ’What are the differences?’, ‘How can I apply one to the other?’ help a learner, of a language or a skill like writing, grow. Writing programs that strictly divide genre and literary fiction into two separate camps are denying aspiring writers the opportunity to learn how to craft fast-paced fiction with deep characters. Not only will these be the stories readers want to read, but they will also be the ones they will talk about, debate and remember.
A counter movement to the strict divide of genre and literary fiction is already underway. Books are now being classified as “mainstream”, “commercial”, or books “with a mass appeal.” In his thought-provoking book, Bring on the Books for Everybody, How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture, Jim Collins, a professor of Film and English at Notre Dame argues that the advent of new media is transforming literature. He makes the point that the wide accessibility of books now available almost anywhere, to just about anyone has blurred the lines distinguishing literature works from mere fiction. He writes that bestseller authors like Michener are being joined in brand-name recognition by literary fiction writers such as Morrison, Atwood, and Lahiri. He further notes that when a Booker Prize novel like Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient is voted by “Romance Times Magazine” as “Most Romantic Film of the Decade” and made into a film winning nine Oscars, and used as the subject of a Seinfeld episode, the old guard is being called into question. Authors like Nicholas Sparks are challenging the notions that writing should be boxed into categories. In answering the question if he would someday prefer to write something more “literary fiction” than “mainstream,” he responds:
Please don’t set those two aspects on opposite spectrums — “easy-to-read” is not diametrically opposed to “literary.” Besides, “easy-to-read” is harder to accomplish and do well, since “easy-to-read” also requires a compelling plot, which many (if not most) current literary novels lack. Writing is communication above all and I’ve made the choice to communicate with a large audience, which again is very hard to do. What’s the challenge in writing a novel that few people will read? I’m more than happy writing what I do and have no plans to change that.
“The boundaries of my language are the boundaries of my world.” As writers, readers, agents, publishers and book lovers, I challenge you to stand up to the dusty person in a polyester suit wielding a permanent marker dictating the categories of our books. Enough. Let us refuse to sacrifice quality for convenience. The books that will stand apart and be long remembered are those written by writers who are not afraid to break the bonds set by others and who recognize that readers love a great story, no matter how it’s labeled.
It’s time to come together, raise our clenched bookmarks and demand in unison: “Tear down this wall!”
Alcott, Louisa M. Little Women. New York: Signet Classic, 2004. Print.
Alexander, Victoria, Publishing is Dead. Long Live Literary Fiction Publishing. http://www.redroom.com/blog/victoria-n-alexander/publishing-dead-long-live-literary-fiction-publishing, 26. February 2010. Web. 4 April 2011
Atwood, Margaret. The Robber Bride. New York: Doubleday, 1993. Print.
Bradford, Nathan, “What Makes Literary Fiction Literary”, blog.nathanbransford.com/2007/02/what-makes-literary-fiction-literary.html, of Monday, 26. February 2007. Web. 4. May 2011
Cabot, Meg, Jinx, New Work: Harper Teen, 2009. Print.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. 1899. Ed. Margaret Culley. New York: Norton, 1976. Print.
Collins, Jim, Bring on the Book for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2010. Print
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Konemann, 1999. Print. Feehan, Christine. Hidden Currents. New York: Jove, 2009. Print.
Goldsmith, Olivia. The First Wives Club. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1992. Print. Hailstock, Shirley. The Secret. New York: Dafina, 2006. Print.
Motter, Vickie, Agent with Andrea Hurst Literary Management – http://navigatingtheslushpile.blogspot.com/2011/01/rejection-rate-take-2.html 13 Jan 2011. Web. 20 April 2011 New England Publishing Associates Web. 14. April 2011.
Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient, New York: Vintage Books, 1992. Print.
Parker, Linda Busby “Genre, Mainstream or Literary”, the Writers Loft https://www.mtsu.edu/theloft/genre.shtml. Web. 26 April 2011. Putney, Mary Jo. Never Less than a Lady. New York: Kenisington, 2010. Print.
Stewart, Mariah. Coming Home. New York. Ballantine Books, 2010. Print.
Teen Reads, “Interview with Nicholas Sparks”, http://www.teenreads.com/authors/au-sparks-nicholas.asp 28. September 2001. Web. 8. April 2011. Yates, Richard. Revolutionary Road. 1961. 3rd ed. New York: Vintage Books, 2008. Print.