Genre vs Literary Fiction: Why the Debate?

Most of you probably know the difference between genre and literary fiction, but a few weeks ago I taught a creative writing workshop for high school students and only one student knew that these two ‘categories’ existed. 

Genre refers to categories of fiction that contain particular tropes. When readers pick up a science fiction book, for example, they have certain expectations around the literary features that story will have. If I say romance/crime/thriller/fantasy, you instantly have an idea in your mind about the type of story that book will be.

Literary fiction is also a genre of fiction (yeah okay, I can see how that is confusing). These stories are usually realist (though they can contain tropes found within genre fiction); they depict the minutiae of everyday life. As one high school student said, during the workshop, they’re the types of books that middle-aged women read (which isn’t true, but it made me laugh anyway. In fact, the opposite could be true as 55% of YA readers are adult women).

Some people argue that genre fiction is driven by plot (stuff happens; high stakes) whereas literary fiction is driven by character (not much happens; relatively low stakes). This black and white definition contains a seed of truth, but both genre and literary fiction – if good – should contain both internal and external conflict.

The one thing every story needs is conflict. Tension is what keeps you turning the page, whether that tension is trying to save the world or buy back the house that your deceased father left to your stepmother. 

Without conflict, you don’t have a story, you have a vignette, at best, and a poetic reflection at worst. Actually … I’m not sure there’s that bigger difference between a vignette and a poetic reflection. Anyway…

The reason why I’m talking about genre and literary fiction is that, in case you aren’t aware, there is a general opinion within literary criticism that genre books are bad (because they are ‘unoriginal’ and rely on tropes and are essentially infantile because…aliens…) and literary works are good because they are original, subtle, sophisticate, and intelligent. 

Genre books are for entertainment and literary works are art.

 Genre books are to be consumed once and literary books are to be studied, dissected and pulled apart. 

Genre books are pure story and literary books are metaphors that critique our political/social/environmental/cultural/education/economic systems.

Of course, this is a total wash.

Most science fiction and fantasy books explore social justice issues and are informed by historical facts or scientific evidence.

Many crime novels explore issues around morality and power dynamics.

Romance novels can subvert (okay … or play into) gender norms.

Horror tropes also explore morality, mortality, religion; they can also reflect on our collective fears about war, security, government, and so on.

You get the idea; genre books can be about stuff too.

So why all the judgement?

Part of the original stigma around genre books comes from the pulp novels that began in the early nineteenth century with the production of penny dreadfuls and that continued into the 1930s before dying out in the 1950s. These works became popular because prior to the eighteenth century, books were incredibly expensive. The arrival of penny dreadfuls and later the pulp magazines of the 1930s-50s were cheaply made and widely distributed. The stories were considered lowbrow because they were so formulaic. They were called pulp fiction because they were printed on cheap paper made from wood pulp and because you’d only read them once then toss them away. They were written for entertainment and without much finesse. 

Does that mean they aren’t valuable? Well I suppose that comes down to personal opinion and how you’d answer the question, ‘Why do you read?’ and ‘What are stories for?’

Do you read as a way to switch off at night, because you want to be entertained, or because it’s a way to escape the mundaneness of life? Do you read to experience different ways of seeing and doing, to challenge yourself, to feel something, or to recognise yourself? Maybe none of these. Maybe all of these, and at different points and stages of your life.

The strange thing about genre vs literary fiction is that literary fiction is held in greater esteem within the collective literary consciousness (or maybe just the New Yorker, though that too is changing) and yet, genre fiction is the bigger seller.

And look, it’s easy to dismiss or put down big sellers. Look at Twilight and Fifty Shades. Those books boomed and following that boom came a wave of criticism about how terrible both series were. They were heavily criticised because they were popular. If only 2000 copies of Twilight were sold, would there be a thousand memes making fun of it or a thousand essays that analyse how problematic the central romance is? Unlikely.

The more visible a book is the easier it is to criticise.

What is strange still, is that most readers who read widely consume both literary and genre fiction. Why? Because we need different stories at different times. Sometimes we want to read a book that has been created with the intention that it be dissected, analysed, and pulled apart. 

Sometimes we want the comfort of seeing the small, domestic, everydayness of our own lives reflected back to us, or to witness how incredibly complicated relationships can be. 

Sometimes we want to experience the thrill of high stakes, characters that pop, the wonder of living through incredibly complex problems while having no obligation to resolve them.

More and more people are writing about the value of genre fiction and more and more writers are finding ways to combine the best elements of literary fiction (a focus on language and introspection) with the best elements of genre fiction (cool stuff) to create hybrid text that defies the limitations of both categories.

What is most exciting is that there has been a significant shift in the way that genre fiction is seen. In recent years, it’s found a new level of respectability. And part of this is because we are seeing the boundaries between these two categories blur. 

Maybe the stigma around genre fiction will never entirely go away, but the conversation around its value is increasing and as long as there is a market of readers willing to buy these stories, genre books aren’t going anywhere.

And at the end of the day, most of us have enough room on our bookshelf for both.

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4 thoughts on “Genre vs Literary Fiction: Why the Debate?

  1. Lovely post, Tara. I love science fiction and before I’d even heard of SF, I read Jules Verne and HG Wells. I’ve read Shakespeare, Austin, Dickens, Wodehouse and Ayn Rand. I even read a few Mills and Boon books in my youth, but I gave that up for Lent. 🤭 I will read anything except porn. I like being entertained, especially in these grim times, I like a good yarn and I won’t pigeonhole books. I didn’t think people were as toffee nosed about the genres these days as they once were.


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