I file it under the cannot put down one of the best books I’ve ever read category in my brain. But which is it, literary fiction or genre fiction? Just like the novels of Sharon Kay Penman (no relation), I consider Under Heaven a work of historical fiction containing strong elements of fantasy, which is genre fiction. Some of Mr. Kay’s works are straight up fantasy. At the same time, Under Heaven is a work of literary fiction along the lines of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which also contains fantastical, existential elements.
What is the essential difference between genre fiction and literary fiction? My answer is, I don’t know. Is it that genre fiction is expected to have a concrete conclusion, an HEA, or Happily Ever After, while literary fiction must be either a tragedy filled with deep wisdom or an open-ended work with a sort of draw your own conclusion finale? I don’t think so. More and more genre fiction is not all peaches and cream, riding off into the sunset, or an ‘and they all lived happily ever after…’
Is the difference between the two a matter of formula? Does each sub-genre follow a specific formula or set of genre rules along the road that lead to a predetermined conclusion? Again, I’m not so sure. I’ve read numerous works of literary fiction that seem to follow a very stereotypical formula. Because I don’t want to get slammed, I won’t mention the works or the authors, but there seems to be a formulaic trend in literary fiction – life as we know it, sudden tragedy, resuming life as we know it…changed. A lesson learned. A lesson not learned. Ending. If that’s not a formula, I don’t know what is.
For most of my life, I’ve read literary fiction. It’s only in the past four years that I’ve done a 180′ turn and switched to reading genre fiction, along with a whole lot of fabulous nonfiction. Why? Because with genre fiction I’m reading tried and true themes molded in fresh and intriguing ways by creative, interesting voices.
With some brilliant exceptions, literary fiction began to bore me perhaps…ten years ago. The voices started to sound alike, the stories became interchangeable. It’s not that I expected a new tale told every week, it’s that I wearied of reading the same old tale told in almost the exact same voice via the same tired plot devices while the New York Times book reviewers, and my sister, heaped praises on the authors ala the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Seriously.
Is the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction word count? Nope.
Is it the quality of characterization? Nope. There are well-written characters (and some poorly written characters) in both.
Janet, over at Dear Author, bless her dad-gum-blasted little soul, beat me to the punch on this one by posting a blog on literary fiction/genre fiction on 10/19, well worth the read – Originality in Genre Fiction, an Oxymoron? http://dearauthor.com/wordpress/2010/10/19/originality-in-genre-fiction-an-oxymoron/ According to Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), there may indeed be nothing new under the sun, but the proof is always in the telling.
For me, it’s splitting hairs – six of one, half-dozen of the other. I read what I like. I no longer feel that in order to appear cool and sophisticated, I must eschew genre fiction and read only literary fiction. There are good and bad books in both in both genre fiction and literary fiction and there is increasing overlap – which I think bodes well for the future of literary fiction.