Splitting Hairs – genre fiction vs. literary fiction

I love the book, Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay.

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.

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10 Responses to Splitting Hairs – genre fiction vs. literary fiction

  1. I’ll read almost anything. If it’s good, it’s good, regardless of its classification. I LOVE romance in most sub-genres, especially paranormal, but I also love urban fantasy, with or without the HEA. I’ve even read some great “love stories” that kill you at the end, but were worth it.

    Lullabies for Little Criminals was a great book by a Canadian author, but I wouldn’t know how to class it. I like fiction that makes you think, or touches you on an intimate level. I also LOVE Young Adult books. They often have deep topics and really pull you in.


  2. anny cook says:

    I read to be touched. My top five books in no particular order…

    1) The Bible.
    2) The Windflower by Laura London (Tom and Sharon Curtis)
    3) Morning Glory by LaVryle Spencer
    4) Bendigo Shafter by Louis L’Amour
    5) Last of the Breed by Louis L’Amour

    I stopped reading literary fiction a long time ago because it depressed me. And that’s one way I DON’T want to be touched.

  3. Stacey – I agree that good fiction, literary or otherwise, makes you think and stays with you long after you’ve set the book down.

    Anny – I love Louis L’Amour too! Great westerns – fun genre! Kind of like Lonesome Dove – which I consider both literary fiction and genre fiction.

  4. The whole literary fiction thing doesn’t do much for me. So, you can write a depressing story. Great for the readers who like that. Personally, I think some writers and readers hide behind the whole literary fiction thing because they’re snobs or they fear what their peers will think.

    A good book, a good read, is just that, however it’s labeled.

  5. Savanna – interesting! I was just thinking that the more depressing the story, the better my sister likes it while I’m thinking more – enough already!
    I agree – a good book is a good book, regardless of label.

  6. Erin M. Leaf says:

    I’ve read a lot of literary stuff, and I agree, I’m tired of the depressing tone of most of them. One exception is Carolyn See’s “The Handyman.” Yeah, there’s a life-change, but the ending is different, as is the tone of the entire book. I love it. As for what I really like to read when it’s cold outside and I have a free hour or two? Romances, sci-fi, and fantasy. Give me a book that combines all three and I’ll kiss you.

    Literary types are definitely wary of genre fiction, sci-fi and fantasy, but especially romances. It probably has something to do with peer-pressure. The literary writing world is very small and if it gets out that you like to read (or even worse, write) romance, you can kiss your literary career goodbye. The oddest thing? The idea of what a literary writer should and shouldn’t be writing isn’t held so much by the writers themselves (most of them think it’s awesome that a person has written anything and SOLD it at all), but the readers. And if a reader thinks a romance writer is somehow less than a literary writer, they won’t buy the literary book. Readers want to brag that they’ve read so-and-so to their friends. If their friend says, “yeah, but she also wrote a bodice-ripper, so whatever, your brag is lame.” then they aren’t going to buy that writer’s literary novel because part of the point is to brag.

    Another other reason is that so many readers think that romances and other genre fiction isn’t intellectual enough. They’ve been taught in school or by their peers that only the uneducated masses read genre novels so they don’t ever give them a shot. Yet, I have never met a reader who disliked a good romance once I talked them into reading one. I could go on and on about this, but I think you get the picture. The funny thing is that so many of the past literary greats have really pushed the envelope (of their time) when it comes to breaking out of the mold for literature. Walt Whitman, Ginsberg, Henry Miller, just to name a few off the top of my head. Who could forget Lolita? Scandalous! What about Erica Jong?

    Anyway, these are some of the reasons why so many literary folk use pen names to separate the writing done in different genres. They don’t want to jeopardize their different writing careers, but I guarantee that there are quite a few lurking under the covers of genre fiction, busily typing away.

    PS-I loved “Last of the Breed” and forgot all about it for the past few years. Anny, thanks for reminding me of it. I have to go dig it out of my closet now.

  7. Erin – ya-huh! That would be me…romance/sci fi/fantasy! My favorite genre/s. Yes – Fear of Flying – one of my favorite books. Lolita? You make my point. So many authors pushed the envelope and now we think of them as literary giants – but they were outside of the norm – ahead of their time.
    You make some marvelous points. Come back anytime!

  8. Stephanie says:

    I have always considered Sharon Kay Penman an incredible writer, she weaves prose with the best. And I always felt she crossed the road from genre to literature.
    Some friends poopoo my choice of genre. I have usually found them eager to demonstrate what they know. Some even bring out their college notes to discuss or lecture on the deep, often dull,often incomprehensible, and always depressing work.

    I spent nine years at university, I don’t have to read stuff that bores me now, and I don’t have to prove how smart or chic or serious I am. I don’t have to sit in a smokey cafe in a beret reading Sartre. Nor do I have to wear my fangs on my sleeve. People need to stop thinking what is ‘worthy’ of their mental exertion and read what they want.

    Almost home, enjoying Seattle. S

  9. Steph…LOL! I love Sartre! And Sharon Kay Penman!

  10. Sandra Cox says:

    Wow! What a gorgeous cover. And it sounds like the book reads as good as the cover looks. I’m pretty much a genre girl.