I took a fiction writing class recently that outlawed genre fiction. Most of my classmates and I felt claustrophobic with this prohibition on the first day of class, and even after learning the definition of genre fiction, I still felt hesitant every time I turned in my writing. Even now, I’m still trying to understand what it means to write genre fiction and why genre writers are stigmatized.
As far as definitions go, the one for genre fiction (also known as mainstream fiction) seems decisive: it focuses heavily on plot rather than the characters or themes. Nonetheless, as with every rule, there are bound to be exceptions. All the typical genres, such as romance, science fiction, fantasy, and mystery, are in this broad category of literature, and each of these subsets of genre fiction have conventions. A reader who picks up a romance novel, for instance, has presumptions for how the plot will progress, how it will end, what type of characters will be seen, what the possible settings will be, and so forth. These conventions, however, are easily broken as people purposefully subvert these traditions to create twists.
Today, genre fiction is synonymous with the idea of being purely for entertainment purposes. People write and read books of a specific genre because they know approximately what to expect and can find comfort in a world they know well. However, the idea of escapism in genre fiction is under some controversy. As Lev Grossman notes in his article titled “Literary Revolution in the Supermarket Aisle,” people do not read genre fiction to escape the real world, but they instead read to learn new ways of perceiving their current reality and what possible solutions there are to their problems. Therefore, people are learning and internalizing new ideas while reading these "leisure" books. Even though some literary scholars and members of the public believe genre writers are somehow lesser than their literary fiction counterparts, these authors are still influential in readers’ everyday lives.
The popularity of genre literature usually causes these books to appear on best seller lists and at the front of bookstores. Genre books usually sell easily because they encompass a wide audience, but there is the argument that these books are commercialized and are written for profit. Whether this is true or not (depending on the author, the novel, and the circumstances), these books satisfy a higher demand because many people may not wish to have to reread a sentence or a chapter more than once to understand its meaning. People who are not interested in literature or writing may buy these books simply because they like to read but perhaps not analytically. Some well-known examples of genre books include The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, Agatha Christie’s Crooked House, and thousands of others.
While genre fiction is more plot driven, literary fiction focuses on the characters and the language. They focus heavily on prose and the way words interact together on the page. Literary books and stories usually have lavish descriptions and wild digressions that all somehow work together while simultaneously creating well-rounded characters. We see their development without ever being told the meaning or significance of every action or line of dialogue. The focus of these types of writings almost always centers on their themes. Although they may be difficult to understand and it might take more than one reading to decipher the author’s true meaning, these books (if nothing else) are usually beautifully written. The plot of literary fiction stories and books, however, might suffer somewhat since the writer allows the plot to be more free form and they let the reader decide their own interpretation of the story.
If genre fiction is a form of entertainment, then literary fiction is art. It demands that the reader pay attention and think analytically to grasp the deeper meanings. The themes are usually based in the real world, and literary books try to understand the human condition through symbolism rather than stating anything outright. These books are usually harder for the author to publish or sell because they are not as popular amongst the larger populace. In any case, there are many famous literary fiction authors who managed to break through to the mainstream consciousness, such as David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest), Toni Morrison (Tar Baby), F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), Eden Robinson (Monkey Beach), and Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five) to name a few.
Labeling or categorizing literary fiction as art is problematic, however, because it creates assumptions that literary fiction is somehow better than genre fiction. Sure, these books usually focus more on intense or abstract themes and the writing itself rather than the plot, but genre books can do these same things. Take Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for instance. Her novel is considered one of the earliest forms of modern science fiction today, and yet she discusses themes that questions one’s understanding of what a monster is and what it means to be alive. Her novel created two characters whose development and relationships have returned again and again throughout the centuries in modern media, but since the book has a clear plot and the language is not exceptionally deep or poetic, it is not deemed literary fiction. Books like Frankenstein could be argued to be a blend of both literary fiction and genre fiction, since it is a story that focuses on the characters’ development while also introducing a unique or complex plot. In recent decades, this blend of the two categories of literature is becoming more prominent as writers experiment with the expectations of their genres and our understanding of those genres’ characters.
For an author to create a popular story that allows the written word to push the readers’ minds and ways of thinking without making the reader feeling lost or confused, the author needs to incorporate both forms of literature. Literary and genre fiction both have opportunities for flaws, be it in long-winded prose that loses the reader’s interest or a plot that is too predictable. Lev Grossman’s aforementioned article states that, while literary fiction focuses more on the characters and the themes of its stories, its plot usually cannot compare with the complexities of those of genre fiction’s. The separation between the two forms of literature only breeds animosity among authors and readers when neither are perfect forms of writing. As Grossman goes on to write, even though literary fiction tries so hard to be unique and different from other types of writing by rejecting all the conventions of genre fiction, it thereby creates its own customs. Science fiction author M. John Harrison once stated, “The sooner literary fiction recognizes and accepts its generic identity, the sooner it can get help.” Even though the two kinds of literature have their differences, if they and their authors were to recognize that they are not so different from each other and that they can learn from one another, then literature would evolve into a new combination of the two without the need for the arbitrary separation.
As for the question of why all this matters to modern writers like you and me, I would answer that people should be able to write without worrying of how their writing will be categorized on the spectrum of literature. It may be harder for those who write without a clear genre in mind to be published, but there is always a place and an audience for all stories or manuscripts; it may just take time to find the right outlet. Outside of getting your work published (or writing for a specific professor), the debate regarding literary and genre fiction should not influence your writing. Be free to write what you wish and let the world move to make a spot for your writing when you’re ready to share your work. We are long overdue for a new genre or form of literature anyway, and in the world of literature, nothing is off-limits.