Genre and Literary Fiction

The difference between genre and literary fiction is the cause of most of the hard-fought battles in the book world. The difference is highly contentious, separating some groups of readers into those who think literature is elite and pretentious, while others decry genre as facile easy reading. These are fighting words, ones bound to elicit an emotional response rather than an intellectual one. And so I’m not about to consider the difference in such a provocative way. Equally, differences between genre and literary fiction exist on a sliding scale. It’s not black and white. But because there are differences, we can perhaps talk about tendencies, and my feeling is that one of several possible ways to distinguish between the two types is this: genre tends to reinforce current ideology whilst literary fiction tends to challenge it. I’ll explain what I mean by that in terms of character development.

In a novel I recently reviewed, The Chaperone, I spoke about the main character experiencing a kind of liberation from the strict 1920s outlook to which she had been conforming, thanks to her proximity to a young woman freed from all notions of convention. If this had been a genre novel of the 1920s, such a protagonist would have caused horror and alarm in her readers. In the new millennium, though, liberation is good, and a woman who learns to leave her corset behind so she can enjoy food, and who unbends mentally enough to enjoy sexual relations is smack in line with the ‘normal’ woman in our society. It’s a pleasure to the reader to see her released from silly old notions of respectability, which look to our eyes unhealthy and repressed. The main protagonist is a married woman who ends up taking a lover – an act that might seem to go against the grain of sympathetic behaviour. But in fiction, lovers are okay if there is a good excuse. And indeed, it turns out that her husband is gay and has had a partner he has been unable to give up throughout their married life. So this makes it all right; our sense of what is acceptable and proper (in the liberal 2000s) has not been disturbed. But what if our main protagonist had been taken further along the route of liberation towards hedonism and indulgence, and introduced into the hard drugs that were perfectly available in her time? If she had taken cocaine or heroin and enjoyed it, then even the millennium audience would baulk, and that precious sympathy of the reader, so coveted in genre fiction, would be lost. (And of course she doesn’t do any such thing.)

Essentially what I’m talking about here is referred to in academic circles as the ‘cultural gaze’, the sense that certain sorts of behaviours are looked at approvingly and valued, whereas others are not. The cultural gaze is shifting all the time, although when we are under it, the impression is that it is entirely ‘natural’, and that this is the way things are under the rule of common sense. It is surprisingly easy – and uncomfortable – to fall outside the cultural gaze, however. I am a skinny person, always have been and always will; it’s just a genetic thing. I can’t help but notice in genre fiction, particularly of the women’s fiction variety, how the thin woman is so often the bitch or the false friend these days, the super-competitive type, the neurotic, the unnatural slave of the gym who freaks if she eats two lettuce leaves. Thin has become the new bad, it seems, as main protagonists these days are comfortably plump and curvy, always meaning to diet but never quite sticking to it. That’s the sort of acceptable, non-threatening, easily identifiable protagonist who’s going to win the sympathy of the reader. I’m not saying here that genre always peddles stereotypes – it doesn’t. Lots of good genre novels develop characters of all kinds of different types. But it is unlikely that they will willingly or carelessly transgress the social boundaries that are understood to be the acceptable norms of the time.

It may be easier to understand this tendency when we consider a work of literary fiction. I’ll talk about Marguerite Duras’s novel The Lover, a highly unorthodox romance, as Duras is one of the most literary writers I know. Now, in The Lover, the main protagonist is a 15-year-old white French immigrant, living in Indochina. She comes from a poor family that has been stitched up by corrupt government officials; they own farming land that is flooded every year and thus unworkable. She catches the eye of young, rich Chinese man and the two begin a passionate affair. If this were genre fiction, you could imagine how it would go. The young girl would be charming and imperilled, the young man gallant and proud; there would be dreadful obstacles to be overcome before a happy-ish ending. In fact, Marguerite Duras does everything she can to make her protagonist unsympathetic. She uses the Chinese man, getting money out of him for her family, refusing to tell him she loves him, keener in fact, on her schoolfriend Hélène Lagonelle. The affair is a desperate attempt for her to separate out from a mother who both loves and hates her, and a family broken by poverty. But it has no triumphant ring to it, no sense of redemption or value. The whole thing is somewhat distasteful, and the reader is put not in a position of sympathetic identification with the characters, but shoved up rather too close to events that make him or her a voyeur.

None of this is pretty, but it has the ring of truth (misfortune such as poverty does not always make people behave well). What literature aims to do is to bring the reader alongside the reality of the human condition beyond the attributes and qualities that we are comfortable with. It shows us darker truths, truths that we are unwilling to accept, inconvenient and disquieting truths. Its skill lies in conveying these truths in ways which seem compelling for the fictional characters concerned and that chime with the reader, despite our orthodox inclinations. So to put this in rather schematic terms, genre fiction comforts us by reinforcing the image of the ‘ordinary’ person we aim to be, the person entirely acceptable to his or her society, while literature asks us to recognise the reality beyond that image, and feel perhaps a strange but profound solidarity with our less acceptable traits. In genre fiction, hysterical women are figures of contempt or fun; in literature, the hysterical woman is someone pushed beyond the boundaries of her tolerance, only able to act out the horror she feels. In this way, there is often more genuine compassion in literature than there is in genre for its characters. In genre fiction, we love characters if they behave the way we want them to; in literature we are invited to understand characters no matter what they have done.

As I said at the start, I’m considering a sliding scale here, not black or white categories, and there are doubtless exceptions. That’s what creativity is all about. And when it comes to genre there are gender divisions, the masculine imagination of the thriller finding it entirely sympathetic in a protagonist to commit acts of great violence in the name of saving his loved ones or his life, for instance. But the more literary a novel is, the more it asks the reader to go the extra mile into what is discomforting but real.

But we read for all sorts of reasons – sometimes to peer deeper into the injustices that persist in our world, and sometimes to be taken out of ourselves and away from the disquieting truths we are being forced to face in daily life. I don’t think we should ever sneer at either of those needs, as both are resolutely human. Stories can soothe and make sense, and they can disrupt and challenge. We need them to do both.

45 thoughts on “Genre and Literary Fiction

    • Oh thank you! I really don’t like to see readers fighting over the differences between literary and genre fiction – particularly when I do believe that we need both because they do different things.

  1. That’s a really interesting way of looking at the genre/literary fiction issue and one I hadn’t really thought about before, especially if you like reading both.

    • Thank you! I think you can also look at the difference as one of narrative expectation, with genre conforming more to orthodox storytelling strategies, and literature more ready to play with form. Again, it’s by no means a perfect distinction, but it works in general too.

  2. I think it depends on the genre fiction. I wouldn’t say they always reinforce “ordinary”. Maybe you were thinking of historical genre fiction? It could be a reason after all why I’m not so keen on that and prefer fanatsy or sci-fi because they try to go beyond the ordinary.
    For me the biggest difference lies in the style, not so much in the themes. And that’s why I think that a lot of what is called “literary” nowaydays, notably in the English speaking world, isn’t written in a much different style than most genre writing and that’s where the boundaries are not clear anymore. I’ve started to write a post on this. But I don’t think I’ll get to it any day soon.

    • Oh but I’m not talking about theme here – the examples I use both have the same theme of a love affair. I’m really focussing on character. I haven’t read much sci fi or fantasy so I don’t want to make assumptions about genres I don’t know. But what I have read had very typical characterisation, with strong conventions in place. Particularly in fantasy, I find the main characters very same-y, displaying courage, resilience, determination, and so on, and destined to overcome their fears. The trajectory towards empowerment seemed to me to remain the same in the few books I read. But I’m sure there are lots of exceptions, and I’m not widely read in these areas.

      I look forward to reading your own post on the topic!

  3. This a really thoughful analysis. I agree that genre writing on the whole follows conventions – you know what to expect so it makes for relatively comfortable reading, while literary fiction should always be trying to bring something new to the table. You may not always like what they have done, but at least they are striving towards originality. Great example too – The Lover is a book I have returned to many times over the years. It’s very challenging, almost like a slap in the face, but totally unlike anything else.

    • It always cheers my heart to find another fan of The Lover. Duras would be soooo happy to think of her writing as being akin to a slap in the face (I wrote half my PhD on her, and she remains a character in my head!). Yes, I like the idea of bringing something new to the table, and perhaps especially something new that destabilizes or disconcerts. I think that’s why literary fiction can sometimes (not always) be harder to love at first, but lasts longer in our minds – surprise isn’t always comfortable initially but we appreciate it more the more we think about it.

  4. Hmm… an interesting perspective. I haven’t really thought of the distinction in this way. I think my view is closer to Caroline’s, that the difference is more in the style. I think of literary novels as ones that play with narrative conventions and genre as having to do with subject matter. So you can have a literary novel in the crime genre. But as you say, the terms are so fluid, and I don’t think anyone defines them in exactly the same way.

    I also think some genres lend themselves to considerations of more trangressive behaviors. Science fiction and fantasy often push right pass the boundaries of what we consider acceptable, often by creating metaphors or alternate realities where the rules don’t apply, and then readers end up reconsidering the rules.

    • I really can’t talk about science fiction and fantasy – as I said to Caroline, my own experiences haven’t fallen outside of boundaries at all. But take someone like Sarah Waters, who is clearly a literary writer, but who writes in an unobtrusive style. The Little Stranger is a haunted house story in what might on the surface look close to genre. But the narrator is unreliable, and a man who becomes more unsympathetic as the drama unfolds, and there is no triumphing over the evil spirits through marriage, as he and Caroline manage only a deeply uncomfortable parody of romance. It’s this sort of thing I had in mind.

      I think that narrative conventions are another way of looking at the difference between genre and literature (and after all, I did say that character was only one possible distinction). I’d thought about considering crime fiction in that respect (and talking about a book like Robbe-Grillets The Erasers, in which the detective becomes the murderer by the end) but the post was too long already! There are indeed lots of different ways that the distinction can be explored.

      • Oh yes, there are lots of ways the distinction can be explored. I’d just never considered it in terms of character development before. I think I was getting hung up on the word ideology in your first paragraph. A lot of science fiction is very much about questioning ideology, but there are still conventions that science fiction follows, and a literary science fiction novel might be more interested in pushing other boundaries, such as plot construction or narrative voice. So maybe the distinction is about pushing at boundaries or subverting expectations, and the particular boundaries and expectations being pushed at could vary.

        All that said, many, perhaps most, of my favorite books are both literary and genre.

  5. Thanks so much for writing this post–I was really wondering about the distinction between the two. I know genre fiction doesn’t always appeal to everyone and is often looked down upon, but it’s interesting to know what the two are actually trying to achieve. And I’m glad you brought up Sarah Waters, who I agree manages to write about different historical periods in a way you think you’re getting a historical fiction novel, but in reality often turns out to be something much more. I was thinking that surely there must be some crossover–isn’t War and Peace considered to be historical fiction, but I can’t imagine Tolstoy being looked at as someone not also writing literary fiction. I think something that readers have a problem with in historical/genre fiction is the very thing you mention that some readers like–the reinforcing of cultural ideology (since it is the current ideology that we’re talking about right?)–if a writer applies too many contemporary views on a historical character many readers have a problem with that as well. But I absolutely agree that both can be well done and satisfying for different reason. I know I like to read both!

  6. i like your explanation of the distinction between the two. I don’t read a lot of genre fiction so I don’t have a lot of experience to agree or disagree with you. But, in thinking about the books my book group has read, this definition works. There are a few members who always choose something that is genre — and often, in my opinion, in the “just shoot me now so I don’t have to read this tripe” category. I think that your explanation works for why books I’ve chosen were so unpopular — because they disrupted and challenged rather than soothed and made sense of the world. Anna Karenina remains the least popular choice in the 9 years my group has met and I am still teased about it 6 or 7 years later. (It is still one of my favorite novels.) As one member put it: I didn’t see that train coming! Expectations, comforting behavior, nothing about Anna fit that! 🙂

  7. Pingback: Going Past Genre: Brain Food For Academic Anorexics « judefensor

  8. Your argument is very convincing, but I can’t help thinking that these labels matter less to readers than they do to booksellers or academics.

    We may want books that entertain/educate/inspire, or whatever else we seek in a book, but anything that suggests a hierarchy of literature makes me uncomfortable. Having said that, bad writing is bad writing, wherever you find it.

    Can genre writing push the boundaries too?

  9. Hmm…I think whether you think genre busts cultural norms really depends which of those norms you choose to focus on.

    Genre has often acted as a space where authors righted some of the wrongs that past literature perpetrated on women (for example, women often being portrayed as physically weak, incapable darlings, or sexual beings who needed to die at the end, or larger women being terrible, probably greedy people who were to be laughed at and again maybe should die at the end). The trend you described (which I assume you’re seeing largely in chick-lit/contemporary fiction marketed heavily at women) was in some ways a challenge to the cultural idea that being single at 30 and weighing a bit more than some fanciful average weight meant you never got to have romantic happiness (that idea is certainly embedded in a lot of classic lit). Giving these kind of characters romantic happiness wasn’t all wish fulfillment, it was an attempt to show some of the reality of life – that you can be non-modelish, with a bit of a history and still find a partner who adores you. It happens. I think fantasy contains many heroines who are whip smart, kick ass and win the day because it’s reaction against another deeply embedded cultural idea of (hopefully) yore that ladies were physically weak, stupid and generally bad at things. Again, in reality ladies who are good at their job and physically strong exist. Literature was pretty set on ignoring these facets of reality for a long time and simplifying the picture when it came to women, but genre made a space for this kind of truth.

    If you think lit-fic is doing particularly well at complicating the picture of the female protagonist right now then I agree. Genre spaces are having some good conversations about writing different kinds of women as protagonists, but I think the actual out-put might be a little bit behind lit-fic in that area right now. However, I don’t think that’s an indication that genre follows where lit-fic leads, or that genre deals largely in comfortable norms and must wait for the cultural gaze to shift before it responds. If I follow my first argument through then sometimes genre leads where lit-fic is unwilling to go and I’d suggest that lit-fic is often unwilling to embrace the any more positive side of reality (I say that as a full on lit-fic lover, but man I am tired of seeing despair used as lazy code for ‘serious writer’).

    Not that genre was some sort of feminist bastion all the time, while lit-fic just twiddled its thumbs, just…I feel from the conversations I’ve witnessed that at least some of genre fic has been busy consciously, or unconsciously re-dressing some particular imbalances of the way women are represented and the subjects readers feel comfortable hearing about when there are female characters involved. And now I think it feels both safer and logical to authors for them to approach writing female protagonists in even more different ways, which means current lit-fic is sort of building on what genre has given it.
    Also, I don’t know exactly what you’ve been reading, so say if you think this is unfair, but I kind of feel like the argument you make in this post may be the result of reading all the best/most interesting that lit-fic has to offer and none of the bad (hurray, you’ve been finding overwhelmingly good lit-fic), then reading genre fiction which does very particular things and doesn’t do others. For example, this statement:

    ‘In genre fiction, hysterical women are figures of contempt or fun; in literature, the hysterical woman is someone pushed beyond the boundaries of her tolerance, only able to act out the horror she feels.’

    doesn’t really tally with my experience at all. I think lit-fic is capable of being just as cruel about hysterical women. Your idea that the skinny, bitch woman is only present in genre fiction also doesn’t match up with my own experiences (but then we’ve read a lot of different books, who would expect our experiences to match up right?). Sure, I could name a few lit-fic books where it’s true that the hysterical woman is actually the focus of the book, where her psyche is explored and I’m sure you could name more, but I could also name quite a few lit-fic books where the skinny woman is “the devil” (dun, dun, dun), or a hysterical woman is to be viewed with contempt. And then if I add in some of lit-fic’s other favourite stereotypes like the nasty piece of work ex-wife for example, or the pathetic larger woman who is shown as sexless and disgusting, or the sad spinster lady, or the jealous female friend, suddenly lit-fic has its own share of problems surrounding confirming the cultural gaze. Moving on to other areas of representation, some of lit-fic’s depiction of class, is often so, so far off the scale of stereotypical it can’t even see the scale. In many books the poor are either drunks or inspirational (this second characterisation turns up regularly when some lit-fic writers present an intersection of class and race – to which, yikes). The middle classes are all drudges, without a brain cell to rub together (thanks authors, I mean never mind that my middle class status means I had the money to buy your book). Ick. All of which confirms the cultural gaze and all to be found in lit-fic (as well as genre).

    Like you I think there’s a sliding scale in all literary areas and none of my statements should be taken as a rule for all genre fic or all lit-fic. There’s good and bad in both areas and there’s challenge and confirmation in both, in different areas. Often, genre fic is especially great at challenging notions of who can be heroic, while lit fic is often good at challenging the very idea of heroism. Then there’s a wide section of genre fic at least where what I said above doesn’t apply and a more bleak (but I think equally valid) version of realism rules the day.

    Just to finish and please excuse me because maybe I’m reading this wrong, but I think…um, what you say about ‘The Little Stranger’ in the comments sounds very close to arguments I’ve heard before from people who think genre is bad news, namely, ‘If it’s got genre elements, but it strays from narrative conventions, then it’s not genre fic anymore’. To my mind a book which exhibits genre conventions (haunted house etc), but also adds in a more complex psychology than you might see in a potboiler or quick read from the genre is…well… it’s kind of still genre. Genre readers often face the problem that when a writer puts out something a bit different that still deploys genre devices, it’s nearly always automatically branded lit fic, but the reverse is never true. Think of Wolf Hall for one, Margaret Atwood’s books, Sarah Waters (who essentially writes hist fic, making use of lit fic styles). If lit fic claims a lot of the plum titles that have a good stake in genre territory for itself, is it really surprising that when people look at a genre they see a less complicated literary area? Why can’t books that crossover be classified as literary AND genre, for example literary and historical, or literary historical fiction – something that retains both the genre and the literary link?

    So, why that was quite a ramble wasn’t it? I’ll end by encouraging you to come over to the dark side and try SF or fantasy if you want to see some complicated people and difficult situations where heroism is distinctly lacking. Look how many people in your comments said those genres were all about blasting cultural norms – come on that’s got to be tempting you😛

  10. Hello litlove, I nipped over here to comment and blimey, what a fascinating conversation is going on down here. I don’t have anything interesting to add, although I’d love it if you did write more on this subject; you mentioned above you’d been planning to write more on crime fiction specifically in this regard.

  11. I suppose that writers of different genres spend their time violating different conventions, pushing different boundaries. The convention the writer is allowed or expected to violate then becomes just another convention of the genre.

    The Lover is a fascinating little book. Ma femme has taught the book to unsuspecting undergraduates with some success, meaning the students were able to do something with those “inconvenient and disquieting truths.”

  12. So many interesting comments. I am going to chime in with the folks who mention SF and Fantasy and disagree with your statement that “genre tends to reinforce current ideology whilst literary fiction tends to challenge it.” I think the history of SF/Fantasy as a genre has been all about challenging current ideology, questioning cultural norms, gender and race, politics, anything and everything right down to what it means to be human. Does every book in the genre do this? No, of course not, but it is a tradition and tendency in the genre to do so more often than not. I think certain kinds of genre fiction fit your argument, like that marketed as women’s fiction. But genre is a huge category, and one can even argue that literary fiction is a genre in which case to compare it alone to all other genres is way too general for me to be comfortable with.

    I like Jodie’s idea of being able to call a book literary AND genre. Though I think it would be interesting to explore just what we mean when we say “literary” anything. Genre is a pretty recent invention on the part of publishers and booksellers to market and sell books. Before a certain time period, books were just books. No one marketed Dickens as literary fiction or Dracula and Frankenstein as fantasy and SF. I was talking with Bookman a little about this since he worked at Barnes & Noble for 10 years and he said they often had trouble trying to figure out where they should shelve a book. Maybe we’ve reached a point where genre isn’t useful any longer?

    • Stefanie – double check your Franco Moretti book, particularly the graphs of the successive explosions of epistolary, Gothic, and historical novels. Genre is old.

      What is new is the “literary fiction” category, which is not yet thirty years old and was coined to address exactly this problem – what to do with a genre novel (The Name of the Rose) that was unusually ambitious.

      • True, genre itself is old, it just used to be epic, tragedy, comedy, etc. and even then books didn’t always fit neatly into them. But as you note, the creation of “literary fiction” is new and it has created this swirl of argument and hair-splitting over what counts as “literary” with implications of worth attached. It’s the implication of value attached to “literary” that gets people who like other genres all worked up and emotional. Litlove is making no value judgements, she would never do that. But I wonder if the label “literary” as a genre has turned out to not really be all that useful? (sorry to be a bit off-topic Litlove!)

  13. This is what we come to the Reading Room for! Stefanie makes such a good point about genre being a construct of publishers and booksellers to shift books. And book editors are certainly concerned with reinforcing genre elements in order to give novels an easier ticket into shop promotions. But it’s a double-edged sword.

    The idea of fulfilling expectations of readers who demand sympathetic characters also explains why reviewers/networkers on sites like GoodReads can be so dismissive of literary fiction, across a huge selection of books. “This novel wasn’t what I was expecting – so I didn’t like it,” is a verdict that turns up surprisingly often. “I hated this novel because the main character didn’t react as I would have,” is another. Your post and this discussion articulate very well the reasoning behind this.

  14. Hello! I’m here again…like your new header- which one are you? I’m off to look at your new bookcases now & read all about Mrs Robinson…See you soon- hope you’re well?

  15. Lovely explanation, and well thought out, of the differences between the two types of fiction, Litlove! I like it too – the comfort zone of genre fiction, and the conflict/challenge in literary fiction as it takes you too close and uncomfortable to the situation and characters. Well said.

  16. I’ve never really thought about this before, but as usual, I’ve learned something from you and now want to go through my shelves trying to decide which is genre and which is literary fiction! But has it really been the source of hard fought battles? If so, that in itself is delightful. I love it when people get fired up about something they care deeply about. Passion…so important and endearing!

  17. Thanks. Again you articulated something I have been trying to tease out about genre writing. On a slightly diffrent issue, the Australian Women Writers Challenge has had several writers of romance cliaming they are writing as feminist. My major point of disagreement is that, as you say, they are identifying with the status quo and feminism is basically about change.
    But your commenters have me thinking about ways in which genre writing can challenge the status quo. Science fiction and fantasy are probably the most successful attempt at truly feminist novels. And mystery novels have certainly absorbed women crime-solvers into what was traditionally a male world.

    • If you’re looking to understand the pov that romance writing can be a feminist action, you might want to think about how books in the romance genre often tell stories primarily from a female point of view, deal with issues of female agency and counts many, many female readers among its ranks. Getting the female voice out there and telling the stories of women can be seen as a feminist action. And while it’s true that lots of romance ends with a traditional boy/girl happy ever after pair off, I’d say that feminism exists within real life traditional structures like straight marriage. We don’t write off women as non-feminists just because they marry a guy in a church instead of challenging the status quo. So maybe each romance needs to be examined individually and deeply to develop an understanding of how it may be feminist, despite containing a hero and heroine who may choose to marry/end up in a traditional relationship.

      • Of course. I totally agree that romance books are feminist in some ways. Sorry, that I didn’t make that clear originally. But I have been thinking about the ways in which they, at the same time, not feminist. Another continuum if you will. I see feminism as about change and alternatives. The romance genre prioritizes loving/catching a man as the answer to a woman’s problems in ways that are very traditional and unfeminist. I don’t mean by that romance is bad or that straight marriage is bad. I am married and straight myself, but that is not all that I am.

        Catherine Heilburn observed in the 1980s that our Literature, not simply the romance genre, provided women with one plot, romance, and men another, quest. I applaud the fact her observation is no longer true and we have more questing women, more books of women’s relations to each other, and more books on specifically female experience such as motherhood. Mysteries are my favorite genre reading and I particularly enjoy those that feature women detectives with romances and children. I think these are some of the best depictions of women trying to combine romance and quest in their lives.

  18. Fascinating article! I’ve been reading a “literary” crime novel called The Murder of Halland recently, and trying to decide what makes it literary rather than genre. I think the distinction is often made on the basis of language, that literary fiction uses higher or more beautiful language, but I think the focus on character is much more appropriate.

    I’m reminded of something E.M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel, about character and plot often being at war – does the author want to give a satisfying plot and corral the characters into doing what he/she wants, or be true to who the characters really are and what they would really do, which may be less satisfying plot-wise? In genre fiction I think the plot often wins out, but in literary fiction it’s about character. In The Murder of Halland, for example, the author deliberately frustrates the conventions of detective fiction, and the result is something that feels true to the characters but avoids the neat resolution that provides satisfaction in the plots of most detective novels.

    I’ve always struggled to define literary fiction, and will refer back to this post the next time I’m grasping for the right words.

  19. Wow! What a great conversation. So much to digest here I had to draw myself up a little table. I’d love to see some graphics whizz whip the ideas in this conversation into some sort of info-graphic, alas that is not my area of expertise. Any takers?

    This is an area of particular interest to me because I am currently writing a book which falls into the sci-fi/speculative fiction genre, and yet, I believe is also literary. I considered it in terms of many of the arguments presented here and it was food for thought. It is set in the future (the near future) and contains technological developments which do not yet exist. Yet, overall, I believe it leans more towards the literary side of things, in that it plays with form, has some characters who are difficult to like, and perhaps makes the reader uncomfortable. It definitely also challenges current ideologies, although as many others have pointed out, most SF books do.

    I’m with those who hope some books can be BOTH things at once. Because while labels can sometimes be useful, they can equally be reductive. For example, when I tell people I am writing a SF, they often say “Oh, i won’t like that then”!

    A common criticism of ‘literary fiction’ is that it is not sufficiently plot driven, and this is where genre really cleans up. Yet i think the best books can have great plot, like a genre novel, as well as complex, realistic characters and challenging ideas.

    I recently read Justin Cronin’s The Passage and that really challenged my ideas about genre/lit fic. His first two books definitely veered towards literary fiction. But The Passage seemed to straddle both worlds fairly effectively. He writes about secret military experiments and zombies. He has a hundred pages of heart-stopping action. Then he takes you a hundred years into the future and spends hundreds of pages building character and setting in a seemingly new world. He seems to bring the depth of thinking behind literary fiction to genre and it is a great marriage.

  20. I think it might help if you made clear just what genre you’re talking about. As it is, it comes off as if you’re suggesting that genre fiction never challenges cultural norms (something other comments have pointed out as wrong, in context of speculative fiction), and that you’re suggesting that genre fiction never has purposely unlikable protagonists (again untrue, and if we use A Song of Ice and Fire as an example, this has been done and then subverted within a same series).

    As far as my own thoughts on the lit fic vs genre war, I think it’s a load of crap. Lit fic is a genre, and like genre it has it’s own tropes and conventions, and has produced both good and bad books. The sooner people stop pitting lit fic against other genres the better.

  21. Pingback: The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul | Andrew Blackman

  22. >>Stories can soothe and make sense, and they can disrupt and challenge. We need them to do both.<<
    Amen to that! And I find that if I get too much of one, I have to go racing to the other for a while to balance things out a bit.

  23. Pingback: Literature defined. « A Room of One's Own

  24. I think “literary fiction” is a genre…which only exists in English. Fiction littéraire doesn’t exist in French. You have Littérature and that’s it.

    I think The Lover is an amazing book, especially when you know the autobiographical side of it.

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