Literary Vs. Genre Fiction: What’s The Diff And Who Cares?

I’m a reader…a discriminating and voracious bookworm. One that loves a good story, a good yarn that unravels, wraps itself around my body, ties into my brain and then releases into a pretty skein that I can put on my shelf  – wooden or digital – to enjoy another time.

That said, the literary fiction vs. genre fiction debate and which is superior kind of escapes me.

Firstly, I’m not even sure what the difference is exactly…

From what I recall hearing over the years, the adage is genre is plot driven and literary is character driven. That I can’t say is entirely accurate.

Catcher in the Rye (a perennial and personal fave) has plenty of plot – a road movie of a novel if you will – and then there’s characters you won’t ever forget like Danny Torrance in Stephen King’s The Shining or any of the tortured characters in the mystery novels of Michael Connelly or the fantasy/sci-fi works of the wonderful Ursula K. Le Guin (who has brilliantly espoused on the attitudes literary snob types have about genre in her essay “On Serious Literature”)

One other difference I’ve heard is genre is considered fleeting entertainment while literature is supposed to challenge and make you think.

Hmmm. Yup you got it, I’m about to raise a finger here again…

No one can dispute that Charles Dickens’ novels were considered popular entertainment of the day. I think every one of his novels were published serially first for the entertainment of his readership that couldn’t afford to buy books but could afford the “instalment” plan.

Another difference I’ve heard bandied about is: genre is disposable – something you wouldn’t pick up again whereas literature is something that sustains – something you go back to again and again.

Yes, once again I must dispute the notion…

I recall a funny moment in Nora Ephron’s film You’ve Got Mail where Meg Ryan’s character writes in an email to Tom Hanks, not knowing he’s her arch enemy in real life, that she re-reads Pride and Prejudice once a year. Well, I’m here to tell you that P & P is considered one of the first popular romance novels (an extremely popular genre!) that was ever published.

In my film Who’s Afraid of Happy Endings? that explores the world and business of romance fiction, Professor of English Pamela Regis, an expert on Popular Fiction, Jane Austen and director of McDaniel’s Nora Roberts Center for American Romance declared P & P “the best romance ever written”.

Not only is P&P a shining example of the genre, the novels of the Brontë Sisters follow suit.

Could it be that genre turns into literature after about 100 years or so?

I’m still scratching my head about the differences so onward to the dictionary! Merriam Webster is kind of my go-to (you gotta try the app – pure wordy goodness!) and here’s what I found:

GENRE: a particular type or category of literature or art

LITERATURE: written works (such as poems, plays, and novels) that are considered to be very good and to have lasting importance

Very interesting and still leaves so much open to interpretation.

So I put it to you Aspiring Writers and Avid Readers. What do you think? Is there a difference between so-called genre fiction and literary fiction and does it matter? Shouldn’t the distinction be well written or poorly written?

I’d love to get your comments and thoughts on the subject!

In the meantime if you want to read some other views on the subject, I’ve put the links below.

SPOILER ALERT: Some are snobbier than others…as well as a great interview on the site Electric Literature with Ursula K. Le Guin on her thoughts on the entire debate.

From Esquire:

How Genre Fiction Became More Important Than Literary Fiction

From Electric Literature:

The Last Holdouts of the Genre Wars: on Kazuo Ishiguro, Ursula K. Le Guin, and the Misuse of Labels

From Huffington Post:

Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction

From The New Yorker:

A Better Way to Think About the Genre Debate

It’s Genre. Not That There’s Anything Wrong With It!




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