The war between literary fiction and genre fiction is something I became aware of about two years ago when I joined Booktube: a community of people on YouTube who make videos about everything to do with books. From what I’ve garnered about the situation, it appears genre is ‘the bad guy’ or ‘the fun dumb one,’ and literary is ‘the good guy’ or ‘the boring smart one,’ and to be associated with one or the other apparently says a lot about what kind of person you are.
But what does one mean when they say genre or literary fiction, you might ask. Well, there’s a very helpful 2012 article in the Huffington Post written by freelance writer Steven Petite that describes the clearest and most concise answer I’ve read so far. He says genre fiction consists of subcategories such as romance, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi, and thriller, and is usually consumed for entertainment, providing “a riveting story, an escape from reality.” Literary fiction, on the other hand, is not easily put into subcategories like romance or horror, and is more about diving into reality on an emotional journey and reflecting on the world and ourselves.
The conflict between the two stems from the popular notions associated with each; namely, literary fiction is pretentious and boring though usually higher quality than genre fiction while genre fiction, although usually more entertaining and mainstream, does not hold any quality in writing or story, and people who consume it are usually viewed (by literary readers) as ‘low-brow’ readers.
As someone who has read both genre and literary fiction, I do not scorn either one; rather I understand what each is trying to do and in my experience, there are good and bad books on both sides. I’ve read genre books that were so utterly boring I couldn’t finish them (Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor), and I’ve read literary fiction that frustrated me so much I became hateful towards its existence and stopped reading (The Secret History by Donna Tartt). But I’ve also read genre books that I’ve loved (any Nancy Drew book, Harry Potter), and literary fiction that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed (The Virgin & the Gypsy by D.H Lawrence, Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf). The most important thing any book can do is allow the reader to come away feeling changed in some aspect, whether it’s gaining new insight on something, feeling stimulated with new thoughts and questions, feeling curiosity or inspiration, or something as simple as the satisfaction of having just finished an awesome book and looking forward to the next one. If a book can do any of these things, then it doesn’t matter whether it’s literary or genre.
However, it’s not that simple in this subjective world where everything we do means something. I’ve failed to mention at this point that I, too, have found myself caught up in this war of ‘you are what you read.’ I’ve judged people by the books they read and I’ve been judged for what I have and don’t have on my shelves.This war isn’t the only thing that has its own battles; the internal struggle within myself as a consumer, writer, and reader is very real, too. I find genre fiction much easier to write, which makes me feel insecure – does my finding it easier to write mean I’m a dumb person, or am I just better at it than literary? Sometimes I find literary fiction takes itself way too seriously as a work of art for me to engage with and enjoy, but again I’m plagued with insecurity because as a writer, shouldn’t I ought to be able to easily consume and discuss all of the classics and the ‘better written’ stuff out there? (The answer is no, but society tells me yes, if I don’t want to seem like a phoney I ought to).
Some critics have argued that the categories of genre and literary don’t actually exist, or that literary is itself a genre, or that the two are becoming less and less distinct. Critics like Arthur Krystal in his 2012 New Yorker article maintain that genre fiction is a guilty pleasure and literary fiction remains superior. He describes genre as plot driven, clichéd, an “escape from our own humdrum lives,” written for “people with time on their hands” – but there are problems with his gloomy assertion, as Lev Grossman points out in his 2012 Times article. Grossman says it’s now a critical cliché to “bust genre writers for using clichés in their prose,” and I would agree; not all genre fiction is inherently clichéd, and not all of the clichéd genre fiction out there is necessarily bad. Krystal asserts that genre fiction contains uneven prose and predictable observations about life and society, but Grossman says this sounds more like Krystal is describing “shitty genre fiction,” and notes that Krystal fails to mention shitty literary fiction exist, too.
So if both categories have their faults and downsides, why does literary fiction always seem to come out on top? Possibly because we’ve been socially conditioned to view literary fiction as something that carries prestige and value based on the types of awards it often wins – Pullitzer Prize, the Man Booker Award – and the type of associated social status, given its content and standards of writing.
Last year I went on a Young Adult craze and bought tons of YA books that all the kids my age were discussing on Booktube. I even started my own channel so I could join in on the talk, but when my parents came to visit I felt embarrassed as they studied my shelves, noting the numerous un-prestigious, mainstream books. My dad said to me, “You really should read better quality stuff, some P.G Wodehouse or Charles Dickens or something.” I tried to explain to him that there’s nothing wrong with reading and owning these types of books and that I’m aware some of them are repetitive or not well written. However, over the course of a year I barely read any of them because every time I picked one up I’d begin at the first page and be immediately turned off by the writing quality, the style, or the instantly recognizable clichés. Even if the story sounded cool, I had a hard time getting into it unless I found the writing engaging. And so, I sold most of them to a secondhand bookstore and kept only a few that interested me (The Raven Boys by Maggie Stievfater, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart). However, I am just as embarrassed to have literary fiction on my shelves too, because I’ve barely read any of those either. “Ah, Dorian Grey! Excellent! What did you think of it?” When I reply I haven’t actually gotten around to reading it yet, I’m met with a dissatisfied pause – and then I feel like a huge fake.
I’ve discovered I’m a very picky reader, which is odd because I don’t remember having this much difficulty enjoying reading when I was younger. The whole debacle presents a bit of a dilemma for myself as an aspiring noveslit, because being a writer is usually accompanied by also being an avid reader, yet I know I’m not. Thus, I feel like a bit of a fraud calling myself a writer. It’s been a struggle to find books that really resonate with me, and I’ve often wondered if this war between genre and literary fiction has stilted my reading habits, because now all I long for are books that are somewhere in the middle of genre and literary fiction – ones that have interesting and entertaining story lines and characters AND that are written in unique and engaging prose that speak to the deeper, emotional human psyche.
A year ago I took a novel writing class and as our main assignment we had to – you guessed it – start a novel. We obviously weren’t expected to complete one in three months, but we had to write the first four thousand words. However, the professor told us it had to be literary fiction – that’s what the writing department told him. “So don’t write anything that can easily be turned into a script,” he said, which made me frown. Hadn’t there been some great movies based on literary books? (To Kill A Mocking Bird, Little Women, The Great Gatsby), and is there not great movies and franchises coming out of genre fiction? (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Green Mile, Fight Club). As I sat and listened to the rest of the lecture, I crossed my arms and pouted, miffed that the genre versus literary war had seeped into the writing department of my university – and probably many other universities too. I was particularly miffed because the summer just prior to that class, I had outlined and completed my first draft of a novel – albeit a very rough first draft, but nonetheless complete at 76,905 words. Completing a novel had always been a personal life goal of mine and I was proud to have accomplished it, even though I knew a lot of work lay ahead. I would have liked to just edit and hand in the first four thousand words of it for the class, as it’d be great to get feedback from the professor – the only problem was that it was genre fiction: a supernatural fantasy story set in an alternate 1950s. So I had to think of a whole other story, and it had to be literary, whatever that meant.
Every plot line I thought of for the class project sounded horribly clichéd or awful or boring. However, an idea finally came to me and though I received a good mark on the story and hope to continue working on it in the future, I couldn’t help but feel gypped as I held my genre manuscript in my hands back at home. It was like I had been told that what I had written wasn’t worthy of existing, let alone being edited, and that I was a fool who had wasted her summer writing this genre novel. Why is it that genre writers are taken less seriously? Is it because of the lack of quality some genre books have and the over-used clichés? Well, if it is, then I have a simple solution for that: teach genre fiction writing in university.
I don’t understand why writing departments ignore genre fiction as if it doesn’t exist when really it’s more popular and monetarily successful than literary fiction. But that is, of course, part of the problem. Because of genre fiction’s mainstream success, it’s easy to fall into the viewpoint that genre writers only really do it for the money and don’t actually care about the craft of writing or storytelling or good quality prose, but that’s absolute garbage. Do you think J.K Rowling was only doing it for the money when she dreamed up Harry Potter on a delayed train ride from Manchester to London? Do you really think she had no regard for the craft of writing or storytelling or characters when she plotted out all seven books? Of course – some genre writers do only do it for the money, but they aren’t always guaranteed success. There are tons and tons of shitty, ‘who cares?’ genre books out there that went nowhere, proving that if you want to write genre, you have to actually try to be good at it. All of the mainstream genre books and series we know and love are mainstream for a reason – clearly they resonate profoundly with the masses in some way, and I’d hardly call the authors of those books people who only care about the money. Lev Grossman argues, “plot is an extraordinarily powerful tool for creating emotion in readers. The emotions and ideas plot evokes can be huge and dramatic but also complex and subtle and intimate.” He uses George R.R Martin as an example and declares that no literary novelist writing today could ever orchestrate a plot the way Martin does. He says even if one still maintains that the standards for writing and characterization are lower in genre fiction than they are in literary, one can’t deny the standards for plotting are much higher in genre.
But the fact still remains that most literary fiction is seen as being better written than most genre fiction out there. Genre fiction generally has lazier, repetitive, stale prose while literary fiction is known for having deeper, more poetic prose, but sometimes I find literary prose can actually be quite pretentious or too slow to the point where it disengages me with the story. Grossman aptly describes this as a different kind of badness: “slow, earnest, lugubrious prose, or too-clever and self-conscious prose.” For example, The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse. This book is in fact probably classified as genre as it is basically a long-winded ghost story, but it tries immensely to be literary in its prose and numerous metaphors and it succeeds to the point of being distracting and annoying whence reading it.
I’ve encountered both pretentious and lazy prose and have equally hated both, but for some reason, literary fiction seems to get away with it more easily, which isn’t fair. Grossman makes a point by saying, “You wouldn’t want to judge literary fiction on the basis of its mediocrities. So why judge genre fiction that way?” Indeed, why, when it is so clearly more lucrative and popular?
My solution to the genre versus literary war: join forces.
Hopefully I’ve made it apparent by now that both literary and genre fiction have different things to offer in different ways, and both could learn a thing or two from each other. And these ideas about being judged by what you read are simply the result of societal constructs that don’t actually speak to the categories themselves as fiction devices. The deeper problems in this war are the ideologies we associate with our materiality, the judgments made of the things you wear, own, buy, like, read, eat, etcetera. Grossman says attitudes towards genre fiction smack of “mass cultural neurosis,” but if we’re looking at genre and literary fiction purely on a writing craft basis, then the war doesn’t really exist. It’s been established that both bad and good genre and literary fiction exists, and that’s that.
I would like to see universities start to allow genre fiction as an option for all of their writing classes, and start teaching students how to combine elements of both literary and genre. The novel I wrote last summer attempts to combine genre and literary aspects, which I know must sound terribly naive, but it’s the type of storytelling I plan to aim for in my writing career as I personally think it makes for the best kind of fiction: a crossover between the quality that literary stories bring and the intricate plots genre fiction has.
What makes for a good book is a usually a good read, but what makes for a good read is subjective for everyone and will remain so forever. All we can do is continue to write well, no matter what sort of story it is.