Hello book bees and welcome to another discussion post! This time I will be discussing what is called literary fiction. This term gets bandied about in reading and writing circles alike as a sort of genre-less genre, and there’s a lot of strangeness about it. Since I’ve been reading some books that could be classified as “literary fiction” I thought I’d discuss what that term really means.
Introduction: Defining “literary fiction”
The definition of literary fiction is a very confusing one. It’s essentially non-genre fiction, which is almost all of fiction. It’s considered having more literary merit than commercially successful genre fiction, and yet authors considered great literary fiction writers will write genre fiction as well. Usually literary fiction is defined by a social commentary, a darker tone, a concern with style, a lack of plot, or any combination of these things. It’s essentially a catch all for writing that doesn’t fit into a particular genre, and yet it’s also elevated above that type of writing for honestly non consequential reasons.
When I was studying creative writing in college, I had a professor who told us in every class he taught that literary fiction was the only fiction worth writing. He disparaged genre fiction as “trash” and though he was not like another professor who outright banned the writing of genre fiction in his courses, he would roll his eyes and criticize what we wrote if it was genre fiction simply for being genre fiction. There is nothing wrong with writing or reading genre fiction, and in my experience some of the people who argue otherwise do so out of a misguided elitist attitude that literary fiction is inherently better than genre fiction. Newsflash: it’s not.
Literary fiction is, in my opinion, simply another genre. Separating it from so called genre fiction is an unnecessary attempt at bolstering works that are uninteresting, unpopular, and unappealing. There are certainly award winning and popular pieces of literary fiction, but there are also award winning and popular pieces of genre fiction as well. There is no inherent divide of literary merit between the two. Any divide and any difference in the distribution of merit is entirely due to conceived constructs of merit put forth by publishers, editors, writers, and readers. That’s it. It’s all a social construct.
Difference between literary fiction and genre fiction
With that definition in mind, what is the difference between so called “literary fiction” and genre fiction? It largely comes down to style. While novels that fall into any of the genres of genre fiction can have varying styles, and often do, the focus on style over plot or characters is a hallmark of “literary fiction.” Writers who want to showcase a new style, or demonstrate their mastery of an established one, can write a literary fiction story and leave out the crucial matters of a plot and character development in favor of creating a type of style. Now, as a writer, I personally enjoy these exercises because they are a good way of learning and creating styles. However, I do not think any of the plotless stories I ever wrote that were helping me develop my voice as a writer are of more merit than the stories I wrote within the worlds of fantasy and horror.
Another major talking point for “literary fiction” is the social commentary. Fiction within this area often focuses on some aspect of the human condition and makes a comment on politics, society, or something similar. This is not unique to “literary fiction” though as various works within various genres do the same. The Hunger Games is a political commentary that also discusses the social repercussions of elitism, and zombie films are often commentaries on consumerism. If genre fiction can easily incorporate themes of the human condition and comment on society and politics, why should “literary fiction” be given praise for doing that and only that?
Critics and readers do acknowledge that the lines between “literary” and “genre” fiction are blurred. Margaret Atwood and George Orwell are often cited for producing works that waver between science fiction (a genre) and literary fiction. Another hallmark of “literary fiction” is a darker tone than traditional genre fiction, but even that can be seen in popular works such as A Song of Ice and Fire, The Hunger Games, and more. Darker tones are popular right now, and seen as groundbreaking against a perceived backdrop of too much optimism. At the same time, a lot of readers are turning away from darker stories right now to look at the hopeful ones being produced by authors who seek solace in writing happiness during these perilous times.
Does it matter?
I mean ultimately? In the big picture sort of way? No. It doesn’t really matter in the long run when we’ve got so much else going on in the world that needs attention and action. My blog post is unlikely to influence literary agents, critics, publishers, or anyone else for that matter. Literary fiction will continue to be defined and written and published, and there will still be those that believe it transcends genre fiction in some manner. There will also still be writers like my professor who believe genre fiction is trash, especially if it’s popular. And there will be other writers, readers, and critics who prioritize literary fiction over genre fiction.
But as is clear in the bookish community, genre fiction is alive and well. It’s read, liked, and promoted by any number of book bloggers, writers, readers, and agents. There is no lack of audience or appreciation for genre fiction, and we all discuss the merits of writing and reading it. Once again, it doesn’t really matter that literary fiction is considered elevated. Genre fiction doesn’t seem to suffer for it, and we are all still able to enjoy a myriad of genres in great quality and quantity. So the impact felt by this weird elitism associated with literary fiction is pretty mild, if felt at all.
I do enjoy literary fiction, just as much as I enjoy pieces of genre fiction. I have my preferences when it comes to authors and characters and plots (or lack thereof), but doesn’t everyone? The only problem I have with literary fiction is really with those that believe they are somehow better than other readers and writers for not indulging in genre fiction. some of the most interesting and impressive works in history have been genre fiction! Mary Shelley invented a genre by producing Frankenstein, and if the Tale of Genji is not a drama I don’t know what is. Austen wrote romance novels, George Orwell wrote science fiction, even my favorite Steinbeck novel is an adventure novel. Somehow these works of fiction, which absolutely conform to a genre, are slowly pressed over towards the blurring line of literary fiction to support the arguments of those that would inject elitism into the beautiful world of literature, reading, and writing. I don’t mind using the term literary fiction to describe something otherwise hard to define, but I am absolutely wary of anyone who uses the false dichotomy of literary fiction and genre fiction to imply one type of fiction is somehow lesser and a poor reflection on those that read or write it.