A Presumed Dichotomy: Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction

It is a common perception in literary circles that when it comes to the novel, literary fiction inherently has more cultural value than genre fiction. The words ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ are often thrown around during debates concerning the two, but is this so-called higher value of one over the other a misconception? And when it comes down to the business of literature, does the division of these categories really matter?

Let’s start by defining the two terms. Genre fiction if often described as conventional, or formulaic, storytelling. It follows a well-defined fast-paced plot, is designed for entertainment, and more often than not has a resolution. Genre fiction itself is divided into many categories—historical fiction, YA, sci-fi, fantasy, crime, and the evergreen romance. In contrast, literary fiction has a much murkier definition. As stated in Connor’s The English Novel in History 1950-1995,

“Literary fiction is usually defined by negation—it is not formula fiction or genre fiction, not mass-market or best-selling fiction—and, by subtraction, it is what is left once most of the conditions that obtain in contemporary publishing are removed.”[1]

A simpler definition is that literary fiction is a type of narrative that emphasizes its characters and is not constrained by plot. These stories ruminate on the human condition, society, and psychology, are philosophical and are written in elegant rather than simplistic prose—in short, the subtext is meatier than the text on the page making it ‘literary.’

Of course, this debate of merit is a modern one. The novel itself as a form of literature gained popularity in the eighteenth century, where before it, literature consisted mainly of religious texts, historical accounts, and biographies. As the novel rose in popularity, readers and writers of these more ‘serious’ texts (often men with money and/or prestige) looked down upon the likes of Charles Dickens for distracting the public with works of fiction that had little intellectual or moral value.

Literary society and values have progressed since then. Genre novelists that didn’t find critical acclaim in their time are now lauded as geniuses and their books literary classics—H.P. Lovecraft (horror), Raymond Chandler (crime), Phillip K. Dick (sci-fi), and Jane Austen (romance) for example.

Today, not having the novel as a form of literature is unthinkable. However, the argument of ‘deep’ literary fiction versus ‘light’ genre fiction is ongoing, and whether it is necessary or unnecessary at this point in the literary landscape, it echoes the arguments between traditionally literary and modernist non-literary authors back when the novel wasn’t a popular form. Terrence Rafferty in his book review of Bradford Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale makes the claim that, “Literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way.”[2]

Ursula K. Le Guin, a very vocal champion of genre fiction responded to Rafferty’s statement in her essay on exploring the expectations of literary and genre fiction with, “The distinction Mr. Rafferty draws between literary and genre fiction, though cherished by many critics and teachers, was never very useful and is by now worse than useless.”[3], Le Guin is of the opinion that whether a novel is deemed literary or genre fiction, it is the writer’s pacing of the narrative that keeps a reader interested. Whereas genre narratives according to Rafferty are “swift and fierce”, good writing, Le Guin says (whether marketed as genre or literary) always moves the story forward. Whether this is done swiftly and fiercely or “quietly and sinuously” is up to the writer’s style and purpose of narrative.

While some (including publishers) would have you believe that there is a stark divide between literary and genre fiction, the truth is that the line is often blurred between the two. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a Pulitzer winner that is acutely dystopian and has zombies in it. It has the elements of genre fiction, but is celebrated for its literary significance. Similar award winning examples include Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.

Interestingly, the authors of these books see their work as literary and not conforming to the typical genre fiction categories. Margaret Atwood is known to refuse to include her books in the universe of science fiction and has been quoted as saying, “Oryx and Crake is not science fiction. It is fact within fiction. Science fiction is when you have rockets and chemicals.”[4] However, she makes it clear that the distinction was made to avoid false advertising.

Similarly, Emily Mandel says of Station Eleven, which is set in a dystopian future with the central characters as artists and thespians, “I prefer literary fiction [as a category for the book]. The apocalypse in ‘Station Eleven’ is obviously an important part of the story, but I think of it as being more of a story about what remains after we lose everything and the importance of art in our lives than a story about a flu pandemic.”[5] Reviews of Mandel’s novel have categorized it differently—a literary fiction, speculative fiction, dystopian fiction, and sci-fi.

Over in the realm of fantasy is Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant—the author’s first foray into overt fantasy.  Prior to its positive critical reception, the author expressed hesitation—“I don’t know what’s going to happen. Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”[6] He needn’t have worried. David Mitchell, author of the genre bending Cloud Atlas stated that if he was to choose his favorite Ishiguro novel, it would be The Buried Giant “for the way it uses fantasy tropes to explore questions about love and mortality.”

Mitchell goes on to say that combining literary fiction with fantasy can achieve things that frank blank realism can’t, and added that he hoped The Buried Giant would help to de-stigmatize fantasy.[7] Unfortunately, this assumes that fantasy as a genre is somehow already stigmatized. Mitchell, himself an author of books with strong sci-fi and horror elements, would be the first to argue for dispensing with the dichotomy of the two categories. According to him, to sequester oneself to just the literary fiction shelf in the library is “an act of bizarre self-mutilation” [8] as there are beautifully told stories within genre fiction too.

So if authors agree that the division between the categories must have no bearing on the perceived quality of or the ideas presented in the book, who is perpetrating the divide? Categorization of fiction has its place on the bookstore shelf and also in a publisher’s marketing and sales strategy. For the former, it is a logical method to make browsing easy, for the latter it is a tool used to maximize sales and meet acquisitions targets. In part two of Le Guin’s exploration of expectations in fiction, she shares an example of a friend who submitted a YA fantasy novel to a publisher. The editor responded to the submission saying,

“Your book does not meet reader expectation for a YA fantasy. YA readers expect fantasy to be plot-driven, not character-driven. […] They expect no moral ambiguity […] They expect the story to move very quickly with no slowing down at any time. A novel that does not meet reader expectation will not sell. Your book isn’t fantasy, because it’s open to interpretation. It’s literary.”

With her own work, Le Guin has come across similar mindsets multiple times. It’s a clear example of how the publisher acts as gatekeeper for what they believe readers expect and how their beliefs about what readers expect are very slow to change. As SG Wong states, “Publishing […] runs very much on replicating past bestsellers rather than on innovation.”[9]

Mandel for example, saw herself as always writing literary fiction until her first novel Last Night in Montreal was published.  “I was surprised to discover that if you write literary fiction with a crime in it, it turns out you’ve written a crime novel.”[10] In order not be pigeonholed as a crime author, Mandel wrote Station Eleven, but again was surprised to find that “[…] if you write literary fiction that’s set partly in the future, you’re apparently a sci-fi writer.”

While there’s nothing wrong with being either kind of writer, such categorization runs the risk of alienating readers. As Mandel fears, readers who don’t stray from literary fiction won’t give the book a chance if it’s labelled as a sub-category of genre fiction and readers of genre fiction will complain if there aren’t enough futuristic gadgets, elves,  in the book—a loss at both ends.

Categorization and the conference of higher literary value is quite widely seen with book awards, most notably the Booker Prize. Claire Squires in Marketing Literature states that, “the organizational structure of prizes suggest how they contribute to genre definition and literary categorization.”[11] She argues that the categories of entry requirements for prizes create literary value through their choice of winners. The Booker Prize rewards the best novel of the year written by a British or Commonwealth author and incidentally, the 2019 winner for fiction was Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments—casually labelled as dystopian fiction by Google. In contrast, the Costa Book Awards (previously Whitbread Book Awards) judges category against category, so that now it is a real possibility that a children’s book could win out over a biography. “Genre,” Squires says, “as well as being created by the book itself […] is crucially influenced by the interventions of wider agencies, such as literary prizes.”

The ‘cross-genre’ method of judging a book as worthy of merit that Costa Book Awards employs is often the way readers choose their books—from multiple genres and in multiple styles of narrative. To paraphrase Steven Connor in The English Novel in History 1950-1995, the existence of literary ‘communities of taste’ only helps to prove that there are those who are not as exclusive in their tastes, who are not bound them, which automatically gives the exclusive group shakier ground to stand on.

In the end, whether literary fiction or genre fiction, whether glorified by a literary prize or not, as Nick Mount, fiction editor at The Walrus says, “the most important distinction is between a good book and a bad book, wherever it comes from.”[12]

[1] Connor, Steven. The English Novel in History 1950-1995 / Steven Connor. Novel in History. London ; New York: Routledge, 1996.

[2] Rafferty, Terrence. “Book Review – The Diviner’s Tale – By Bradford Morrow.” The New York Times, February 4, 2011, sec. Sunday Book Review. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/06/books/review/Rafferty-t.html.

[3] Le Guin, Ursula K. “Petty Expectations Part One. Critical Expectation: Genre and ‘Literary’ Fiction.” Book View Café, June 6, 2011. Accessed October 27, 2019. https://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2011/06/06/petty-expectations/.

[4] Atwood, Margaret. “The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake “In Context”.” PMLA 119, no. 3 (2004): 513-17. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/stable/25486066.

[5] Charles, Ron. “Sorry, Emily St. John Mandel: Resistance Is Futile.” Washington Post, October 15, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2014/10/15/sorry-emily-st-john-mandel-resistance-is-futile/.

[6] Alter, Alexandra. “For Kazuo Ishiguro, ‘The Buried Giant’ Is a Departure.” The New York Times, February 19, 2015, sec. Books. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/20/books/for-kazuo-ishiguro-the-buried-giant-is-a-departure.html.

[7] Alter, Alexandra. “For Kazuo Ishiguro, ‘The Buried Giant’ Is a Departure.” The New York Times, February 19, 2015, sec. Books. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/20/books/for-kazuo-ishiguro-the-buried-giant-is-a-departure.html.

[8] Galaxy, Geek’s Guide to the. “Genre Snobbery Is a ‘Bizarre Act of Self-Mutilation.’” Wired, November 7, 2015. https://www.wired.com/2015/11/geeks-guide-david-mitchell/.

[9] Wong, SG. “Claiming Space: CanLit Redux | SG Wong.” Accessed October 27, 2019. https://sgwong.com/blog/claiming-space-canlit-redux/.

[10] Charles, Ron. “Sorry, Emily St. John Mandel: Resistance Is Futile.” Washington Post, October 15, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2014/10/15/sorry-emily-st-john-mandel-resistance-is-futile/.

[11] Squires, Claire. Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain / Claire Squires. 2007.

[12] Literary vs. Popular Novels. The Agenda with Steve Paikin, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TtrWe1YaJNk&t=627s.

One Response to A Presumed Dichotomy: Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction

  1. paiges says:

    Thank you for tackling this topic for your essay, Mahima. As someone who reads a lot of YA and genre fiction, the divide between what we considered “high brow” and “low brow” is something that I’ve experienced often. I like the point that you bring up about how publishers forcing categorization runs the risk of alienating readers. The quote about reader expectations of YA fantasy struck a chord with me. I agree that if a novel doesn’t meet readers’ expectations, but this definition of YA fantasy expectations seems to be so narrow. You can also see that these assumed expectations are untrue if you look at many popular YA fantasy series. The issue is that reader expectations are never going to go away. People are always going to have expectations for certain categories of books because it’s how we distinguish what kind of books we like from ones that we don’t like, regardless if they are considered to be good books or bad books. So this is something that publishers will likely always have to handle, but it sounds like they need to consider having a broader view of those expectations.

    I found it fascinating that Costa Book Awards judges categories against each other. I wonder if that creates some complications for judges. How can you fairly compare a children’s book to a biography? I would be curious to learn more about how these judges approach judging books that have a completely different target audience. I agree that the widening of what can be considered for significant, well-known literary awards, such as the Booker Prize, would help legitimize genre fiction for people who hold literary fiction in much higher regard. It wouldn’t happen right away, but if the industry as a whole works towards this, maybe it could happen. As you said, the novel was once looked down on as well. Maybe genre fiction’s turn.

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