Literature is split into two main camps: literary and commercial (or genre). Or that’s the general conception. Both forms come with their connotations, and as most binaries do, they fit into a hierarchy. Literary fiction is high culture and commercial or genre is low. Annie Neugebauer addresses many of the stigmas associated with genre or commercial fiction like the idea that it’s “trashy” and less intellectual than literary fiction.[1] What’s important here is the “less than,” that genre or commercial fiction isn’t as valuable as literary fiction and therefore that its readers are also seen as less than – less intelligent and less cultured. Nathan Bransford believes there’s a hybrid form that borrows the strongest elements from both literary and commercial forms, which offers an interesting compromise but one the old-school literary critics would balk at.[2] Heaven forbid that the precious literary canon be tainted by fantasy, sci-fi, mystery or romance. In fact, there are many examples of literary fiction that is rooted in genre, past and present. Jane Austen was a romance writer and Kazuo Ishiguro delves into fantasy.[3] [4] By exploring the differences between literary and commercial fiction and their stigmas with some case studies I will argue the validity of genre fiction for the literary whole using the specific example of science fiction.

First, lets break down the difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction. Neugebauer claims that the primary difference between the two is that commercial fiction is for entertainment while literary fiction is art.[5] Anita Mason claims that “a literary novel is governed by nothing – […] not even the requirement to be comprehensible – and the whole of the writer’s skill is directed towards creating the best possible novel. This involves, at some point, a surrender to the unknown.”[6] It’s that whole art for arts sake thing. Neugebauer counters this by saying that it’s a myth that commercial fiction isn’t deep and that it’s always simple.[7] Elizabeth Edmondson argues that literary fiction was just a marketing ploy set up by publishers to set certain contemporary fiction apart and “therefore Important, Art and somehow better than other writing.”[8] Edmondson goes on to say that good fiction, of any kind, is when “the imagination of the writer speaks directly with the imagination of the reader,” and she goes on to say that the purpose of a book is to entertain and captivate, not to have issues shoved down your throat or “be called upon to admire the beauty of the language.”[9] I believe that’s the difference between good and bad writing, period. If a book is obvious and in your face about its intended message, or is in any way pedantic, it immediately becomes less appealing. And to counter the idea of Mason’s that a literary novel doesn’t require comprehensibility is Bransford with his claim that literary fiction should most definitely have a plot.[10] A character “musing about the vagaries and eccentricities of everyday existence” written with ornate prose is extremely boring if nothing is happening.[11] Although Bransford does make the point that plot happens on the surface when it comes to commercial fiction and beneath the surface for literary fiction.[12]

So why is commercial or genre fiction so bad? The literary critics go as far as to scream horror and the downfall of culture and reading when the “It novel” of the year (2014) has the “’tone, language, and story [that] belong in children’s literature.’”[13] This is in reference to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, in an article by Evgenia Peretz in Vanity Fair. The book is apparently not complex enough, it is absurd and has no sense of reality or authenticity – and that’s what makes a book a work of literary fiction.[14] To me this is just simple literary snobbery. If it’s approachable and accessible the high-brow critics aren’t fond of it because it spoils the game of their elite literary club. The requirement of a certain level of education, a certain level of understanding, and a certain connection to a community of people are locked doors that only certain people have access to, and only certain people should have access to – in the elite’s humble opinion. In a blog entry from Kvetch of the Day, Vivian comments on the snobbery of literary elitists, and claims that “literary fiction” in fact often falls into formulaic fiction.[15] They define formulaic fiction as “fiction that adheres too strictly to the rules of its genre,” and in this case she makes the claim that “literary fiction” is its own genre of literature, as much a mystery or romance is.[16] The rules of the literary fiction genre that they lay out include, but are not limited to, a “lyrical” writing style, plenty of symbolism and a recurring image or two, also chocked with symbolism – and if it lacks either then it is a “slice-of-life vignette” that can be described as “stark” and “gritty” by reviewers.[17] And of course, the final rule: that there’s no need for a satisfying ending.[18] The lit crit snob wants a “serious” piece when they’re reading Literature (with a capital “L”), and the entertainment factor is a drawback.[19] Which if you think about it, doesn’t make any sense. Yes, we read to learn and to expand our minds, but we also read to be entertained. Being entertained engages the reader in a different way, it allows them a space to play with ideas and keep their mind open. When authors do it right, this is when they can slip in more complex ideas that challenge the reader.

While The Goldfinch is not clearly dabbling in genre fiction, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is. Ishiguro’s novel is a “full-on excursion into fantasy” and the author worried that readers wouldn’t follow him with this novel because of their prejudices against the surface elements.[20] Here is a case where someone who is classified as a “literary” writer is using “fantasy tropes to explore questions about love and mortality.”[21] Ishiguro claims that the combination of literary fiction and fantasy enables him to achieve things that frank blank realism couldn’t.[22] This was also an opportunity for him to put issues in a setting where people wouldn’t get too literal about it, that they wouldn’t immediately dismiss it as a “a book about the disintegration of Yugoslavia or the Middle East,” that it would force them to look at bigger picture questions of humanity.[23]

It’s particularly science fiction that is used as a vessel for these “literary” questions. Mandy Chew writes how “science fiction has always been a platform to explore social issues in a veiled environment,” and gives the examples of Ender’s Game which deals with child labor and slavery, Elysium that addresses health care and SnowPiercer that explores climate change and social classes.[24] It’s often the case that sci-fi stories have “underlying social discussions at the heart of their content.”[25] Anita Mason gives the example of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, which is rooted in genre but has all the qualities of a literary novel.[26] Mason describes the book as having writing that is spare, a tight structure, “the observation of the human condition is both profound and impish. Character is crucial. The issues are huge and we feel the weight of them,” and this novel was nominated for the Man Booker.[27] Yet, it’s based in science fiction. How can you then brand an entire genre as simple entertainment?

Stephen Marche’s article in Esquire agrees that “the forms of genre—science fiction, fantasy, the hardboiled detective story, the murder mystery, horror, vampire, and werewolf stories—have become the natural homes for the most serious literary questions.”[28] He also points out that Conan Doyle, Jim Thompson and Stanislaw Lem weren’t seen as literary geniuses in their time but now their works are considered great literature.[29] Perhaps the snobbery towards genre fiction of today will wane with time as well. Marche also makes the point that “there are stupid books and there are smart books. There are well-written books and badly written books. There are fun books and boring books,” and that most importantly both literary fiction and genre fiction can possess any of these qualities.[30] What genres like sci-fi or fantasy offer is complete freedom for the writer to explore ideas outside the scope of literary realism, “where grand philosophical questions can be worked out on narrative terms.”[31]  Kvetch of the Day’s article says that “the important part about art is breaking the rules,” and so by entwining genre fiction with literary, or simply giving what we classify as “genre” fiction a better look we are breaking the genre rules of literary fiction – and therefore creating art, which is what literary fiction is all about.[32]


[1] Annie Neugebauer. “What Is Commercial Fiction?” Annie Neugebauer. July 16, 2012. Accessed October 20, 2018.

[2] Nathan Bransford, “What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?” Nathan Bransford, February 26, 2007. Accessed October 20, 2018.

[3] Elizabeth Edmondson, “The genre debate: ‘Literary fiction’ is just clever marketing.” The Guardian. April 21, 2014. Accessed on October 20, 2018.

[4] Alexandra Alter, “For Kazuo Ishiguro, ‘The Buried Giant’ Is a Departure.” The New York Times. February 19, 2015. Accessed on October 20, 2018.

[5] Annie Neugebauer. “The Differences Between Commercial and Literary Fiction.” Annie Neugebauer. January 27, 2014. Accessed October 20, 2018.

[6] Anita Mason, “Genre fiction radiates from a literary centre.” The Guardian. April 22, 2014. Accessed on October 19, 2018.

[7] Annie Neugebauer. “What Is Commercial Fiction?” 2012.

[8] Elizabeth Edmondson, “The genre debate: ‘Literary fiction’ is just clever marketing.” The Guardian. April 21, 2014. Accessed on October 20, 2018.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Nathan Bransford, “What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?” 2007.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Evgenia Peretz, “It’s Tartt—But Is It Art?” Vanity Fair. July 2014. Accessed October 20, 2018.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Vivian, “’Genre’ is not a synonym for ‘Formulaic.’” Kvetch of the Day. September 30, 2011. Accessed October 20, 2018.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Alexandra Alter, “For Kazuo Ishiguro, ‘The Buried Giant’ Is a Departure.” The New York Times. February 19, 2015. Accessed on October 20, 2018.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Mandy Chew, “Why We Need Science Fiction.” The Medium, June 20, 2017. Accessed October 20, 2018.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Anita Mason, “Genre fiction radiates from a literary centre.” 2014.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Stephen Marche, “How Genre Fiction Became More Important Than Literary Fiction.” Esquire, March 11, 2015. Accessed October 20, 2018.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Vivian,“’Genre’ is not a synonym for ‘Formulaic.’” 2011.