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Thread: 'Literary' fiction vs. 'Genre' fiction

  1. #1

    'Literary' fiction vs. 'Genre' fiction

    For the longest time I've heard from writers (and particularly writing instructors) the notion that somehow what is considered literary fiction was a superior form than genre fiction (genre being classified as mystery, sci-fi, etc.).

    The main point of distaste that comes most readily to mind was the assertion, by those who looked down upon genre fiction, that genre fiction was too formulaic ... with the added belief that literary fiction was quite the opposite, and thus, apparently, more 'real.'

    Now, I would hope to dispute this assumption, by seeking out examples of what would generally be considered literary fiction and showing that they do, in fact, exhibit signs of being formulaic too.

    I'm speaking in generalities with this particular example, but I've noticed that literary fiction, either short stories or novels (and mainly, here, more modern ones, but certainly not exclusively), tend to end with the main protagonist(s) wandering off into the night. In some way, shape, or form there is a finale where the story and its meaning is swallowed up in the darkness.

    This is the one example that stands out most keenly to my mind, does anyone have another example ... or would like to dispute my belief that literary fiction is, simply put, merely another Genre?

  2. #2
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    Hmmm....I am not sure how to respond. A genre is a category, fiction simply means not factual, but rather invented by the author in whole or in part. Which 'writers' have you heard such comments from?

    I would agree that there are authors who write formulaic stories, but these authors can be in any genre of fiction. I would hazard to guess that there are some authors of factual works; biographies, histories, etc. who also found a formula for expression and rely on that formula.

    In fact, I might argue that Jane Austen was a formulaic author and that Stephen King is not.

    Just some thoughts to share on the subject, if I correctly grasped the subject.
    I'd rather have questions that I can't answer than answers that I can't question.

  3. #3
    Jane Austen, and probably Stephen king, would be considered, I believe, LF (as I'll term Literary Fiction here), and it is not necessarily any writers, per se, rather by writing instructors at campuses far and wide, or so it seems.

    Let me cut to the chase, years ago I was enrolled in such a class, and the work I submitted was deemed too GF (for Genre Fiction, here on out), and not LF enough, seemingly by a wide margin.
    Now, I do not know whether it was the whimsical tone of my short stories, or the characters .. or what it was about my stories. But to the best of my recollection I was informed that LF dealt more w/ exploring feelings (as if mine didn't, huh) whereas GF merely told a story for entertainment purposes and never delved too 'deeply' into a characters inner feelings, even psyche (and with this one can see how GF was regarded as formulaic).

    This is the crux of my curiosity as it regards any others here who may have encountered this before, and what some other thoughts out there might be??

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    If you go into a bookstore looking for Stephen King, you will be directed to a genre (perhaps several; horror, science fiction, gothic, etc.). I suppose one might think to look for Jane Austen in the romance genre, but it would be found in the general area along with Charles Dickens and Harper Lee.

    There are some who use the term genre fiction I suppose to refer to pop fiction, but even that, in my opinion is misleading at least, and at best meaningless.

    It sounds as if the instructor may have differentiated between these two forms of fiction and that perhaps you felt slighted because you were led to believe that the label given to your work was of less importance or had diminished literary quality. If this is the case, I would disagree. Genre terminology is, in my opinion, meant to help classify a work so that a reader can find it in a bookstore, for example, not to rate the value or any other aspect of a work.
    I'd rather have questions that I can't answer than answers that I can't question.

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    I think the mistake people make when reading genre fiction is that they don't look deep enough. There is much more meaning in, say, a horror fiction book, than a lot of people actually believe. Monsters and paranormal happenings can be pretty potent metaphors for many things, such as fear of the unknown, being haunted by memories of the past etc. And i think writers like Stephen King have quite a lot to say, in their novels, about society and politics etc. An example that springs to mind is King's 'The Stand', which on the face of it is about a flu epidemic (or is that pandemic, i never remember?) that wipes out 90% of the worlds population. The people who are left start rebuilding society in two groups, one is the evil side and the other is the good. Goodies versus baddies, right? But i think there's more to it. During the book, the 'goodies' start getting the electricity back and rebuilding society in the same way, in other words making the same mistakes, becoming materialistic and losing sight of the things that really matter. The thing in the book that shows this, i think, is that there is an explosion and it kills many of the main characters (it is a very long (over 1000 pages) book, and their are many central characters) and sets their progress back by weeks or months. And this is the indication from God, or from a higher power, or fate or whatever, that they were making the same mistakes that resulted in the world being almost completely wiped out (the flu was the result of scientific testing gone wrong, if i remember correctly) in the first place.

    This is an example that genre writers have a lot to say about society and about deeper emotions than they are given credit for.

    Formulaic plots? I can find genre books without formulaic plots and literary books with formulaic plots. I don't think there's a real link.

    By the way, i love so-called literary fiction as much as so-called genre fiction. I don't think they should be split into these categories at all, though, we just need to look deeper into the text.

    Sorry to ramble on. That's my opinion anyway.
    'For sale: baby shoes, never worn'. Hemingway

  6. #6
    Excellent points, both of you. And I agree, this tendency to split into genres, even sub-genres, is most annoying and greatly lessens the value of many fine works by marketing them 'downward' through misclassification.

    As far as my own modest scribbles, I can't say I was too offended by the pronouncement - at the time - though over the years I've mulled this topic over quite a bit (as evidenced by my starting a thread about it), oddly became somewhat steamed about it, and was certainly curious what some other opinions on the matter might be.

    If there are any others, please share...

  7. #7
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    There is a lot of crossover these days as well. John Banville is only one example of a Literary Writer turning out "genre" style fiction. He writes as Benjamin Black a detective series featuring Quirke, a forensic doctor. There are 4 in the series so far, the character development coming out slowly over time. The language is beautiful, vintage Banville, with complex motivations attributed to all. Are they detective/mysteries or literary? Both IMO.

    James Lee Burke is another author that writes detective fiction, beautiful prose, that certainly transcends the genre.

    Diana Gabaldon defies all attempts to classify.

    AIE: Even Vladimir Nabokov wrote a "detective" novel. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.
    Last edited by plainjane; 08-14-2010 at 02:54 AM.

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    I am a little confused, or perhaps I don't get out much, but I've never heard a writer have the opinion that fiction that does not fit in a genre is better. Pop Fiction is fleeting is that the 'genre fiction' these writers of yours refer to?

    It seems a bit arrogant for a writer to be speaking of his/her own work when making such a declaration, that is if writer thinks his/her own work falls in the former category

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    Well, genre is simply type and literary is simply written, but we intellectual luvvies like to dress things up and thereby become exclusive Making comparisons allows us to devalue things we think are beneath us. If a book reads well and lots of people like it then it's a good book. Classifying types (genres) enables people who like to read a certain type of thing to find what they want, it's an index (kind of). Means people don't have to spend days in a large bookshop searching through tons of rubbish before making a choice. It makes reading more accessible to the general public. I think literary is supposed to mean it uses more complicated words so may appeal to a smaller audience. It's a way of writing well and staying poor, a true artist haha.

    Did I turn it on its head, genre good, literary not so good?

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