Literary versus genre fiction – what’s the difference?

How do you define literary fiction?

Is it the writing? Do literary novels do it better than genre novels? You’d certainly expect them to, and it’s true that some writers of genre have a tin ear. Equally, many genre writers are terrific wordsmiths – Ian Fleming, Thomas Harris. Anyway the best writing suits the job – whatever that job is.

Is it insight? You definitely can’t have literary fiction without it. Although some genre writers get close. Is John Le Carre a spy novelist or a literary writer?

Is it that literary fiction doesn’t follow rules?

With a genre novel, tropes must be respected because they are what the reader enjoys. A family saga must run a well defined gamut of black sheep, poor relations, blissful marriages and disastrous elopements because otherwise the reader feels that the writer missed the obvious opportunities. The entertainment is in how these obligations are met in a fresh way, the individual writer’s ingenuity within this formal structure.

If genre authors bust out of their boxes, they risk disappointing their readers. Ruth Rendell, who you’d think has a reliably adoring fan base, was careful to adopt a different name to explore beyond conventional crime fiction. When Iain Banks wrote sci-fi as well as lit fic, he stuck an M between his names. But then some writers jump categories and face their public with no disguise – Robert Harris with his modern thrillers and historical fiction. Perhaps it all comes down to how hard he can argue with his publisher.

If rules, or the lack of them, are the crucial difference, does that make genre benders literary? Maybe, if the blend creates a provocative and resonating tension. But sometimes fusing genres is no more than a simple exercise of this-meets-that (or adding freshly boiled zombies).

If a literary novelist writes about a murder, they certainly don’t have to meet the expectations that a crime novelist or detective writer would – think of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. If genre is about the reader’s expectations, perhaps literary is an anti-genre.

Let’s take Woody Allen as an example. Yes, his medium is celluloid, but it all starts with words and pages. His body of work includes character pieces (Annie Hall, Vicky Christina Barcelona), madcap sci-fi comedies (Sleeper), cosy mystery spoofs (Manhattan Murder Mystery) bleak examinations of morality (Crimes And Misdemeanours). Sometimes, but not all the time, he breaks the bounds of reality by adding time travel (Midnight in Paris), fantasy (The Purple Rose of Cairo). Or singing, flying and ghosts in Everyone Says I Love You. In his latest, To Rome With Love, a character turns invisible.

With Allen, you never know what rules will be followed – and yet you do. They are Allen’s rules, created by his own themes, obsessions and humanity. They’re what we come back for.

So perhaps each literary writer creates a genre of their own, invents the colours they paint in. Like with genre fiction, it makes its own expectations. Perhaps the two are not so very different.

Thanks for the pic pedrosimoes7

What do you think? Is ‘literary’ a genre? What makes a writer literary? What makes them not? Are there any writers you’d say were both genre and literary?

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  1. #1 by Nicole Evelina on September 23, 2012 - 8:39 pm

    Thanks for another great topic, Roz! For the life of me, I can’t seem to grasp what literary fiction is, so I can’t wait to see the comments on this post.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 24, 2012 - 12:17 pm

      I think it’s more of a gradient than a clear distinction, Nicole. But let’s see what everyone else thinks…. may get told off

  2. #3 by Mary Tod on September 23, 2012 - 8:44 pm

    This topic seems to occupy more than its fair share of discussion time. I would add to your list of queries: do readers care whether a novel is genre or literary? Do readers want to be entertained or made to think? Is a literary novel that confuses an average reader with obscure references more valuable than a genre novel that uses a more straightforward story as its primary mechanism for exploring the human condition? I’ve recently posted three pieces on Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers by James W. Hall – his analysis of what makes for highly popular fiction is interesting. Of course, that leads to another question, who thinks literary fiction is popular? My apologies if this appears to be a rant!

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 24, 2012 - 12:23 pm

      Good point, Mary – and not a rant at all. Why do people make a point of the distinction? Sometimes it’s to claim certain types of book are difficult, or worthy or have perhaps sprung from creative writing classes. Sometimes it’s to reflect a depth that isn’t found in some other books. Does literary have to mean confusing? Not at all. That’s down to the writer’s personal style. And the reader’s – what I find confusing, you might find illuminating and rewarding.
      The debate goes on…

      • #5 by Kathleen on September 30, 2012 - 5:44 pm

        This is a topic I find puzzling–also because there’s more than “literary” and “genre,” too. “Genre,” to me, is sci-fi, thriller, mystery, romance, etc. What, then, do you call mainstream or general fiction? Is it “literary” because it isn’t “genre”?

        I can’t help wondering if true “literary” fiction will be recognized down the line by its longevity, and much of what we now consider “genre” will turn out to be literature after all.

  3. #7 by Dan Holloway on September 23, 2012 - 8:52 pm

    Far too quicksandy a subject for me to offer any firm pronouncements. I think on the spectrum of genres it’s possible to say some works are more literary than others – Thomas Harris is a great example. China Mieville is one of the most cited. I think if I had a gun to my head I’d say that literary fiction is a bookseller’s category, yet another pigeonhole, and that using just the one term hides a multitude of differences. I certainly don’t think of myself as a writer of literary fiction, and I don’t think it would be helpful to start trying unless I decided I wanted to start selling to a certain audience and even then I think I’d be chasing phantoms.

    • #8 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 24, 2012 - 12:31 pm

      Thought you’d have an interesting take, Dan! Surprised there isn’t a mention of Murakami here…
      ‘A bookseller’s category…’ hmmm, and like all of those, rather simplistic for real-life readers and writers.
      Do we set out to woo literary readers? I certainly didn’t, I just write books that have the scope that satisfies me. It was other people who told me they were literary, but then that probably depends on what your literary reading is. To others, I may not be literary at all. Certainly I’m not very good at tolerating the more abstruse works, so fans of those might think I was too story driven.
      Does this mean, then, that literary is a spectrum and not a definite category? Do we all define it in our own way? Does that matter?

      • #9 by danholloway on September 24, 2012 - 2:41 pm

        Ha ha! Yes, I suppose some Murakami (Hard-Boiled Wonderland…) is literary SF.
        I certainly don’t set out to woo “literary readers” either – I do think of “fans of” people like Murakami, or film makers like Kieslowski, or for other works, think it would appeal to people who like William Gibson, or Ginsberg, or people who find themselves in certain places such as music venues, a certain kind of rock gig or art gallery.
        I think, sadly, the public perception of literary is exactly what people have alluded to – the kind of thing that wins Bookers. By and large people think of it as description-heavy, full of beautiful, stylised prose, with a strong emphasis on voice. I don’t think, personally, that trying to challenge this perception and explain that literary can be so much more would gain anything – much better just to tell people about particular istances of fabulous writing that might appeal to them, or movements that are exciting (hence I looked spoecifically at alt lit for the piece I wrote for the Guardian a week ago – http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2012/sep/12/e-literature-novels).

      • #10 by acflory on September 24, 2012 - 10:24 pm

        Or Kazuo Ishiguro. Never Let Me Go is technically sci-fi.

  4. #13 by Dina Santorelli on September 23, 2012 - 9:01 pm

    I remember sitting in one of my grad classes with another student, and the professor was talking about our work. I had asked a question, and the professor said, “Well, you (pointing to me) are writing commercial fiction. She (nodding to my fellow student), on the other hand, is writing literary fiction.” It wasn’t until that moment that I felt like some kind of literary stepchild. What exactly was my professor saying? That I was pursuing a “lower” form of writing, or perhaps that my type of writing, as you say here Roz, requires some “rules”? I never asked her, because, frankly, I didn’t care enough. To me, a good story is a good story is a good story, whatever the “category,” although I remember thinking how sad it was that my professor was making some sort of distinction in the first place.

    • #14 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 24, 2012 - 12:38 pm

      Hi Dina! ‘Commercial’…. there’s a word that hasn’t been used here yet. You don’t seem to have taken your professor’s comment too hard, which seems about the right way to treat it. A good read is a good read, and we accomplish that in a lot of ways.

  5. #15 by Daniel R. Marvello on September 24, 2012 - 12:40 am

    I’m not sure what literary fiction is, but I know it when I see it.

    Yeah, that’s kind of a joke. But I’m a bit serious too.

    As far as I can tell, literary fiction seems to focus on character almost to the exclusion of plot. When I finish a book scratching my head and thinking, “Okay, that was an interesting character study, but what was the point?” I know I’ve picked up literary fiction.

    In general, I don’t like literary fiction. The literary fiction I have liked has a beginning, middle, and end. It’s okay if all of those elements take place within the main character’s “inner journey” and the setting he/she moves through simply provides the background (a very non-genre approach.)

    The thing that annoys me most about the term “literary fiction” is the attitude surrounding it. Like other art forms, writing has its snobbery. My wife refers to the snobs as “the black beret crowd.” I have no patience for entitlement, arrogance, or condescension. I have run across too many people who make a big deal out of reading or writing literary fiction and have these traits (even if they are a small minority).

    That’s fine. I’ll go back to my fantasy, mystery, science fiction, and thrillers. Stories that actually have a story. I can live without pointless prose, no matter how well crafted.

    Darn. I’m sure that came across as a rant. Maybe even a condescending one. Perhaps we need a different color beret for genre fiction snobs.

    • #16 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 24, 2012 - 12:45 pm

      Daniel, you don’t need a different-coloured beret; you have a hood…
      Snobbery doesn’t sit well on anyone. Snobbery isn’t about sincere choices, it’s about showing off or making someone look stupid. I abhor the idea that ‘good’ fiction has to be ‘difficult’ or plotless, as you’ve no doubt gathered from the time I spend here thumping the desk about the importance of a compelling plot. Often, though, people who are good at observing character are not good at thinking of plot – and vice versa. Writers aren’t perfect…

  6. #17 by journalpulp on September 24, 2012 - 4:51 am

    The two are definitely different, but it isn’t either-or. Many books and many writers, as you point out, blur those boundaries, and Blood Meridian is another example, as is All the Pretty Horses, both of which are in many ways full-blown Westerns. Yet there’s no question that those books are also literary fiction. The criteria is graded — it’s a spectrum — so that a book or movie may have elements of literary fiction and elements of genre fiction at the same time, but there is undoubtedly a distinction.

    It’s not the case that plotting is the determining characteristic. As a matter of fact, some of the best plots in all of the world’s literature are to be found in literary fiction — I’m thinking specifically of The Idiot, Scaramouche, The Three Musketeers, Toilers of the Sea, Ninety-Three, Les Mis, The Possessed, in which latter book, incidentally, you’ll see the most masterful integration of plot and theme. But the question — what is the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction — isn’t insoluble, as it’s sometimes made out to be.

    The criteria for literary fiction is this: depth of style, seriousness of approach, and an explicit emphasis on theme.

    The integration of plot and theme goes a long way in defining literary fiction — theme being the core meaning that the events of a story add up to.

    I think it’s important to note that style doesn’t just refer to wordsmithing (although that is included) but refers to a much broader issue: namely, a focus on writing itself, which includes such things as density of expression, concentrated speech, felicitous phrasing, originality of descriptions, and many other things as well. Sophistication of style is more than nicely turned phrases: it’s a method of thinking.

    See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves…. The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off. The father never speaks her name, the child does not know it. He watches, pale and unwashed. (Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy)

    This kind of sustained depth of style goes far beyond wordsmithing, and many readers, myself among them, find something profoundly satisfying and life-affirming in this sort of stylistic emphasis — so much so that that one element alone, if done well, will for many of us make a book worthwhile.

    And yet not all literary fiction has such an emphasis on style — especially when read in translation, The Brother’s Karamozov being a fine example — but still falls well within the classification of literary fiction. In fact, the translation of The Brother’s Karamozov that I have, which I’ve read to pieces, is at times almost laughable in its translated style, but somehow, despite this, the novel’s intensity isn’t diminished. The reason this is so, I believe, is the sheer power of the philosophy behind the plot — which is to say, the theme.

    Theme is presented through plot, which is enacted by characters. It is astounding the depths to which Dostoevsky goes in showing the reader what motivates his characters. Pure genre writers rarely go beyond presenting the immediate reason for a character’s actions — i.e. a man killed because it gave him a sense of power. But literary fiction will often give the motivation behind the lust for power and explain why the man lusted so, and perhaps even discuss the nature of power and power-lust. That is all part of the presentation of theme. In this sense, literary fiction drills deeper down.

    You will never, for example, find a more thorough or more penetrating study of the criminal mind than Raskalnikov (even Macbeth is second).

    This sort of treatment of theme doesn’t exist in pure genre fiction. The moment the genre writer begins to treat a subject on this level and with this kind of depth is the moment the genre writer begins to cross over into the literary.

    • #18 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 24, 2012 - 12:56 pm

      Ray, a superb comment. Virtually a post, and a fine one.

      You use the term ‘spectrum’, which I have as well now I’ve replied to Dan further up. And your point about wordsmithing expands on my brief one, which is about the writing doing the job. The example you give is fantastic, simple and razor sharp, and I love this point you make about a ‘way of thinking’. (You used a similar idea, I believe, in your most recent post – on characterisation.)
      In fact, this concentration on ‘thinking’ – the real fundament of motivation is perhaps the way to drill to the core of the things that are common to all of us: fears, hopes, dreams. A way to find the universal in the particular.

      • #19 by Kathleen on September 30, 2012 - 5:48 pm

        I was thinking the same thing. I love this take on literary fiction.

    • #20 by acflory on September 24, 2012 - 11:23 pm

      “The moment the genre writer begins to treat a subject on this level and with this kind of depth is the moment the genre writer begins to cross over into the literary.” Exactlly! And there are many genre writers who straddle this boundary yet they never call their work ‘literary sci-fi’ or ‘literary fantasy’ or whatever. I find it odd that so-called literary writers apply this classification /to themselves/.

    • #21 by Nicole Evelina on September 25, 2012 - 5:27 pm

      Wow! Thank you for the in-depth explanation. I think I finally get it now!

  7. #22 by absolutely1kate on September 24, 2012 - 4:52 am

    Well Roz, topic, distinction, flair and flare came off swell in your analysis. I don’t really think Mr Marvello up above there is ranting . . . nor do I lower a higher smilin’ view at how you feel when real hot dog, spur-you-up literary fiction comes on in at you.

    As Ol’ Blue Eyes croons, Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars ~ ~ ~ when words jump, sashay and have their way with your eyes and sparks and thoughts and conjurings — then your swiggin’ gin with old F. Scott, avoiding phonies with Holden Caulfield and J.D. Salinger or pondering any Garp of a world Mr Irving swings you into. Continuing the resonation: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” <Add doo wops to fit.

    Superb posting.A story is a good story is a good story . . . ahhhhh, but with literary jazz it’s Satchmo at the party for the eyes and then . . . a great story is a great story.

    ~ Absolutely*Kate, believing in believers
    and the shadows of noir . . . and words that leave you not quite the same person

    • #23 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 24, 2012 - 1:00 pm

      Good authors too who once knew better words… now only use four-letter-words… writing prose…. Anything goes! Thanks for singing and riffing along, Kate🙂

  8. #24 by mgm75 on September 24, 2012 - 6:06 am

    For some, literary fiction is entirely about character and the language of the writing. I find this attitude a little snobby as I can think of many great works of genre fiction that are highly characterised and are written beautifully.

    Do these labels really apply any more? I’m not so sure; In this far more competitve marketplace I think the boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred.

    • #25 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 24, 2012 - 1:03 pm

      Mgm, the boundaries are blurring. But you couldn’t find a more illuminating view of where literary starts than Journal Pulp’s comment above.

  9. #26 by Vikki (The View Outside) on September 24, 2012 - 8:46 am

    Isn’t literary fiction the stuff that wins The Booker prize but doesn’t actually sell very well?😉

    Xx

  10. #29 by domcamus on September 24, 2012 - 9:44 am

    I don’t know what a proper definition of the term would look like, but I use the term as verbal shorthand for “great text quality, but regrettably short on plot”.

    That said, I don’t really like the term “genre fiction” either, because it seems to be attempting to excuse the lazy, repetitive approach that plagues most genres. (Is it that publishers like it?)

    And besides, there are a few books which are clearly both. Jonathan Carroll’s “The Land of Laughs”, for example, is written as well as or better than most literary fiction I’ve encountered, but also had enough plot and creativity to keep me entertained throughout.

    • #30 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 25, 2012 - 6:35 am

      Do publishers like the term ‘genre fiction’? Possibly they do, because pigeonholes make it easier to sell books. They also make it easier to justify commissioning a book because you can tell your boss ‘this ticks the such-and-such boxes’. I think indie writers are finding that picking a genre makes a book easier to sell than just ‘er….my novel about this and that…’

  11. #31 by Grace on September 24, 2012 - 1:58 pm

    I don’t like the classification of “literary” fiction. I’m a SF/F reader, and one of the things that I’ve noticed about sci-fi and fantasy is that they tend to explore a greater breadth of themes and ideas than most “literary” fiction that I’ve read. It’s mostly a marketing distinction.

    • #32 by acflory on September 24, 2012 - 10:41 pm

      Yes! I’m a sci-fi/fantasy reader as well and I’ve always believed that the best of the best rivals pure literary writing any day. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Frank Herbert’s Dune, C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen, Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. All of them explore what it means to be human within the freedom of extreme situations and places.

      • #33 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 25, 2012 - 6:38 am

        And what about Ray Bradbury? He can match any literary writer for depth, resonance and writing quality.

        • #34 by acflory on September 25, 2012 - 12:41 pm

          -blush- I haven’t read Bradbury in so long I’ve forgotten how good he was. Methinks I need to re-read The Illustrated Man amongst others.

  12. #35 by Jonathan Moore on September 24, 2012 - 5:12 pm

    Hey Roz,

    I share the opinions of Dan and Ray further up; I think it’s less of a distinction and more of an emphasis. An emphasis on character, an emphasis on style, a dedication to thematic unity, all these elevate writing into literary. I use the word elevate advisedly, but I’m sticking with it because by bringing these disciplines to bear on your story you will make it better. Where literary writing gets its bad rep from is when these disciplines are treated as the be all and end all, when the writer starts with the theme. As we all know by now (you’ve been saying it long enough) you start with the story and build up; theme comes later, organically developing out of the story.

    There’s nothing wrong with genre fiction that doesn’t dedicate itself to these disciplines and simply wallows in the joy of story telling (I recently read Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself and a good time was had by all); but there’s also no limitation on genre fiction that rules it out of being literary, there’s no reason a writer can’t work at their story until it becomes art.

    My analogy would be cooking: there’s nothing wrong with sausage and chips, it tastes lovely and you’ll be happier when you’ve eaten it; but a high quality meal gets as much flavour as possible out of the ingredients, the chef chooses ingredients and techniques that complement each other when they combine, the food creates sensation, it has depth, it sets off chemical reactions in your brain. Where fine dining gets its bad rep is when the chef forgets the reason we want to eat is because we’re hungry.

    Perhaps it makes more sense to talk about GOOD fiction, and use the terms “literary” and “genre” to describe an undue emphasis on artistic noodling or superficiality respectively.

    Cheers for now,
    Jonathan

    • #36 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 25, 2012 - 7:41 pm

      ‘Artistic noodling…’…. no room for artistic noodling in my book! Always nice to see you here, Jonathan

  13. #37 by acflory on September 24, 2012 - 11:15 pm

    I think we all agree that Dickens and Dostoyevski both wrote literature yet both also wrote stories with a plot. Sure there were themes but they were the engines for the stories, not the other way around.

    By contrast a great deal of modern ‘literature’ seems to be obsessed with the forms to the detriment of the substance. That’s why I would rather read Victor Hugo than James Joyce. I know this makes me an infidel but I truly believe that the mantle of literature is something awarded by posterity, not something an author can claim for him or herself.

    If the writing is good enough – however you choose to define ‘good’ – it will eventually be seen as literature. If not it will fade into obscurity like all the millions of works that haven’t made it into our modern age.

    • #38 by absolutely1kate on September 25, 2012 - 5:30 am

      * Applause *

    • #40 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 25, 2012 - 6:45 am

      To take your point about experiments with form, it seems they’re always regarded as literary, never just experiments with form. Sometimes they do have devastating effect – I’m fond of waving Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow (a backwards narrative of the holocaust) as an example. But not all these experiments have that genius resonance, yet they also get the literary title – which in that case seems to mean ‘difficult’. Or maybe I simply mean I don’t get them.

      • #41 by acflory on September 25, 2012 - 12:40 pm

        Mmm… I think I’m voting for ‘I don’t get them either’.

    • #42 by Kathleen on September 30, 2012 - 5:48 pm

      Oh, I should’ve read down the comments before I posted mine above; you said it much better than I did: “the mantle of literature is something awarded by posterity, not something an author can claim for him or herself.”

      • #43 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 30, 2012 - 6:37 pm

        Posterity or perhaps other readers contemporary with the author… As writers we can only highlight what matters to us and hope it strikes a chord! Glad you’re enjoying the discussion here, Kathleen

      • #44 by acflory on October 1, 2012 - 12:27 am

        lol – thank you but I wasn’t trying to end the discussion! Just nudge it along a bit.🙂

  14. #45 by Cynthia Robertson on September 25, 2012 - 3:34 am

    The difference between literary fiction and non-literary is simply that literary fiction means something, which usually involves delving deeper into language, imagery and theme. A fun read doesn’t have to mean something in the end, but it’s so much more interesting if it does. As you point out, the two don’t have to be exclusive.

    Books are kind of like our friends: We’ve got those who make us laugh, and those who make us think. And then we’ve got those really cool friends who manage to do both.

  15. #47 by Cyd Madsen on September 25, 2012 - 5:06 pm

    Howdy Roz. I saw this yesterday but a time crunch kept me from responding. I’m glad that happened because an interesting discussion has taken place.

    I both agree and disagree with most of what’s been already said. Literary fiction does delve deeper into the human condition, but how much deeper can we dig than the act of murder? Even a cozy murder mystery explores our horror of the nightly news and the extremes we’ll go to in keeping it at arm’s length, making it entertaining and nothing more than an interesting story. It’s certainly not a thing that can happen in our little world because our world doesn’t in the least resemble the perky, chirpy, make-believe worlds in the cozy. Agatha Christie was a master of this, and yet Miss Marple spent many hours deep in contemplation of the human condition, sussing out the darkness and complexities of individuals, shifting the puzzle pieces of humanity until the completed picture was before her. James Lee Burke, considered a writer’s writer here in the States, writes crime novels and is about as literary as they come. He knows when to let loose a flurry of beautifully crafted language while defining character, place, and/or plot, and when to back off and let the story tell itself. He creates worlds where people and their actions defy tidy classification, leaving us with every question answered leading to yet another baffling question. His work is haunting.

    I’m going to stick with the last word of the above paragraph as that which separates commercial from literary work–haunting. How long does the work stay with me after I’ve finished the last page? Does it haunt me enough to change me, or the way I perceive the world around me? Or will the book simply not leave me alone for reasons I don’t understand. There are spirits of books read that follow me everywhere I go. The first that comes to mind is Mann’s Magic Mountain. Why? Don’t know, and comfortable not knowing. David Lodge’s Therapy skitters through my thoughts several times a month. Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” rides my back daily. Ursula K. Laguin’s “The Eye Altering” helped me make peace with living in Las Vegas (that’s saying something!). There are many other books and writers–Borges, Irving, Stone, Bellows, Dickens, and more–spanning a wide range of clearly defined genres that have changed me and keep knocking on the door of my awareness, speaking to me for one reason or another, and I don’t know why. They’re nearly as annoying as pop-up ads on the web, except I like them. They’ve hooked into my own human condition and continue the telling my story to me decades after reading the words on page.

    In the end, I think literary novels are like frogs. If you want to take them apart and understand how they function, you’ve got to kill them. I’d rather let them live and breathe and hop from here to there (genre to genre), enjoying what makes them peculiar and fascinating. Both frogs and literary novels tempt me towards thoughts impossible before making their acquaintance. There’s the prince of a kingdom in both, but until the day I die, I will resist the lure of kissing a frog. Not so with books.

    • #48 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 25, 2012 - 7:39 pm

      Cyd, what a beautifully argued essay. To take your points in order…

      It’s funny, but crime novels aren’t a genre I generally read – perhaps because I feel the hoops they jump through are so routine. That very routine seems to me to pull the sting of an extraordinary and primeval act – killing, and being in a changed world where that has happened. But your argument here makes me want to take a look at your James Lee Burke. Perhaps I’m a typical example of a reader with prejudices who just needs to find the right writer.

      And your other point about books that are haunting. Yes, oh yes. Those people whose books burn new ideas into our brains. Love your phrase about ‘thoughts impossible before making their acquaintance’ – a good book is like a weekend away. .

      Do we risk killing the magic if we look too closely? Personally I think not, but maybe that’s because my natural reaction is to wonder why something works. It always has been. I’m a slow reader because I can become trapped by a sentence or by the thought the sentence made me have. I run it over and over, wondering why it did what it did. Other book lovers might find this disrespectful of a writer’s work, but I find it to be part of the wonder. Each to their own.

      Thanks for such a thought-provoking comment!

  16. #49 by Dave on September 25, 2012 - 8:24 pm

    I would be interested in a discussion of what categorizes fiction as “genre” or “non-genre”. Comparing genre fiction with literary fiction smacks of changing two variables at once. That’s taking the scientific approach, of course, to which literature may not be susceptible!

    • #50 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 26, 2012 - 7:57 pm

      Ah, what is non-genre? Is it ‘general fiction’? What is that? What is ‘commercial fiction’, as introduced to the discussion by Dina earlier?
      I think that genre fiction can have literary qualities – so for instance China Mieville has a foot in two camps.
      Why is that? Is it necessary to let readers know that Mieville’s fiction isn’t in their literal 21st century? Booksellers seem to think it is – especially as many readers of ‘serious’ books (another thorny term) actively dislike sci-fi.

      • #51 by Chris Lites on September 26, 2012 - 8:21 pm

        Yeah, it’s not the editors so much as the grad programs. Most of them seem to attain a Platonic ideal of “Iowa Writers Worskshopness.” While they do not force you into that camp, the example of what it good literature tend to revolve primarily around that sort of wiritng. If I had to read one more unresolved relationship with someone’s father, mother, etc…. For me though, what I like least about that kind of fiction is the prose. It’s good to a point, but not exciting or muscular IMO.

      • #52 by acflory on September 27, 2012 - 12:00 am

        Just picking up on the comment about serious readers disliking sci-fi. Although I love sci-fi myself, I’d be the first to admit that there is a lot of truly atrocious sci-fi out there, the kind that focuses only on the science to the exclusion of all else. Much of it reads like a Boys Own Adventure Story. Then again I’ve read some awful crud that passes for ‘literary’ as well. Maybe the real distinctions here have nothing to do with genre and everything to do with quality… On second thoughts maybe genres /are/ easier to define.😦

        • #53 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 27, 2012 - 8:46 pm

          Or maybe genre definitions exist to prevent you accidentally reading something you don’t think you’ll like….?

          • #54 by acflory on September 28, 2012 - 12:05 am

            You may have a point there Roz. Before Kindles and super cheap ebooks, the sheer cost of print books kept me from reading within the genres I /knew/ I disliked, such as YA, Romance and Horror. And there were other genres I didn’t try because I did not like them as much as my favourite ones. Money was tight and books had to be chosen with care.

            The indie revolution has changed all that.We can all now afford to be much more adventurous in our reading. Perhaps that is one reason why the boundaries between genres are blurring so much. Amazon still insists on categorizing books and authors still try to shoehorn their novels into one category or the other but the fit is far less … precise than it used to be.

            That’s why I believe that perceived quality is starting to over-ride genre in the choices readers make. I know I’ve now ventured into YA [The Hunger Games] and Romance [Brumby’s Run] and found them to be good.🙂

  17. #55 by Ileandra Young on September 25, 2012 - 9:58 pm

    Great topic Roz. I’ve always had trouble defining literary fiction and I still don’t really get out.
    I know for sure that I’m a genre writer, but what would make me literary if I were so inclined? O.o

    • #56 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 26, 2012 - 7:58 pm

      Ileandra, I think we are running ourselves in circles here trying to define it. But the attempt seems to be fun.

  18. #57 by Sally - aka Saleena on September 26, 2012 - 11:17 am

    Hi Roz!

    A novel is probably literary if the writer says so (is consciously trying to do it). So perhaps we should ask a literary novelist what makes his/her writing literary.🙂 I’m not sure I agree with Cyd about the haunting aspect – though I can see why this should be expected. Weren’t other posters here complaining about how boring and tedious some of the Booker winners are?

    • #58 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 26, 2012 - 8:05 pm

      Hi Sally! Well, that’s one way of looking at it. If you aim for literary, perhaps you have put in the book what you mean by literary. Others may disagree with your yardstick, though.
      I rather like Cyd’s point about a literary book being haunting. It also chimes well with Ray (Journal Pulp)’s point about the resonance that leaves the book ringing in his mind afterwards. For me, if a book has dimensions beyond its story and characters, that gives it literary qualities.
      As for the Booker winners, fair point – but are they representative of good literary fiction? I don’t think they are. I think they represent the particular tastes of a select group of judges, but not necessarily the best of the literary artform or the taste of most normal readers who like literary books. The last few Booker winners I looked at (before I lost all faith in the list) seemed to have been selected as much for the issues they covered as because they were good books (I’m thinking Alan Hollinghurst and Zadie Smith). Perilously close to box-ticking, in fact.

  19. #59 by Chris Lites on September 26, 2012 - 12:23 pm

    A professor in my writing grad program and I went round and round about this. My contention was precisely that literary fiction was just another genre with its own style, tropes and expectation. If you look at one of the Americas Best Short stories kind of book, you’ll see a repeat of themes, styles and tropes. They may deviate more than some genre, but overall most MFA program types are writing a kind of genre fiction of their own.

    • #60 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 26, 2012 - 8:07 pm

      Hi Chris – well certainly you will see themes and values in common in a short story collection, but is it merely a reflection of the taste of its editor? And that’s an interesting point about graduate programmes turning out authors with a particular flavour. I’ve heard agents say that too.

  20. #61 by philipparees on September 27, 2012 - 12:03 pm

    This is an interesting gymnastic exercise in definition, and I cannot help thinking we all endeavour to free ourselves of the tortuous knots in which we are caught, but they are not of our making. We think of Dickens as literary fiction but in his day he was the serialised hot off the press story spinner, and although Austen is now literary, her diminutive concerns of domestic conflict were the vehicles of deep gender reflection. So the categorisation is defined by the world and not the book. If we obsess about it, it is possibly because we all are trying to squeeze through the eye of the publishing needle, and the label needs to wrap closely to make that possible. ‘Worthy but dull’ seems the prejudice on literary fiction, which also justifies ‘un-marketable’, possibly ‘pretentious’, unless as an author you carry some well earned cache that makes your reflections worthy of consideration. If you wrote music like Mozart you would now be writing ‘pastiche’. I suppose the good news is that self-publishing will inevitably burst the constraints, because literary fiction will be most likely to be self-published by unknown authors, and the good ones prove the category unnecessary. Perhaps ‘thought provoking’ might cover it?

    • #62 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 27, 2012 - 8:52 pm

      Hi Philippa! Certainly the distance of a hundred years allows almost any book to acquire the label ‘respectable’. Also: ‘taught in schools’. Shakespeare, in his own time, was just a jobbing stage writer and actor, scribbling under a tavern table.
      You bring a new word to this debate – ‘pretentious’. I’m sure that’s been hovering in a few commenters’ minds but they’ve probably wondered if they should say it. Anything that isn’t honest has to be pretentious, although I see many genuine attempts to write a ‘worthwhile’ novel that fall flat because the writer didn’t yet have the gubbins.
      ‘Thought provoking…’ I like that definition.

  21. #63 by debutnovelist on September 27, 2012 - 9:22 pm

    Hi Ros – greatly enjoyed your post. As someone who writes in fiction that isn’t in an obvious genre, I like your idea that ‘each literary writer creates a genre of their own, invents the colours they paint in’. I also object to the idea that literary fiction means no plot. Plot matters, plot keeps us reading. The best plotted novel ever (Fingersmith by Sarah Waters) is def in the literary bracket. Lit fic with no plot is probably just bad fiction. Also agree that there is no straight division between genre and literary, more of a gradient.
    Thanks for your exposition!

    Ali B

    • #64 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 27, 2012 - 9:46 pm

      Hi Ali! I’m a great fan of plot – and the best plots come from characters under the defining pressures that change who they are. Glad you’re liking the many points of view here!

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