Monday, December 8, 2014

Literary versus Genre Fiction, Defining the Debate

A debate I often see on various websites is the value/worthiness of genre novels in comparison to literary fiction. Usually, it’s genre writers fighting back at what they perceive as a slight against what they write.  Unfortunately, most don’t have a clue about the difference between popular genre and literary fiction so their arguments make little sense.  I thought I’d rectify that problem.  

The simplest comparison between literary fiction and popular/genre fiction is that literary fiction is about the telling of the story, popular fiction is about the story itself. 

In literary fiction, the author is always evident through the flashy style and the use of complex structure.  Plot isn’t important. A common technique found in literary fiction is the frame story where someone in the present is looking into the past, or the end of the novel is revealed at the beginning.  In other words, time in most stories isn't linear, and the reader doesn't read primarily to know what happens next and how it turns out in the end.  This technique emphasizes character over plot.

In genre fiction, the writer should be invisible, and the reader should be part of the story and not really aware of the writer and the way he's putting the story together.  Anything that breaks this "dream state" is a failure on the writer's part.  

In literary fiction, the opposite is true.  The language draws attention to itself, and the reader pauses to think, "My, what an excellent use of metaphor and language!  I think I'll reread that again."  This is what the literary writer aims for.

In recent years, since the big publishers now demand decent sales from literary writers, authors have been using genre techniques in literary fiction or vice versa in order to widen their audiences.  Here are some of these mixed literary/genre that I’ve read.  

THE ART OF DISAPPEARING, Ivy Pochoda, Literary contemporary fantasy.

THE VANISHERS, Heidi Julavits.  Literary fiction with paranormal elements.  

THE NIGHT CIRCUS, Erin Morgenstern. 


A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES, Deborah Harkness.  


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