What’s wrong with ‘genre’ fiction?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I read two articles in the last couple of days which has caused me to mull over, yet again,  the perceived gulf between ‘literary’ versus ‘genre’ fiction. In her piece in the New York Times, Karen Gillespie describes how, after losing her publisher, she enrolled in an MFA in creative writing to improve her skills only to find her work derided as being ‘parlour fiction’ (she was the published author of five humorous, romantic books). For those who want to read the article in its entirety the link is hereSuffice to say, her journey was one from ‘genre’ to ‘literary’ and right back to ‘genre’ again after discovering writing so-called ‘serious’ pieces actually meant losing her author voice and all commercial viability. I especially liked her description of how an agent flew in to be a guest lecturer in the MFA program, only to be greeted by an outraged faculty who deemed the agent’s advice (have a distinctive voice and a decent plot) as somehow ‘cheapening’ the art of writing. This made me smile, for who amongst us has not had someone ask “so when are you going to write a serious novel?” (to which I assume they mean a literary tome of immense weight and authority…)

Then I saw an article on the Guardian book blog arguing that ‘literary fiction’ is really nothing more than clever marketing (see the link here) and I smiled again – because, as the article points out, many famous writers like Jane Austen never imagined their work would one day be deemed ‘literary’ (she wrote, after all, to entertain and make money). It seems ridiculous to me that we are still having the debate over ‘genre’ versus ‘literary’ fiction but if Karen Gillespie’s article is right, many MFA programs still believe that somehow they are creating ‘literary’ writers to trump those who delve in crass commercial fiction.  

For me the important message I got from her article was that it is vital that, no matter what course your career takes (or what writing course you may take) that you never lose sight of your own ‘voice’ and writing strengths. In other the words, there’s no use trying to be the kind of writer you aren’t. In many of the writing groups I’ve attended, there is a pervading sense of the need to produce ‘literature’ rather than focusing on simply writing the story you want to write. I certainly felt this pressure and, for many years, it stymied my progress (I never felt I could live up to this amorphous literary ideal)- I only felt comfortable in my own writing skin when I decided to ignore all that and just write the book I wanted to write  The article in the Guardian concludes (quite rightly I think!) that rather than getting hung up on all literary marketing, that we should just accept that “all books can be thrust into a genre, and lit fic is simply one of many. As a tag, it tells us nothing about the intrinsic value of any individual title. There are good books and bad books, and both are to be found from one end of the fictional horizon to the other”.

So what do you think? Do you still feel there is a distinction between ‘literary’ fiction and genre fiction? Is the divide lessening or do you still find people looking down at writers of mysteries or other genre fiction, as if they are somehow less worthy, less ‘artistic’ than their so-called literary counterparts?

40 thoughts on “What’s wrong with ‘genre’ fiction?

  1. When people find out I have a book coming out, the first question I get is, “what kind of book?” And I answer, “Oh, it’s just a murder/mystery type of thing.”

    Why do I sound apologetic? Because of a few teachers I’ve taken literature courses with over the years at our local university. They drew a distinct line in the sand between ‘great work – author writing for the love of writing and not concerned with the money’ and ‘commercial crass’.

    Wasted a lot of years trying to write ‘art’.

    • I wasted a fair bit of time too – and I used to catch myself apologising for what I wrote – but not anymore!

  2. I’ve heard “the attitude” of people who think literary books are the only “serious” writing. It’s pretentious. All books need similar elements of compelling characters in a story worth telling with a pace that doesn’t bore the reader. What sells most is commercial genre fiction because more readers buy it. Publishers generally do larger print runs on genre because of its mass appeal. If money is a driver to a writer, then odds are that genre fiction may be a good option.

    No matter which way an author chooses to write, they have to take satisfaction in writing in a voice they take pleasure in. Bottom line. And it’s important to look at what you read, too. If your ereader or book shelves are filled with literary or genre fiction, you should write what you read & enjoy and stop apologizing for your choice. Writing is hard enough without making yourself crazier than usual.

    • Totally agree – and that’s what made the NYT article so depressing. Karen Gillespie obviously felt (for a time) that she had to change how she wrote to be ‘worthy’ – only to discover that was just nonsense. At least she now writes exactly what she wants to write and in a way that shows off her gifts not panders to someone else’s view of ‘art’.

    • Exactly. Writing is subjective. Not every story will appeal to everyone, but I firmly believe writing should be fun, or else why do it? Thanks for the discussion, Clare.

  3. I read that Guardian article a short while back and have just read Karin Gillespie’s. They both made me sad.

    “The perceived gulf between literary and genre fiction” I believe this gulf has been deliberately created by the very people whose survival depend on there being a distinction or who are just, let’s face it, snobs. There are many, many people in this world who have to belittle others to make themselves feel important.

    Yes, the two styles of writing are different. Yes, they will attract different kind of readers. Why can’t they co-exist? Why does one have to constantly denigrate the other? Why can’t everyone just embrace their differences and rejoice in each other’s equally wonderful works?

    If we were all alike in this world, it’d get boring pretty damn fast!

    Wonderful post, Clare, thanks!

    • It would be very boring indeed and there are so many books that blur the lines between all genres – we should just accept a good book is a good book!

  4. I’ve long taken to calling literary fiction just another genre, including books about mostly low-stake conflicts set in the contemporary world or a very close approximation of it. However, I am missing a name for that genre, literary fiction doesn’t quite cut it, seeing how every now and then a distinctly genre book (such as 1984, or Don Quixote) becomes accepted in these ranks..

    • Maybe just ‘contemporary fiction’? Though some classifications just don’t really encapsulate what a book is really about:)

  5. I don’t mind giving lit-fic its due, because I like a lot of it. What I do mind are programs that send people into massive debt without teaching them how to write in a manner that may get them out of massive debt.

    • That’s what seemed so crazy – so an instructor disses someone’s writing style, not because it isn’t engaging or commercial viable, but because it isn’t ‘literary’ enough?…and then that makes the writer basically non-commercially viable afterwards?!

  6. You’ll find a similar separation in the art world. Cartooning and graphic novels are not “serious” work. But I was drawn to cartooning because it was fun and reached more people.

    In the writing world I’ve found a quick way to determine if you’re in a “literary” crowd or a “commercial” crowd. Ask what genre others write. If they say things like sci-fi or mystery, it’s a “commercial” crowd. If they say non-fiction, fiction, or poetry, you’re in a literary crowd.

    • I always think that if someone can’t describe their book coherently in a few sentences then it’s often ‘literary’ (at least in their own mind!)

  7. The best thing that ever happened to me as a writer was to be accepting into a graduate-level workshop at George Washington University run by John McNally. I was the only “genre” writer there, and before my first submission was read, John walked the group through the differences of genre vs. literary fiction. basically, there was one. in “literary” fiction, the events are driven by the characters; in genre, the characters are driven by events. The genre characters can, and should, be as complex and well-developed as their literary counterparts, and the levels of craft can, and should, be the same.

    At the time I was grateful that he treated me as an equal to the others, and didn’t make me feel as though “literary” fiction was something for me to aspire to once I got my chops together. Now I sometimes wonder, if it wasn’t also a caution to the others, that, no matter what the genre or subject, it’s okay for things to happen. Story must prevail.

  8. Claire, I proudly label myself as a genre writer. I have yet to have anyone tell me I’m not serious. At least to my face. I think there is a difference between a genre writer and a literary writer, but there can also be a blurring between the two. I think immediately of southern authors primarily — James Lee Burke, Ace Atkins’ true crime novels, Larry Brown, Tom Franklin, Peter Farris, and my central Ohio neighbor Donald Ray Pollock but there are others. Many others.

  9. I was berated by another blogger who since has taken down her rebuttal to my own genre vs. literary take.

    I didn’t mean to offend either side with my opinion, but if I had, I’m also not offended that anyone has a different take on it.

    The biggest difference I’ve found in the two groups is their motivation in writing, even though they both clearly have a great deal of creativity and passion.

    • Diane – great point. Why belittle another writer for their choice of genre (or lack thereof)? As Jordan said, writing is hard enough without making it harder/driving yourself crazy!

  10. I’ve been embroiled in this argument for years, ever since Stephen King won a big literary medal and the sound of pearls being clutched was heard round the world.

    I even wrote a short story called “The Brain Eaters” openly mocking the divide. It has been reprinted 3 times in different zines. The best part of it was having it rejected as “not literary enough” by one zine and then having it appear in a more genre-oriented pub, right above, (wait for it,) a story by the editor who had rejected it.

    Someone up-thread nailed it. Literary is character driven and genre is plot driven. Resolution of the plot is paramount rather than “The butterfly left footprints in the butter the day my uncle died.”

    Yes, I have read lit-fic. Larry McMurtry is a literary stylist. I was 400 pages into Texasville before I realized I had been had. The entire series, about 1200 pages of it is about the fact that Dwayne is depressed. Tis brilliant.

    Back in 2011 I wrote my own little take on the “controversy.” It is pretty snarky, if anyone is so inclined:

    Confessions of a Genre Hack

    My manuscript is straight-up genre and I am running into a bit of a wall of agents wanting a more literary style. But since I can’t write who I am, I have to work with it, not against it.


    • Terri
      Will have to take a look at your snarky post:) And totally agree, you have to work with your talents not against them:)

  11. The assumption, I think, that genre fiction is somehow less artistic is a matter of the literary folks not finding the deeper meaning in genre fiction. Genre writers don’t wear their themes on their sleeves. An entertaining science fiction tale can be just as critical of contemporary society as a literary story, but the difference is – people who read the sci-fi and get the message in a more indirect way, and they have fun while they’re absorbing the deeper meaning. I personally feel maligned especially by literary journals who outline in their submission guidelines that no genre fiction will be accepted. It’s unkind, judgmental and unnecessary. A good story is a good story. And I stick to speculative fiction- no literary for me.

    • It’s crazy isn’t it – because some of the best genre fiction really nail the issues and deeper meanings of life – especially in sci-fi (which can take on the whole ‘human condition’ while having a great story and plot). Good stories don’t need to have literary pretensions – they’re just good!

  12. Great discussion, Clare.

    There are so many facets to the discussion / comparisons. I enjoyed your reference to Jane Austen’s work. I believe one of the themes in Pride and Prejudice was disdain for those who looked down their nose at others. And then there’s Shakespeare. His productions certainly appealed to the common folk of his day. Now his work is studied by the academics.

    In the area of music, more than one hymn sung by the pious was written with the melody “borrowed” from common folk songs. I remember helping plan music for a church service. When I argued for more lively, enjoyable music, I was told that we must “give them what they need, not what they want.”

    We can take satisfaction, as genre writers, in giving the reader what they want.

    • Yes, Steve – sometimes I feel like ‘literary’ snobs want to take all the joy and fun out of reading:)

  13. Thanks for the post and links. I’m a new writer (short mystery fiction) and an enthusiastic new TKZ reader.
    For me, lit vs. genre discussions always bring to mind Raymond Chandler, someone I’d wager could out-craft any MFA snob on the planet. Chandler said his stories were not about crime and detection, but were about the corruption of the human spirit. So whether lit vs. genre is about style or story, I think Chandler showed what the humble mystery can achieve.

    Best wishes,
    Peter DiChellis

  14. Clare–
    Another way to ask the question is this: is there a difference among audiences? The answer is of course yes. A majority of readers are not interested in “literature”–in those novels that are written for readers who have been educated to make certain kinds of distinctions. Mass-culture readers (a small number in relation to the whole culture) want to be entertained by books that take them away, give them a break from humdrum daily life. And since something over 70% of fiction is bought by women, I am mostly talking about them. Readers of “literature” also want a break, but their escape takes different forms. I think the luckiest readers are those who enjoy the best of both worlds.
    In any case, I don’t think there’s much point in saying Jane Austen didn’t see herself as writing literature. We can’t know what she thought about her work. And it doesn’t matter, any more than it matters whether Shakespeare saw himself as writing timeless works, or soap operas based on English and Roman history. The end result is what matters, and we know what that is.

  15. Honestly, literary fiction bores me, genre is where it’s at. I’ve always read genre. I try to read the classics here and there, but nothing holds my attention like genre offerings be it romance, mystery, horror, fantasy, etc.

  16. HEAR! HEAR! I’ve been waiting for this type of article. Literary fiction–high’ faluting? I love genre fiction and enjoy each writer’s voice

  17. Thanks for this, post and comments.

    I’ve recently read a couple of books by MFA trained writers who do nice sentences, poetic descriptions and decent characters, but just don’t know what makes a mystery tick. I suspect that unlike those of us who’ve been happily imbibing genre “trash” since we were kids, they never read the stuff. Now their agent tells them to write a mystery so they can sell some books.
    Sorry, it’s just not in their blood.

    On the other hand, there’s at least one graduate of the holy Iowa Writer’s Program I like (Curtis Sittenfeld). Then again she doesn’t do genre.

  18. I think it behooves us to look into the etymology of the term ‘Literary Fiction’

    The term that has been translated to the word ‘Literary’ in regards to writing that is not ‘Genre’ or ‘Commercial’ is based upon a Chinese phrase:

    (pron. – Wū wū ài kū zhuàn bù zhuànqián)

    The phrase carries with it the sense of the communication of jealous discontent regarding the fact that in spite of the beauty of the writing, the poeticism of the piece, and the utter love the author has for their own written words…ain’t nobody likely to be gonna buyin’ that crap but yo momma and yo great aunt Rosey who smells like sweat and cheap perfume and will do anything to get a hug from you.

    (translation of 嗚嗚愛哭賺不賺錢 is approximately “whining crybaby make no money”)

    • disclaimer…Literary fiction has a very honorable place alongside Genre fiction in my opinion. Those who act snobbish about the ‘Literariness’ of their work compared to blood and guts thrillers, imaginary sci-fi, or even gushy romance on the other hand are, in my experience, just jealous because folks really like the latter.

    • I’m sure there must be some degree of jealousy when certain genre writers make millions:) Then again, perhaps literary posterity is what some are aiming for…though, again, lots of genre writers get that too:)

  19. Clare, I’ve often felt embarrassed to admit to being a romance writer. Some of the writing groups I’ve attended make comments about genre fiction vs. literary and poetry, as if we who write genre lack something. Seeing this post and the comments have helped me understand some of the prejudice. I love to read, I’ve read some really good literary fiction and some not so good. I am character driven so shouldn’t my southern-romantic-suspense be literary?

  20. As I read over the comments to Clare’s post, I am struck by how defensive the tone is in most of them. What are people afraid of? Why so anxious to denounce “snobs” and wave the banner for genre fiction? If people know fiction, they know what’s good and what’s not. And they are also willing and able to acknowledge the strengths and limitations of different kinds of storytelling.

  21. I enjoyed this post and the comments that followed, especially since I’m currently reading a literary novel, one that won the Man Booker Prize. What strikes me as I plow through it, is how much difficulty I’m having in hanging in with the author. I find his style perplexing at times, Though I admire his literary talent, I find I get lost in the storytelling, sometimes not knowing whose voice I’m following. It’s a book I’ve wanted to put down a number of times, but since it won a prize, I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. Personally, I don’t want to struggle when I read, no matter how beautiful the prose.

  22. Yes, there is a distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction, but there should not be. I agree that writers must write what they are comfortable writing. A lot depends on what we read, as writers.

    I read a lot of both genre and literary fiction. I like both. I don’t think one is better than the other. The mistake people make in the “literary” world is to act as if what they do is somehow better than what John Grisham or Sue Grafton do. Ask any literary writer to write a series like Sue Grafton’s and they’d freeze. It’s not their style and to them it’s very hard. BTW, I think the Man Booker Prize is over rated. Most of those books are tedious at best. Good literary writing need not be tedious. So Diana, I’d suggest putting the book down!

    So, which is better? Neither. As a reader and and writer, I love them both! And, I’m glad there are good writers out there who find their voice in one or the other.

    Thanks for the great post!

Comments are closed.