East Coast vs. West Coast. Hatfields and McCoys. Republican vs. Democrat. North vs. South. All famous feuds. Another kind of feud, less known, is Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction. Apparently as a writer you must pick one or the other. Like any good feud each side believes their side is the correct one.
Bollocks. I’m not one for conflict. Absolutely hate it and try to avoid either being directly involved in and I get massively uncomfortable when I see people arguing. So to learn that there is this apparent battle between Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction greatly puzzles me. I don’t understand why anyone thinks one is inherently better than the other is. Granted Literary Fiction has been around a lot longer although there are examples of Genre Fiction with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and many others. But being able to say “First!” doesn’t mean it is better. It simply means it was well, first.
Before I go any further let’s briefly define Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction. Literary Fiction is fiction which holds literary merit in that it involves social criticism, political criticism, or commentary on the human condition. In other words, it is serious literature examining reality rather than providing an escape. Think of all the books you were forced to read in high school and college. On the flip side Genre Fiction is fiction aimed at the general population and is broadly considered escapism. This is the type of stuff not forced upon students because it’s not serious enough. But just like Literary Fiction having elements of Genre Fiction creeping onto the pages, there are countless examples of Genre Fiction with heavy Literary Fiction elements. Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Side of Darkness, The Ends of the Earth by William Golding, and Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende are but a few examples.
hope it is as obvious to you as it is to me how inherently snobby and rather dumb these definitions are. And I’m sure it obvious why these two have beef. There’s this notion those who write Literary Fiction are smarter, better educated, and better writers because they write Serious Stuff. Plebs need not bother. Those who write Genre Fiction are frivolous, write fluff for the masses, and must be worse writers because they don’t write complex, emotionally fraught work.
As a writer and a reader, why does there need to be this distance? Plenty of Genre Fiction books could definitely be considered literary not only because of the beauty of the prose, but also because of exploring themes supposedly only owned by Literary Fiction. Sci-fi and Fantasy often explore themes of humanity, right and wrong, gender roles, stereotypes, rights of the individual, etc. Historical Fiction teaches us not only teaches about the past, but also shows us gender roles, human rights, and how people try to fight societal norms. Women’s Fiction explores issues an entire gender typically faces such as discrimination, how does one define what a woman is or is not, and finding strength from within. I’ve read Mysteries which while primarily focused on whodunit, also spoke about racial differences and classism. I’m confident many other genres also explore serious issues.
So why is there this rivalry? What is it accomplishing? One thing that bugs me personally is trying to shove people into boxes, labels, whatever because it’s easier for them to know how to act rather than treating each person as an individual. Why can’t people just read and enjoy what they want without judgment? Why can’t writers just write whatever suits our fancy without a giant label on it?
Because human beings love those labels and the publishing industry is run by humans. Genre labels help readers figure out what they want to read. They help publishers determine how to market a book. Labels help libraries and book retailers know where to shelve a book. Labels aren’t necessarily bad, but when people start poo-pooing one genre over another than it’s just silly.
At the end of the day it’s perfectly fine for a book to just be a book but let’s reexamine the archaic assumption only Literary Fiction is serious and therefore better and Genre Fiction is fluff to be looked down upon. Not to sound all lovey dovey but can’t the two just get along? Our genre doesn’t detract from we write because we have stories to tell. We all have the desire to share with the world those stories regardless if our motivation is escapism or enlightenment.