Literary Fiction vs. Genre

Cartoon by Tom Gauld

Cartoon by Tom Gauld

Most of my professional work, as a teacher, involves avoiding genre fiction. I can’t explain why genre is so neglected (avoided, is the better word), but, in the university, it is. But, as a writer, I don’t see those categories necessarily separating quality writing from hack writing. I’ve read enough literary fiction to recognize that the qualitative difference between a lit-fiction-short-story-online-journal hack and a self-published-eight-sci-fi-novels-this-year hack is negligible.

The reality is simple: literary fiction is a genre. It brings its own expectations and conventions just as horror or sci-fi or romance genres do. A lit-fiction reader buys a novel with certain hopes: to be impressed by the aesthetics of the text, to see some insight into the human condition, to leave with a sense of meditative tension.

I like literary fiction. I prefer it over all other kinds of fiction not written by Douglas Adams. Furthermore, I write lit fiction. But being “non-genre” is no guarantee of quality any more than being genre is guarantee of hackishness (is that a word?). Each writer offers his or her own story. And each text has its own approach. For an example of this, give that “hack” pulp fiction writer, Dashiell Hammet, a read. If you can put down The Maltese Falcon and not be impressed with the characterization, style, structure, and insight into the human condition, then you must stop reading posts from this web site. You, my friend, and I must agree to disagree about the nature of good writing.

Hammett, like several genre writers, embraces the qualities of writing that make stories compelling and novels enduring. Hemingway does it, too—and he’s a lit fiction guy. Great stories and great storytellers transcend genre classifications. That’s why J. K. Rowling has confused many of us in the lit-fiction camp. She can write. She can tell a great story. But she loves genre. And let’s be honest about Cormack McCarthy, a Pulitzer winner. He writes westerns and apocalyptic stories. It’s just that he does it in a way that cannot be confined by genre classifications.

Here is my plea to the gatekeepers, especially to my peers determining, in some small way, what is taught in universities, colleges, and AP programs. Forget genre and go for quality. Don’t assume that the next Zadie Smith novel is gold. It could be indulgent and pompous and arrogant. And don’t assume that the next Stephen King has no place in the academy. All you have to do is read some Hawthorne or Poe or Melville. Today’s fishing story or detective tale or religious allegory could be the next generation’s required reading.

What about you? What piece of “genre” fiction have you come across that belongs in the next Norton anthology? What piece of “literary” fiction have you read that left you questioning the legitimacy of critics and English instructors?


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