Literary vs. Genre Fiction: Which Do You Prefer?
Last time we talked about how our literary education can affect our reading habits later in life. One interesting result of that conversation revealed—once again—just how subjective reading for enjoyment can be. The stories some of us hated, others loved.
Personally, I have no interest in non-genre stories. As I’ve said before, this is not a sign of my inability to think deeply, but rather a personal preference.
At the Desert Dreams conference a week ago, something the delightful Mary Buckham mentioned in her character workshop struck me, and I wondered if her idea could be related to this genre vs. literary preference. Let’s compare notes and find out. *smile*
Literary vs. Commercial (Genre) Fiction
Before we dig into the question, I first want to share what Mary Buckham said in her Down and Dirty Ways to Create Stronger Characters workshop. My note-taking skills aren’t quite what they used to be, so these definitions are paraphrased from her descriptions.
The point of the story is for the character(s) to understand themselves better. This is achieved through episodic events that force understanding. However, characters aren’t forced to internally change or to change their situations.
The point of the story is to focus on how people change. This is achieved through external events that trigger choices and force internal changes in the character(s), both of which lead to external changes in their situations.
Obviously, those are simplified definitions, but I think there’s a lot of validity to Mary’s perspective. More importantly for my question, those different approaches create even more diverse themes.
Themes in Literary vs. Commercial (Genre) Fiction
Mary then compared what each style has to say about life and fate (again, this is paraphrased):
The lack of internal change in literary fiction creates the impression that things just happen and that there’s not a lot we can do about it. Whether intended or not, this subtext develops a theme that applies to most literary fiction stories: “Life sucks and then you die.”
In contrast, commercial fiction often shows characters facing choices, and how they decide greatly affects the rest of the story (for good or bad). In other words, in genre stories, things happen and there is something we can do about it. This subtext creates a theme that applies to most commercial fiction stories: “Write your own fate.”
Story Themes and Our Worldview
A couple of weeks ago, we discussed how our favorite stories often have themes in common with each other and with our worldview. I mentioned how our reading preferences—from themes to types of characters—might be driven by our worldview.
I also suspect our worldview affects our preferences for literary vs. genre fiction. After all, we’re more likely to read stories that resonate deeply with within us, and the subtext of literary vs. genre is often very different.
As I’ve said about romance novels:
“Most modern romances contain the subtext of celebrating people who are empowered, those who are willing to fight for what they want and take responsibility for creating their own happiness.”
Empowered. Fight for what they want. Take responsibility for creating their own happiness. That certainly qualifies for the “write our own fate” theme of genre fiction.
Personally, I believe that we can change our future through our choices and that we do write our own fate. I believe all that because I have changed my own fate several times in my life. I’ve rewritten my future more times than I can count (and in hugely significant ways) by making choice A rather than B and by changing internally.
So really, is it any surprise that I prefer genre stories? Is it any surprise that stories where the characters don’t end up in a significantly different place from where they started (often because they never learn, never change, and keep making the same mistakes) irritate the hell out of me?
To me, drama and angst is pointless without a takeaway message shown through a character changing and learning. Without that, those characters deserve a “Too Stupid To Live” label. In the most frustrating “nothing changes” literary stories, I start wishing for a good ol’ genre attack (aliens, zombies, whatever) to take them all out and save me from their misery. *grin*
Obviously, that’s just my personal opinion. I’m not “right” and others aren’t “wrong.”
Plenty of people love the literary fiction books recommended by the Oprahs of the world. And I suspect that difference in preference has to do with our worldviews.
How Might Our Worldview Affect Our Reading Habits?
Some people might believe we can change our fate, but that change is too difficult for most people or often results in more problems. Others might believe only the privileged can change their fate. Others might believe the best human intentions will eventually succumb to the entropy of bad habits. Etc., etc.
Again, there’s no wrong answer. But if those are our beliefs, we’re more likely to enjoy stories that reflect our thoughts:
- If we think change is possible but extremely difficult for most, we might be more accepting of stories where characters try to change but fail.
- If we believe change causes more problems, we might gravitate to tragedies where characters’ choices make their lives worse.
- If we think only the privileged can change their fate, we might be drawn to the trials of the underprivileged.
- If we believe “life sucks and then you die,” we’d feel at home with stories that focus on unresolvable struggles.
- And so on…
Of course we can encounter exceptions. Maybe we don’t relate to the worldview posed in a story, but we love the protagonist. Or we grew up in the same setting and read for the nostalgia. Or we’re in a similar situation and want to feel as though someone understands what we’re going through.
We can also read and enjoy different types of stories depending on our mood. Maybe some days we’re more optimistic than others. Or maybe some days we’re more irritated with people than others. *snicker*
More importantly, this theory of worldview and reading preferences should bury for eternity the idea that literary stories are somehow “better” than genre stories. As I’ve said before, genre stories can have the same well-developed characters, lovely turns of phrase, etc. as literary stories.
The difference isn’t in quality but in worldview. It’s not “better” or “superior” to believe that people can’t change or that fate can’t be avoided. And the idea that choices and changes can affect our future isn’t contemptible. It’s simply a different point of view.
As for me, the Oprahs of the world can keep their tales of woe. I won’t put down their perspective—or feel guilty for my own. I’ll just continue to embrace my Pollyanna worldview and enjoy my genre stories. *smile*
Do you agree or disagree with Mary’s take on the point, theme, and subtext of literary vs. genre stories? What type of fiction do you prefer? Does this preference match with some of your worldviews? How so? If you like stories opposite your worldviews, what makes them enjoyable to you?
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Hmm… That delineation seems pretty accurate.
I happen to be pretty fond of genre/literary hybrids. (Think The Handmaid’s Tale, or arguably The Time Traveler’s Wife.) I do have to be in the right mood to appreciate more literary fiction, though, probably because I’ve been having life issues of my own for the past several years and don’t need anything else telling me “Your efforts are futile.”
I also often read worldviews I disagree with on purpose, as a way to help me comprehend where people who believe those things are coming from, but my absolute favorite books, which resonate with me, probably all have some major theme or some such thing that I agree with (or at least appreciate).
I have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate certain stories as well, and as you said, that mood doesn’t hit me very often because I’m usually not in the mood for something depressing. 🙂
But that’s a great point about how reading books outside our worldview can help us understand the perspectives of others. The only way I can read opposite-worldview books, however (and not end up hate-reading the book–which if anyone saw my Facebook post about hate-reading, they know I can get pretty aggravated with stories–LOL!), is if I DON’T get wrapped up in the stories or the characters.
In other words, the only way I could tolerate a book that would normally irritate me for its worldview was if I was never pulled into the story. And since when I read for pleasure, I want to be pulled into the story, that distance defeats the purpose of reading it. 🙂
But now that insight adds another layer of understanding for my dislike of books opposite my worldview. Interesting! At least I’m rather good at seeing all sides and the nuances of situations normally, so I don’t depend on this opposite-worldview reading for exposure to other ideas. Thanks for bringing that up and thanks for the comment!
I would tend to count literary as a genre. Genre’s just a marketing tool, so that if you want a certain type of story, genre will guide you to getting what you want to read. Literary’s no different than mystery or romance or fantasy in that regard. Readers pick it up because they’re looking for something specific.
I also thought the “commercial fiction” section that’s being applied to genres was pretty overgeneralized. I’m not sure it would apply as broadly as it appears across all the genres. Each genre has its own specific traits that readers buy them for, but it’s also easy to assume that certain things are the same in each one — and that’s not necessarily true.
For example, I really like stories that have a lot of characterization. But in fantasy, people come to the story for the world, and that’s a part I ignored in my writing because I didn’t find it as interesting as the characters. As a result, I didn’t have enough of the parts fantasy readers want. I’m writing in multi-genres, so I’m learning to pay attention to what makes each one different from each other.
You’re right that genre is a marketing tool to let people know what kind of story to expect, and in that regard, the label “literary” is similarly a marketing tool. And interestingly, if we go back to the original definition of the word “genre” and how it’s still used in visual arts like painting (“genre” paintings depict scenes of everyday life), literary fiction would be closer to that meaning than our “genre” fiction today.
The gist I took away from the commercial fiction description–and why it’s so broad–is that commercial fiction centers on events that force choices from characters, and those choices lead them to changes within themselves and of their situation. In some genre stories, where characterization is less important (or maybe where the character doesn’t change much throughout a series), we’re likely to see more change in their external situation (the mystery is solved, the bad guy is stopped, etc.) as a result of those choices.
The point is that the reader would see a definitive, tangible change over the course of the story. However, you’re absolutely right that each genre has its own expectations for the balance of character, plot, setting, action, romance, etc., so we should be careful about carrying this “lumping together” attitude too far. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Wow….yeah I will have to disagree on this one. I’ve read plenty of literary classics where character’s choices DO change their fate, lol, whether for good or for worse. I think this might have arisen from the stereotype that ALL literary novels are depressing and have tragic endings and are just fatalistic, haha. Here are examples of literary works where character’s decisions DID completely change their “fate”. (The below examples are all SPOILERS, so be careful if you want to read on!) –For Little Women: If Jo accepted Laurie’s marriage proposal, then she wouldn’t be able to marry Prof Bhaer, who is not as good-looking, yet has more similar interests with Jo, so she and Bhaer can nerd and geek about literature and writing together. 😀 Whereas with Laurie, Laurie’s not really into literature or writing at all, so that would be an unfortunate disconnect between Jo and her husband, and might even lead to marital boredom. =( –David Copperfield: If David didn’t decide to run away from the poorhouse (child labor) factory, then he would have just…rotted there quite tragically. -_- Instead, he runs away to his aunt, who sends him to a great school where he makes friends and even meets his future wife, who is a wonderful girl! –Les Miserables: If Jean Valjean didn’t choose to adopt Cosette, then he wouldn’t be able to enjoy the happiness of paternal and filial love. Silas Marner (by George Eliot) also decided to adopt an abandoned baby girl. This changed… — Read More »
Interestingly, many–if not all–of the stories you listed were considered genre fiction in their day, and only the fact that they’ve stood the test of time has moved them into “venerable classics respected enough to ‘earn’ the label ‘literary fiction'” territory. 😉
So…yeah, I’m not convinced. Sorry! :-/
Rather than looking at the classics (which tend to have the writing style of literary fiction just because of the time frame they were written, but often have the story structure of genre fiction), look at recent literary fiction releases and see if you still disagree.
In other words, when/if those classic stories are modernized for their writing style (or made into a movie), they’re usually closer to genre stories than modern literary fiction. So we’re not talking about classics vs. genre fiction here. This is a comparison of modern genre fiction vs modern literary fiction. Think of Oprah’s book picks.
Does that help give context for the definitions? 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
All right. Well, to be honest, I barely read ANY modern literary fiction at all, haha, unless you count Margaret Atwood’s (which are admittedly depressing, though also fascinating), so I wouldn’t be able to say anything on this topic, lol. But I still find it hard to believe that NONE of the modern literary fiction celebrates free will, lol. Surely not ALL literary authors are determinists, right?
Also, sorry, I made a mistake: it was Raskolnikov’s pawnbroker that he killed, not his landlady. His landlady was actually the nice lady, haha.
And btw this is irrelevant, but next time my dad teases me that romance and romantic comedy are only written by girls / girly-girls, I’ll tell him that Shakespeare, a MAN, wrote romantic comedies too, lol. Just why on earth is there this social pressure for men to not like romance (or to feign disinterest if they do like it)?
I wouldn’t say that literary fiction is against free will. It’s more that the stories don’t focus on change–one way or another. The characters often learn more about themselves, but that knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate into deciding to change their behavior or their situation.
LOL! about your dad. I will admit that the covers of most romances probably don’t help with that acceptance. 😉 Thanks for the comment!
Or perhaps a better definition is that they aren’t forced to change by external force?
In “genre fiction” we’ll see a man being forced to change his smoking habits because he gets cancer.
In “literary fiction” we might meet a man obsessed with smoking and who’ll go about pondering dependency through minor plots and discussions with other characters until he realizes how addicted HE is to smoking and then he’ll make the decision whether or not to continue smoking.
But it has no real influence on the world and isn’t really influenced BY the world.
Interesting! That’s certainly a valid take on the question, and that also reinforces the comment string about literary focusing on motivations/introspection more than genre. 🙂 Thanks for the insight!
I suppose Sylvia Plath is literary.
Jami Gold, I do read a lot of contemporary lit fiction – plus SF and mystery. And choices do chamge people’s lives. And while often bleak, many are quite life affirming. Examples…. “Ulysses” – The main theme is love, which takes work. Mother love. Loving your spouse. Being a goood cpmpanion and friend. Choosing to help Stephen makes the flawed but likeable Bloom come to terms with middle age, and how our lives shrink to commercial concerns as we age. His wife, the audultrous Molly, ends the novel. Still a cheat, but affirming her love for Bloom with her “Yes.” Very hard to read at first. But once you ctack the code, a riot. Warm Human and … true. “Infinite Jest” – A bleak look at addiction. From drugs to entertainment. The focus is on characters and how society ignores its reality hiding. The style is difficult, but the character pop off the page. They seem real people facing real challenges. The setup is basic SF. The execution worthy of Shakespeare. “JR” by William Gavels – The funniest book I have ever read, and among the most difficult stylistically. But, again, the story changes and reveals the characters. This is, in many ways, a mock Financial/ Horatio Alger story. But the treatment, a barrage of unattributed dialog, is the centerpiece here. The author forces you to work it out…. That said, the big diff to me between lit and genre seems to be intellect. Literary writers use it more, and… — Read More »
That’s a common perception about the difference between literary and genre. However, I’ve found many genre stories that make me think, and as a genre writer, I’ve found new things in my stories (that even I didn’t know were there) every time I read my own work. LOL!
So, while I might agree that on the surface that differentiation makes sense, by no means is that a given. Some literary simply tries too hard to be intellectual as to lose all sense of story, characterization, or a point at all. And as many other commenters here have pointed out, many of our literary classics started with a genre label. Is it possible that literary is more frequently intellectual and genre less so? Yes–but the labels shouldn’t come with the assumption that intellect definitely is or is not included. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
I have to agree with Jami. I see your examples, and my first thought is “Those aren’t literary fiction. They’re classics.”
Literary fiction and classics are two quite different things. 🙂 A classic can be literary fiction, but it isn’t necessarily so.
For instance, Jane Austen wrote romance. Sherlock Holmes is mystery (though that author also wrote sci-fi). HG Wells is sci-fi, but some of it could be argued to be literary sci-fi.
RE: Jane Austen and Sherlock Holmes – Good point! 🙂
Just to continue this topic, just because it’s very interesting: Wow, even Middlemarch and Les Miserables are NOT literary fiction? O: Just curious, Jami and Carradee, how do you define literary fiction? Looking up the term in Wikipedia, I gather that wiki defines it as a work that: —-has an intense, introspective focus on complex, interesting, and developed characters —-is about the inner emotional journey of a character and the character’s detailed motivations, rather than about external events —–has a style that is ” “elegantly written, lyrical, and … layered” ——usually has a serious and thus often darker tone —–has a slower pacing With this list, I can see why it can be hard to distinguish between genre fiction and literary fiction. For instance, a lot of genre fiction are very into character development and motives too, and many having very lyrical writing styles, as well as a darker tone. Yet, couldn’t a story have ALL of the above elements, yet STILL celebrate the power of choices to change fate? I think of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss right now that is one of my favorite novels ever (alongside Crime and Punishment). The Mill on the Floss DEFINITELY fulfills all of Wikipedia’s criteria for literary fiction: intense and complex characterization, very introspective, extremely about the inner emotional journey of the heroine, is most definitely elegantly written and layered, is very serious in tone, and has quite a slow pacing. Yet the heroine DOES make a choice—she resists the… — Read More »
As I mentioned above, it’s not necessarily about fate, but about whether or not the focus of the story is on change.
That “intense, introspective focus” and “inner emotional journey” is why people often call modern literary fiction “navel gazing.” 😉 (Notice they don’t say a journey TO anything, like a better life or happiness, etc. It’s often just an emotional journey of understanding themselves better–why they do what they do or what makes people tick, etc.)
In contrast, women’s fiction–often a very literary genre (think Eat, Pray, Love for one on the border)–still focuses on change. The protagonist goes on that inner emotional journey and comes out the other side with determination to “fix” their life in some way: new relationship, new job, new divorce, etc.
That last step isn’t the point of literary fiction. Some on the borderline between literary and genre will include that step, but pure literary fiction doesn’t build to that step as the “climax” of the story.
Does that make sense? And no worries! Thanks for continuing the conversation! 🙂
Interesting…. So–characters in literary fiction are like psychologists! 😀 They want to understand themselves just for the sake of understanding themselves! XD Just like me…lol. By the way, I finally finished my last take-home final exam, so I have unofficially graduated, yay! At last…*exhausted* lol. And also, literary fiction sounds like self-discovery, hmm. Literary fiction sounds like what I do as a person too, haha. I get really thrilled when I learn something new about myself, even if that new knowledge won’t be useful to me at all, or will not change my behavior, lol. So–focusing on (behavioral) change versus focusing on self-understanding? (From a psych nerd’s perspective, these focuses sound like the behaviorist/ Skinnerian approach versus the psychodynamic/ Freudian approach, LOL!) And would Robin Hood and King Arthur Tales count as genre fiction? There is almost NO introspection, not even character change (or not much). They’re all about action and defeating bad guys, haha. After reading the below comments: Ooh! Interesting, using episodic scenes to find out WHY they do certain things. Again, that sounds like me myself and what I do in my life, haha. As a psych student, I find this “why” and “motivations” super interesting—my research supervisor for my thesis also happens to be a motivation researcher, lol. And I think we talked A TON about character motivation in many of your posts, so that might have made me “shine with fondness” even more when I hear the word “motivation”, lol! Anyway, that was random, haha.… — Read More »
Ooo, I love your psychological delineation of the differences, and I understand what you mean. And yes, many have described literary fiction as feeling like “nothing happens.” But on the other side, you’re also right that it usually includes far more introspection than genre fiction.
To be fair to Mary’s original definitions, she labeled them as literary and commercial. Usually commercial fiction encompasses all “popular fiction” like genre fiction, but perhaps some genres fit less well than others under this “commercial fiction” definition.
As for your question, I’d go back to what the focus of that story was. Was it on the motivations–the why? Or was it on the choices she made–the how? Depending on the focus, a plot like that could go either way. A women’s fiction version of it would include a focus on her choices and internal change, like deciding to accept her life with grace and finding new peace because of her new attitude. A literary fiction version of it might leave off that “new attitude/new peace” aspect and instead focus on her struggle.
And congratulations on unofficially graduating!!! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Good summation. 😀
It’s been a while since I’ve read those, but Robin Hood’s probably adventure. King Arthur Tales…adventure or fable; if I recall correctly, it depends on the tale.
That book you describe does sound like literary fiction, of the “women’s lit” variety. “Women’s lit” as a genre is often quite literary.
Literary and genre fiction can have quite a bit of crossover, but when that happens, the genre label usually trumps. (I suspect it’s for marketing reasons.) Does that make sense?
I agree about women’s fiction often being close to literary. I think I mentioned something similar in one of these comments. 🙂
That’s a good point about borderline books using the genre label for marketing reasons too. Thanks for the comment!
That could be both commercial and literary depending on whether these feelings are connected to actions and whether those actions LEAD somewhere.
if the actions just seem random in themself and only bring something to the story through the emotions then that sounds very literary.
But if each scene that she tries to help him she does something (like burning his eggs to make him frustrated so that he’ll “wake up”) that moves him towards the edge of adultery, then you have more of a tragedy on hand and thus commercial fiction.
Haha, Lord of the Rings is genre fiction at its best and look at THAT lyrical language 😀
Catcher in the Rye is DEFINITELY literary fiction.
Basically about a guy who wanders about and at the end sees his sister go on a carousel and realizing that it isn’t so bad to grow up.
Nothing HAPPENS, though.
I’ve not read all of these, but Macbeth and Little Women most definitely fullfill the “external plot” requirements of commercial fiction.
Which is why I’ll argue that the problem here is that we all disagree what works belong under the “literary” title.
When people say “literary” what they’re really thinking is “classics”. And classics can be either or both.
This is the first time I’ve been given an answer to the question, “What is the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction?” I’ve been exploring the world of writing for about a year now and recently have started doing some writing of my own, but I’ve been an avid reader since I picked up Matilda and Her Kittens in the first grade. As a reader, I never knew to even ask the question. Now that I’m starting to write, I’m reading differently.
So, using the anecdotal evidence of one book I just finished, In the Kingdom of Men by Kim Barnes, I will test this definition. Amazon has the book listed as literary fiction. The protagonist does not change, she does not learn, and she does not grow. Events just happen around her. So, the definition seems to hold true, here.
Now, as for liking books that reflect my world view. I did not enthusiastically like this book. I found the history and cultural aspects of it to be interesting. But I don’t like books in which women consistently make bad decisions. One bad decision, okay, especially when she’s young. But over and over, again? No.
This was a helpful post, Jami. I will continue to test the thesis.
Thanks for contributing to our “knowledge base” of whether these definitions hold true for modern literary fiction. 🙂
Again, while my obvious preference is for genre fiction, people can have valid reasons for preferring literary fiction (beyond the typical insults of wanting to seem more intelligent, etc.). Literary fiction, with its emphasis on why people do what they do, can improve readers’ understanding of themselves and others–sometimes called “emotional intelligence” or empathy.
Genre fiction can do the same, but since that’s not its focus, it won’t necessarily lead to that outcome. Instead, with its focus on how people change, genre fiction can improve readers’ understanding of how to make choices or act as a pep talk for changing their lives.
Neither is wrong and neither is better. They’re just different, and we might choose different books depending on our mood or what we want to get out of reading–in addition to the influence of our worldview. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Did you hold back the how/why dichotomy between genre and literary fiction so you would have something in your pocket for comments? Brilliant!
I read books so fast for pleasure I forget (or never learned) to think about these things.
LOL! Nope, but I love when my commenters make me think deeper about things. Then I might use different words/phrases to describe the situation/issue, and those often resonate a different way with readers. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Hi Jami – Just want to say thank you. I now realize that though I think of my work in progress as historical fiction, it fits the definition of literary fiction. That’s taken a huge weight off my mind as I complete revisions – I’ve been trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. lol
Oh, I bet! All the posts about arcs, beats, building to a climax, etc. might seem like a foreign language. 🙂
You do still want to build a story, but take only the advice that you think works to make that story stronger and/or better. There aren’t many blogs that focus on literary fiction, but you might want to check out posts about memoir writing. Memoir authors face similar issues in trying to take their episodic life and creating a coherent story with meaning out of those events. 🙂 I hope that helps! Thanks for the comment!
This post depressed me! I loved Serena’s comment about the older classics. So much modern “literary” fiction is crap. I just like to read good fiction, whether it’s genre or classic or whatever. Dickens is good fiction. So are Austen, Tolstoy, and many other “classic” writers. I am a Shakespeare freak, even though his stuff falls under the “drama and poetry” headings (rather than fiction). All of these writers at the time were considered “popular.” I honestly doubt that the modern “literary” writers will be considered classics 150 years from now. J.K. Rowling, on the other hand, will be right up there with Dickens, Austen, etc. 🙂
Totally with you on Rowling becoming a classic! 😀
Glad you liked that comment, and I would totally see why Dostoyevsky (one of my favorite authors) would be considered popular too. His books are so full of tension and psychological drama that they compel you to read on! And I mean psychological drama! 😀
Yes, I want good stories–whatever the marketing angle is. And I’m right there with you on JKR. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
of course much modern fiction is crap.
It’s not that older works are better per se.
It’s that they’ve stood the test of time.
In 200 years only the best of the works from our time will be remembered as well and readers will think of our time as one filled with awesome fiction.
Because the CRAP won’t be passed on.
I agree about the best commercial fiction being the stuff we remember.
But I doubt Twilight will be remembered.
Equal for all the classics, from Homer to Hemmingway, is the depth of character.
I am going to disagree with this definition. I love modern literary fiction, and I find that the characters often not only change internally, but also externally. In Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, for example, the main character discovers biology and ends up leaving her boring husband to go to college. In Maya’s Notebook, by Isabel Allende, the protagonist goes from being a selfish young girl who gets herself into terrible trouble to a grown up. It’s true that this growth and change doesn’t have to happen, and some literary fiction is depressing, but literary fiction is a rich and varied world. To consider any fiction commercial and genre just because characters change themselves or their circumstances seems a very odd distinction. Consider mystery series, where the detective is always the same. Yes, they solve their cases, but their lives are unaffected by their success.
I agree with you in some respects, and I pointed out in one of the comments that same issue of series characters often not changing much internally. The change in those books is often tangible only in the external situation (the mystery being solved, the bad guy stopped, etc.).
However, for the two examples you posted, Amazon lists both of those as genre fiction (Kingsolver’s as political and Allende’s as suspense). I think a case could certainly be made that they’re on the border between literary and genre, so it’s not surprising that they’d look like “exceptions” to the definition. As you said, literary fiction is a rich and varied world, and I’d add that the same should be said about genre fiction. 🙂
Just because some literary fiction or some genre fiction fits the “worst of” stereotypes (like navel-gazing or shallow) doesn’t mean that’s an actual limitation of the category. We should always strive to write better than that, no matter what we write. 😉 Thanks for the comment!
I think the Notebook most definitely is commercial fiction.
I don’t agree at all with that conference speaker’s distinction between literary and commercial fiction. Many reasons why I disagree have already been mentioned in your comments. But here’s another: A quotation explaining the difference between entertainment and art. Art evokes thought, entertainment distracts thought. -Steve Levie Commercial fiction’s main goal is to entertain. It’s escapist, meant to distract thought. That doesn’t mean it’s “thoughtless” or that you can’t learn about life or people or the human condition, but it’s main purpose is to entertain, not to make you think more deeply about things. Commercial fiction moves fast and takes you on a thrilling, sexy, ride. Or it distracts you with a mystery, or gets you caught up in a magical world with far-out things going on. We need that. I love a hot romance or good thriller or wild fantasy once in a while. But what I really love to read is literary fiction, which aspires to art, to move us in the same way that a Rembrandt painting, or Michelangelo’s Pieta, or Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or Kandinsky’s mobiles. Only it does so through words, through story-telling, and if its really good, it pulls you in and you recognize yourself and people you know, and you gain insights into the human condition, in what makes us tick, in what makes life meaningful. It evokes thought. It deepens and broadens our experience of the world. That’s what it’s created to do. What it aspire to. Some of it fails.… — Read More »
Hi Deborah, I appreciate your perspective, and I’ve tried to keep the “war” aspect down to a dull roar. What some find navel-gazing, others find enlightening. As I’ve said in this post, there’s no better or worse–just different. All that said, I don’t like the “art vs. entertainment” distinction you’re trying to make because there is a value judgment on those labels in our society. Art is seen as high brow and cultured–and most divisively, important–and entertainment is seen as…less so. Those labels don’t help quell the “war.” In addition, what “moves” us is very personal–and goes back to that worldview point I made in the post. Literary fiction moves you through storytelling, words, characters you recognize, insights into the human condition, understanding what makes us tick and what makes life meaningful. And that’s great. It’s fantastic that literary fiction has that affect on you. (And no, I’m not being sarcastic. 🙂 ) However, what moves someone else can be very different. If the storytelling of literary fiction doesn’t pull someone in, they won’t have that experience. Reading is subjective and what we each get out of a story is even more subjective. Personally, literary fiction does not suck me in, so I get no moving experience from it. However, genre fiction does suck me in. In good genre fiction, I am moved by the “storytelling, words, characters I recognize, insights into the human condition, understanding what makes us tick and what makes life meaningful.” Yes, genre fiction does all… — Read More »
My mother reads almost purely for entertainment. She devours perhaps ten romance novels per week.
Exactly! We’re all different, but that doesn’t mean better or worse. 🙂
I agree with Jami, just because something entertains doesn’t mean it has deep thoughts.
Battlestar Galactica sets a lot of thoughts in motion within me and is definitely one of the most thrilling stories I’ve met for a long time.
It comes down to how people receive a story.
An author is always a conveyer of a message and must choose which sort of form will relay that message the best.
To tell people to never lie it might be better to take them along for an emotional ride with a character who wants to lie so badly and you totally get why and they do it and you’re like “yeaaah!” but then things end badly and you not only think “WHY did that character do it?” but “WHY did I support it?”
By investing people emotionally you engage other thoughts.
HOWEVER, literary stories, the more “thoughtful” stories as you put it, engages the mind in other, less thrilling, ways, but ways that can be just as effective.
When I read The Picture of Dorian Grey I almost couldn’t put the book down. Not because I was dying to know what would happen – I figured that out pretty quickly.
No, because I felt like I was having a discussion with the book, and being an avid debater I couldn’t resist that.
But not every book works that way.
Great point! It often does come down to how we engage with stories, and I think that can be related to our worldview as well. I’m definitely going to have to do a follow-up to this post. 🙂 Great discussion–thanks for participating!
My thoughts on this could fill up two separate blog posts, and I think I might elaborate on it, but for now, here goes: First: The titles/definitions you’re working with don’t work for me. When I think literary I think “stuff that’s recognized as good” and commercial fiction is rather “pop fiction” or “light reading”. I consider Pride and Prejudice a Literary work, but by your definitions it goes under commercial fiction. (Arguably it is – at its time it was definitely viewed as entertainment and not enlightenment.) “Commercial fiction” has such a bad rap that I just can’t bring myself to consider Jane Austen “that low”. To me, commercial fiction is the TV equivalent of sitcoms. Equally I consider Lovecraft commercial on many points but since Lovecraft worked with the very theme that “people have no choice in what happens” he would – by your definition – belong to genre fiction. I also read a book named “Dying Inside” which OBVIOUSLY fit your description of literary literature – nothing outwardly changed, no plot per se, but he changed and his perception of himself and the world changed. That book, however, was classified as science fiction. I think we need new definitions x) Or the waters become murky. Second: Let’s just go with literary fiction as a term for internally driven stories about change or lack thereof and commercial fiction as stories about change showed through actions and external conflict. I think you’re spot on about the fact that our… — Read More »
I don’t disagree with that being society’s impression, and that’s exactly why I have a problem with it. Entire genres are assumed to have little value simply because of these labels. Authors who write in those genres are then judged “guilty” of being inferior “until proven innocent” by the test of time about their quality.
Any time genre stories are good–like the 1984, Animal Farm, or Fahrenheit 451 you mentioned last time, or Jane Austen’s books–they’re “elevated” to literary, because heaven forbid anyone think genre can be great too. The word “genre” was never meant to convey quality, and yet we see that value judgment time and again.
In other words, much of the disagreement here (among all the comments, not just yours) centers on wanting to change how we label books we feel are “important” to match society’s value judgments. Whereas, I’m trying to point out the opposite point. Maybe it’s the value judgments that are incorrect, and we should see that both literary and genre can produce good and bad quality stories. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
FYI many studies show a correlation between reading fiction and having a better understanding of social relations and language.
Studies showed, however, that “pop fiction” did not have this effect.
In order for the book to have this effect the characters in the story would have to be so REAL that they imitated what we meet IRL.
This finally gives us a way to define “good” stories from “bad” on a more objective note. How DEEP are the characters, their problems and their reactions?
I think that’s my problem with many romance stories and mysteries.
However, I also think there’s a lot of “literary” stuff that just doesn’t touch that level of deepness.
I roll my eyes at the character in the three musketeers.
Moby Dick has nothing to do with real characters.
1984 (which obviously would have worked better as an essay than fiction) also had cardboard characters.
Anyway, just food for thought. I couldn’t find a reference for you >(
Yes, I’ve seen that study too (so don’t worry about the reference 🙂 ).
But as you said, it has more to do with the quality of the characters than anything else. So I agree that’s certainly a yardstick we can use to judge stories. If we did, I think we’d find “good” stories under that definition under both the literary and the genre umbrella. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Wow, you really incited a firestorm on this one. I tend to agree with the definitions you share and even more so agree with your attitude towards fate in worldview.
If you want to call fate someone’s proper path, then fine, but otherwise I have no use for it. In fact, it irritates me. I’ve survived too much and overcome far too many odds to accept fate. If I’d believed the advice of professionals four years ago that my fate was 24-hour oxygen and prescription medications by the handful I’d have faded from this world by now. Yes, the “life sucks and then you die” outlook.
Too many people play the “fate card” to cover their lack of desire to live a full life. Fate, it would seem, is too often found in a widescreen television. Not looking there, but instead looking within, is a choice and that’s free will. My stories are rich with the battle between bogus fates and free will.
Eh, I knew I could be controversial, and everyone’s been great about keeping it a discussion. That discussion should occur, so I’m happy to kick that off. 😉
Like you, free will is a big theme for me and my stories, so it’s great that you bring that up. Too often, “accepting our fate” strikes me as “but it’s too hard to fight.” The good things in life are always worth fighting for–and to me, figuring out what is and isn’t worth it is a big part of discovering the “meaning of life.” 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
This topic must be going around! After reading your post I ran into this in the Atlantic about the science fiction genre: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/04/the-underrated-universal-appeal-of-science-fiction/360627/.
I think preference also has to do with one’s perspective on reading and its purpose. I enjoy literary fiction and genre fiction, but in my early adult years I had an unstated belief that reading literary fiction made the reading gods proud of me. To admit that I love genre fiction and that it is of equal importance would have been sacrilege. Now when I meet someone who reads literary fiction in their spare time, I think, “Really? That’s your idea of fun?”
Genre fiction is less afraid to bend the rules. This may seem counter-intuitive, because literary fiction is usually considered more progressive or post-modern, but I’ve sat through classes with literary professors. They are full of rules for how characters should act and how plot should move. In fact, it can be even more predictable than genre fiction! The truth is, you can find good and bad in both, but I love this conversation. We are what we read.
Thanks for sharing that link! The article makes several good points. Of course, in the comments of that post, some of the science fiction fans manage to put down fantasy stories (“Why are we always lumped with them?”) and romance stories (“We’re about serious stuff, not like romance.”) *sigh* Apparently for some, being relegated to the literary gutter doesn’t lead to empathy for others in there with you. It just encourages a pecking order. *double sigh*
Anyway, I did have to laugh at your “that’s your idea of fun?” LOL! Thanks so much for the comment!
I can honestly say I don’t know which I prefer as I tend to read whatever I fancy at the time. I do have a predilection towards classics, I read very little modern fiction. Even though I don’t identify with the characters, the situations or the society in classics, for me they just seem better written. My favourite is Wilkie Collins, I’ll read anything he’s ever written. Although he was a contemporary and friend of Dickens, he never achieved the same recognition which is tragic (incidentally I don’t like Dickens, too wordy and dreary for me). He had compelling stories and wrote them exquisitely which is why adore reading his work. It’s never crossed my mind to categorise his books or anybody else’s really. I’m drawn to ghost stories like a cast iron frying pan to an industrial magnet but the old fashioned type, not all the blood, violence and gore that seems to be prevalent these days. I also like anything weird that’ll blow your brain out in all directions if you think about it for too long! I have no idea what my WIP would be classed as. The main character survived an accident when she was 10 that killed others and she has grown up never understanding why she survived. She stumbles upon an old and intriguing object which to her surprise seems to be meant for her. To her it becomes the reason why she survived, that it was her destiny. Whilst her friends are initially… — Read More »
Thanks for sharing your preferences! I haven’t heard of Wilkie Collins before, but I can easily imagine how worthy authors contemporary to the classics could be overlooked.
Hmm, your WIP could certainly go either way, depending on how it was written. Putting on my “pretending to be an agent” hat, it might depend on what you see as the compelling reason for readers to turn pages. If it’s because of the mystery and needing to learn the answer, it might be genre. If it’s because of needing to see what she goes through as a result of the mystery, it might be literary. That’s at least one way to look at it. 🙂
Oh yes, I agree with many of your perspectives on fate as well. However, many that talk about fate act like no matter what choices we make, we’ll end up at the same place so the choices don’t matter. That’s the viewpoint I don’t agree with. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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I tend to go for more of the “life sucks, then you die. And then things are even worse for your hero in hell” type of stories.
Though I prefer it in the context of Dark Comedy, to keep it from getting to depressing. Otherwise I stop writing or reading it.:/
LOL! at the “and then are even worse.” Yes, Dark Comedy can make that approach very cool. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
An interesting and different take on the term “literary fiction.” This is part of a dichotomy I’ve studied for awhile, and still have no clear answer on just what people mean by it. I suspect that reason is that there is not a clear definition on just what is and what isn’t literary fiction. At my old university, I would often talk with the creative writing students about their work, and they would always say that they were heavily discouraged from writing anything like what you describe as genre fiction. They were also taught to define literary fiction differently, though. To them, literary fiction was anything that took place in a real-life setting. This is the definition that I think more closely matches the view of academia. Very rarely are stories considered worthy of study if they violate the laws of mundane reality. Older works like Shakespeare or Homer are permitted because they match the worldview of the time period they were produced in. I have also frequently seen literary fiction used much more nebulously in debates about “high art” vs. “low art.” I’ve had to conclude that, in most contexts I see it used, the term “literary” is often used as a tool of elitism, as a way to separate writing into something not unlike social classes. As a result, I’ve come to reject the classifications altogether. I have found great meaning in works that no person in academic authority would bother looking at, just as I have found… — Read More »
LOL! Yes, that lack of a clear definition has definitely popped its head into this discussion as well.
Wow, that’s a new one! So would they consider mysteries “literary”? Those take place in a real-life setting. What about political or legal thrillers? Or contemporary romance? There’s nothing in those genres that violate the laws of mundane reality. 🙂
Like you, I’ve too often seen literary used for elitism instead. Some try throwing out objective definitions like above to disprove that attitude, but there’s usually holes in those definitions, as I pointed out. And as you said, we can find meaning in what we relate to, which is unique to us and our experiences.
Great way of putting it! Thanks so much for the fantastic comment! 🙂
[…] doesn’t appeal to us doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist. Like we discussed when comparing literary and genre stories, a preference should not lead to a judgment of value. Yet that’s exactly what banning books […]