Genre vs. Literary Fiction
I've been trying to figure out lately whether I write genre or literary fiction. I have been positioning it as literary fiction, due to the nature of the prose and character development, but my novels are plot driven. When I describe it as crossover fiction – fiction that has elements of both genre and literary fiction – I receive a lot of blank looks, even from other writers. A successful genre writer friend of mine recently suggested that maybe my writing is actually genre fiction and that I would have better luck getting published if I identify it as such.
But what are the key elements that distinguish genre from literary fiction, and what is this elusive crossover fiction category that I seem to be striving for, whether intentionally or not? Not surprisingly there are a lot of different perspectives on this topic. Lev Grossman and Arthur Krystal recently wrote excellent essays on the differences between genre and literary fiction in Time Entertainment and The New Yorker, respectively. They disagree on several points, and their articles both directly and indirectly address the question of what constitutes good writing. Krystal argues that literary fiction is better than genre fiction for a number of reasons. Grossman disagrees. The essays are thought-provoking and murky the waters not just a little bit.
Traditional Differences Between Genre and Literary Fiction
The traditional differences between genre and literary fiction are outlined in the table below. Keep in mind these are broad-brush differences that in some cases focus on the extremes of the categories and that disagreements abound. Many genre books have elements of literary fiction and vice versa and there is increasingly a third category of crossover fiction that will be discussed below.
Conventional life/current ideology
Linear narrative that stays in present
Wide range of readers
Easy/fast to write
Characters have quirks/clever dialogue
Focus on exterior life of character
Reader watches plot unfold
Climax often big – shootout, love scene
Character arc/Theme/Language driven
Provides meaning and cultural value
Unique and fresh prose
Darker truths/challenging ideology
Non-linear narrative with flashbacks
Hard/long to write
Characters are fully fleshed out humans
Focus on interior life of character
Reader infers some of plot
Climax can be small – decision, realization
Points of Debate
There are many points of debate on these differences. Many genre fiction novels have good character development and inner character life. Many of the characters in literary fiction novels have an exterior life. Some argue that the plot is incidental in literary fiction but others note that a plot is still necessary. Something still has to happen and indeed, many literary fiction novels do have a plot. The suggestion that genre fiction can be knocked off in six weeks while literary fiction takes years is also often contended.
So what are crossover novels? First of all there is little agreement even on the term to describe novels that successfully incorporate elements of both genre and literary fiction. They are called crossover, mainstream, commercial, commercial literary, between genre, cross-genre, hybrid, up-market and genre buster novels to identify just a few of the terms utilized. But some argue that commercial fiction is just anything that sells whether literary or genre fiction and others argue that mainstream fiction is really genre fiction. Yet others argue that commercial fiction is really genre fiction. Ugh!
Both Krystal and Grossman point out that the distinction between genre and literary fiction is becoming less clear, although Krystal eventually concludes that the distinction still exists and that literary fiction remains superior to genre fiction because it is art rather than escapism. Grossman agrees that there remains a distinction but does not believe that literary fiction is superior.
Grossman points to many of the ways that genre fiction does not fit the narrow confines outlined in the list above. He notes that many genre fiction novels deal with difficult and unhappy subject matter and cannot be considered escapism. Grossman further takes issue with Krystal’s assertion that the prose in genre fiction is uneven and the observations on life predictable and observes that that may be true of bad genre fiction, but points to examples of outstanding writing in genre fiction where the prose is “taut and clean” and carefully crafted. Grossman also notes that Krystal completely ignores bad literary fiction, which offer a different kind of badness “slow, earnest, lugubrious prose, or too-clever and self-conscious prose”. Grossman points out that ease and clarity should not disqualify a book from greatness. He also argues that a plot does not mean a novel cannot have meaning – that a finely nuanced plot can deliver just as much meaning and emotion as a deftly wrought work of literary fiction with more carefully rendered prose.
Overall, Grossman points out that the line between genre and literary fiction is very blurry and that many of the great writers from both sides are borrowing madly from the conventions of the other. Many literary fiction writers are writing science fiction and thrillers, while genre fiction writers are importing literary fiction techniques. He still feels they are distinct, but notes that some critics argue that they are merging.
Others point out that some of the most successful novels in the world are ‘crossover’ novels and that the distinction between literary and genre fiction is a recent and arbitrary one. Kim Wright observes that many literary fiction writers are shifting to genre fiction because it is more lucrative. A quick search of agents reveals that many look for books that combine “genre plotting” with “literary quality writing”.
I am not sure if I am any closer in determining what I write, or even what I want to write. Actually, that is not completely true…. Of course I want to write a highly successful crossover novel, but sometimes it is easier to sell a straight genre or literary novel the first time around. I do know that my novels are more plot driven than not, so maybe I should take that as my starting point.
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