Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction

To some, the line between literary fiction and genre fiction is not only distinct, it is a considerable divide.  I work in a bookstore and witness this all too often, where the shelves differentiating genres into respective areas in the store are more than just physical in their separation.  Many people refuse to read a certain genre for any number of reasons, occasionally for no reason other than some kind of snobbery.  Even I'm guilty of this, to a small degree.  Which is to say, there is almost always reasoning behind the distinctions between genres and types of books--whether it's the simple distinction between mystery fiction and science fiction, or broader, such as teen fiction and adult fiction--but there is a strong point to be made, one I agree with, that most of these distinctions shouldn't shape our view of a book, especially not in a broader context.

The literary vs. genre fiction debate goes back a long time, and I am far from the first writer to ever hold a viewpoint against their separation.  I'll start by summarizing what makes them different, and how people view them differently.

Genre fiction is easy to describe.  In a general sense, genre fiction as a label encapsulates any fiction that is set within a specific genre: horror, sci-fi, mystery, romance, western, thriller, etc.  Some examples might be: The Shining, by Stephen King; Dune, by Frank Herbert; Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie.

Literary fiction is harder to describe.  Typically, literary fiction is challenging in some way, deals with difficult themes circling around the human condition and various emotions.  Many classics could be considered literary, of course.  Some potential examples: A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens; To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee; The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  You surely get the point.

Naturally, great fiction often blurs the lines between genres.  Some of my favorite books would be incredibly hard to place into a single genre; some encapsulate a considerable and surprising range.  My own books, too, have always been hard for me to place into any singular genre.  Other Endings is a ghost story, it has elements of horror, of a mystery, of a thriller, but to me it has always been a story of suffering and healing.  Fairlane Road is a contemporary thriller with a backdrop of fantasy, undeniable elements of magic realism and the supernatural, and it is also philosophical and spiritual in the sense that it's really about the light and the darkness that exists inside each of us.  The upcoming sequel to Fairlane Road further blends and challenges genre in ways that surprised me even as I was writing it.

It's a simple point I'm making, but it's one I think is important:  Literary fiction can incorporate any genre, can exist within a single genre, just as genre fiction can be deeply literary and important.

To some people, literary fiction stands for everything they hate about literature (ironically).  This would be the kind of mindset probably resulting from a poor introduction to literature in school, when you're supposed to analyze every scene down to the color of the curtains of a window.  From this mindset, Literary fiction seems to be nothing but a boring and serious slog through a great deal of suffering and death and grief and existential musing.  And sure, there is plenty of "literary fiction" (when seen as a genre of itself) that is pretty much exactly that.

Meanwhile, to some people, genre fiction is the literary equivalent of trashy fast-food: fun, fast, shallow, compulsive, not worth your time.  And yes, there is plenty of "genre fiction" that seems to embody these things (coughJamesPattersoncough).  This would be the "instant gratification" fiction I'm referring to, which gives genre fiction a bad name among the literarily inclined.

But there is also genre fiction that is as deep, as meaningful, as profound, as contemplative, and as important, as any classic literary novel.  Think of The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, a sweeping fantasy epic showcasing the power and beauty of language, of story, and it is deeply literary while being pure fantasy; think of Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, a mind-blowing work of science-fiction on par with some of the greatest of all time in the genre, which explores depths of the human condition, emotion, intellect, philosophy, without losing sight of its genre, resulting in a story that is both epic in scale and intimate in experience; think of The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell; think of 11/22/63, by Stephen King.  These are books that would typically be categorized as genre fiction, at least for the most part, but which are so much more, plumb so much farther beneath the surface, and contain such depths of literary merit that, to me at least, they are classics.

And there is also literary fiction that could technically be seen as genre fiction.  Think The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, a post-apocalyptic novel that is depressing and devastating, and it's more about the love between a father and son, more about the spark that keeps us going through despair and hopelessness, than it is about the end of the world; think Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro; think The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood; Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury.  All of these you could easily call "literary genre fiction," as if those distinctions are even necessary.

So, my point may be an easy, even obvious one: that the distinctions between literary fiction and genre fiction are unnecessary and can be--probably should be--dissolved beneath a much more individual and, you could say, humanist approach to our fiction.  But it is still an important point, I think.  The greatest artists of their mediums almost always have at least one key thing in common: that they are unapologetically, totally themselves.  That they may have had their influences, but went forward with their creations strictly from their own point of view, intent on telling their stories in ways only they could.  In film, think of David Lynch, of Terrence Malick, of Werner Herzog, of Bela Tarr.  Think also of those early trailblazers who dared to break convention, to do things their way: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg.  Think of those kinds of artists in literature, both classic and contemporary: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, Raymond Carver, Michael Ondaatje, Joyce Carol Oates, David Mitchell, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Ali Smith, David Foster Wallace, George Saunders.  The lists go on and on, and the lesson one could take is a simple but profound one for any artist:

Be yourself.  Be totally yourself.  As Neil Gaiman has said before, only you can tell the best story that you can tell.  So tell it.  And tell it your way.  So what if it's weird, if it's bold, if it's wild, if it's something no one's ever done before.  We need more of that, otherwise all we'd ever get is the same.