Literary vs. Genre Fiction: The Battle for the Ages

Photo by Ellen Forsyth on Flickr.
Photo by Ellen Forsyth on Flickr.

Today’s readers are apt to dive hungrily into tales of dragons, swords and sorcery. They also take great pleasure in science-fiction stories, particularly of the young-adult variety. Series like A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, which HBO’s Game of Thrones is based on, and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins have dominated the best-selling lists for years. Today, more and more readers are seeking out story-driven works, a category of fiction otherwise known as genre or popular fiction. These are the fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat stories that sell, making publishing houses and the books’ respective authors millions in revenue. Hollywood is eager to turn these stories into films or television series, usually resulting in a quick and easy profit. However, despite the popularity and marketability of genre fiction, the literary merit of genre work is often scrutinized.

Fiction is generally divided into two categories: genre/popular fiction, as mentioned above, and literary fiction. Genre fiction can then be divided further into subcategories, like Romance, Western, Horror and Mystery, to name a few. Typically, the goal of genre writing is to be entertaining, which explains genre fiction’s appeal with the masses. Literary fiction encompasses anything that cannot be packed neatly into one genre. These works are not plot-driven, but instead seem to concern themselves with language, conventional literary devices, and offer commentary on real-world issues. The bulk of what you read in high-school can be classified as literary fiction. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee are just two familiar examples. These are works considered to hold literary merit.

Many writers, readers, critics and literary professors alike scoff at the popularity and occasional notoriety (ie. Twilight) of genre fiction that we see today. Genre fiction is often considered trivial pleasure-reading. You may read a genre novel while lounging on the beach, but rarely will a genre work make its way into a class syllabus. Already, I have found that many writing professors make it clear that submitting genre fiction will not be tolerated in their classes. However, I can understand where these critics of popular fiction are coming from. Many books and series today follow a sort of stock formula for financial success. Often, it seems, creativity has been entirely lost, and books showcase time-tested character archetypes and plot points to guarantee their popularity. However, belonging to a specific “genre” should not automatically discredit a work of fiction.

There is good writing and there is bad writing. Writing realistic fiction does not guarantee your writing is quality. And, when it comes to working with genre, writers are required to hone more than just their literary talents. World building, in particular, is not an easy undertaking for a writer. And when a writer succeeds in creating a believable fantastical or futuristic world, their work is deserving of respect and praise. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, as already mentioned, involved careful and finely detailed planning. While dragons and magic are involved, Martin’s work is no less impressive than something more realistic or rather, something that could be considered literary fiction.

Martin is just one popular example of genre fiction being done right. It is possible for a work of genre fiction to be a good body of writing and hold literary merit. The question should not be which fiction category is better, but rather, how we can judge “good” writing from “bad” writing without disparaging a tremendous amount of the fiction being written and published today. Perhaps comparing literary fiction to genre fiction is like comparing apples to oranges. We cannot judge genre fiction by the same standards that we critique literary fiction. Instead, we must adopt a different set of guidelines, one which examines more closely the originality and strength of the story’s plot, characters and setting.

As genre fiction becomes more and more prevalent today, it is important to at least accept genre as literature, even if you might not embrace it.

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