Thursday, August 16, 2012

Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction: What's the Difference?

Literary types tend to be highly defensive of the differences between literary fiction and genre fiction, despite both being forms of the written word (usually) in prose format*. Last week, Pneumarian asked for my 2¢ on what, exactly, the difference was.

Now, full disclosure: I'm more of a genre reader than a literary reader, though—well, we'll get into that.


What makes literary and genre fiction differ?

Short answer #1: Target audience.

Short answer #2: Story style.

Short answer #3: Story focus.

And you know what? These three short answers are ultimately all the selfsame thing.

Let's first back up and talk about what those labels actually are. For example, if you walk into a bookstore, you might see a label for the "literary fiction"…and then you'll see labels for the histories and the romances and the speculative fiction and the YA…

But wait. "YA" means "Young Adult", so that's the audience those books are (presumably) written for, not a genre. So the labels themselves don't necessarily indicate genres, but you can consider "literary" itself a genre.

Now, to move on: If you eye even the obviously "genre" labels (romance, historicals, fantasy, etc.), what do those labels tell you? The types of stories you'll find in that section.

I dunno how your tastes run, but though I'll read most genres, I'm far more likely to pick up a speculative fiction title than I am a thriller—unless I'm sick, in which case, give me a murder mystery. Regency romances? I might find one enjoyable, but I'm not a hardcore I-know-all-the-fashion-differences-and-will-call-you-out-on-them fan. I'm also far more likely to pick up a book about Christianity and culture or a genetics textbook than I am some fashion magazine.

(Yes, I did just say I'll sooner pick up a genetics textbook than a fashion magazine. You don't read my blog because you expect me to be normal, do you?)

So, technically, I'm a genre reader, primarily speculative fiction, with a leaning towards fantasy and space opera. (Favorite captain: Sisko. And not because he can keep his pants on. *cough*)

I'll read a literary novel…sometimes. I'm more likely to pick up a novel with literary fiction elements (*cough* Robin McKinley *cough*) than outright literary fiction, but that's because I had too many teachers who acted as if I was crazy for preferring different writing styles than they did. So I get wary when somebody starts raving about an author's writing style.

See, what's the one thing a genre novel must have?

Conflict resolution.

Something must be at conflict, with a resolution sought. That plot will be oriented on situation or character, usually both, but the driving force behind the story is the plot, and plot is conflict.

Now, what's the one thing a literary novel must have?

Situation (resolution?).

A situation must exist, but it might not be resolved by the end. That situation requires a person, a person that might just be a nameless face for the situation, but it will focus on a person. So you can also consider "literary fiction" to be character studies.

Will literary fiction have a plot? Not necessarily.

That lack of a plot (or lack of a focus on plot) is why literary fiction tends to be slower-paced than genre fiction, though genre fiction is not necessarily faster-paced than literary fiction.

For example, take Robin McKinley's Chalice or Sunshine, or even my own A Fistful of Fire. There's slow pacing in all of them. You could say they have literary elements—much like you could say A Fistful of Fire contains sweet romance—but A Fistful of Fire is no more a literary novel than it is a sweet romance novel. (In case you haven't read it or have tried but it's not to your taste: It's fantasy. The style's different than average, but it's still fantasy.)

"Literary fiction" also tends to be held in high esteem by universities and academia. You'll hear all sorts of ideas for why, but if you go down that road, you turn "literary fiction" into a snobbish label to mark what's chic in literature, and I don't think that's fair. It's like calling "genre fiction" mindless fluff by definition, which is patently untrue. (And any readers who believe it is true, I'm sorry for your ignorance.)

Notice I'm specifically referring to the difference between literary and genre novels, written in English. That's because plots are optional, in some types of writing and in some languages or cultures. Vignettes, for example, are flash fiction or short stories that lack a plot. (I'm honestly not sure how to classify those, since I've mainly seen them in genre magazines and on fan fiction sites.)

So I think that clears up what I meant by the genre/literary distinction being the target audience, story style, and story focus. The labels really refer to a specific story type, and readers generally prefer one or the other.

The "literary fiction" label is just a tool, like the label "urban fantasy", that gives a potential reader an idea of what they'll find in the story. No more, no less.

At least, that's my 2¢ on the issue. ^_^

What are your thoughts on literary and genre fiction? Do you have any more questions to add (on this topic or another)?


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