Literary vs. Genre - Nerd Smackdown

I once started a fist fight on a blog because I said that I refused to read Toni Morrison. I was accused of everything from being jealous, to being illiterate, to being an uninformed caveman (oh yeah, I bet my car insurance is cheaper than yours!)

That brouhaha led to this essay. I hope you like it.

Confessions of a Genre Hack

The other night I was reading the "Novel & Short Story Writers Market." If you don't have a copy of this reference guide, you should consider adding it to your library. From now on, it's a staple on my Christmas list.

I noticed a common theme in the publications in the "Literary Magazine" section. Now, the name should have tipped me off. However, I read on, eager to highlight in yellow any magazine that might be a good fit with my writing.

Over and over I saw: "Literary Fiction Only! No Genre!"

This statement, repeated so often, got me thinking (always a dangerous thing).

What is literary fiction? What is genre fiction and why do so many publications treat it with scorn and disdain? I had to confess; I didn't know the answer to this deep and ponderous question. After some diligent research and much deep thought, I came to this conclusion. Genre is everything that isn't literary and no one really knows what is literary. After I removed the cold compress from my forehead, I set out to refine this definition and explore the schism between literary fiction and genre fiction.

After more research and additional deep thought, I concluded the following:

1. Literary fiction means something.

2. Genre fiction does something.

A few definitions of literary fiction (I lost the references, sorry):

1. Literary fiction is “critically acclaimed, often award-winning, fiction. These books and stories are more often character centered rather than plot oriented.”

2. “To some, it's those serious-minded novels of high artistic intent by writers with a passionate commitment to the moral purpose of fiction.”

3. “Just because a story makes no sense and seems to serve no purpose, don't assume it lacks literary merit. That's not your decision to make.”

So . . . we can conclude that a senseless, yet artistic, novel or story that wins awards and critical acclaim must be literary fiction. I add my own twist to that statement.

"Literary fiction is what you tell people you read. Genre fiction is what you actually read."

Oh, sit down and smooth those ruffled feathers. I think you protest just a bit too much.

So what is genre fiction? The best definition I found divides genre into three distinctive types: “Setting,” such as westerns and science fiction; “Mood,” which includes romance, comedy, and horror; and “Format” such as music and sculpture.

As writers we are not as concerned with format as we are mood and setting. I added another classification: action. In genre fiction, something happens. Genre is generally more plot-driven than literary. The essence of the story is action, whether it's falling in love or falling into a bottomless chasm of flesh-eating demons. While character development is important, genre fiction rarely has the convoluted self-tortured analysis of literary fiction. In genre, something has to happen.

Back to my personal conclusions. Genre fiction does something. The conflict and resolution are the crux of the story. A flaw in amateur (and way too much professional) science fiction and fantasy is too much setting development. So much goes into describing the fantastical world of the writer's imagination that the action is lost. In horror, too much can go into descriptions of the supernatural and glorifying the bug-eyed monsters. In genre, resolution is paramount. You have to finish the story.

A special type of weird evolves when a genre writer tries to be literary. A little of that can go a long way. In fact, it can go too far. In movies, I call this an “allegory alarm.” The protagonist gets sucked into another dimension or stuck inside his own head and spends an exorbitant amount of time analyzing the meaning of the surreal situations. When the purple snake tells the hero to “take the road of thy father's demise to find the secret of the lost way . . .,” I reach for the remote. In novels, I close the book.

However, genre has its own pitfalls. A writer that falls in love with the gimmicks and gadgetry of their chosen arena can bore me as quickly as a literary writer. I am a fan of Tom Clancy. Stop moaning. I'm not saying you have to read his books. However, I want you to understand that his characters distinguish him from other techno-thriller authors. They have enough depth to keep them engaging and enough flaws to make them real. The women are not statuesque Amazons with a Ph.D, flowing raven (or titian) locks, and enormous breasts. The men are not tall, handsome, square-jawed super-heroes who also happen to have a Ph.D. Clancy makes his characters heroes by their actions, not their looks or sex appeal.

Also, the dreaded “Mary Sue” character makes her unfortunate appearance most often in genre, rather than in literary fiction. Physically flawless, beautiful, kind, humble, heroic, nimble, skilled in every art, yet utterly self-effacing, Mary Sue has no flaws other than the utterly tragic past she managed to escape. So, please don't believe I love genre just for its own sake. It has to be well-written, engaging, and believable. If you are running a restaurant on Jupiter, you'd better have no smoking signs to avoid igniting the atmosphere.

Enough ranting. I called this piece "Confessions of a Genre Hack." That title comes from a quote by Stephen King where he proudly calls himself a hack. A hack with a gagillion books in print. He has often criticized the literary community at looking down their aristocratic noses at anything that sells.

That's the final definition of literary fiction. It must not sell. It must only be “discovered” by those intelligent enough to understand its deeper meaning. That way they can feel superior to the sheep that buy genre fiction.

However, if, in order to be good, literary fiction must not sell, then why do so many editors want only literary fiction? Pardon me, but I need another cold compress.

The next source of this title is a book I read on plotting mystery and crime fiction. I won't mention the author's name, but she has many mystery novels in print. Mystery and crime are genre. No doubt about it. However, she went to great pains to separate her style of mystery from the “popular hacks.” Her mystery was literary style, in the company of Doyle and Christie.

I've tried to read one or two of this author's books, and I hated them. Now I know why. They were 'literary.' As the country song said, I seek "a little less talk and a lot more action." She made me understand that I am a genre hack. She also made me realize that I am proud of it.

It was this author that inspired my flash story "The Brain Eaters." The wife, a literary snob, is appalled when her husband writes a horror story called "The Brain Eaters." It is an overnight success and becomes a cult phenomenon. She decided to kill him. I picture her in pearls and a fluffy cardigan sweater saying, "I had to do it. He betrayed me. He betrayed literature."

I'll close this with an excerpt of the submission requirements of a famous literary agent. He is obviously trying to cover all his bases. He wants books he can brag about and books he can sell.

"Seeks Fiction: Primarily Literary Fiction, will consider Mystery/Suspense and Legal or Psychological thrillers if beautifully written."

So, send all your badly written fiction someplace else!

PS: "The Brain Eaters" was rejected by a horror zine as not being literary enough. They felt they had “grown beyond” this type of story. It was later published in a respected ezine right above a tale written by the editor of the publication that had rejected it. That one was sweet.


Tina said…
I have just been trying to read a book of short stories written by a Harvard graduate and it must be what you call literary fiction, because I can't get through several pages without falling asleep. I am trying really hard to finish this book as the person who wrote it is supposed to be a fabulous writer. But, I just don't see it.
Terri Coop said…
I'll read Steinbeck and I'll read Larry McMurtry. Otherwise, life is too short to read incomprehensible books, even if they are supposedly good for me.
bettielee said…
May I go to my grave a self-debasing Cthuhlu fearing hack.