Looking at bookcountry.com‘s genre map made me mull over that old cookie of how does literary relate to genre, and is Literary Fiction a special kind of elitist genre, or just an excuse for writing intractable prose? Given some authors determination to write genreless Literary Fiction, and others determination to stick closely within a particular genre, there’s obviously something highly personal about having your work categorised in a particular genre, or not, as the case might be.
A book’s perceived genre also has a profound effect on readers, as the many fans of speculative fiction who shun science fiction will attest, as will the legions of P.D. James’ crime fans who won’t let her dystopian masterpiece, the Children of Men, anyway near their bookshelves.
Perhaps the most obvious relationship between genre and literary is how hard it is to define both terms. Genre seems a fairly simple concept on its own, but turns out to be much easier to understand than it is to actually rationalise. Wikipedia has a good go and describes it as categorising by “technique, tone, or content”, before giving up and defining it as some kind of amorphous taxonomy. Electricka.com quickly decides it’s a categorisation of “style and theme”, before running scared and calling genre a fallacy.
Coming up with a plausible definition for literary is a well known black art, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that one of the most pleasing descriptions for both terms, genre and literary, is by Michael Kardos, who describes them as contrasting dimensions of the Literary/Genre Continuum. By placing them along perpendicular indices he ably shows how writing can be defined according to their literary complexity and genre at the same time, without introducing any dubious measures of quality or merit.
However, until publishers, authors, book sellers, and, most of all, readers give up on the one dimensional categorisation of genre, it looks certain the Literary/Genre continuum won’t catch on, leaving Literary Fiction as a reject bin for writing orphaned from the comfy and bygone taxonomy of genre. But of course, given that defying convention is something of a noble art, perhaps there’s something in the snobbery associated with Literary Fiction, after all?