Category Archives: Genre

What self-respecting genre calls itself Literary Fiction?

What self-respecting genre calls itself Literary Fiction?

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?

Genre-less Genre

Genre-less Genre

As a childhood fan of genre fiction—from Science Fiction and Fantasy, through to spy thrillers, murder mysteries, and a dash of horror for good measure—the discovery of non-genre fiction came late to me as I fell out of my teenage years.

Having spent my youth in the wilderness, I took to reading historical and contemporary classics with a vengeance. With little to guide me apart from the dogged maxim that genre was wrong, I ploughed through endless books, desperate to make up for my wasted youth. I’m not sure where the thought came from, but in the back of my mind I knew there was something wrong with genre fiction. Something debased about it that marked it as a lesser form of writing, to be shunned by civilized folk and, at best, to be read solely for the amusement of minors.

However, as I matured, I slowly rediscovered genre fiction. Like a dirty secret, I kept the rediscovery to myself, but gradually my desire to read magical realism and speculative fiction grew stronger, until I could no longer keep my reading habits to myself, and finally had to come out as a through-and-through fan of genre fiction.

Although I’m now comfortable with my literary inclinations and I’m well-adjusted enough to read whatever I want, I still can’t help but wonder if there’s a fundamental reason why so many dislike genre so much? Is there some intrinsic property that separates genre fiction from real literature, or is the separation nothing more than the bias of cultural elitism? After all, one generation’s genre fiction can become another’s classics, and in practice genre is little more than a categorization of literary style. Indeed where would some of our most compelling authors be without genre? Where would Margret Atwood be without speculative fiction, or Salman Rushdie without magical realism?

For some genre might be the price of making reading accessible to the masses, for others it’s the stench of cultural elitism, but for the rest of us it’s a compass that helps us navigate  through the literary landscape. Just because a book is written according to the informal rules of a particular genre it doesn’t, by any means, stop it  from being an original or significant work, or, indeed, a cultural masterpiece.  While the debate over genre and literature is unlikely to die out soon, given the significant number of books that willingly shun the shackles of genre, who’s to say that Genre-less fiction hasn’t become a genre in it’s very own right?