On writing

Literary fiction is just another genre

At a function the other night started talking with someone about books and reading.

“I read a lot,” he said.

I am always interested in readers, and what they read. “Oh, what type of books do you read?” I asked.

“I only read literary fiction,” he said. “I don’t read genre at all.”

It was early in the night, so I just smiled and said something polite and we moved on to films. (He watched arthouse films. Are you surprised?)

It depends on my mood as to what I reply when someone tells me they ‘don’t read genre, they only read literary fiction’. That night I wasn’t up for an argument but pick me at a time when I’m in the mood I will say to you, “If you read literary fiction then you do read genre, because literary fiction is just another genre, really.”

Genre, by its definition, is commercial fiction. Many of these people who never deign to read genre fiction are actually saying they don’t read commercial fiction. Yet many of the writers they place on literary pedestals were actually the popular writers of their times. William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens.

Jim McCarthy puts it well over at the Dystel and Goderich’s Literary Agency blog in Jim McCarthy on Literary and Commercial fiction.

Wikipedia describes literary fiction thus:

a term that has come into common usage since around 1970, principally to distinguish ‘serious’ fiction (that is, work with claims to literary merit) from the many types of genre fiction and popular fiction. In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character, whereas mainstream commercial fiction (the ‘pageturner’)
focuses more on narrative and plot.
Wikipedia entry for Literary Fiction.

I didn’t realise that literary fiction was so ‘new’ a genre (or a style of fiction, for those who wish to argue).

Or, as one blog commenter once put it (and sorry, whoever you are, but I didn’t record your name, or where I read it):

In literary fiction the character’s journey is internal. It’s about the way a character grows or changes.

The very fact that it can be described in seven words says to me it is just another type of genre.

  • Literary fiction—focuses on style, psychological depth, and character
  • Fantasy—stories set in fanciful, invented worlds or in a legendary, mythic past
  • Romance—feature the mutual attraction and love of a man and a woman

and so on. All these definitions come from Wikipedia, by the way.

Look at the novels in your nearest large bookstore. You will find a science fiction/fantasy section, you will find a mystery section, you will find a romance section. You will also generally find a literary section.

I rest my case.

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