A Theory on Literary vs Genre


The merits of literary against genre novels is a common discussion among writers, genre writers tend to see ‘literary’ (as a category) a a snobbish, pretentious affair, and visa versa genre novels are touted as low-brow entertainment.

Readers of course scratch their head and say ‘we want to read good books’ which is a fine stance to take of course.

I am however always drawn to try and clarify murky distinctions and the exact differences between literary and genre fictions are not 100% clear. For sure there are many examples of books that firmly fit in either camp, Jack Reacher novels for example are not typically  considered literary and its rare for anything that wins the Booker prize to be considered genre (but not always). However when tries to pin down what exactly makes a book ‘literary’ and why genre fiction isn’t things get a little hazy.

For a long time I’ve subscribed to the view that that a work of fiction has a certain amount of literary quality, and that distinctions are less about categories are more perhaps about how much quality said book has. Literary (OK I am getting sick of that word now) qualities are usually thought to be:

  • Powerful characterization (including that character development is predominant over plotiness)
  • The work presents some insight or revelation about life, the world, or people
  • Emphasis on word quality and poetry of the prose
  • The work is timeless, not relying on faddishness or being too rooted within the entertainment trends of its time

Now I’m sure there’s more and even better developed points than that (let’s be honest I’m a genre fan through and through) but the point of my theory was that the real difference between the two categories was really one of degree rather than hard lines. For example I believe that certain genre works, Lord of the Rings for example, contain many literary qualities, such as strong characters, powerful messages and a sense of timelessness. However my theory still begged the question, why is genre fiction not usually considered literary?

My final point is a realization about literary writing, and that is an ability to nestle the mechanics of the story within some form of facade or none-obvious plot devices. By this I mean all the writing recipe stuff, like characters going from A to B, having fatal flaws, conflict, acts I, II and III are not revealed ostensibly to the reader they are portrayed through a layer of context that doesn’t necessarily reveal the base mechanism. I’m not sure that was particularly clear so let me explain the opposite:

While I find many of the themes in Lord of the Rings very deep and meaningful, the truth is they are essentially applied bluntly through the use of genre elements. The one ring corrupts its bearers, in the case of Gollum turning them into retched beings. Aragon needs to find his inner strength to lead a just cause, this is shown by him inspiring armies to victory, there is nobility in nature this is shown through the physical beauty/serenity of the elves. In short when good guys save the day/killer is caught/relationship saved this serves to deliver the messages and themes of the story. My point is in genre fiction while there can be a tonne of depth, layers and timeless messages the delivery rests on genre conventions and thusly the mechanics of the story are on display. This isn’t exactly a problem, but it contrasts with literary work which purposely avoids genre conventions, not because of its unreality (indeed many literary works use the supernatural or fantastical,) but as conventions.

Super-ironically I’m trying to come up with a good metaphor here, but failing to capture exactly what I mean.

Ok here goes.

Its a bit like watching sports versus something exciting happening in ‘real life’. Sports provide a lot of valid entertainment, but ultimately is based on known rules. The winning score with second to go, might be the most awesome thing in the world, but the framework is right there in front of you, winning is the goal, your favourite team the ones you want to do it their rival team the antagonists to this. You might learn lessons, see deeper themes and everything, but ultimately your life hasn’t been lived (just a caution I’m not saying sports are pointless but the sport itself is self-fulfilling. You want your team to win because the game has been setup to create that excitement, when good guys slay bad-guys we enjoy it but it was setup with that in mind.)  When you live your day to day life things are chaotic, random, the rules aren’t always obvious and most importantly the goals and antagonists enmeshed BUT we tend to place more value on our real lives (also note this is partly why fantasies whether sporting, video games or genre fiction are often more fun than real life).

My own lengthy waffling is starting to confuse me by now, the crux of what I’m saying is genre fiction is trying to write a cool sports match, literary writing is trying to present something more free and closer to the madness of real life.

I suspect this is why some make the mistake of thinking that literary fiction doesn’t contain plot or is about the mundanities of life. It’s not that literary authors have to be like magicians, deceiving their reader’s with slight of hand, but rather their goal is to make work more sublime than what genre offers. From this point of view perhaps literary (or at least GOOD literary) work deserves some snobbish elevation, as the seamless combination of good writing and its chassis is difficult.

Bear in mind when reading this that I LOVE genre fiction, this isn’t a love letter to literary work, but rather the ramblings of someone who likes to try and understand the hard to grasp.

What do you think is the difference between genre and literary fiction?


5 thoughts on “A Theory on Literary vs Genre

  1. I would argue that conventions are what makes a genre; even “literary fiction” (whose conventions you listed earlier). The big one being the internal-character-development-over-external-plot distinction.

    Sadly, to a degree, “literary” seems to mean stuff that learn-ed critics like and audiences find somewhat torpid. An awful lot of what are considered literary classics seem to be “genre fiction”: Shakespeare wrote tragedies/histories/comedies; Austen wrote romances; the Brontes wrote rather more gothic romances; Dickens wrote adventures (occasionally with supernatural elements).

    I do like (and agree with) your sports/life metaphor. I vaguely recall someone else making the distinction that “literary” fiction required the reader to consider more points of view (rather than “these are the goodies who are always right”).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I believe it only matters…to people it matters to.


    I have family and friends in both camps, and while they can (and have) argue the virtues of both, it makes no difference to me. I simply want to read. Tolkien today…Proust tomorrow. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

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