'Literary Fiction' and 'Genre Fiction'


From the Editor's Foreword of Vortex: The Inner Circle Writers' Group Literary Anthology 2018, available soon here:

I’ve noticed a trend of questions recently in some writers’ groups regarding the definitions of ‘genre’ and ‘literary’ fiction. Quite often, the starting point for such questions has been genre fiction, with science fiction, fantasy or romance writers and the like asking ‘What is literary fiction?’ Sometimes the answers have been misleading or a little shallow, so I wanted to give you a different perspective on this.

The word genre is a noun from the early 19th century, a French word meaning literally ‘a kind’. We are used to seeing genres labelled in bookshops and on websites, ranging from fantasy to Westerns, from science fiction to crime thrillers, from erotica to spy drama, and everything in between. The whole idea of ‘genre’ is that it is of a type, and as such, comes with pre-packaged expectations, tropes, themes, templates and often clichés. Readers tend to like certain ‘bundles’ of these things; giant publishing firms and film studios like them because they tend to guarantee audiences of viable commercial sizes. Blending some bundles in new ways can be exciting and successful (as seen, for example, in the blockbuster movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which combined ‘conspiracy thriller’ with ‘superheroes’) or disappointing (as in the movie Cowboys versus Aliens, where the genre blend is all in the title).

In answer to the question ‘What is literary fiction?’ some have tried to categorise ‘literary’ as just another genre. ‘It’s fiction that is longer, with more focus on the words and deeper themes,’ some have said. ‘The pace tends to be slower; the emphasis is on human nature and character rather than action and plot,’ they say. That might be true, but to try to define ‘literary fiction’ as a subset of ‘genre fiction’ is, I would ass