'Literary Fiction' and 'Genre Fiction'
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 assert, backwards.
Literary is an adjective, originating in the mid-17th century in the sense of ‘relating to the letters of the alphabet’. It comes from the Latin litterarius, from littera, or ‘letter’. It concerns, says the dictionary, the writing, study, or content of literature, especially of the kind valued for quality of form. What ‘quality of form’ is exactly the dictionary doesn’t go on to say, but I would suggest that we flip literary fiction’s relation to genre around and view genres as subsets of the literary.
Real literary fiction doesn’t normally begin within genre and then burst out of its boundaries: literary fiction begins without any boundaries. If it contains tropes or templates, or any of the other trappings of genre fiction, it is because it is using them to create an effect upon the reader not necessarily within the pre-packaged set of effects usually associated with ‘genres’.
Jane Austen, for example, probably didn’t begin Pride and Prejudice by sitting down and collecting tropes for a romantic novel: she wrote a literary novel which was so successful it formed part of the foundation of the entire ‘romantic fiction’ genre. When J. R. R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings there was arguably no such thing as a ‘fantasy genre’, certainly not in its current form. His trilogy set the pattern for ‘fantasy’ for the next few decades - newcomers draw on its templates even when subverting them for their own ends.
In the case of literary works - stories which begin outside a genre template and create effects unlimited by them - I would advise you not to rush the reading of them: you’ll find poetic prose, depth of character, unexpected twists and turns, but you might miss some of the pleasure if you’re in a hurry.