Literary vs. Genre fiction: What’s all the fighting about?

What’s your genre?

Advice that’s commonly given to writers includes “Read outside your genre.” I’ve written a smorgasbord of nonfiction for years. Lately, though, fiction writing has captured my attention, but I don’t know how to categorize my writing.

So I looked up “genre” and found a list on Wikipedia and a longer list on Daily Writing Tips. Yet I couldn’t find a genre that came close to what I write. (Whatever that is.)

Then Google alerted me to an article by Kim Wright at The Millions.com that offers a good look at perceived differences between literary fiction writers and genre fiction writers.

Aha! I write literary fiction, I thought. You know: Literature, that important sounding word, the writings of my favorite authors; high school English classes. That literature.

And genre is all that other stuff: romance, science-fiction, horror, fantasy, mysteries.

Or is it?

Writing wars

Read the Wright article and its comments and you’ll find a good discussion on the literary vs. genre debate. Some writers are adamant about keeping them separate. Others feel insulted by inferences to genre as “slumming it.” Publishers are using genre classes to market literature, and so-called literature authors are writing in popular genres to pay their bills.

It’s all very interesting, but I don’t want to join into the war. Can I call mine, say, “Darla fiction” and you call yours whatever sounds right for you?

Not if we want to have anything published. AgentQuery, voted by Writer’s Digest as one of the best websites for writers, says this on its Genre Descriptions page:

Categorizing your book is easy for some authors, agonizing for others. It’s like asking a person, “Where are you from?” …. What’s important to remember is that you must find a way to classify your book. We didn’t make up these genres; they are staples of the publishing world. And before you query an agent, you must understand how the publishing world will view your product.

What’s my genre?

At this point in my writing life, I will categorize my work as literary fiction. So far, the stories I’ve written seem to fit the definition. My writing “explores inherent conflicts of the human condition,” and I am shooting for “stellar writing” (quotes from the AgentQuery article). I do want people to buy my work, so the “commercial appeal” is important to me. Perhaps my genre is commercial literary fiction?

Which has literary merit?

Here’s a definition for genre fiction, found on Daily Writing Tips: “Stories intended to appeal to readers because of adherence to a specific formula (such as adventure fiction or detective fiction), rather than on their literary merits.

According to that definition, genre fiction has an emphasis on what is written rather than how it’s written. If “literary merit” means the work has value, quality, and appeal, then how can that exclude genre fiction? Millions of people value genre books, but does a work become “literary” only if it’s accepted by the intelligentsia?

Maybe I’m naive, being new to the writing scene, and just need to learn a thing or two about the “great divide,” as one commenter puts it. Yet, another commenter points out that the authors of classics we hold in high esteem wrote to entertain, “not impress MFA professors.”

“Good writing is good writing,” another adds.

I agree.

Question: What’s your take on this division between writers?


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6 thoughts on “Literary vs. Genre fiction: What’s all the fighting about?

  1. I’m with you, Darla. Categorizing my writing feels very strange – especially when I haven’t set out to write a particular kind of fiction but to tell a particular story, whatever way it comes out. And the mere fact that AgentQuery refers to a writer’s work as “your product” demonstrates the significant perspective shift between the way I view my work and the way the publishing world will/does. I don’t write primarily to ‘sell’ but to share ideas and emotions. But in order to be ‘successful’, one has to be able to reconcile oneself to the commercial focus of publishing. It’s a tricky ‘business’!! Really interesting post – I look forward to reading more.

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    1. Welcome, Alison, and thanks for taking the time to stop by. It has been interesting to delve into the business side of writing. I’m okay with the thought of my writing being viewed as a product by those who are in the business. For me, writing is a craft and I would be flattered (as a painter or a sculptor or a songwriter would be) to know that people are willing to lay down a bit of their earnings to buy something I produced. I just checked your site — what a unique idea you have with the audio! I will take time this weekend to visit.

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  2. I’m not really thrilled with Daily Writing Tips’ definition of genre fiction. Yeah, there are formulas but that doesn’t make the writing formulaic. That only happens if the writer isn’t particularly good at bringing the story to life. In fact, all stories have a “formula” in their underlying structure or the story wouldn’t make much sense or have as much emotional impact. Some stories play with these structures but it’s very hard to pull off a successful story that doesn’t obey the “formula.”

    I love books in literary fiction and genre fiction. It all depends on the story.

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    1. Exactly. “Good writing is good writing.” Nathan Bransford (former agent with Curtis Brown LTD) has a good article with his definitions: Genre = out-in-the-world plotting; literary = in-the-mind plotting. I like that, though we know some stories involve both. Appreciate your insight!

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    1. Thanks, Kevin. I like your point. More “literary” authors are writing in genre and actually enjoying it due to the difference in writing style. I’ll keep reading up on this because it is a hot topic.

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