Some time ago, a writing acquaintance of mine told me a little bit about what genre writers (in this case, sci-fi and fantasy) tend to talk about. This confused me a little bit, since a) I wasn’t aware that there was supposed to be a distinction between genre writers and literary writers, and b) I didn’t realize that I was a literary writer.
Let me tackle point b) first, since I enjoy a good navel-gazing.
The term ‘literary fiction’ always troubles me a little bit, since what exactly does it mean to be literary? Fast definition check: literary, adj, concerning writing. Is there some kind of fiction that doesn’t concern writing?
There’s certainly a connotation that literary writing is Art, but then, does that make me an artist? I’m at a point where I can take myself seriously as a writer, but artist still feels like a stretch to me. I write good stories but Literature? Art? Me?Does not compute. In some ways, it’s like painting. I can paint a pretty landscape (I really can!) but no one is going hang it in a gallery. Granted, I am a far better writer than a painter, but so far my brain does not lend itself to writing that changes the shape of Literature For the Ages. This doesn’t bother me. I’m happy to write well and to write work that people read and like.
Coming into point a) here, how exactly is that different from genre fiction? Quick definition check: genre, noun, a category. So then, is genre fiction stuff that fits into a category, but literary fiction is all the stuff you can’t put into a category? Doesn’t that make it the ‘miscellaneous’ category? Is the arty acclaimed stuff all miscellaneous extras?
I’m using facile definitions here, but I think my point is clear–these divisions are silly. Truthfully, they aren’t writing definitions so much as they are publishing definitions–useful to understand when it comes time to sell your work, but otherwise not particularly helpful for writing.
That said, readers of different genres–and I’m including literary fiction as a genre here–have different expectations, and as such, there are things that you can get away with in some genres that don’t quite fly in others. People can sincerely fall in love forever in an instant in a romance novel. You can have scientific exposition in a sci-fi novel. There’s a lot of room for navel-gazing in a literary novel. The thing is, just because you can get away with something, should you?
I read and enjoy both literary fiction and genre fiction. The worst literary fiction, from my point of view, has beautiful, poetic writing, and no story. I can think of many examples of highly acclaimed books that I had to keep forcing myself to read through because as lovely as the writing was, the story was boring. The worst genre fiction has me rolling my eyes at the cliches and repetition, but I more often than not I keep reading it through to the end.
Perhaps what this reveals is that I am not that sophisticated a reader. I am okay with that. I’m not that sophisticated a cook either, but I can put together a good meal. Heck, even sophisticated chefs enjoy a plain old burger and fries at times, so why insist on living within a rarified air of sophisticated, uh, stuff?
I can’t help but think that it would be great to do both–great writing, and a story that moves along and makes you want to keep reading. In that sense, both genre and literary writers can learn a lot from each other.
As such, trying to pit the two categories against each other–or worse, elevate one above the other–is not a useful exercise to me.
Let’s all just be writers and read everything, okay? Glean what you can from all sources. Your work will be better for it.