Lit fic versus genre

Inspired by an article pointed out to me by Mary Meddlemore, I thought I’d resurrect the debate about genre versus literary fiction, and whether there is a difference at all. One of the suggestions made in Friedman’s article was that literary fiction is more difficult to write because all of the situations have to be invented by the author; she can’t rely on tropes because for literary fiction there aren’t any.

There are several things here that needle me. Leaving aside the rather arrogant assumptions behind it, who says that tropes only apply to ‘genre’ fiction? And how is it easier to write a good story that falls into a ‘genre’ category? The last point is slightly more metaphysical, but isn’t there a case for arguing that all fiction falls into one genre or another?

No tropes in lit fic? How about the battered wife, the abused child, the quest for self/fulfilment/the meaning of life/paradise/some other navel-gazing quest? How about the family saga? The marriage breakdown? Unhappiness in all its forms? Once you get your head round the notion that it has all been said before, usually by Homer, it’s easy to accept that if you scratch deep enough you find that one writer’s original subject is another’s trope. A trope is after all just the use of figurative language. Irony, allegory, metaphors, literary devices, all clichés fit into the definition.

Easier to write ‘genre’ because it’s full of ready-made tropes? LotR then was pretty easy-peasy as a writing effort compared with some of the more mind-numbingly boring productions of the nouveau roman, where the aim is to have nothing whatsoever happen at all. The point is surely that it is hard to write a GOOD novel, whatever category it falls into.

Everything but lit fic is ‘genre’? I’m not a philosopher, but from the outside, that looks like nonsense. Looks very much like another way of saying lit fic is a genre, but the only worthwhile genre. So, since most writers write about the epoch they grew up in, by the end of a writing career, they are often writing twenty or thirty years out of date. Does that make them historical novels? Is a fantasy written by an Oxford don somehow not a fantasy because he is a member of the intellectual establishment? Is Jane Austen really chic lit? She must at least fit into Regency Romance. Where do you put Shakespeare? The plays are all historical, alternate history, historical fantasy, paranormal fantasy, romance, comedy or horror. Yet they strike me a being pretty literary.

Much of this debate seems like a game of moving goal posts, depending on who wrote the story. Is C.S. Lewis a fantasy writer? Is García Márques? Lit fic people like to remind us that all books have to be pigeon-holed in a genre box for the sake of marketing, the sous entendu being that all boxes are inferior to the lit fic box. All of these genres (except lit fic) are broken into a plethora of sub genres, so within fantasy you can have a YA paranormal fairytale with vampires and zombie werewolf fantasy genre. Marketing on Amazon can get pretty specific, but the lit fic section remains vast, rambling, and inviolable.

Perhaps it would be more useful and logical to do away with literary fiction altogether. The argument then wouldn’t be about what books are allowed into the Holy of Holies, the literary fiction category, but which genre each aspiring lit fic book really falls into. If you look hard enough you’ll find that each and every one of them fits into a ‘genre’, and the names of some of those genres will not be very flattering.


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Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

6 thoughts on “Lit fic versus genre”

  1. I know I’ve gone on about this before, but the notion of ‘worthy literature’ is a fairly modern invention anyway. Up until the birth of the railways every novel on the planet was looked down on as being trivial nonsense for young women. Men read non-fiction, if they read at all. As soon as long railway journeys started even men had to have something to alleviate the boredom of a 4 hour trip from Leeds to Manchester so reading novels was no longer stigmatised, but it still was a bit of a guilty pleasure. The idea of literature with a capital L came out of World War I and the invention of the subject as a university course. As everything else had clearly failed to make us more civilised (including religion) academics and critics turned to literature as a last resort and the idea of Worthy Books On Human Truth For Noble Minds to Ponder emerged (with lurid crap left over for the rest of us). Writers we think of as Great (Dickens, Richardson, Defoe, even Homer) were just scribblers in their day and proud of it.

    1. I must say that listening to esteemed writers being interviewed is on a par with listening to opera singers or sportpeople. We are supposed to drink in their words as if their success automatically gives them something to say. It rarely does, but every activity has a hierarchy, and we are supposed to ooh and aaah at the success stories at the pinnacle of each hierarchy. The one who can ride a bike faster than anybody else, who has a purer voice, or plays a deadly violin has an intrinsic ‘worth’.
      Writing is not considered ‘worthy’ if it’s accessible, so the more pretentious and self-satisfied a writer is, the better the book is supposed to be. Scribblers, as you say, used to write stories for people to read. Seems as though the base of the pyramid is reserved for the good story writers: the pinnacle is for literary masterpieces, literary prize winners.

      1. It’s very rare to find an artist who can talk coherently about their work, I think Paul Klee was the exception. Everyone else can sound appallingly pretentious. I remember going to a talk given by William Golding. He blathered on for about an hour about how he was a high priest in touch with the infinite whose job it was to plumb the depths of the eternal soul. I wanted to jab my eyes out with a pencil after fifteen minutes. I think the fact that he looked like Moses had gone to his head. He said nothing of any intelligence that couldn’t be found inside the cards covered in dolphins and Native Americans in our local Crystal and Incense shop. A huge disappointment.

      2. It’s part of the cult of the star. We can’t bear to leave well alone. Cyclists cycle, singers sing, writers write. They should do what they’re good at and not be expected to TALK about it, because they generally come over as self absorbed eejits. The number of times I’ve switched off interviews with Malien or Tunisian pop singers or footballers about the political situation in their country. As if anybody who blows in off the street with the right passport is automatically entitled to clog up the airwaves with their uniformed chatter.

  2. Each genre has it’s own challenges. I don’t believe literary fiction is any more difficult to write than fantasy or even erotica. Any genre you write requires a unique skill-set. My advice to authors is this–write your story and worry about what category it falls into later. Any writer of lit-fic who looks down writers of genre-fiction is a pretentious snob. A good story is a good story, no matter how you label it.

    1. With the emphasis on good. To say that lit fic has more merit because it’s harder to write, or simply because of what it isn’t i.e. crime, thriller, erotica or whatever is as silly as saying science fiction is more worthy than fantasy because it has to get the scientific aspects plausible whereas in fantasy anything goes. If the story’s no good, whatever pretentious label you stick on it won’t make it good.

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