I am a genre writer by trade, and by preference. I also spent quite a lot of my education career looking at literary fiction.
(Aside here: ‘literary fiction’ is a huge, huge genre, and I’m doing the term a bit of a disservice by using it here. Just to be clear, specifically for this blog post, I’m using “literary fiction” to refer to the books that come to mind when you hear writers and critics talk about “the next Great American novel” – books written primarily to convey a theme or explore an idea. They don’t have to have supernatural events in them, but they often at least have unexplained/unexplainable events or sections.)
You don’t really need to spend long around readers of either one to realise that, even if the rumours of their rivalry are somewhat exaggerated, there is a divide between them.
Don’t get me wrong – I know plenty of people who read both, and enjoy them. I also know a lot of people who absolutely refuse to read one or the other, because of “formulaic/predictable plots and simplistic stories” or “empty pretentiousness”.
It’s worth noting here that I’ve heard both these arguments for both lit and genre fic. Just so people don’t get wrong ideas about which is which.
The divides come both from how people discuss them, and from how people teach them. Or, more accurately, what facets writers and readers focus on. For a moment, I’m going to boil the arguments down to just talking about the most typical examples. Obviously lit fic and genre fic are far more complex than just one type of story, but just bear with me for a moment.
Typically, literary fiction readers want to read a book with attention to wordcraft and character introspection and exploration. The stereotypical lit fic novel is essentially plotless, sort of like an extended vignette. Events happen only to cause characters to think about them, or to serve allegories that expand on the themes of the plot. Suspension of disbelief is often much higher in lit fic than genre theory, since the point is just to draw meaning from the story. At no point is the reader asked to believe that the story is possible, they are only asked to believe that every element is included deliberately.
Genre fiction, on the other hand, is for readers who want an experience. Suspension of disbelief is paramount – readers stop reading a genre fiction book when they no longer have the ability to believe that the story is possible, given the rules that the writer sets up for the story. For these stories, theme is an added perk, something that deepens enjoyment, but it’s not necessary for the execution of the story. Character and setting serve plot, which serves reader experience.
As always, I would like to note that creative pursuits like writing are sort of designed to be ‘different strokes for different folks’ – it’s not right or wrong to enjoy one type of story over another, and no matter which you prefer, you’ll find plenty of skilled and inventive writers writing stories you’ll enjoy.
My problem is with the “never the twain shall meet” divide, which I find particularly unhelpful.
People often talk about how science fiction and sci-fi are on a sliding scale. We separate them out, but it only really holds for a few representative examples of the genre – many stories use elements of both quite easily, and the divide is very blurry. Personally, I prefer a scatter plot model, because I think it’s very possible to have many elements of fantasy and many elements of sci-fi coexisting as well as just adding more of one as you add less of the other.
I like the scatter plot model for lit fic and genre fic, too. Some stories are absolutely better off being just one or the other. Not every lit fic story would benefit from a traditional genre fic pacing arc, or from treating character development like a genre fic story would. In fact, many of them would be far worse for it.
Likewise, there are many genre fic stories that are pure experience, and wouldn’t be benefited at all from tacking on symbolism or motif, lit fic style – in fact, those extra flourishes would be shallow references at best, and distract from the point of the story.
But as always, I find that it’s best when you have as many tools in your creator’s toolbox as possible. It’s fine to take all your tools from one side of the box if that’s what works, but thinking that you must never mix lit fic and genre fic ideas because you’ll alienate your readers, or even worse, because you’ll make your book too stuffy/people will think you’re a hack/you won’t be treating your story with the Respect It Deserves is just going to end poorly. You’ll end up with a story that feels like it has pieces missing, or just isn’t what it could have been.
Genre readers can and do appreciate wordcraft. They really do like to pick apart stories and find meanings beyond the literal story on the page. I dare say that lit fic readers also like reading stories that take them somewhere and ask them to believe it could be true, and to read stories for the escapism as well as for the meaning. I mean, many lit fic books already tell a story as well as explore a theme, and genre fiction has been recognised for a long time (mostly in the case of hard sci-fi, but then softer sci-fi and other genres, too) as having the ability to explore society and the people in it.
So if you’re the sort of person who tends to only read one or the other, I recommend picking up a book that’s at least somewhere in the middle. If you’ve got a friend who has different reading habits to you, maybe ask them for a recommendation of something that you might like. If not, ask a librarian! Let them know some books you like and what you’re looking to read more of, and they’ll probably be able to point you to something you’ll enjoy. Pick up more tools for your toolbox. Maybe you’ll never use them. Maybe you’ll keep writing entirely within your preferred wheelhouse. But you’ll have them in case you need them and that’s never a bad thing.