The Rift: Literary versus Genre

So as you all know I was at FandomFest this past weekend. While there I attended a great panel on Academic Credibility in Speculative Fiction. This was one of the most interesting discussions I went to because it jumped straight into what I like to call…

The Rift

Now, what in the world am I talking about? Well, The Rift is that great divide that comes up time and time between academia and commercial writing. It’s the reason why there is such a distinction between literary fiction and well, everything else. It’s the reason that my undergraduate department discouraged and insulted romance, horror, sci-fi, westerns, mysteries, fantasy, etc. while praising Shakespeare, Bradbury, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Now, I will admit that there is some ‘genre’ work that is not well-written. There is also some ‘literary’ work that I don’t consider well written. Good writing is good writing whether it is about orcs and elves or men and giant whales. What matters is the language and the story.

Now, one argument is that genre writing is simple without layers of meaning and therefore, is not as worthy of study as literary fiction. I call shenanigans on that one. Tolkein’s work is a complex, multi-level piece of fiction.

Okay, so clearly, Tolkein is the exception then.

No. Most works of fiction exist on multiple levels. Yes, it may be the story of a boy who discovers he is really king of a kingdom but it is also about the dangers of coming into adulthood, the fear of the unknown, a struggle for acceptance, etc. Very few works exist solely with one interpretation.

Well then clearly literary fiction is better written, more intellectual, etc. Not always the case. Some genre fiction is just as beautifully written as literary prose.

So then what is the difference?

Well, in my opinion it’s the difference between the introvert and the extrovert. Genre (or Commercial) fiction is the extrovert. It’s outgoing, the one doing the talking at the party. It’s the one with the flash and dazzle. Genre fiction generally has a very clear, strong plot. Boy must defeat shadow king to save his home. There is more action, more focus on the world around the character and how the character struggles with it. The primary conflict is an exterior villain (whether it be another person or a storm, or a war) it is literally Person A versus Person (or thing) B. There is a clear cut conflict.

Literary fiction is quieter, slower, more of a listener. You have to really read between the lines to see what’s happening. Literary fiction is more what is going on under still water. There is less likely to be a clear-cut plot. It maybe be more of Person A versus self. There is a lot of internal reflection and conflict. The plot is not the center stage here (though all literary fiction should have a plot) but the character’s development is what matters the most.

Does that mean one is better than the other? Not really. I enjoy both, and I think both are equally worthy of merit and study and that people need to get over The Rift. I hope that if I go on to become a professor I can help start that Rift jumping.

So, those are my thoughts on literary versus genre fiction. What are yours?



  1. randallweiss Said:

    I think the difference is less about the extrovert/introvert analogy and more about establishment. There are certain publications and publishers who represent the high-brow literature establishment, and they control who gets in. They control not only their own publications but also anthologies, which determine long-term decisions about literary cannon. Though it is difficult for an outsider to break into the elites, it isn’t impossible. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies wasn’t a shoo in, but it became so popular with English teachers that the establishment had to read it for themselves and agree that it’s a great book.

    • Very true. It’s why certain authors are studied and others are totally ignored. That ‘establishment’ that controls what goes and doesn’t is a topic for a whole different rant. But yes, you are very, very right.

  2. Those who don’t get it will never get it. Those who do are not the ones complaining.

    ‘nough said.

    • That is true. A common explanation of literary fiction is ‘I know it when I see it.’ and that is the case with most literary fiction for me. However, I enjoy trying to find a distinct difference that I can point to and explain. I think it helps give me a deeper appreciation for both literary and genre fiction.

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