Literary Fiction Vs. Genre Fiction
Anyone who has read some of my hubs knows that I am both a fan and a writer of genre fiction. Genre fiction generally refers to categories like Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror, to name a few. It also tends to have plot driven stories as opposed to character driven stories. That is not to say that genre fiction stories don’t have deep characters, it just means that they are more about what is going to happen than who it is happening to. Which leads me into Literary Fiction. Think back to the books you were assigned in school and you’ll get a pretty good idea what literary fiction is. Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the Great Gatsby are all good examples of literary fiction. These are the stories that focus so heavily on character that you might ask yourself, after reading the book, what just happened? Or, what was the point of all that? That is not to say, however, that these books are pointless. There is a lot that can be said about the importance of characters in a book. Truly great characters can carry a story with a thin plot, and truly great plots can carry characters with a thin personality. Sometimes the two exist together and sometimes they don’t, but both are worthy of attention.
While I was in college I read, almost exclusively, literary fiction. It didn’t matter if it was a novel, a short story, or poetry; it was all literary fiction, with the unspoken understanding that genre fiction had no place in the curriculum. As someone who was a fan of genre fiction, this really frosted my goat. I was going to become a fantasy author, and yet here were a legion of teachers suggesting that my stories were not welcome at the academic level. I’m not saying what I write is as good as the books they were assigning, but I know plenty of genre fiction stories that are certainly on par. So during my summers, I would read and write exclusively genre fiction as a way to remind myself why I liked it and why it was important to me. Then the next year the cycle would continue all over again. I wrote essays about this injustice and graduated fully intending to immerse myself in genre fiction from then on out. Only recently did I come to the realization that a balance had been struck during my college years. I would rebound between the two types of fiction, thinking literary to be the enemy, yet after being out of college for two years I realized that I need literary fiction.
It’s similar to the balance between salty and sweet. Sure, you could eat sweet foods every day for the rest of your life, but eventually you’re going to get sick of it. It doesn’t mean you hate sweet foods, it just means that you’ve been so immersed in them that you are viciously craving something else. The same is true if you eat only salty foods; you’re going to find yourself craving sweet. This hit me as a sort of epiphany when I sat down to read one of my fantasy books. I’m about half way through it, thoroughly enjoying the book, and yet something didn’t feel right. I set the book down and began perusing my bookshelves. I knew I wanted to read something else but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I scrambled through who knows how many genre fiction books before arriving at one of the few literary books I own and haven’t already read. The book in question that I picked up was “Straight Man” by Richard Russo. As I read it, I didn’t find anything about the book to be overwhelmingly great, and yet I found myself falling into one chapter after another, unlike the fantasy book I had just set aside. Why did this underwhelming story of a college professor keep my attention so much? I feel that the answer is the craving for opposites. One of my early writing professors spoke of craving opposites, though he was talking more about the audience craving opposites in a story, but I think the same applies here. I was getting a ‘full meal’ so to speak, while I was in college, but I never realized it. Now that I’ve been out, I’ve been pigging out on sweets without any thought for the salty snacks in the cupboard. One day I just felt sick and finally ventured outside my comfort zone… all of these food comparisons are making me hungry.
Anyway, I decided to write this article for two reasons. The first is to apologize to literary fiction for ignoring it for so long after finishing college. The second is to pass this realization on to other writer’s out there. In college they often teach literary fiction to the exclusion of genre fiction, which I still think is wrong. I know a great deal of fantasy books that deserve a place is the curriculum. However, since I left college, I was teaching myself genre fiction to the exclusion of literary fiction. In a way, I was no better than the professors I had denounced. The solution is never to exclude one side, especially if you fancy yourself a writer. We need both of them just like we need a combination of salty and sweet foods. It rounds us out as writers, teaches us vastly different methods for our craft and expands the way we think about storytelling. So, if you find yourself bored with the recent books you’re reading, try stepping back over that line, to the side you never thought you would travel, and experience what you’ve been craving this whole time.