There are two kind of people in the world: people who think Literary Fiction has more merit to society than Genre Fiction, and people who are correct.
Ever since the printing press made novels a commercially viable and accessible hobby, some group has been out to decry them as dangerous or a waste of time. These days many people, particularly in academia, make the distinction between works that are Literary, and books that are not.
Genre fiction encompasses a wide range of subcategories, from romance to crime to fantasy and sci-fi and everything in between. Historically these have been the “pulp” novels, short pieces of fiction with flashy covers to be consumed en mass. It’s entertainment. An escape.
Literature, on the other hand is Art. It’s a reflection of our own humanity, in all its raw edginess, thrown up at our face to make us really THINK.
Or at least that is the perception.
In reality, we can see some interesting biases when we break down the demographics of the writers and the intended readership of each of these genres. Great literary works are usually written by men. You know their names; Joyce, Hemmingway, Capote, Fitzgerald, Melville, etc. They’re the Big Names. The greats. They’re also typically from privileged social classes, and they’re white. And critics write about their books and their privileged white protagonists as exploring universal ideals. As representing all of us in some sort of singular truth. Like we’ve all been dissatisfied middle-aged men in crappy relationships.
Books by women, which tackle similar ideas, are instead labelled as “Chick-Lit”, and tend to be lumped into the Genre Fiction category. Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Elliot, all had to publish under male or anonymous pseudonyms because of course “women weren’t capable of literary merit”, only finding proper academic recognition more recently. And in laymen’s reading circles, their work is still considered the domain of bored housewives and the boozed up book clubs of middle-aged-women. The content of their stories may be identical to their male peers, but it’s automatically diminished because of their gender. Because while female readers tend not to be so discerning, male readers apparently are incapable of relating to anything if there isn’t a penis involved. Or so the gatekeepers of the literary canon would have you believe.
The argument is made that because a story may involve magic or dragons or zipping around outer space, that you can’t really learn anything from these characters. That these characters are unrelatable and certainly couldn’t fulfil the truest purpose of any Art form: to hold up a mirror of ourselves. But any reader regular of Genre Fiction would disagree.
Fundamentally, Literary and Genre Fiction books are the same. All these stories typically feature protagonists struggling with some issue or another, interacting with friends, family, enemies. Even if the physical events in genre fiction may be a little more extraordinary, the interactions, the relationships, they’re still the same. They’re still entirely relatable. In the Harry Potter series, we can still follow Harry’s feelings of loneliness at being an orphan and his trepidation at being flung into this whole new secret world he never knew about, even if it is a magical one. There are still fundamental emotions and problems that he experiences that aren’t invalidated by all the fantastical elements. And even these fantastical elements can stand in for excellent metaphors for real world problems. The class divisions between Pure Bloods and Muggle Borns is clearly an allusion to race and class issues. The Death Eaters could be a stand in for Nazis or the KKK. And Voldemort is whatever genocidal dictator you want him to be. In many ways the Harry Potter series is a highly sophisticated political statement about standing up to discrimination and banding together to fight hatred with love. And one might say that these messages are far more palatable told in metaphor here than in a preachy book which tries to shove it in your face.
Science fiction in particular has been a vehicle for societal criticism since its inception. Women have especially used this genre to criticise patriarchal constructs, such as Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, as an exploration of gender roles and the possible utopia in a world without men, or Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as a harrowing examination of religiously-motivated oppression and the hypocrisy of the anti-feminist pro-life movements which sacrifice the lives and autonomy of women. Dystopia – as a specific subgenre of science fiction – is renowned for its sharp political criticism, often even having real world consequences. Countless instances have sprung up just this year in the United States, with women donning the stark red robes and white hood of Atwood’s handmaids to protest the Trump administration and it’s repealing of abortion laws. These fantastical books are full of symbols and metaphors that can really speak to the heart of an issue, more so than something entirely contemporary. So it would be entirely foolish to simply dismiss these genre books because they were written by women or set in a world that isn’t 100% identical to our own. And such texts are exceedingly worthy of academic analysis, alongside any classic literature.
This level of societal critique isn’t limited to sci-fi either. Horror often features monsters which reflect our own societal fears – vampires were originally a stand in for the sexually charged and foreign (non-Anglo Saxon) “other”, zombies are frequently used as a metaphor for mob mentality and consumerism etc. Crime fiction can help us make sense of the truly dark elements in our communities, and try to either cathartically bring to justice murderers and rapists, or to help us explore and confront their psychology. Romance fiction has historically been an outlet for female sexuality and empowerment, an especially crucial role for women living in patriarchal societies which try to otherwise shame and oppress their desires as “sinful”.
The final argument here is that Literary works are seen to be written in a more technically pleasing way; in deep and dancing prose that reads almost like poetry, and truly marks this story as worthy of study. Firstly, not all works placed into the Literary fiction category are well written. Secondly, what defines something as well written can come down to taste, as well as historical context. Many books in the Literary canon are rather old and overly-wordy – partially because back in the day writers, such as Dickens, were paid by the word. And while some people consider it to be high art to be able to spend several pages musing on the colour and texture of wallpaper, as some deep literary message, most modern readers don’t have time for that crap.
The way we tell stories has changed. Genre fiction tends to be much more fast-paced, with a greater focus on plot and action, over the deep and lengthy stream-of-consciousness musings you might find in many older novels. This isn’t to say that writing today is better, or worse; it’s simply different. But continuing to uphold only this old classic style of writing as superior stinks of elitism. In labeling some books “better” than others, we’re also using our reading lists to judge one another. Someone who reads exclusively Salinger and Tolstoy isn’t inherently a better person than someone who prefers Meyer and Rowling. In fact it’s telling that in most scenarios it’s the people whose reading lists are exclusively Salinger and Tolstoy can be those who try to demean other readers. Just because a text is more difficult to read does not make it better than a page-turner.
Ultimately the takeaway here is that the label of “Genre fiction” has historically been used to diminish the significance of work that otherwise empowers and explores the voices of marginalised people; people outside of academia, women, people of colour, and the LGBT+ community. To participate in such literary snobbery is to deny these demographics a worthwhile voice. And while labels like this are indeed important, especially from a marketing and book-selling perspective, it’s foolish to think that said labels are any sign of quality. There are good and bad books in each category, and if you put side your preconceived notions, you might even find something that unexpectedly speaks to you.
Words by Simone Corletto.
One thought on “Genre Fiction vs Literary Fiction: why the literary canon of dead white men sucks.”
These trendy neo-Marxists cliches are dead. “George Eliot” (Mary Anne Evans) is a great literary fiction writer. Quality exists and it is not “equal.”