The Alliance of Independent Authors recently published a post entitled What is literary fiction anyway?
It was an interesting read and it got me thinking about how I would define literary fiction as opposed to genre fiction.
If the definition of literary fiction holds true, then its opposite must be true for genre fiction, and vice versa. So here’s my take on the topic.
The ALLi Article
The ALLi post was a summary of a discussion that had taken place on their closed Facebook forum. The debate had included thoughts on how literary fiction involved a greater attention to language and style and is more character driven.
On both those points, however, I would argue that a writer like Stephen King writes character-driven stories with enormous attention to language and style, so I’m not sure that argument holds water.
On the other hand the article did acknowledge the “wonderful prose, dynamic plots and superb characterisation” of some crime novels.
I agree with their point that literary fiction has “less focus on plot, and… formulaic plotting.” That’s not necessarily a good thing in my opinion, but I think we’re now starting to get to the crux of the matter.
I’ll start by offering my own definition of genre fiction.
What is genre fiction?
I think that all genre fiction, whatever the genre, has one thing in common and it’s this:
genre fiction employs storytelling techniques that keep the story moving in a forwards direction.
That’s to say that in genre fiction the reader keeps reading because they want or need to know what’s going to happen.
- A mystery must be solved.
- A killer must be caught.
- A problematic romance must be resolved.
In genre fiction the pages should, by and large, turn themselves. If they don’t then there’s a problem with the story.
What is literary fiction?
So if genre fiction has a forward-moving momentum, what does literary fiction have?
Literary fiction offers a deeper, more reflective exploration of the present moment.
Literary writers are not interested in moving the story along. They want to delve into the themes on the present page.
This is why readers often complain, when reading a literary novel, that nothing happens. The fact is, that’s not the point. The literary writer doesn’t want the reader to rush forwards. They want the reader to pause and linger.
Take the opening of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past as an example. This vast oeuvre is about as literary as you can get. It opens with six and a half pages of dense reflections on the art of falling asleep, waking, insomnia and memory. This is not a book that cares tuppence about moving the plot along. The writer wants you to join him in his musings, to savour each moment.
I have to admit that, despite having given it my best shot on a couple of occasions, I have never been able to finish Remembrance of Things Past. No doubt that says something about me, but I’m not averse to long books. I just like there to be a some kind of plot to carry me along.
Are genre fiction and literary fiction mutually exclusive?
Definitely not, in my opinion.
For me, the most satisfying books to read are those that combine forward-moving story techniques with a sense of being deeply in the moment with strong, interesting characters.
One of the writers who does this best is Sarah Waters. Another writer who deserves to be in this category is Stephen King.
Great characters and character development are absolutely not the preserve of literary writers.
The best genre fiction is character-driven just as much as literary fiction, but the characters drive the plot whereas literary fiction too often has an exploration of character but no plot to keep the reader turning the pages.