Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Literary vs. Genre, or Why I Find This Distinction Problematic

Hermann Hesse, you classy mofo you.

As a teenager, I began to think that reading thick, dusty books by dead white guys (and a few dead white women) was how one became Literary. I struggled valiantly through them. These were dark times. That’s not to say that I found nothing I liked-- I adore Hermann Hesse, Jude the Obscure is one of my favorite books, I cite Jane Austen among my influences as a writer-- but much of it felt like homework. I interspersed these with what I called “fun” books (fantasy, horror, sci-fi) just to give myself a break, never realizing that I was looking at the whole situation the wrong way.

Here’s what I mean. I’m not a literary writer in the accepted sense, and only occasionally a literary reader. There is no set definition for literary, of course (and it’s certainly not my teenage definition), though many have tried to tackle the differences between literary and commercial or genre fiction. More and more are admitting that the boundaries have become blurred, which is good. Read Julianna Baggott’s Pure and Fuse, if you need proof. Or King’s Hearts in Atlantis. Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident. Virtually anything by Ursula K. LeGuin

In general, I prefer not to read or write traditional literary fiction. As a Creative Writing major, I have had this preference repeatedly trod on. No professor says you can’t write YA fantasy. A few even encourage students to write whatever they want. But when the examples given of great writing that we should emulate are 95% high-minded literary fiction, what message are we supposed to get? There are, of course, exceptions-- I was introduced to Baggott’s Pure in a fiction class, and fell in love with the original Frankenstein in a lit course. But on the whole, work that is presented to students as what they should strive to emulate is usually unequivocally on the literary end of the spectrum. And to make matters worse, while there is a small but passionate group of spec-fic aficionados in probably every CW program, one cannot help but look to the indie-lit hipsters and feel that one is doing something wrong or inferior. And, of course, there’s the added challenge of trying to find outlets for our work. Literary magazines are just that: literary.

A small section of my bookshelf, with representatives of much that
I love: Doyle, Gaiman, Hardy, Hesse, Hiaasen, Hill, King...

I’m not trying to throw a pity party here. Speculative fiction is thriving right now, and genre in general will likely never die (also, if you think "literary" is not a genre itself, albeit a wide one, I think you're bananas). And I want to stress that I think it’s important to learn from the literary giants. If not for my writing classes, I might never have had the chance to be dazzled by David Foster Wallace or Sherman Alexie, and might never have realized that "literary” doesn’t necessarily mean dead, white, male, and famous. But I also think that we need to abandon the prevailing notion that commercial or genre fiction lacks depth and is more about explosions and aliens and dragons than character development and the exploration of big issues like morality and human nature. Truth is, these boundaries are not necessary, and many writers and readers are purposely seeking to circumvent them. Genre readers are demanding more complexity, while literary readers are becoming more open to genre elements. As Michael Kardos illustrates, it’s not a dichotomy, it’s a continuum.

Do you think professors should be more open to teaching genre fiction? Have more examples of books that blur the lines? Share!


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. You only mention literary novels by dead writers. Your argument will get stronger if you take into account books by living writers.