During this period of social isolation, I am sure many of you have lists of reading to get through. Now is the perfect opportunity to get around to those classics or bestsellers that you may have been meaning to read for years. When creating a reading list for one’s self, however, many readers can feel torn between choosing literary classics and award winners they are told to read, or ‘guilty’ works of genre fiction.
Today I would like to discuss the differences between literary and genre fiction, as well as the spectrum between the two and how these concepts are unhelpful to readers. To be clear, this exploration of the two concepts is not to criticise authors or proponents on either end of this spectrum but to empower readers to make their own choices.
What makes a work of fiction a ’literary’ or ‘genre’ piece?
Literary fiction, in general, encompasses works that are regarded as having literary (artistic) merit. Authors of literary fiction are judged successful by acclaim and patronage from established literary organisations, critics and other literary authors.
On the other hand, genre fiction encompasses works that fit into one or more genres to easily appeal to fans of that genre. Most often genre fiction and commercial fiction become synonymous with each other; book sales being the usual measure of success for genre authors.
Stereotypes of each form include that literary fiction is identifiable by complicated prose, social commentary and intricate character-based concepts whereas genre works are easy to read plot-based page-turners. These stereotypes have created an ongoing debate among writers, critics and the publishing community. Commonly held views are that literary fiction is ‘superior’ or that genre fiction caters better for ‘what readers want’. A third view is that good genre fiction has as much merit as so-called literary fiction.
It is not my intention to repeat that debate with my views. Readers should not be made to feel that genre fiction is a guilty pleasure. Nor should they misunderstand what makes a work of fiction ‘great’. The primaeval reason we consume stories is for emotional knowledge and understanding of our world. Each reader will be looking for different emotional experiences and will respond to how they are conveyed in different ways.
Some readers will gravitate towards more literary themes and styles. Others want to read for entertainment whilst still experiencing a fictional world that helps them build emotional understanding appropriate to their life. No expert can tell you what you will respond to. Often, you will either enjoy a work of fiction or you won't. What is important is that you most often can’t make yourself feel engaged by a work of fiction that isn’t for you.
If every reader is different, where does that leave us? At the end of the day, literary and genre works are all just books. All good books contain elements of artistic merit as well as ways to engage and entertain a reader. These concepts should never be viewed as mutually exclusive.
Many of the classic 19th century ‘literary’ authors, from Jane Auston and Charlotte Bronte to Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in what we would now identify as genres. Equally, a vast array of works identified by their contemporary critics as ‘mere’ genre fiction provide engaging and insightful social commentary.
As a writer, I don’t aim to be either-or. I aspire to create cross-genre entertainment that also engages an audience with originality, profound themes and multidimensional characters. However, I judge my success neither on sales nor acclaim but whether or not I resonate with the ordinary reader out there somewhere, looking to be moved. The labels of ‘literary’ or ‘genre’ are not helpful to me, nor are they for many people at the book store.
As a reader looking to enjoy the experience of consuming fiction, forget the labels. Choose what you want to read. Never be afraid to find new works that may engage you in new ways. Equally, permit yourself to understand that not every book will be for you. Understand to what you respond and search that out. How do you learn to what you respond? By reading, of course. Please stay healthy in this troubling time.
In his next edition of this writing journal, Mr Wainwright will discuss his exciting new work.
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