Most English degree curriculums focus on reading and analyzing literary fiction. Occasionally you’ll have the option to take a class that revolves around a genre but it’s one class at most. English curriculums stick to their roots and want students to become infatuated with the classics whereas people who identify themselves as readers but without a degree tend to fall more under the category of genre fiction readers. There’s nothing wrong with either, each has things to learn from and admire. Literary fiction has an aura of arrogance about itself when compared to literary fiction. In the grand scheme, one gets taught for generations and the other pays the bills so I’d say either is the winner.
The most important quality of literary fiction is the way it’s written. The plot is virtually irrelevant, it merely provides a context for the author to tell the story as descriptively and fancifully as they can. Not many people would read Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov if it was simply about a pedophile who fell in love with a twelve-year-old. Most would find that repulsive because they’d think the author was a pedophile. However, what’s most important about Lolita is the way in which Nabokov tells the story. The detail, the imagery, the emotion, that’s what makes this novel a classic, not necessary the plot itself.
Shakespeare has some good plots but Hamlet, for example, doesn’t have much of a plot in that in the end, he’s not much better or worse off. Yes, obviously stuff happens, but nothing is negative or positive. It’s the way in which the story is told that makes it a literary classic. The Lion King is virtually the exact same plot and yet we don’t think of the Lion King’s screenplay as a work of fine literature, although the movie easily established itself as a classic. It’s the way Hamlet was told that established it under classic literature.
Genre fiction is horror, romance, mystery, crime, suspense, etc. Genre fiction is Stephen King, Nicholas Sparks, Jodi Picoult, Michael Connelly. Most people read genre fiction because they enjoy the plot. They aren’t caught up in fanciful language although the best writers within any genre have invoked such a style that it truly is their own form of literary prose. Stephen King’s descriptions and plots, despite what King says about plot, is established him as the best horror writer ever. Nicholas Sparks’ plots are what made him so popular in the romance genre. Michael Connelly has made a living off of telling intricate plots in such a way that draw the reader in and leave them with a sense of insider information, as if they’re living the life of a police officer through Harry Bosch. It’s what makes so popular.
Genre fiction is a book that typically hits The NY Times’s bestseller lists and becomes hugely popular across the country. Your average reader likes plot, they like characters, they like what they can relate to. Not many people can relate to being the prince of Denmark whose family is going through a change of power.
Genre fiction can sometimes establish itself as a classic. The Lord of the Rings started as fantasy but quickly established itself as one of the classics of the genre and is widely understood to be a classic work. The Shining is a horror/suspense novel that took the top spot for many as the epitome of the genre. Obviously, all these are subjective and many will disagree or have other ideas of what the best works are in each genre but you can’t deny how wildly popular these works became and how they became synonymous with their genres.
Those That Fall In Between
Some works are both literary and genre fiction. I’d say one that stands out is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It’s a novel that doesn’t go over-the-top with regards to its prose and fanciful description but it’s easily a classic work of literature while maintaining an important and thought-provoking plot. Harper Lee certainly has her own unique style and it comes to life in this novel but it’s hard to associate it as only a classic work of literature when even those who aren’t fans of classics not only enjoyed this novel but consider it a classic.
Anything by Edgar Allan Poe is both genre and literary. His style and description are what make him a gothic suspense writer but it’s also classical. He’s taught all over the world and while his style falls under classic, his plots and storylines are horror/suspense. Poe is both and he does them well.
Both genre and literary fiction are great to read and you can learn from both. Literary draws people in because of who wrote it and the language it’s compromised of. Genre pulls you in with the complicated plots and twists and the reader feels he/she is a part of the experience. Literary classics will always be “the classics.” Genre, unfortunately, tends to have more of a fleeting reception, quickly pushed aside for the next popular work which is why many view it as inferior to literary. But genre fiction has a way of establishing classics of its own and they stick around so long as people are reading. Wonderful lessons can be learned from both.
What do you think of literary and genre fiction? Do you like one more than another? Drop a like and share your comments!