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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Blurring the Lines--literary fiction or genre?

Guest post today by Sunny Frazier. She addresses the 'controversy' among writers about literary versus genre fiction.




BLURRED LINES
(you know you want it)
 

Last summer rocked out to Robin Thicke's “Blurred Lines.” You either liked it, hated it or watched the video for titillation. Maybe it didn't even penetrate your radar.
 

I find the debate about literary fiction vs genre fiction much the same. I wouldn't call it a controversy and nobody is asked to pick sides. It's more than a misunderstanding. I'm going to call it the Hatfields and McCoys of the writing world. Authors get livid. Readers don't even know it exists.
 

Here's a simplified definition: literary fiction has merit. Genre fiction makes money.

 
The pricking point is that genre fiction writers feel like they are looked down on by literary folks. Their work is deemed sub-standard. Their defense is that they are writing books people enjoy. Books that are accessible to the average reader.

 
Literary writers find genre fiction too commercial. These writers are producing art. They want the respect of intellectuals rather than filthy lucre from the masses.

 
In trying to differentiate the two forms, Leigh Galbreath over at The Fictorians states that genre fiction is structured, literary fiction is more organic, experimental. Put another way, genre fiction has a plot and is usually going to wind up with a satisfying ending. The reader closes the book, sighs with pleasure and reaches for another book on the bookshelf.

 
With literary fiction, the reader has to WORK. It's some serious prose going on. The writing is more about language, style and technique rather than story. 

 
Adding fuel to the fire is that very reliable source, Wikipedia. It states literary fiction must be “critically acclaimed,” and defines it as “complex, multi-layered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas.” Terms like “elegantly written,” “lyrical,” “darker” and “slower read” are used. But, it also calls it “an excessive or affected display of learning. Pedantic.” Ouch!

 
My basic yardstick is “If Oprah likes it, it's probably literary.”

 
Where does that leave genre writers? Possibly on the bestseller list. We write page-turners, beach-reads, the books you stuff in your book bag for when you're waiting in the doctor's office. There's no eyestrain or brain strain involved. The words (which you can understand without a dictionary) slip by as time passes. The reader is momentarily lifted out of their environment by words.

 
Literary fiction is said to withstand the test of time. Silas Marner, Moby Dick, Jane Eyre, A Tale of Two Cities--yes, they are classics. But, are they relatable? Not to people with the attention span the length of a tweet. 

 
So, who's right? Is literary necessarily quality fiction? Is genre always disposable fiction? And, who makes that judgment?

 
The answer is simple: booksellers, editors and agents.

 
Although some libraries now have divisions of fiction, there was a time when books were shelved alphabetically and by the Dewy Decimal System. This made it easier for librarians to keep the shelves straight. However, if you were a mystery buff or a romance junkie, that meant searching through the stacks to find what you wanted. Pretty soon bookstores figured out the smart move was to create sections catering to the reading tastes of buyers. Now they were able to target a built-in market of fans.

 
Agents and editors also needed to know how to categorize the books they received. A genre house specializing in Westerns is not in the market for Sci-fi. Unless it's a cross-over, which muddies the waters even more. Where does Steam Punk fit? 

 
At that point, things get tricky. Genres divide like amoeba, creating sub-genres. I write mysteries. In my genre there is the police procedural, amateur detective, hard-boiled, noir, craft mysteries, animal mysteries, historical mysteries, paranormal mysteries, romantic suspense—you name it, it's out there.

 
Literary fiction is filed under fiction. Period.

 
It's really not that cut and dry. Not only do I think it's possible for genre fiction to have literary aspirations, I believe authors should strive to go beyond easy labels. I have written short mystery fiction that won literary awards. Maybe the judges were just pleasantly surprised to have a murder in the mix, but I like to think there were aspects of the writing itself that wowed them. I work hard to elevate my writing without turning off my readers.

 
And, there are literary works that go down like fudge topping. I'd call Amy Tan literary and I love her writing. Margaret George. Gregory McGuire. Caleb Carr. E.L. Doctorow. All on my bookshelf.

 
What I believe has happened is that both factions have become defensive. Genre writers are tired of being perceived as hacks; literary writers can't all be classified as snobs. As the line between literary and genre styles become blurred, readers are the ones who reap the benefits.

 *

Sunny has been included in The Mystery Writers anthology, alongside Sue Grafton, Lawrence Block, J.A. Jance and 54 other bestselling and award-winning authors. It includes writing advice and articles from mystery writers in 12 different subgenres including suspense, thrillers, crime, noir, traditional mysteries, amateur sleuths, private eyes, cozies, police procedurals and much more. Available at Amazon.com

Visit Sunny's site for her books and opinion.
 

 

 

       

39 comments:

  1. It all depends on one's frame of reference. Shakespeare was the soap opera writer of his day. Dickens and Hardy and many others works were serialized in the "rags" of the time. The reason they are so wordy is because they were paid by the word. Most operas are nothing but romance novels set to music--frequently without the happy ending. That's what's so absurd about the whole debate. And there are only 36 plots in all of storytelling.

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    1. God help us all if Danielle Steele is considered "literary" by future generations! Yikes!

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  2. You nailed it, Sunny! Precisely the way I have described the differences (Well--okay not precisely since you said it so much better than I!). A similar battle rages in chick lit and women's fiction. Exactly the same issues. Sigh. Too bad there is something in people which makes them look for divides rather than connectors. Thanks for this. I'll be sharing this link around!

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    1. Thanks for spreading my words, Sharon. I had no idea chick lit and women's fiction are going head-to-head. Guess I classified them together. Who knew?

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  3. Thanks for this post, Sunny--a very good explanation/comparison of ” literary” and ” genre”. One word I would use to categorize genre fiction is formulaic. Romance novels are very much about pacing so that all the elements are there ultimately leading to the ” dark moment” and finally to the ”HEA” the happy ever after. It becomes boring after a while... So I look for stories that appeal to readers with the attention span longer than a tweet! So, I, The Reader, who knows about the ongoing animosity between literary and genre, chooses to read what I want and write what I want. The sounds of the battle don't keep me yup at night. A good book does.

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    1. I came after a romance writer on a panel at a conference for exactly what you stated. What kind of reader wants the same story over and over? Well, I guess those readers who still believe in knights in shining armor and frustrated sexual urges. I don't have time for that. Kill somebody already!

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    2. There are formulas for mysteries, too. Hooray for the authors who go beyond the "five points of plotting" and seek to write complex, multilayered fiction within a satisfying genre. There are readers who like to pack some universal truths into their beach bags. Thanks, Sunny, for elevating your writing and our reading.

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  4. Sunny, enjoyed reading your explanation of the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction. To me, both have merit, but just to different people. I occasionally like a literary read, but prefer genre because my brain needs to relax and enjoy when I read, not strain. Thanks for this easy to understand post.

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    1. Some people feel reading is wasted time unless it is "meaningful." While I insist on reading for pleasure, I find myself geared toward more serious genre writers. It's a matter of taste but also a matter of inner growth. Keep a tree watered and it keeps reaching for the sky.

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  5. Very good explanation. As a read, though, I do notice the difference, but my preference often depends on my mood for reading. Either way-- I'm glad we have the variety.

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    1. I, too, love having a choice. I think English teachers who cram literature down the throats of reluctant students do more harm than good. Also, I don't want to feel pressured or stupid by others for my choice of reading material. The only brain I need to impress is my own.

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  6. Interesting take, Sunny. That Marvin Gaye's family sued Robin Thicke over the rights to the song Blurred Lines makes this even more interesting. In writing, composing and arranging-all that makes for a good story and song- there is nothing new in the world although we'd all like to think so. We borrow, share, reshape, recreate and come up with unique. Hopes of being on the NY Times bestseller list, winning a PEN or Pulitzer may affect how we endorse our brand. But are folks actually enjoying the read? The genre I'd like to be filed under is the "loveditfiction"

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    1. Loveitfiction! Brilliant!

      Writing all comes down to craft, in my perspective. Some people are simply better storytellers. And, while we all might want to grab a prize or two, you never know what you're capable of writing until you write it. Do Pulitzer prize winners set out to achieve that goal or do they luck into it by writing what needs to be written?

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  7. This post came at a great time, as I'm reading The Paris Wife. I'm enjoying the book about Hadley Hemingway much more than the writings of some of the people who make up the secondary characters in the book. I enjoy so many different types of writing, and what I decide to read depends upon my mood, current preferences, and how much brain effort I'm willing to expend to read a book. I think it would be very exhausting to read only "literary" works. Thanks for another great post.

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    1. You're absolutely right. And, with time, you'll find yourself craving different types of writing and writers as your reading palate changes. Sometimes I even go back to books I didn't "get" when I read them too young and find them meaningful in my later years. The books didn't change--I did.

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  8. I have to be honest. I enjoy genre books (mysteries) the most. They tend to "take me away" and entertain me, and at this stage of my life that's what I want. Oh, and you forgot humorous mysteries. : ) Thank you for an excellent post, Sunny! I appreciate the way you presented the differences.
    Marja McGraw

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    1. Sometimes saying you love genre fiction is like announcing you like porn. It leaves people (especially people who want to think you are more cultured) aghast. Hey! There is nothing wrong with enjoying a fun mystery with characters you love. Real life should be so entertaining!

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  9. And perhaps literary fiction is just another category of genre fiction - a way to shelve the book in the bookstore. Romance is more romantic than mystery. And literary is more ... literary ... than fantasy.

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    1. It's all words on the page. We're the ones who attached the labels.

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    2. I so agree with you Sunny. We're the ones who attach the labels. And those labels can change over time. A good story is all that is important to me these days. I don't like words to get in the way. Like C.L. Swinney (below) I don't want the flow interrupted by having to fixate on a word, whether to look it up or to think about it's many meanings/inferences that are not obvious. Save that for the essays. The flow of a story, is important to me, maintaining the fictive dream until the end of the book. To me that is masterful.

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  10. The average reader is only concerned with good story and doesn't give a damn about categories. I'll guarantee you Shakespeare and Cervantes didn't consider themselves literary or genre writers. They were simply writers. Don't forget, even Moby Dick didn't become a "literary" novel until the 20th century.

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    1. And sometimes the categories put people off a book they might otherwise read. I plead guilty. I ignored Game of Thrones because "I don't read fantasy." Guess who is on the 5th book?

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  11. Well written for a MYSTERY writer!
    I take issue with one little thing--literary novels do so have a plot. For me it's about the language, the placement of syntax, the nuances that literary folks brood over. One thing that seems to divide the two is the speed with which a genre novel is produced. Their publishers often require a new one from the author's hands every 6-12 months. At that rate it's easier to see why those of us who take 2-5 years to produce our book tend to look down. On the other hand, genre writers are experts in their field so they have already done the deep research that takes so much time. IMHO, you are a literary writer if your thesaurus is coming apart at the seams. (By the way--I blogged about you today, Sunny, (sort of.) Check it out.

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    1. Yeah, I had a problem when my research came up with that "Literary doesn't have a plot" statement. Again, much too broad a generalization. And yes, genre writers are pressured to produce books like a machine because they are commercial and strive to keep readers coming back for more. Which, in my mind, often reduces the quality of the work. Don't you feel sometimes that they're just phoning it in?

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  12. So I'm often teased for being the guy who uses "ten dollar" words while having "intellectual" conversations. But, I'm the same guy who gets perturbed when I'm right in the middle of reading fantastic writing and get hit with a word that stumps me. The investigator in me forces me to stop and look it up. The writer in me tries to see how it contextually works for the passage, and if there was another word that would have worked in that spot. I read a ton of "literary novels," but write genre fiction. I'm mostly a storyteller, but I feel writers are writers, and it's readers and "scholars" who like to lump us into neat categories. I don't like neat categories. Nevertheless, great blog today Sunny.

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    1. I don't like having an obnoxiously big word thrown at me if it stops me in my tracks because I don't know what it means. Does an author really want to lose a reader just to play with vocabulary? I'm from a journalism background, you write for the masses. Ego gets pushed to the side in favor of communicating an idea. This is not to say words should be common or boring. If you read my piece again, I think your eye will come across a few sly word choices. I'm not obvious, I'm subversive. But you, of all people, know that!

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  13. I write and read genre fiction, but my favorite writer of all time is Hemingway. I think that GOOD genre fiction is (and should be) every bit as thought provoking as literary fiction, even if people don't choose to read it for that reason and even if some of those who read only literary fiction are unable to absorb that fact.

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  14. As always, Holli, very insightful. I think it's the responsibility of the writer to inject something of value into the prose, even if the reader skims and isn't aware of the nuances. Some people will get it, some people will only see what's on the page. You can lead a horse to water. . . .

    Hemingway, huh? I'm not a fan. I don't think he writes women well. And, I guess later, we all figured out why.

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  15. Great blog, Sunny. Thank God for all the genre fiction out there. But I won't do a put down on literary. Depending on the author, the subject and the quality of the writing, I'll read any and all of it. Whatever gets people to read is most important -- especially now when it's done on devices, not bound books, so much of the time. And if devices make more people read more books, then that's fine with me, too!

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    1. I agree, Eileen. We don't need to put down literary. That would be just as bad as snobbery focused at genre books. There are all levels of writing in literary and in genre writing. A good book is a good book for different reasons.

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    2. I think good genre writers do attempt to be a bit literary, going as far as their readership will allow. To me, the reader comes first. Not to say I dumb anything down but I do try to be accessible.

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  16. Sunny,
    Always find what you have to say most interesting and have learned much from you.
    I wrote a story set in the west. Most call it a western. When Oak Tree Press published Blessings, Bullets and Bad Bad Men, you elected to list it as a western (thanks so much for taking it on)
    Before, in the land of many many rejections, my book was turned down because, as one publisher wrote, "We are always looking for writers of your talent, but your book does not fit our format."
    I was told many times that it falls between the cracks. It's not genre and it's not mainstream.
    You really made no mention of "mainstream". I know that wouldn't be literary, but if it's broken down into literary fiction and genre, where does mainstream come in?
    Am I missing something? Just curious as to if that's even a good question, but they always say there are no bad ones.
    Bonnie B.A. Kelly

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    1. Here was a good explanation for your question."If genre fiction is concerned with swift plotting, and literary fiction with deep characterization and exploration of the novel's theme, mainstream fiction falls somewhere between the two." - For much greater detail, see more at: http://www.novel-writing-help.com/mainstream-fiction.html#sthash.fOpyWdbr.dpuf

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    2. You're right, Bonnie. I'd say mainstream is "popular fiction." Still in the commercial realm but not with any specific category.

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    3. Thanks Cora. I shall check out the site you suggested.

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  17. Great explanation about the differences, Sunny! My colleagues and I in the wine business get the same question every day: "What should I drink? Which one is better?" And, after a long explanation about the differences of the many, many wines out there, the answer always boils down to the same thing: "Drink what you like." Maybe it's the same thing here. Read what you like. Write what you like. As you say, the only mind you have to impress is your own.

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  18. Looks like Dickens had it both ways. And the ridiculous tacked-on ending on the Masterpiece Theatre's Edwin Drood shows it. Dickens never would have allowed that option. It's like the story took a ninety-degree turn.

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  19. You watched Edwin Drood? Hats off to you, Lou. I was probably watching Project Runway or some other mind candy!

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