Battle Of The Books: Genre Vs. Literary

Scratch the surface of most any discussion about fiction, and what you find seething under there is that old tension between the literary and the genre. Or maybe it’s a dynamo, an engine—two magnets spinning around each other, making energy, spinning out stories, or maybe it’s some yin-yang thing, and we’re supposed to understand that you can’t recognize the good if you don’t have some bad around to compare it to.

I’m being charitable here, too. At least for the moment. Never mind that genre fiction always get the short end of the measuring stick, that it’s built into the language, even: literary writers go ‘slumming,’ they step in the ‘gutter,’ they take a tour through the ‘ghetto’—this is insulting more than just writers—or, conversely, they ‘elevate’ genre just by trafficking in its conventions, by showing these scrubby, cash-grubbing writers how a real story’s told.

So, already I’m losing my charitable disposition here. And no, I don’t want to try on that old argument that genre’s where it all started—Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein, and on and on, deeper and deeper. Not because those aren’t solid works, but because it allows ‘serious’ writers and critics to suggest that those were all the comic books the culture was reading in its indiscriminate youth. But we found the right librarian (a Flaubert fan, no doubt), and graduated to the good stuff, the gritty, realistic stuff. And I wish I were talking Ed Brubaker, here—is there anybody who writes more gritty, more ‘realistic?’—but no. I’m talking all the kitchen-sink dramas dressed up in their various ways, which are considered ‘quality’ because they so accurately depict or reflect our own lives. But you can’t allow that defense; the conventions of our waking world and of the dream world of fiction, they’re completely different. If you ever allow yourself to say that it’s that way on the page because that’s the way it happened, then you’re not giving fiction enough credit. Why not shoot a documentary feature instead, then not edit it down? Just give us the raw footage. And from all angles at once.

No, fiction’s better than that. It can be. It has to be.

Also, that title fight everybody’s always feeling like they’re watching, and have to take sides about, ‘Literary vs. Genre’—I trust that the audience is sophisticated enough to see that there will never be any punches thrown. Simply because the terms themselves shouldn’t be in the same ring. Or, really, because one can be used to modify the other.

‘Literary,’ what it’s come to refer to in the marketplace is That Which Subscribes to No Conventions. Yes? If I could water it down more, I would. And of course that’s pretty much just another way to say ‘Not Genre.’ So, ‘Literary,’ it’s ‘Not Genre,’ and ‘Genre,’ it’s then defined pretty much as being ‘Not Literary.’ And terms which define each other by referring to themselves are of course useless in any hopefully-productive discussion.

And, I suppose the literary enthusiasts—not a charitable term there, sorry—might offer a definition along the lines of ‘fiction which doesn’t break any physical laws,’ ‘fiction which is believable because it could actually happen, or be happening right now, next door,’ ‘fiction which subscribes to realism,’ or, I don’t know, they might even just go ahead and call it ‘serious fiction’ (very problematic, that), or simply ‘fiction of sufficient depth that it can be returned to again and again.’

I’ll buy that last one, I think. Fiction that doesn’t necessarily need more than one read to present itself, but which presents itself more and more with each read. Moby Dick, say, never mind that it’s (‘just’) an adventure story on the high seas, or that its ‘depth’ is possibly only there because it’s been so thoroughly sounded by generations of critics. It’s also, in spite of all that respectable ‘depth,’ just a pretty rollicking good story, and the antique cetology is about as fun as it gets. Kind of conjures steampunk for me, even.

However, if we can accept that definition for ‘literary,’ then isn’t it obvious that literary, it isn’t a discrete ‘genre,’ identifiable by various conventions and characteristics (see, say, bizarro, or modernism), but an indicator of quality? Meaning it’s an adjective that can be applied to anything with that ‘return-to-again-and-again-for-more-and-more’ quality? So you can have ‘literary’ science fiction, ‘literary’ horror—wasn’t House of Leaves saddled with this for a while, as if it needed that adjective to be legitimate?—‘literary’ fantasy, ‘literary’ romance. Just without the smart-alec quotation marks. What ‘literary’ indicates, it’s not a section of the shelves, it’s the caliber of the fiction, and should perhaps, to avoid confusion, be replaced by the less misleading ‘quality.’

Except ‘quality,’ of course, that’s a value judgment, it’s different from reader to reader, and the booksellers need firmer handles to strap onto these units they’re trying to move every day. But—the movies, say, they get along well enough without ‘literary,’ don’t they? At the box office, you’ve got your horror, your science fiction, your romantic comedy and crime and thriller and all the rest, and then, where we’d expect ‘literary,’ where literary most often gets adapted to, there’s ‘drama.’ On the big-screen, ‘drama’ is being used as ‘literary’ probably was in book land, initially: to refer to that which isn’t horror, isn’t fantasy. But what movies have going for them, it’s that ‘drama’ doesn’t port over as a modifier: you don’t have ‘drama western,’ because it’s assumed that everything happening on the ‘stage’ at the front of this theatre, it’s dramatic. And ‘drama,’ it’s not a term that subs in for ‘quality.’1

But, we are where we are. There’s the ‘literary’ shelves, currently spilling over with realism, and there’s the, by default, ‘non-literary’ shelves, and it’s just another suck development that ‘literary’ and ‘literature’ share a root, such that there’s a Literature section of the store, be it digital or brick, and the non-Literature shelves, way at the back. Where all the freaks hang out.

Don’t let your kids go back there, no. They might find something to read, and read it for the rest of their lives.

Yes, though, oftentimes the books on those ghetto-ized shelves, they can be bubblegum: chew it for a bit then spit it out, move onto the next piece, and never go back to chew that gum again. That’s specifically how they’re written, why they exist, and it’s an art to write good disposable fiction (not an oxymoron), to keep your audience hooked by delivering the same thing with just enough variation to make them smile, just enough familiarity to keep them comfortable. But of course there’s a reason it’s printed on pulp, too. Ace and Dell weren’t trying to produce fiction for the ages, they were producing fiction to be consumed right then, and tossed—usually on the way back to the bookstore for the next in the series.

This isn’t to allow that just because something’s ‘literary’ that it’s automatically quality either, though. No, disposable writing is produced by both sides, but trash-genre fiction, it’s still ‘genre,’ it’s still identifiable by these characteristics, those conventions, but, if you accept that ‘literary’ is another way of saying ‘quality,’ then you have to accept that that term is often grossly mis-applied, and most often on works which show a high degree of craft and a low amount of risk, or imagination (again I point the finger at realism, but the MFA mills aren’t not at fault, here), such that those works look like the stuff that’s actually ‘art,’ making any suspicions that it’s not art suspicious, as that becomes another value call.

I would argue, however, that genre fiction that fails is inherently more interesting and worthwhile than so-called literary fiction that fails. At the surface level, you can say that in the failed genre fiction, at least you got to see a robot or a zombie, right? And, so the story crumbled around it, the writing was less than good, but still: wasn’t that robot kind of cool? Didn’t it spark something in your head, make you think of something you might not have without this text? Whereas a failed ‘literary’ effort, man, at the end of all that all you’ve got are some fine sentences. Which, sure, you can learn something from if you can keep your eyes focused right. But the sentences, the prose, that’ll come. What doesn’t come are the imaginative leaps necessary to close a story out in a way that makes the reader shut the book and just hold it there between their hands in a kind of thanks. And neither genre nor ‘literary’ have exclusive claim to that, though I've got to suspect that works with imagination are working out the right muscles, anyway.

But, if the terms aren't really locked in any kind of mortal combat, then why all this continuing friction, right? Or, why do we all insist on it. The ‘serious’ writers look down their noses at the ‘commercial’ writers (apparently that’s an insult), and the genre writers dismiss the capital-a Art-writers as these oddly loud hunger artists way out there at the edge of the carnival, where nobody really goes. One kind of writer gets money, the other kind respect. And, yeah, there’s crossover hits—The Passage, The Road—but note how that crossing-over, it only ever goes one way. In The Atlantic recently, say, Max Brooks’ World War Z is completely ignored, as if it isn’t a marvel of ‘literary’ sophistication. No, the ‘hits,’ they’re always exclusively established ‘literary’ writers, stepping into this or that side room for a few hundred pages. Stephen King was finally honored by the National Book people, okay2. But wasn’t that the year that all the serious writers felt kind of insulted, and kind of talky about it? Shouldn’t real readers have ‘outgrown’ their childish things long ago?

And—is that the real distinction, again? Is the unfettered imagination of childhood under some indictment? Is trafficking in the obviously make-believe somehow not ‘productive’ enough? Never mind that it’s George R.R. Martin paying the bills in New York. And Mr. King. And Stephenie Meyer.

And, yes, a portion of all this back-and-forth ire, it’s probably not about the quality of the fiction at all, but sales, and possibly the suspicion that ‘bubblegum’ writing is keeping the audience so unsophisticated that they don’t know to bend over, take the literary suppositories all the Art writers are laboring to prescribe. But what the literarati often fail to get, or to remember, is that fiction, it’s a cake. You don’t lure the reader across the room to your cake by touting how nutritious it is, how good for them it will be in the long run, no. You pull people across a very crowded room by slathering the brightest icing you can on your cake. You make it entertaining, and then, if you want, sure, make it a layer cake, make it Moby Dick. Just remember that the icing, this spoonful of sugar, it’s this ‘chasing an impossible monster’-thing. And some cakes are icing all the way down, and can be pretty wonderful if you’ve got the right constitution.

Talking sales, too, of course it’s natural for writers—for anybody—to assign value to what they do, isn’t it? If you hang ceiling tiles for a living (I know a thing or two about hanging ceiling tile), then you rig your world up such that that’s an inherently ‘good’ activity, or good in a roundabout way at least, and if you do whatever magic it is store managers do, then you don’t consider that ‘dark’ magic, do you? It’s the same with writers: if you sell a lot of books, then, money aside, you probably have strong suspicions that selling a lot of books is a good thing, as it suggests you’re plugging into what people want. Conversely, if a book doesn’t sell, that’s a bad thing, something to be corrected for. So, if you’re a struggling ‘literary’ writer who’s not pushing a lot of copies every day, then it’s natural to assign a kind of monastic ‘goodness’ or ‘purity’ to the process rather than the product, as the process seems to be what you're locked into, and so you become—correct me if I’m wrong—someone who self-identifies as an ‘artist,’ that is, someone doing the good work for the world, and for little to no pay. Just because it’s the right thing to do. Problem is that actually making money, then, it becomes the ‘wrong’ thing to do, yes? While at the same exact time being an actual groceries-on-the-table kind of goal. And therein lies all kinds of rubs. And this isn’t to bad talk Art or artists, it’s more to argue that art, it usually happens while you’re trying to come up with some story to pay the light bill. Art’s not to be worn like a shield, to protect yourself from society, to insulate yourself from the world, it’s what happens when you’re pissed off that the lights cost so much.

But—coming up through grad school (FSU, 98), it was kind of just in the air that this literary/genre distinction, it was really a character/plot distinction. And of course you had to decide pretty quickly which was worthy of your allegiance. Me, I always professed myself an unashamed plotter, but then I wrote a few novels, realized that all plot is seen in the rearview mirror, as some zig-zag line of decisions your character has made. And so the ‘character/plot’ binary kind of became useless; they’re interdependent, shouldn’t be put in opposition at all.

Yet, characteristics and conventions aside for the moment—those earmarks by which the audience can tell the serious from the joke (‘if it’s targeting an audience, it’s a joke,’ pretty much)—I still feel there is some substantial difference. And I think it’s along that old character/plot line, except I want to remove ‘plot’ as the derogatory term there (so strange that it even could be), rig something up more like ‘ideas/people.’ As in, ideas or people are the focus. Which, yeah, that’s giving genre fiction short shrift—there’s zero reason genre can’t have just as rounded characters as ‘literary,’ no real reason ‘literary’ can’t have neat ideas, or at least a cool new form, an innovative method of delivery—but I get there somewhat honestly, anyway, and this is something you can test right now: when you’re telling somebody about a ‘literary’ story, telling them in hopes they’ll read it, partake of this magic, this perfection, this literary derring-do, you always kind of stumble, don’t you? You always end up backed into some corner, some ‘Well, it’s about this guy who, you know, okay, he’s having money problems, life problems, I don’t know, and now he’s going swimming all through the neighborhood.’ Or, closer to our times, ‘So this dad, he gets mad at another dad, and they confront each other in the yard, in front of the kids.’

Note how each of those start: “this guy,” “this dad.” Even Joyce Carol Oates, I mean: ‘This girl, she knows she’s way different than her sister, than her stupid mom, so she meets this guy at the drive-in, and then one day he comes over, delivers her to another life.’

I’m not meaning to suggest that casual synopses of ‘literary’ stories are inherently boring, either. Anything can be boring in synopsis, especially one I’m more than likely slanting in order to make a point. I just want you to see how easy it is to fall into that pattern of ‘this guy,’ ‘this girl.’ The focus, the way you remember it, no matter what else happened in those pages, it’s always the character, isn’t it?

Yet, with genre fiction, it’s the idea that sticks. The premise. ‘What if there was a town that was absolutely perfect, so long as one kid got killed every year or so?’ ‘What if the monks on the mountain were right, and the way to bring about the end of the universe is just to say however many names God’s got?’ ‘Man, can you even imagine living on a planet where night only fell once every few generations?’

And, just to be fair here, yeah, I’m only using short stories to make my point—my argument might very well fall apart at novel length, as you always need a very full, complete, rounded character to carry a story for three- or four-hundred pages. But still. When describing The Road to somebody, don’t you start with the father? Whereas The Haunting of Hill House, say, where it itself starts is with the house:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under the conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

And then, in the second paragraph, we start meeting the characters who are going to plug in. They’re not the focus, though. It’s the premise, the idea, the, as Stephen King calls it—and he of course figured this out long before I ever did—situation. And, situations, they’re what enable ‘literary’ stories as well, but . . . isn’t a standby, ‘literary’ writing exercise the dreaded character sketch? As in, ‘create your character, know her history, make her full, then insert her into this or that loaded room, see what happens.’ The character is primary, the character comes first. And, I suspect, because we model our characters on ourselves—what else can we do?—then of course the stories these pre-made characters eventually get wrapped up in, they’re basically realist, as realism is all we experience in our world, all chemicals and religious experiences aside.

However, if you start with a bigger-than-life premise, say—I’m thinking of Neil Gaiman’s recent “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”—if you allow from the get-go that aliens can drift down to Earth as students, or tourists, then the characters that come to populate that idea, to dramatize it, to flesh it out, then they’re part of it, aren’t they? They're not limiting the story to realism, though of course you can use the tricks of realism to get them down on the page better. First and foremost, though, they’re a product of a world in which these strange things exist, they're a vehicle for delivering an idea, but they can be just as real as you are, with that one minor difference: there really are aliens. Or werewolves. Elves. Sexy pirates, robots, bigfeet, X-men, whatever. But that changes everything, too3.  Specifically, it changes how you remember the story, how you tell it to your friend, and, yes, it significantly ups the chances of that friend actually picking that fiction up, giving it a try. Just because, even if it does turn out to be disposable—what if, right? Isn’t that the main purpose of fiction, to stimulate our minds, to entertain us? Fleshing out the world we know and making it ironic and giving it the depth it deserves is good and valiant and probably even shows some proper respect or fealty, I suppose, and can be just as emotionally satisfying by that last page, but for my $6.99, I’d like a ticket to Mars, please. And, I may go steerage, okay, but I’m coming back king of the world. At least for a few minutes.

And then I’ll go again, and again.

1 Closest analogue to ‘literary’ at the box office would be ‘indie,’ I suppose, though it’s hardly a perfect fit, as ‘indie’ carries a certain ethic in with it. However, it can modify horror, fantasy, the rest (except, curiously, drama. In that case, it tends to just become a noun. Which could be the beginning of a terrible friendship).
2 and he got to the pick the best twenty stories of the year for the Best American series, which had to be a coup.
3 However, try an out-loud synopsis of the Gaiman story. You lead with the two guys looking for a party, don’t you? Which is to say you lead with the characters. Which is to say Gaiman’s of course probably pulling off some ‘literary’ weird fiction, here. As usual.

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Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies November 14, 2011 - 11:06am

Brilliant, Stephen. Thanks so much for this. I'm on your side, always, when it comes to this issue. Out here in the trenches with you, brother.

Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands from Boston is reading Greil Marcus's The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs November 14, 2011 - 11:34am

Successful commercial writers have the advantage of being able to write full-time (commercial being a key word here) while what is often considered a successful literary writer is also usually a professor (except for a few "big names").

Stephen: Your books are often a hybrid (or whatever buzzword you want to use) of literary fiction and genre fiction. And considering you're a professor, I admire (and am also extremely jealous of) your ability to be so prolific.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like November 14, 2011 - 11:35am

Literary is to Gourmet as Genre is to Fast-Food, i.e. most fast food sucks, but it is possible to design a recipe which may be processed quickly while still demonstrating attention to the eater's experience that they might enjoy and be enriched by the food rather than simply scarf it down, QED "Gourmet Fast-Food."

I'll take that PEN/AlfredE.Neuman award now, thank you.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books November 14, 2011 - 11:37am

So good.

It seems "literary" just doesn't have one, solid definition. I use it when describing fiction other than genre, but also use it to describe genre fiction of high quality. I don't, however, use it to describe straight drama fiction that sucks. So for me it denotes, depending on the situation, quality and/or genre. I think.

Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands from Boston is reading Greil Marcus's The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs November 14, 2011 - 11:47am

I suppose there are books that are classified as literary genre fiction because the author focused more on their prose than most genre fiction authors do and they also may have written litererary fiction books in the past, such as the author of The Passage (which has a terribly boring title).

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books November 14, 2011 - 12:10pm

I suppose there are books that are classified as literary genre fiction because the author focused more on their prose than most genre fiction authors do and they also may have written literary fiction books in the past, such as the author of The Passage (which has a terribly boring title).


I found The Passage to be pretty UN literary, myself, although I suppose that's using "literary" in the snobbish sense.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books November 14, 2011 - 12:28pm

I would actually consider Murakami's 1Q84, which we just reviewed, to be literary sci-fi or fantasy. It is mainly about the characters, but is set in an alternate version of Earth and is driven by an actual plot. It is not full-bore sci-fi, but is an excellent example of how a book can be both literary and genre, in both quality and description.

Dean Marcussen's picture
Dean Marcussen November 14, 2011 - 12:34pm

Appreciate the ‘ideas/people’ shift over 'character/plot.'

Have always appreciated writing that is about ideas, rather than just characters. But only, in retrospect of reading, i.e. if the characters had enough in them to carry the idea.

Just finished a Creative Writing programme which has spent a lot of time focusing on characters and not enough focusing on how to write the ideas.


claireharlanorsi's picture
claireharlanorsi November 14, 2011 - 1:28pm

Hi! I enjoyed your article and recently wrote on the same distinction, though with a different (not necessarily opposed) angle:



Craig Clevenger's picture
Craig Clevenger from Joshua Tree, CA November 14, 2011 - 1:54pm

I could talk for hours about this, or maybe not, because I always end up so pissed off at the cultural inequity, here (thanks to having recently finished The Dogs of God, I'm once more kicking furniture over this issue). Anyway, B.R. Myers said it so much better than I could when he wrote A Reader's Manifesto, but this essay takes an even broader look at the subject.

Bravo, Stephen.

Raelyn's picture
Raelyn from California is reading The Liars' Club November 14, 2011 - 3:42pm

I'm fairly new to writing, so forgive me if I sound incredibly naive here. Before reading this article I wasn't aware that there was a Genre vs. Literary debate at all. I always thought there were 'good books' and 'bad books'. Good books being those that sparked something inside of you. Something is an ambiguous word so let me clarify by saying an idea, an emotion, anything that makes a person reflect on themselves or the world around them. Things I believe can be sparked by genre or literary fiction. If I take a look at my personal library, there's not a leading genre. My shelves are packed with Gaiman, Koontz, Cook, Palahniuk, Wells, Vonnegut, Pratchett, Hosseini, Quinn, Dostoevsky, and yeah, you get the point. Even the humorous Discworld series leaves some kind of impact on me, otherwise I wouldn't keep reading them. 

I'd be interested to see when this fued started, if an isolated point can even be found. A very stimulating article Stephen, thank you for sharing. 


Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands from Boston is reading Greil Marcus's The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs November 14, 2011 - 10:12pm

I found The Passage to be pretty UN literary, myself, although I suppose that's using "literary" in the snobbish sense.

Do you mean "un-literary"? I looked at "UN literary" and thought of the United Nations.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books November 14, 2011 - 10:29pm

Do you mean "un-literary"? I looked at "UN literary" and thought of the United Nations.

Don't get sassy, sassy-pants. The odd emphasis and spelling were intentional.

Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands from Boston is reading Greil Marcus's The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs November 14, 2011 - 11:47pm

I seriously wasn't sure whether or not you meant un-literary.

Roger Billings's picture
Roger Billings November 17, 2011 - 4:56pm

Bad literary fiction is more painful to read than bad genre fiction.

And I thought "UN literary" meant multi-culturism.?

But thanks, I enjoyed the article. Not painful at all.