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Literary Versus Genre Fiction: A Class-Based Read?

The literary world has often been seen to pit literary fiction against genre fiction – one seen as strong, one as weak. Roisin Murray examines the trend, and questions whether literature has become prejudiced.


It’s a provocative debate, the equivalent Obama and Romney conflict of the literary world: the hostility of the two contrasting camps of ‘literary fiction’ and ‘genre fiction’. The controversy ultimately stems from the question as to whether high-brow literary fiction can be considered superior to genre fiction. Is literary fiction substantial and genre fiction not worth the read?

The debate has raged on for years, however seemingly continues to intensify, as literary fiction continues to be held aloft as superior, whilst genre fiction is often left to the side by those in certain literary circles, who deem it to be irrelevant. Occasionally genre fiction makes it into the mainstream world of literary fiction. This is particularly seen in the likes of mystery writing, which often commands a higher level of respect than Mills & Boon, or gruesome horror novels. But even so, the battle persists, and the question must be asked, has the literary world become a prejudiced and snobbish one?

Genre fiction is defined by its prescriptivism. Publishers of the given genre have a set of expectations to be met. Romance novels are expected to boast romantic trysts accompanied by amorous dialogue, whilst mystery novels often employ whodunit scenarios for the entertainment of the reader. While this type of fiction varies depending on which camp it lies in, each individual genre shares the same ultimate aim: to achieve optimum entertainment value. In this sense, genre fiction can be considered as successful in terms of how marketable it is, and the commercial success that it can potentially achieve. It is inherently bound up in the mainstream of the literary world.

Fifty Shades of Grey can be seen as the ultimate example of the profitability of genre fiction. This ‘romance’ novel was criticised in the media and on social networks for being poorly written and repetitive. Nevertheless, such criticism did not prevent author E.L James from managing to sell 70 million copies in the time-span of eight months in the US, whilst simultaneously cinching a near continuous place on the New York Times Bestseller list. Presumably this proclaimed ‘Mummy Porn’ did not owe its success to rich symbolism or layered metaphors. This is what genre fiction as a category aims towards. Often intended to be easily read, it is designed to appeal to readers who may not be looking for a deeper meaning in their reading.

While both literary and genre fiction originate from a constructed reality, the key difference between the two camps lies in the difference in the layers of writing. Genre fiction is generally intended to be taken at face value, while literary fiction often possesses an underlying meaning which the reader must attempt to decipher and interpret. It is precisely this air of mystery and complexity bound up in literary fiction that many consider to legitimise its place as elevated to a higher status than genre fiction. Literary fiction also differs from genre fiction in the aspect of its notably less inclusive nature, in terms of its target audience. Literary fiction is a sphere of the literary world that many consider to be reserved for a literary elite, and is often aimed at a highly educated middle-class.

The central question remains, can genre fiction writers ever ascend to the level that literary fiction writers are at? Some critics regard this as impossible, citing the inherently rigid nature of genre literature as inevitably causing any material to be constrained and stifled. To some opponents of genre fiction, the following of pre-established specifications essentially equates to a whole lot of creativity being removed from the process. While writers such as Dan Brown may be regarded as commercially significant, some would cast doubt on their legitimacy as ‘important’ writers by questioning their critical and literary capabilities.

It would be short-sighted for anyone to conclude that genre fiction is without merit. The assumption is often made that genre fiction is poorly written, however this is not always true – in much the same way that literary fiction is not always well-written. Whilst it may not contain deeper meaning, it’s nevertheless a difficult feat to drive a compelling yet credible plot, and simultaneously maintain a degree of suspense.

The mind is not completely unchallenged and sluggish whilst reading genre fiction as some literary fiction proponents claim. For example, mystery novels, with their plot twists and subtle clues, require the reader to truly engage with and analyse the material they are presented with. What’s more, genre fiction can easily claim to demonstrate examples of utilising powerful and moving literary tools, characteristics that are regarded as inherent to literary fiction, merely in a different form.

Literary fiction is required to be potent in its lyricism and ultimate significance of words. However the greatest writers of genre fiction are distinguished by their ability to successfully provoke intense emotive feelings and dramatic experiences. Horror writers such as Stephen King have the ability to keep a reader up all night, light left on in fear. It is impossible to diminish the affect writers like this can have on a reader, and wrong to dismiss the skill this requires.

The insistence that genre fiction is beneath literary fiction is rooted in a class system that lingers on. Literary fiction has become intensely middle-class; genre fiction is seen as lower-class, less intelligent and interesting. This is an unrealistic observation that should be quelled in order to allow the literary world to become a more inclusive one that can continue to flourish. Both types of fiction serve an ultimate purpose, albeit in differing ways. In fact a recent survey demonstrated that 28% out of 1,000 surveyed failed to read even one book in a year. Rather than attacking one camp at the expense of the other, we should concentrate efforts on promoting reading as an inclusive experience, regardless of the type.