Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction

I previously spoke here about my issues with Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, specifically with its protagonist, Quentin Coldwater. I mentioned how the book is considered “literary fantasy”, which I specifically called a “bullshit made-up nonsense phrase”. I didn’t delve into my problems with that terminology at the time, but somehow, the more time that passes since I read that book, and the more acclaim for it I read, the angrier I get. And yet again, just as a disclaimer, my issues do not lie solely with Grossman or The Magicians – but they do make very clear examples of the kind of issue I’m going to be discussing.

Today, my qualm is with the word ‘literary’ and the idea of ‘literary fiction’ vs. ‘genre fiction’. Genre fiction is generally thought of as things like science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, westerns, crime fiction, etc. Literary fiction is a little more nebulous, and a little harder to define, but I’ve always known it when I’ve seen it. Personally, I like wikipedia’s definition for the purposes of this post, which we’ll get into in just a moment. But suffice to say for now that genre fiction and literary fiction simply represent two different kinds of writing, no better or worse than any other. And there’d be nothing wrong with that if not for the fact that literary fiction is exalted, while genre fiction is looked down upon.

So, let’s look at that wikipedia definition. I know a lot of people will disagree with it, but I think it’s pretty much spot-on. The first thing the article mentions is that the work must ‘hold literary merit’. I think we can all agree that’s fairly subjective. Oh sure, there’s a broad set of classics, the Western canon if you will, that most everyone agrees upon, but there’s dissent within that. I’m not sure I’ll ever agree that The Scarlet Letter is a book worth reading now, but I’ve also had people tell me that they think 1984 was meaningless, so clearly there’s room for individual opinions. And what’s more, I think most of us can agree that there’s extremely important genre fiction works within the Western canon, of a level of quality equal to or surpassing some ‘literary’ examples. Take Frankenstein, for example. Quite possibly the earliest science fiction novel (there is some dispute even there), one of the quintessential examples of the genre, a book that has survived and remained relevant for hundreds of years. Of course, Frankenstein was written by a woman, so perhaps that’s not the best example (consider that most of the Western canon is written by men and the systemic sexism of the history of publishing, please).

Wikipedia’s second classification is that literary fiction contains ‘deliberate commentary on larger social issues, political issues, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition.’ Okay, that gives us something a little more substantial to work with; it’s an actual metric by which to measure a work. My problem is this: have you ever read a single science fiction novel that doesn’t do this? I don’t believe I have. Science fiction is about using the future (or the past, or the alternate) to explore the present and the here-and-now. Fantasy is much the same, using the concept of the ‘other’ (especially in paranormal works) to explore aspects of the familiar. When people compare the dystopian Panem of The Hunger Games to the past, present, and future US, or to existing current and historical dictatorships, that’s not a fluke – that’s the purpose of the genre. But alas, The Hunger Games was written by a woman, and worse – written for a young adult audience, so of course we’ll focus on the alleged love triangle plot, and not the themes of social injustice.

The third and final feature mentioned by wikipedia is that literary fiction focuses ‘more on themes than on plot’. Ugh. I read that sentence for the first time and shuddered. This is just something I’m going to throw out there, and feel free to disagree: to me, the entire purpose of fiction is to tell stories. Yes, most of the time those stories have meaning and purpose, but that is always secondary to the existence of a story in the first place. “Literature” as we know it derived from people telling stories around the fire. In any other type of work besides what is deemed ‘literary fiction’, the themes overtaking the plot would be called ‘heavy-handed’, ‘blunt’, or ‘unsubtle’ at best. But no, for our precious literary authors, it makes them geniuses, not hacks. If you couldn’t tell, we’ve reached the point where I start to get actually upset at this type of idea and the people who uphold it. The purpose of stories is a varied one, and yes, one of them is to explore deeper themes within a narrative structure. But the themes should be woven in, not randomly flung about until they happen to land on a convenient story. That’s lazy writing in any genre, and it should not be celebrated in ‘literature’. Something I’ve learned is to be a little suspect of any writer who introduces their book by saying it’s about themes x,y, and z, rather than about person a doing thing b.

I’m not saying, by any means, that a book fulfilling any of these criteria is a bad thing. There’s certainly nothing wrong with weighing and debating the literary merit of any given book, just so long as we do not automatically discount genre fiction simply for being what it is. There’s no problem with exploring social and political themes, or expounding on human nature, in fact I’d suggest that I’ve read more books that do this than those that don’t. I wouldn’t even say that there’s a problem with being upfront and overt with the themes of a book, just so long as it’s reasonably well done and the structure of the story can support it. The Harry Potter books are ridiculous blatant with their themes: love is stronger than hate, hating people for what they are is bad, etc. But it works, because 1) the themes presented are actually universal, rather than simply claiming to be, and 2) the plot on its own, without considering any of those themes, is strong enough to support itself. If you removed any grander ideas or morals from Harry Potter, the story of “boy learns that magic exists, goes to wizarding school, and has wild adventures” is, for most, enticing enough to keep them reading.

And of course, there’s my hook to tie this back into The Magicians. At its core, the plot of The Magicians is “boy learns that magic exists, goes to wizarding school, and has wild adventures”. At that zoomed-out level, it does not differ from Harry Potter. I have heard The Magicians described as ‘Harry Potter for adults’, which is insulting on so many levels that I can’t even dignify them all, but here’s the major ones. First of all, it implies that the difference in tone is what sets it apart – that The Magicians (a much sadder book) is appropriate for adults due to its ‘maturity’ (mistaking sadness for maturity is another complaint I have). Second, it implies that the difference in quality is what sets it apart – and I do not for one second believe that The Magicians is a better-written book than Harry Potter. The writing of Harry Potter is not phenomenal, by any means, but the writing in The Magicians was almost painful at times. Third, it implies that adults should ‘move on’ from ‘childish’ books like Harry Potter and graduate to ‘adult’ books like The Magicians, which is a ridiculous idea in the first place. Fourth, equating this book to Harry Potter implies a similar ratio of plot:message, which is simply false. Harry Potter gives you a lot of moralizing, but it gives you enough plot to support that. The Magicians also gives you a lot of moralizing, but it only gives you a threadbare plot to hang that off of.

I don’t, strictly speaking, have a problem with the idea that The Magicians is literary fiction while Harry Potter is genre fiction. I have a problem with the assertion that The Magicians is better than Harry Potter (and countless other worthy genre fiction works) due to that classification. I know, in my original post about The Magicians, I said that I didn’t hate the book, and that still stands (just because the primary redeeming factor is a bear who gets drunk on peach schnapps…). But literally every time I think about it, I find another thing I dislike about it, and it does represent what I hate about many other things as a whole. So many people will scoff and scorn and show just how much they disdain other popular fantasy works, so why does this one get to be the big crossover hit? Why is this the one that is ‘literary’ enough to make it mainstream? Is it the same reason that Game of Thrones gets to be the big fantasy-mainstream crossover hit show (spoiler alert: I think so, yes)? The better solution here, of course, is for people to get their heads out of their asses and see that genre fiction has just as much merit as literary fiction, but I’m not going to count on that happening. In the absence of that, could we please just make sure that it’s actually the good stuff that crosses over into the mainstream? I’d much rather The Magicians not be some snooty jerk’s introduction to modern adult fantasy – it’s only going to validate him further.


(if you couldn’t tell, this is the first post of a… several-part series – tune in for more!)

8 comments for “Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction

  1. February 6, 2015 at 1:30 am

    Personally, I think the funniest thing about the literary/spec fic debate is that the fact that the entire separation of “realistic” fiction is so wholly recent. It’s just literally not an idea that people seemed to have had at any other point in history. Ignores so many unrealistic things that have to happen to compose coherent fiction, why not add dragons once you’re at that point

    Tragically I find that I gotta side with the Guy In Yr MFA camp here though because if every book could get away without having a plot I’d be so willing. Character is the only axis for me, plot is just a bunch of junk that has to happen to the people. (My plot allergy is also, I think, also why I’ll always enjoy & ID more with fantasy than scifi.)

    • Jennifer Kathleen
      February 6, 2015 at 7:08 am

      Hahaha, I read “side with the Guy in Yr MFA” and I think I might have to disown you now. To me, character is probably equally important as plot, but they have to intersect, otherwise you have static people doing stuff, or dynamic people not doing stuff, and I don’t want either of those.

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