The Snobbery of Literary Fiction Over Genre Fiction

This afternoon, Australian speculative fiction writer Alan Baxter started up a Twitter discussion (using the #ewf11 hashtag) on literary fiction, or more specifically, how the writing/publishing community seems to view it as a “higher” form of writing than genre fiction, and whether this is a valid point of view. Since this is a topic that has interested me for a long time – and because I was looking for a way to avoid working on my conference paper – I was eager to join the fray.

As a die-hard fantasy reader and writer, it’s probably easy to guess which side of the fence I’m on for this argument. Ever since I began writing seriously, I’ve noticed that a lot of people look on genre fiction – particularly fantasy, science fiction and horror – as low-brow entertainment, and therefore dismiss it as having no literary merit. One of the main examples of this was a teacher I had in TAFE while doing my writing and editing diploma; he hated fantasy as he felt that it was an excuse for bad writing. However, as I pointed out in the Twitter discussion, bad writing exists in all genres, not just fantasy.

Another point raised in the discussion was the existence of morals or messages about the meaning of life in literary fiction somehow making it more valid than other forms of writing. As many people said on Twitter, genre fiction is just as capable of giving readers something important and meaningful to take away from the story. And – as I and other Twitter users noted – genre fiction can deliver these things in a way that is more interesting; sure, I like stories about character development and the human condition, but I know that I’m going to enjoy it more if the story also involves dragons, magic or airships and so on. It’s all very well for a story to have a message, but if it is dull, no one is going to read it. Twitterers provided examples such as Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett; though both fantasy authors, their work blurs the boundary between genre fiction and literary fiction. In a way, it should be entirely possible for some genre books to be considered literary fiction, but because of the “snobbery” of literary fiction, genre fiction is excluded from its ranks.

There is also the issue of reading for enlightenment versus reading for entertainment. Sometimes readers don’t want to be bombarded with deep and meaningful preaching on what it is to be human. Sometimes we just want to read something fun and exciting, or frightening and disturbing.

A lot of good arguments were brought up in the Twitter discussion, but since I’ve already avoided my homework for long enough, this will be the last I mention in this post. A common sentiment expressed in the discussion was that story is just as important as writing. Well-crafted prose is all well and good, but the plot and characters and events in the story can make or break the writing, and vice versa. If the writing is good but the story it tells is boring or disorganised, many readers will abandon the book. Likewise, if the story is well-plotted and exciting but the writing is sloppy and badly executed, we are not likely to read beyond the first few pages. Personally I tend to favour story over writing, but both of these elements still need to be good for me to finish the book.

Anyway, I should probably get back to writing my conference paper (damn assignments cutting into my writerly ranting time). What are your thoughts? Were you also involved in the Twitter discussion? I’d be happy to see more opinions in the comments.

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About Rebecca J Fleming

Some random geek on the Internet who likes playing with coloured things. Also, I like to put Easter eggs in the microwave.
This entry was posted in Fiction, Opinion, Publishing, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Snobbery of Literary Fiction Over Genre Fiction

  1. Literary fiction was never my cup of tea. I’ve been reading books from the day I could, but the worst dip in my reading speed was when I had to read for my Dutch classes. I’m perfectly fine with books that have a deeper message, but for some reason most works of literary fiction I read did so at the expensive of being compelling.

    There were of course exceptions, but those books either had characters I could connect with (a teenage boy protagonist who was madly in love with a girl), or were works of magic realism that bordered on fantasy.

    Literary fiction is not better than genre fiction. Different yes, but that is merely the result of having different goals. A work of literary fiction can be entertaining, just as a work of genre fiction can be enlightening. Neither form of fiction is a guarantee for good writing though, and I have seen both crap and excellence in both.

  2. I pretty much agree. There’s no excuse for bad writing, regardless of what you write. As someone who occasionally teaches creative writing at a university (and as both a fantasy writer and an academic who researches fantasy), it never ceases to amaze me that so many academics have a problem with genre fiction (and yet admit to reading it for pleasure, as though that’s such a bad thing!). Personally, I think any good creative writing course should teach elements of plotting/storytelling, characterisation, etcetera, as well as language, style, and so on. These things aren’t mutually exclusive!
    Also, I’d like to see the term ‘literary fiction’ (itself, a genre designator) replaced by ‘contemporary fiction’ or some other term that’s divorced from any implication of value or quality.

  3. I’ve read ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ and there is no way I could bring myself to read Austen’s original texts.

    Plus if you take recent trends into account, the money is in genre writing where there’s a good story. And most literary texts keep popularity through the genre they can fall into. i.e. Austen is pretty much old-timey romance…

  4. Agreed. I don’t even see why “literary fiction” is considered a separate genre. From what I understand, it is meant to refer to fiction that is particularly well-written, but as we’ve established, there is the potential for both excellence and utter garbage in all genres. And I’d imagine that most of what is called “literary fiction” today could easily be categorised according to one of the “normal” genres.
    It does make me laugh, though, how even some people who read fantasy consider it a guilty pleasure, kind of the equivalent of watching one of those daytime soap dramas on TV. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a fantasy nut, and I wear my geekiness with pride!

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