Friday, October 26, 2012

Genre vs. literary fiction

Artist: Norman Rockwell
The old genre vs. literary fiction debate is like a zombie that doesn’t know it’s dead. Like most political debate these days, it amounts to little more than people taking pot shots at each other. And for someone like me on the sidelines, I find neither argument persuasive or even interesting.

Arthur Krystal in a recent New Yorker has once again tried to pump life into the ongoing discourse. To clarify what makes genre a lesser form of fiction, he says simply that it’s “commercial.” And he draws an analogy to Christmas. Genre is like getting presents from Santa, while Literary is more like going to church. Fun vs. worship.

The problem with this kind of either-or thinking is exactly that. The pleasures of the text do not exist chiefly on one side of that false dilemma or the other. And more to the point, I think, they are best measured under the skin, not somewhere outside it.

You may find me carousing on Saturday night and fervently pious on a Sunday morning, but I’m not going to give up one for the other. So enough with the arguments, OK?

Coming up: Saturday music, Everly Brothers


  1. To me, literary fiction is just another form of genre. It has it's rules and characteristics.

  2. Great analogy at the beginning. I agree.

  3. I've found that those who argue most fervently in cases like this turn out to have seldom (if ever) actually "sampled" the other side. They discover what they like and then stubbornly argue that anything else can't possibly be as good ... By the way, did I mention that I hate so-called literary fiction and make it a point to avoid everything so labeled?

  4. I've wrestled with this over a lifetime of writing. I keep finding the supposed artistic qualities of literary fiction richly present in genre or popular novels, and vice versa. Is it art versus commerce? The people in academia and at the New York Review of Books think so, and opt for art. But history fools them. Dickens writes for the unwashed in his lifetime, and emerges as a great artist a few generations later. Moby Dick starts as rubbish and ends up a masterpiece. And those artistes who write for the ages end up on the trash heap. Go through the hundreds of MFA programs in creative writing offered by universities and you will find not one--not one-- focusing on genre or popular fiction, because that stuff ain't fine art.

  5. "Literary" fiction is another genre without all the horses and cowboys. If literary fiction represented the only art in writing, L'Amour, Kelton, Twain, and many others would be turning over in their graves.

  6. Ron, I wouldn't give up one for the other either. At the end of the day all I want is a good book to read, never mind where it emerges from.

  7. I have to admit that I read both genre and literary fiction. I'm always trying to read the best of both, the 10% or less quality fiction. For instance if I had to pick a desert island book it would be the plays of Shakespeare. My favorite novel is War and Peace. Yet I also love reading the best pulp fiction and my favorite magazine of all the ones that I collect is ADVENTURE, especially in the 1920's.

    I collect and read many literary magazines and quarterlies as well as pulp magazines.