When it comes to reading, I like all sorts of genres. I’ve read historical books, romantic books, crime books, thrillers, literary fiction. There are good and bad samples in all of these, but I like to think that that is always down to the writer, not the genre. My personally favourite genre is Fantasy; from the high fantasy world of Tolkien, to grittier realistic styles of George R.R. Martin. Leaving the real world and going into one of pure imagination is far more satisfying to me than simply and story from the real world. But when you are a fan of this genre, when you visit bookstores you notice that it is so often relegated to a single, out of the way bookshelf. It’s the same with others, such as Sci-Fi or Crime. For some reason people decided that the shelves labeled as simply “Fiction” were too good, and the genres had to be kept away.
When you compare the concepts of “Genre Fiction” and “Literary Fiction”, it seems to me that ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Literary’ sit at the very opposite ends of the spectrum. Where most Literary Fiction is about the poetry of the writing and depth of character, Genre fiction often require far more world building and plot development. Fantasy often has this more than others, as it requires a whole other world to be created and made believable before you can invest in the characters and plot.
But that doesn’t mean that it does not require the same skill in writing. In my opinion, an excellent Fantasy novel would be a lot harder to write than an excellent Literary novel, for as well as the prose style and the insights into the psychology of the characters the author needs to also have created an interesting world and plot to support them.
Personally, I feel that Literary fiction often has a lot of very snobby champions. It seems to me that the definition simply came about to cover novels that could not be put into a ‘simple’ genre. It is often these unique, wonderful books that gain much literary acclaim, but then other writers create work with no obvious genre and so get bundled into the same group despite their lack of notable attributes. And then for some reason genre fiction is seen as ‘lesser’ writing.
And this often leads people to pigeonhole genre fiction, refusing to believe it can offer anything original and interesting. It amazes me, but there really does seem to be a mindset of people out there who believe that if you can put something into a ‘genre’ it means that it cannot offer anything new.
I am a member of the online writing community YouWriteOn.com. The site allows to you upload your work for other members to review and comment on. Most people are free and open minded in their opinions of my work, but occasionally I will get comments such as these:
“This is not the sort of book I will usually read…”
“This follows the Tolkien pattern of dwarves and elves. Nothing new here.”
The first of those is an honest opinion. Everybody has their own tastes. I dislike certain genres, but recognise that there are excellent works within them. It’s the second really makes me angry. These people are not judging the work on its own merits, but on the tropes of the genre. If they wanted to comment on how I had used those tropes in my work then that would be fully justified and I would accept that, but this is simply a judgement of their inclusion.
While a writer always has to be careful of being derivative of others work, that’s the skill of the author we are questioning. Katherine Kerr, Raymond E. Feist, and J.R.R. Tolkien have all written long running Fantasy series’ including elves. Their works are completely different. It is as if someone read the first chapters of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy and thought “Ah, this book has spies. It’s just a James Bond rip off.”
Now I’m not trying to say there isn’t derivative Genre Fiction out there. I’ve read plenty of it. Every genre will have a mix of the excellent, the so so, and the terrible. Believe me, I could list a number of Fantasy authors who I cannot believe ever managed to get published. And I am sure that I could do the same from every other genre. But that just means there are terrible authors who can get published. It’s a shame, but we all have to put up with it. But some people need to remember that Literary Fiction is just another genre, not somehow separate and a step above.