The debate between literary fiction and genre fiction is a long-standing one. Genre fiction is accused of being insignificant and shallow while literary fiction is called pretentious and boring. There is a perceived hierarchy between the two, where literary fiction is considered superior. But what’s the difference?
Literary fiction is classified as novels that have literary merit. Examples include “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf, “Beloved” by Toni Morrison and “1984” by George Orwell. Genre fiction is known as popular, commercial or category fiction. Examples range from “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins to “A Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin.
The main difference appears to be the purpose. Literary fiction aims to provide insight that creates a stronger understanding of the world and of the human condition. Genre fiction can tackle complex themes as well, but it’s more of an entertaining story that allows the reader to escape from reality.
Encompassed under genre fiction is almost every story that has fantastical, dystopian or science-fiction elements.
In having different goals, the construction of literary fiction and genre fiction requires different techniques. These discernable differences boil down to writing style and plot scale. Literary fiction has more carefully-crafted sentences, often relies heavily on symbolism and is character-driven. In contrast, genre fiction uses an accessible writing style to deliver a fast-paced plot.
While it might appear on the surface that literary fiction has more meaningful content, the line between literary and genre is definitely more blurred than the standard definitions imply. For example, though “A Game of Thrones” has an extensive plot, it is also rich with vivid and intricate characters.
Furthermore, literary authors have been known to write works that are considered dystopian or fantasy. An example of this would be Margaret Atwood with “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
There is no universal tool by which to measure which novels produce a richer understanding of the world. The answer would be different depending on who is asked. An African-American girl would probably extract a deeper understanding of herself and society if she read Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” the story of an African-American girl who witnesses shooting of childhood friend by a police officer, as opposed to Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” the story of a battle between a fisherman and a fish.
Furthermore, genre fiction has more value beyond entertainment.
Lev Grossman, a New York Times bestselling author, stated in a Times article, “When you read genre fiction, you leave behind the problems of reality — but only to re-encounter those problems in transfigured form, in an unfamiliar guise, one that helps you understand them more completely, and feel them more deeply.”
In having the “literary fiction” label, a dichotomy is created within readers: those who read literary fiction and those who don’t. There is a preconceived notion that one has to have a formal education in English literature or have read literary fiction to have informative conversations about books.
This false idea leads to what is called “reader shaming,” wherein people who have read literary fiction look down on those who haven’t. Every reader has their own likes, dislikes and their own way to read. Every reading experience has the potential to be valuable, and no one should feel that their insights on the material are insignificant.
My argument is not that genre fiction is better than literary fiction but that it can have just as much value. We shouldn’t waste our time arbitrarily dividing book categories. At the end of the day, reading is reading, no matter the subject matter, medium or format.