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Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction

Let’s talk about books, and how we divide them.

The world of literature divides the books we read into two main types: “literary” and “genre”. But what do these terms mean to the average reader?

Not much. Simple reader enthusiasts have no time for fancy labels—they like the books they like, with categorization as an afterthought. Put the people who live in the world of literature (often the sort who obsessively analyze and suck the enjoyment out of any activity) swear up and down that category is all that matters. Literary fiction, or “lit fic” as the kids these days call it, is more than simple entertainment. It’s Literature, Art with a capital A, to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect. It’s the center from which everything else radiates. Everything else, from mysteries to science fiction, falls into the lower house of mere “genre fiction”. These sad little souls are imprisoned in a flat, grey world constrained by rules, where plots have to lead somewhere, endings have to provide resolution, and horrific leaps of illogic that those enlightened literati praise “intellectually challenging” are given the axe by philistinic editors. What silly peasants. Why can’t they just be more sophisticated, like their older brothers in lit fic? Lit fic, being Art, doesn’t have to be understandable to us lesser beings. How else would we know it was Art?


Exhibit A: the Literary Snob (Literaria superior)

Exhibit A: the Common Literary Snob (Sophosimulatus arrogans) 


Simply put, lit fic is full of it. It doesn’t exist it the present; only in the future by critics looking back and picking favorites through hindsight. To do this, the critic goes back and reads extra meaning into their favorite books to make them seem deeper and more profound. There’s really nothing too wrong with that. We all like to think of our tastes as more highbrow than they are, and as long as it’s not taken too far it’s all in good fun. The problem comes in when a work’s status as “literature” is used to compensate for incomprehensibility. Critics can say that profound thoughts can come across as gibberish to the simple-minded, and to an extent that is true. If you doubt it, try explaining evolution to a seven-year-old. But that excuse only goes so far. If a writer’s profundity can’t be fit into the confines of an actual story, it should be considered a very long poem and judged by those standards. It shouldn’t have excuses made for it and elevated above criticism in a category it doesn’t fit into, a category with no boundaries, seemingly, beyond “a favorite of over-educated hipsters”.


All books can be thrust into a genre, but people insist upon separating out the deepest as their own group, lorded above the others. It ignores what makes fiction good in the first place—the author lets you into their imagination and world, with a good story attached. “Literary fiction” has no restrictions, not even the restriction of having to make sense. 


Perhaps the genre of literary fiction should be recognized as a non-existent grouping, and divide up lit fic among the rest of writing. They could be put in whichever genre they shared the most elements with. But that leaves the other works of Literature—the ones which defy all the rules, which are so “deep” as to be meaningless. They can go hang out with the free-verse poetry, where they always belonged.


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