My local library system gives me the ability to checkout audio or ebooks onto my phone. Their search criteria include the choice of 118 “collections” or I’ll use the word genres. Some are overlaps, still, that is quite a few ways to hunt for what you want to read next. Many readers find a writer they like and search on that person for what’s the next book. Maybe you’ve heard your favorite author described as a genre writer. Or a literary writer. What those two words mean can be confusing. Especially to those who haven’t obtained their Master of Fine Arts, the only area where I think the difference matters to anyone.
Let’s start with dictionary definitions. From my The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, New Collect Edition circa 1975, we have:
Genre – 1.a. Type: class: variety. 1.b. A distinctive class or category of literary composition. [French, kind, from Old French gen(d)re, From the Latin genus (seem gener) – race, kind.] 2.a. A category of art distinguished by a definite style, form, or content.
(note that the root of genre – genus, is the same root as genes and gender)
Literary – Of relating to or dealing with literature. 2.a. Found in, or appropriate to literature: a literary style. 2.b. Employed chiefly in writing rather than speaking
Literature – 1.a A body of writings in prose or verse. 2. Imaginative or creative writing: belles-lettres. 3.The body of written work produced by scholars or researches in a given field: 5. Printed material of any kind, as for a political or advertising campaign. [From Latin litterarura, writing, learning, from literatus, learned.]
From the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)
Genre — a particular subject or style of literature, art, or music.
Steven Petite wrote an interesting piece for Huffingtonpost, where he discusses the difference between literary and genre writing. “An argument can be made that there are two types of fiction when it comes to novels: Genre Fiction and Literary Fiction. The former includes many subcategories such as Mystery/Thriller, Horror, Romance, Western, Fantasy, Science Fiction, etc. The latter is more difficult to classify or break apart into subcategories. To put it simply, Literary Fiction is anything that does not fit into a genre.”
This version of the word genre puts the act of writing in first place, the type of writing or rather, the subject matter in second. Combined with the dictionary definitions, genre writing is creative prose or verse with a definite style and/or content. Literary writing would also be creative prose or verse and the individual writer lends a definite style or subject. They sound almost the same, don’t they? Yet there are turf battles over these two words: literary and genre. Agents and publishers distinguish between them in their wish lists. Some publishers specialize in one or the other, and often, within a specific subject or style. Some literary readers look down on genre readers and writers.
Mr. Petite summarizes his discussion with: “In essence, the best Genre Fiction contains great writing, with the goal of telling a captivating story to escape from reality. Literary Fiction is comprised of the heart and soul of a writer’s being and is experienced as an emotional journey through the symphony of words, leading to a stronger grasp of the universe and of ourselves.”
In my words, he’s arguing that the essential difference between genre and literary fiction is on which side of reality the story is told. I see it through a different lens.
Literary fiction approaches the same ingredients from the perspective of gritty reality. Yet crime novels and intrigue novels are in the real world. Much of children’s literature (a genre – just to confuse things) take place in the real world. So that can’t be used as the primary delineator. Perhaps it can be said that genre fiction comes at whatever deep thoughts there are from a metaphorical perspective. Good science fiction or fantasy contains made-up worlds that contain the same battles and problems as the real world, and the stories are told in a way that slips the message and learning in sideways, with entertainment to boot. Perhaps it’s a sign that I’m not a deep thinker, (though my friends would argue against that) but I want my reading to delight me. That can take many forms: imaginary worlds, real worlds seen in a different light, or pure escapism. A book like Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is considered literary fiction, it takes place in a very real place. But as an American, the worlds of India and Africa described are as different to me as a dreamed-up planet in outer space. Petite’s “escape from reality” is really an “escape to another reality” (genre writing) and combines with an “emotional journey” (literary writing) to create an engaging story.
I don’t think genre writers and readers should be made to feel inferior to literary writers and readers. After all, literary fiction is another type of prose creative writing with a unique style and content. In other words, another genre. Now to decide which of the 5,075 books available at my library for download I should I pick next.
What types of books do you like and does it matter if they are considered genre or literary?