Is Genre Fiction Junk Fiction?

In these days of inclusivity, equality, and the breaking down of barriers, there are those (both writers and readers) who would abolish the boundary between literary and genre fiction. Some now say that genre writers are striving for the same things as literary writers; they just do it in a different, more accessible, reader-friendly kind of way. That is to say, literary writers are just a bunch of stuck-up snobs who look down on hard-working genre writers for no good reason. If this is true, then either everything is literature, or everything is genre fiction. The argument has successfully removed the time-honoured distinction.

Row of Old Leather Bound Books

In this age of inclusivity we must not lose sight of the difference between literature and genre fiction.  (Image: public domain.)

This is not constructive. Anyone who reads both literature and genre fiction must certainly notice the difference between the two. First, there is the question of degree. Literary writers spend far more time polishing their prose than a genre writer. They have to. Standards are so much higher in the literary world. Genre writers and readers who disagree have not spent enough time reading literature. Furthermore, a work’s “content” has to be more sophisticated, more deeply emotional and profoundly philosophical, to qualify as literature. Genre writing is about amusement. It is about story. Literature often has no plot whatsoever being only a superbly crafted and perceptive “slice of life.”

We must be careful not to confuse general or mainstream fiction with literary fiction. Mainstream fiction is writing which does not fit into a category, yet falls short of literature’s lofty standards of style and content. It lacks the outstanding quality of writing and does not have the striking degree of freshness and originality we associate with literature. We might think of mainstream fiction as “run of the mill” fiction.

Finally, it is easy to acquire the bad habit of talking about literature itself as a genre. When you hear someone say that literature should not too closely resemble writing in other genres you are hearing this error. Literature is not a genre in the way that word is now used (category), for the simple reason that it covers far too much ground to be pigeonholed. Categories are by definition narrow and well-defined.

The current preoccupation with ideas like inclusivity, equality, and the removal of barriers is really another way of declaring that we no longer have (or want) any standards. Saying we have no standards sounds bad, so some of us have come up with euphemisms like “inclusivity” to mask our intentions and make them more acceptable or even desirable. The vocabulary is a cunning smokescreen. Instead of trying to be inclusive, we should be asking ourselves why we are so determined to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator. Luckily, there will always be people who can tell the different between ordinary and exceptional. No matter how we choose to label or mislabel it, literature will survive.

Does this mean genre fiction is no good? Not at all. Most people prefer an engrossing or exciting story to a superbly crafted, profound piece of literature. Many people enjoy both. The best genre-fiction writers deliver the goods by entertaining their readers in the way they want to be entertained.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

8 thoughts on “Is Genre Fiction Junk Fiction?”

  1. I think you point out a lot of things I wish I was able to point out to most people who talk to me about “literature.” Literature to them meaning “Hunger Games” or something similar. Now, I love genre fiction and I love literary fiction. I think there are some good genre fiction novels which blur the line between genre and literary.

    I’ve been told a couple times to give The Hunger Games a chance because “it has a really good plot.” That’s all well and good, but I don’t feel like dealing with something poorly written. Not that all genre is written poorly or without attention to the craft, because I have read some well crafted, profound genre before.

    Good post. It has the gears moving in my head, which isn’t something too many blog posts do for me. 🙂

  2. Thanks for defending standards. It frustrates me to have conversations about books only to discover most people haven’t read literary fiction since high school, or maybe a college course. I honestly don’t read too much genre fiction because it’s more of a joy to see masters of the craft work and they don’t write genre fiction. If I could convince more people of this I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t regret it.

  3. This is a very interesting discussion (like, educated, you know what I mean?)

    Seriously, though, I think there are books which count as classics which might be defined as ‘genre’ too, had the term existed when they were written. I find this very confusing. Are they, then, not literary fiction but early genre fiction? For instance, ‘Wuthering Heights’ (Gothic – and I’m the first to admit its melodramatic flaws) Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ (romance, though with unhappy ending) ‘The Turn of the Screw’. Then, there’s Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (more Gothic). I don’t know if Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ counts as literary fiction, though it does count as a classic genre presumably; it’s histrionic style always makes me laugh.

    I think genre writers have a bad name in general because unfortunately there are some writers out there who aren’t too fussy about their style and grammar.

    ‘We snuck off. His eyes were blazing piees of azure and shined as he rip of his shirt…’ type of style.

    It’s not a new problem, though. I remember reading a western when I was about fourteen where the protagonist said everything ‘soberly’.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to comment, stateofthebook. I am always happy to weigh in on the side of standards. As you might infer from the post’s penultimate paragraph, I see the lack thereof as a growing problem that goes well beyond the blurring of writing boundaries. The omnipresent readiness to denounce as a snob anyone who defends standards only worsens the situation. In reality, such things as standards and boundaries ensure not only quality of work, but variety of work. We all benefit.

  5. I enjoy your sense of humour, Lucinda. Yes, this is, like, an educated discussion. Your confusion over what appear to be “genre” classics is widespread. I think there are two issues in play here. First, as I suggested in the post, literature cannot be pigeonholed. If a work is considered good enough to meet the standards, it is regarded as literature regardless of any other classification you might care to apply. Norway’s Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize for literature even though her books are clearly historical fiction. Undset was awarded the prize, and her work is considered literature, because her historical fiction is in a class by itself.

    Second, tastes and writing styles change. I chuckle over some of the old classics myself. Yet these novels were highly original ground breakers at the time of their publication. Sometimes their style was noteworthy, sometimes their content, sometimes both. They met the literary standards of their time by being well written in a strikingly new style or because their subject matter had those qualities of freshness and originality that I mentioned in the post. Once a work has been accepted as literature, it tends to keep the designation regardless of what comes after. Remember that many of today’s genre novels are the latest in a long line of imitations that started with these old chestnuts.

    You are dead right when you say genre writers have earned their bad name by having low standards when it comes to grammar and style. However, genre fiction is (or was!) written to make money. To profit from writing, it has long been necessary to turn out a lot of books or stories, and the need for haste inevitably degrades quality of work. This has become acceptable because genre readers tend to focus on the story rather than the writing anyway. You will notice that books about genre writing stress the importance of plot and storyline. Sloppy is okay, but you need a ripping good yarn.

  6. I’m glad you found the post stimulating, Samantha. I share your taste for reading on both sides of the divide. I’m as enthusiastic about Gene Wolfe’s sci-fi novels as you can get. Genre fiction can have something to say, although I’m not convinced genre writers give their theme the same amount of thought that literary writers do, but I read it mostly for a good satisfying story. I read literature to learn about life and people while enjoying the virtuosity of the prose. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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