Ye old writing debate: “Literary” vs. “Genre”

Today, I couldn’t help but thinking about the old “us vs. them” mentality that permeates our society. I find it virtually everywhere I look, much to my dismay. It feels like whatever the issue, people are lined up on both sides of the line.

Sometimes, it’s just silly. There are the iPhone people and the Android people. Recently on the radio, the deejays were pondering the question, “Are iPhone users snobs?” Seriously? * sigh *Maybe I should just switch to NPR, but I’m kind of a pop-culture junkie. I like knowing when the latest Lady Gaga or Pink or Taylor Swift song comes out and hearing people’s reactions. I digress…

So what does this have to do with writers? Because I feel like we’re caught in this battle every day. There are the “literary” people and the “genre” people. And the literary people can’t understand how people can debase themselves by writing that formulaic, uninspiring dribble.  And the genre people can’t figure out why the literary people have such sticks up their arses. The literary people say genre has no place in a college classroom. And the genre people can’t figure out why the literary people can’t see that it takes a helluva lot of talent to write a good book in any genre, be it science-fiction, fantasy, romance, young-adult, or other. I once heard a professor say that he simply couldn’t allow his students to write genre fiction because, well, he didn’t know how to grade it. The man was a talented writer and well admired. How could he not know good fiction, regardless of the genre label placed on it?

Now, I guess you do have to know the conventions of the genre. These are really reader expectations. We expect certain things out of certain novels. So if you’re writing a romance novel, your readers have an idea of what to expect. If in the last scene, the characters break up, your reader is going to be puzzled or if pissed (or waiting for the sequel!). If halfway through a romance novel, a bus plows into your hero and leaves him for dead, your readers are going to be scratching their heads going, “What the hell?” And maybe we’re expecting him to rise from the dead.

Maybe literary fiction writers are less constrained by these conventions. Perhaps there is more freedom to break the rules. But I contend that the ingredients of good writing are the same regardless of genre. If you pick up any good book about fiction writing, you can apply those tips and techniques to your own work whether you’re writing about vampires or jewel heists or dead mothers or the Holocaust. The basic ingredients are there.

But it’s the trappings that are different. I’m guessing that’s what the aforementioned professor meant—that he didn’t know the generic conventions and so couldn’t grade his students’ work on those aspects. Not a reader of Regency romance, mystery novels, or science fiction, he wouldn’t know what the readers of these sorts of books were looking for. Writing fantasy and sci-fi is unique because we have to build a world from scratch or myth and create rules for it. It’s somewhere no one, not even the writer, has been, and we’re taking the reader on a journey through that place. Even if it’s New York City circa 2011, if we’ve added vampires or werewolves or faeries into the mix, then suddenly we have to convince our reader to believe in a world where such things are real. It’s one more ingredient in our writing that contemporary realistic fiction doesn’t face. Note: Writers of historical fiction face the same dilemma, with the difference that they’re recreating a place out of the past. Just like the paranormal author has to be sure that the rules of his/her world are consistent and believable, the historical fiction writer has to be sure that the world is historically accurate down to the last petticoat and revolver.

The trappings might be different. But plot, structure, character, dialogue, all of those core elements remain the same. What makes a good scene remains the same. Even within the constraints of reader expectation, there’s a lot of work to be done in creating a successful novel. So why do these beliefs still persist?

One little blog entry isn’t going to bridge the divide, but I’m curious where everyone stands on this issue. Have you run into these old arguments in the course of your career? How do you respond?

6 thoughts on “Ye old writing debate: “Literary” vs. “Genre”

  1. This need to pigeonhole everything in life is so sad isn’t it? I’ve certainly come across it in the writing/book world. For me, it should just be as simple as – write what you want to write;read what you want to read. If you get something from it (whatever that might be) then it has value. But I’m only human and it’s sometimes hard to let the slurs slide.

    • “Write what you want to write; read what you want to read.” I couldn’t agree more. I understand people not being big fans of certain types of books, but I think it’s still important for us to recognize the value in different types of literature. I think we should definitely read outside of our comfort zones, but I’ll never buy that whole “I read REAL books” line anymore than I buy it with music.
      Thanks for commenting. I hope your writing is going well. 🙂

  2. My closest friend at uni writes literary and I write genre. We both respect each other’s writer and can critique without prejudice getting in the way. But I’ve had issues with tutor’s before who haven’t liked the genre I have written in. But as far as I see it I think that both sides could stand to learn a lot from each other. This is also why next year I’ve chosen to do a dissertation over a creative writing project.

    • Yeah, I definitely think we should all work together. In my opinion, it’s all art, and it’s all about the human experience. You’re right: We could all stand to learn a lot from each other.

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