Literary Fiction vs. Genre – what’s the difference?

There are three genre novels up for the Giller Prize Reader’s Choice. Two are mysteries, one is science fiction. All these books were identified by their publishers as “eligible” literary fiction.

A genre novel has never won the Giller. Elana Rabinovitch, the Giller Prize’s director, has said in an interview that the Giller’s focus is on literary fiction, not genre. When asked about Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, she said she doubted Atwood would consider her work science fiction.

And yet surely the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction (if there is one) rests on more than one’s subjective interpretation.

So what is the difference between genre and literary fiction?

Well,  some people argue that literary fiction is simply another genre, one with its own conventions which focus on the “self.” Under this definition, a literary novel is not only character-driven, but involves an internal monologue, a psychological examination of one person’s evolution. ( Samuel Delaney called it the “tyranny of the subject.”) 

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, then, may be science fiction, but meets the test.  However, Oryx and Crake is not really an examination of self. The main characters don’t evolve; they survive.

Both books are post-apocalyptic. If they’re not science fiction, why not? Why are these books seen as falling outside of this genre?

Michael Chabon argues some books can be both genre and literary. He thinks it’s impossible to draw boundaries around good writing, that a great story transcends genre boundaries.

I agree. But I also think there is a difference between literary fiction and other genre fiction, one based on literary fiction’s own set of conventions. The major one to me rests on plot.

Genre fiction seeks resolution: mysteries are solved; planets are rescued, victims escape. Romances are either consummated or ended.

Literary fiction, by contrast, doesn’t like to see loose ends wrapped up. Ambiguity is preferred. The literary novel  leaves us hanging. In other types of genre fiction, we usually know what comes next when we finish reading: in literary fiction, we often know little more than who’s left standing.

But genre novels can sometimes leave us with that sense of uncertainty about the future too, hence why Oryx and Crake is as much literary as it is science fiction.  So I’m with Chabon on this one. I think great writing transcends boundaries and genre. Literary fiction can be science fiction, too. A great mystery can be literary.

I can’t wait for the day when the Giller judges discover an eligible book they consider to be both.

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8 Responses to Literary Fiction vs. Genre – what’s the difference?

  1. Mae Lorette says:

    My goodness, it is as though you have been reading my mind. This is enormously helpful. My granddaughter asked me the other day about the genre of the novel I have just completed. She is only 11. It was a good thing it was by text, because she didn’t hear me gulp. Describing it as literary sounds like conceit and yet it has a touch of the mystery. She decided that it was a mystery. Thanks Peggy Blair.


  2. philfeedback says:

    Things get curiouser and curiouser…


  3. Mark says:

    I like to think there is just good writing and bad writing, and that the genre doesn’t matter. That said, when literary writers go “slumming” in genre writing, it’s often with a purpose. Atwood’s Lady Oracle played with the conventions of the romance novel. Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy played with the detective novel. With Sanctuary, Faulkner tried to write a “commercial” novel, ripped from the headlines, but it ended up a literary masterpiece…


  4. Peggy Blair says:

    Maybe a literary writer is always a literary writer, whether they write to other genre conventions or not?


  5. crotchetyoldfan says:

    I think there are two differences between “literary” and “genre”. One is conceit. The authors themselves feel and often publicly express – protesting too much – their disdain for whatever genre their work superficially resembles. They are “art”, genre works are “craft”. Literary works are written so that the author can express their inner feelings and thoughts. Genre works are cranked out by hacks, regurgitating formulaically.
    What these authors seem to forget is that every reader’s take on their work is personally subjective and that their “art” can be just as crappy as any piece of formulaic genre junk.
    The second difference seems to be that when “literary” authors dabble in genre fields, they have so much disdain for it that they can’t be bothered to learn what it is all really about; they end up using themes and tropes in ways they have no clue are just plain bad. Their efforts along those lines would be laughable – except for the publicity and praise they receive at the expense of the genre(s) they are (unintentionally) lampooning.


  6. D. Margara says:

    I came across this post in a Google search. I absolutely love how you said at the end of literary all we know is who is left standing. It’s like something I always knew, but reading your words really brought it into focus. 🙂


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