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.