Lines Drawn in the Air: literary and genre fiction

Occasioned by the Gaiman/Sarrantonio Stories anthology, David Barnett has written a blog post for the Guardian on ‘literary’ versus ‘genre’ fiction. I can’t help thinking that it’s based on a false opposition. He writes:

The ongoing, endless war between “literary” fiction and “genre” fiction has well-defined lines in the sand. Genre’s foot soldiers think that literary fiction is a collection of meaningless but prettily drawn pictures of the human condition. The literary guard consider genre fiction to be crass, commercial, whizz-bang potboilers. Or so it goes.

Well… Maybe some people do hold views like these, but I struggle to accept it as a generalisation. From my point of view, the kinds of distinctions to which Barnett refers are simply artificial. I’d agree with Aliya Whiteley that all the plot in the world is no guarantee of a good read, not if you don’t care about it; and that that both fast- and slower-paced novels can be worthwhile. I also think that Sam Jordison has it right in his comment on Barnett’s post when he points out that plenty of ‘literary’ fiction tells a good story. And I would disagree with the implication that a page-turner must be plot-driven. We turn the page because we want to know what’s written on the next one; I don’t see that it makes much difference whether what’s written there is a plot point, or a character observation, or whatever.

I define the focus of this blog as ‘literary fiction’, but I deliberately take a broad view of what that term means; some of it would be considered genre, some perhaps not. As far as I’m concerned, no matter what I’m reading, my basic approach doesn’t change: what I want is for a book or story to be the best it can, whatever it’s doing – and I hope that attitude comes through in what I write.

The divide between literary and genre can vanish with a tweak of perception. Consider this post by Larry Nolen, in which he responds to another blog post that identified lack of sf/fantasy authors in the New Yorker’s recent list of 20 American writers aged under 40, and contrasted  that with the  Daily Telegraph’s similar list of British writers.

(I will pause briefly to wonder what definition of ‘British’ led to the inclusion of Paul Murray in the Telegraph’s list, then move on.)

Larry points out, quite rightly, that the New Yorker list does include some authors of fantastic literature; it’s just that their work tends not to appear on the science fiction and fantasy shelves. However, we could go further, and note that China Miéville is the only writer on the Telegraph list who is published as a genre author. All the others on that list who could be considered to have written science fiction or fantasy, from Rana Dasgupta to Scarlett Thomas, are published as mainstream – just like the writers Larry mentions.

If there are lines between literary and genre fiction, I would suggest that they’re not so much drawn in the sand, as drawn in the air – and can be stepped over just as easily.


  1. I agree with you – the line between the two is often impossible to draw. Some people can get a bit snobbish about the whole thing, but I don’t care which side of any line a book falls – I’m just looking for a something that will hold my attention, entertain me and if I’m lucky then it will educate too.

  2. Thanks for this! We need all the reminders we can get that a “commercial” looking cover doesn’t always mean that what’s inside is any less well-written.

    I know that what I usually like tends to be under the label “literary fiction,” but I don’t think it’s necessarily better than other kinds of books, and I’m really happy when I find something I enjoy outside of that label.

  3. To be honest I have a hard time putting books into categories at all. And I have never quite understood what “literary” or “genre” fiction is supposed to mean. I always feel stupid when I hear people having discussions on the terms (and they really seem to lead to many discussions) and feel I lack sophistication. But maybe I just lack interest in these kinds of labelling.

  4. Oh, I absolutely agree. I think what you’ve said towards the bottom is even more true today than it was 10 years ago, and it will become more and more true as the years go by. We’re at a time when I think the “literary SF” story (or the literary writer using SF furniture, if you will) is becoming not only acceptable, but actually a kind of cool thing to do. Time Traveler’s Wife (Niffinegger? Is that how you spell it?), Haruki Murikami, Ishiguro, Winterson, Russell, and so on (even Rushdie, though he dabbles more in fantasy than SF). So many “mainstream literary” writers are playing with the furniture these days. There’s much to be said critically about these works (most are rehashings of common, old ideas in SF), but the fact that we’re seeing SF literature seep into traditionally “off limits” zones more and more is, in my opinion, a testament to the fact that the lines are not really drawn in the air at all, but so blurry you can’t really tell where they begin and end. And that, for me, is a very good thing indeed.

  5. David Hebblethwaite

    29th June 2010 at 1:35 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone — it seems we’re all broadly agreed that the literary/genre distinction is of little practical use. Iris, I think the terms cab mean so many different things to different people that it’s probably best not to be too concerned with them — the book should come first, not the label.

    SMD, I think you’re right that we’re seeing more and more ‘mainstream’ fiction which draws on the fantastic (I’m sure it has always been there, but I think it’s become more noticeable as a phenomenon in recent times) — and that it’s a good thing. There’s some really interesting sf/fantasy shelved outside the sf/fantasy section these days.

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