Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction are two terms that I’ve seen popping up now and again within the #WritingCommunity on Twitter, and each time has made me more curious about what they mean. More importantly, the frequency of these terms has been making me wonder which of the two I write.
Since this is something I’ve been wanting to look into for a little while, I thought I would use this as an opportunity to share my findings with my audience.
What are Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction?
What’s the difference?
This is the question I was getting hung up on. In my mind, fiction was fiction, with the only distinction being its category (Young Adult, Adult, etc) and its genre in the sense of the type of book (romance, sci-fi, horror, etc).
So when I started noticing the terms Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction floating around, I started to wonder what people were referring to.
Genre Fiction seems to be published with the intention of appealing to certain demographics. The first thing that comes to mind for me here is what is sometimes called a Bodice Ripper. We all know the ones. Those novels featuring a strapping gent on the cover, quite possibly stripped, oftentimes finding himself scantily-clad and in a scandalous situation with a young lady.
As NY Editors puts it, “Many readers gravitate to a particular genre, such as mystery, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, young adult, action, history, and so on. Genre fiction gives the fan access to their favorite type of storytelling.”
Ignoring the fact that YA is a category, not a genre, there is a valid argument here. Genre fiction allows readers to find books in specific areas of interest. It’s almost something of a business plan. Write a romance novel, sell it to romance publishers and by extension that target audience.
The same post later goes on to explain that books belonging to a specific genre must adhere to standard expectations of it. Romance readers expect a happy ending for the leading lovers, works of science fiction need to include aspects of an advanced technology, and so on and so forth. While writers are commonly advised to do the unexpected with their novels to surprise their readers, those who write Genre Fiction do have certain criteria to meet as readers might be disappointed to find their romance novel ending with the couple breaking up, unless this is the ending of one book and the story continues in the next.
Literary Fiction is defined as what people might refer to as “serious” works. Think Austen, Shakespeare, Poe, and others. The works that have stayed an integral part of society for generations.
Several of the sources I looked at ahead of writing this post suggest that Literary Fiction always has a higher purpose or goal in mind, something the author wants the reader to reflect on while and after they are reading the work, be it an analysis of society, religion, culture, or something else.
Literary Fiction is more or less absolved from the expectations of genre. The ending of a tragic love story may result in the death of one love interest or be vague in the characters’ futures. Elements of a genre might be present, but it’s not required in the same sense. It’s often left to the reader’s interpretation to decide what it means.
So here is where it seems to be a little tricky for me to distinguish the difference between Literary and Genre Fiction, and why I ended up categorizing this week’s article as an opinion piece. My understanding is that it’s a cultural thing. It’s about our perception as readers, as an audience.
The books you were made to read in your high school literature class? Literary fiction.
The Classics? Literary Fiction.
Bodice Rippers? Genre Fiction.
But if classics are more likely to be considered Literary Fiction than newer works, that would make it more difficult to publish new Literary Fiction. And it also poses the question of how long it takes for a work of genre fiction to become a work of literary fiction, if it even can.
The concept of Genre Fiction being viewed as being of a lesser worth reminds me of the way a few people said I needed to start saying I write “Historical Fiction” instead of “Historical Romance” because of each term’s connotations, claiming that “Historical Romance” makes people think the work is of a lesser quality and frivolous whereas “Historical Fiction” is more often considered the mark of a serious author. And it seems this view towards Genre Fiction and fiction in general is not new.
In an article for The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman wrote, “The relationship between novelists and genre has shifted several times, often in ways that seem strange to us today. In 1719, when Robinson Crusoe appeared, many people considered “the novel,” in itself, to be a genre. The novel was a new thing—a long, fictitious, drama-filled work of prose—and its competitors were other prose genres: histories, biographies, political tracts, sermons, testimonies about travel to far-off lands. What set the novel apart from those other prose genres was its ostentatious fictitousness. When Catherine Morland, the heroine of Austen’s Northanger Abbey, is rebuked for reading too many Gothic novels, the proposed alternative isn’t “literary fiction” but non-fiction (a friend suggests she try history). Northanger Abbey was written in 1799. In England, “Middlemarch” is often cited as the first novel you didn’t have to be embarrassed about reading. It was published in 1872.”
One interpretation I came across while researching for this post suggests Genre Fiction is rooted in popularity, though that popularity itself is based in its marketability. This goes back to what I was saying about Bodice Rippers. Romance novels in general are among the top sellers in fiction. The works of those like Nicholas Sparks, Nora Roberts, and Danielle Steele can all be considered examples of Genre Fiction writers.
But is popularity the only thing that determines whether a novel can be listed as Genre Fiction or Literary Fiction?
The Classics are also popular. We quote Shakespeare in daily conversation, often without realizing it. Allusions to Greek and Roman texts exist around us. We read the works of Steinbeck, Orwell, Dickens, and so, so many others in school. What makes these more influential than other novels like The Hunger Games?
The majority of my generation takes pride in their Hogwarts House (or, if you’re like me, their Ilvermorny House because your college was in close proximity to Mount Greylock where Ilvermonry is located). If we’re basing the distinction of popularity alone, Harry Potter would be Genre Fiction. However, the series has become an absolute phenomenon. While it has made a substantial amount of money between the books, films, and even a theme park, there is so much more to it than the adventures of a young wizard. From themes of friendship and loyalty, confronting fears, fighting for what’s right, death, and sacrifice to name a few, Harry Potter has shaped a generation and, as I’m seeing with my cousin’s children, is starting to shape the next. That’s why I would not be against calling Harry Potter Literary Fiction, just as I might call Lord of the Rings Literary Fiction.
Looking at it in this light, would it be possible to say Jane Austen was writing Genre Fiction in her time? When we read Pride and Prejudice in my AP English class, one of my peers deemed it chick-lit, and I remember him nodding to the Nicholas Sparks book I was reading at the time to emphasize his point. As much as I don’t want to admit it, he may not have been entirely wrong. Austen does provide satire on her world, but there is still a typical structure to her works when it comes to the romance side of things. Yet Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice are ranked as two of the most beloved works of literature in history. Is it possible that what is called Genre Fiction today might stand the test of time and become Literary Fiction?
In researching for this article, a common interpretation of the difference between Genre Fiction and Literary Fiction is its purpose; the former is designed to entertain while the latter sets out to make the reader think. Except, I have found novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Gone with the Wind, and The Scarlet Letter to be highly entertaining while novels like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games, and Harry Potter have been thought-provoking and made me interpret things in society differently than before I had picked them up.
With time, I think it is very possible for some novels to transition from Genre Fiction to Literary Fiction, though I personally think this depends on where society is at the time of its publication. Austen’s work was contemporary for her time period and is now often the first reference people make when discussing the Regency and Georgian Eras. We use them as a gateway to examine what life was like then. The same goes for Charles Dickens’s depictions of what his world was like. In a hundred years, something written in 2019 might be considered Literary Fiction even if starts out as being Genre Fiction. The challenge is to write something that stands out enough to a staple of society as it is today while writing themes that will echo what it will become.
What Does Avril Marie Aalund Write?
Let me explain.
Bound to the Heart, Against His Vows, and pretty much every other novel in my ever-growing To-Be-Written pile feels like genre fiction.
There is a level of structure to them.
Boy meets girl. Boy has XYZ going on in his life (Zach has his bookshop, William has a father who is urging him to marry a woman he just met). Girl has ABC going on (Eve is dealing with her overbearing mother, Miranda is trying to sort out the romantic feelings she’s just realized she has for William even though they have known each other for years). Romantic stuff happens. Not-so-romantic stuff happens. Conflict. Resolution. Things start to get good again as they head towards their happily-ever-after.
While Bound to the Heart, Against His Vows or any other project I’ve yet to start on aren’t carbon copies of each other and aren’t formulaic, they do tend to run along various versions of the same structure; think of it like taking a different hiking trail in the same forest.
Then, there’s Guises to Keep.
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, Guises to Keep is the novel I have been working on the longest, having started the first draft when I was about fourteen years old.
It’s also the only novel I plan to publish under a different pen-name (if you recall from a past post, Avril Marie Aalund itself is also a pen-name, though in a lesser way since Marie and Aalund are both in my legal name).
I’ve always intended on doing this.
Guises to Keep has always felt like a different project to me. It’s twice the length of other ongoing projects like Bound to the Heart and Against His Vows, in part because it acts like two novels in one; I often say its structure is similar to that of Downton Abbey in that it provides parallel glimpses into the lives of both genteel characters and the servants employed at their estate, with both being different facets of the same story. It also feels more dramatic in its plot, whereas projects like Bound to the Heart are about finding romance in everyday life.
Additionally, I consider Guises to Keep to be a separate entity of sorts, in that it’s not connected to any other projects I have going on, nor do I intend for it to be.
The majority of my novels take place in a shared universe. They all take place in Regency and Georgian England and play off of one another with shared characters and events. For example, Zach is a protagonist in Bound to the Heart whose storyline involves him chaperoning his younger sister Sophia and brother Henry in London for the Season. Henry will be starring as the protagonist of his own novel someday, as will their youngest sister, Laura (who does not appear in Bound to the Heart but is referenced a number of times).
In Against His Vows, there is a significant event involving William and Helena, which not only propels protagonist William’s storyline forth but will also be where I start Helena’s own novel, and the consequences of that play into the story I am planning to write about William’s brother, Francis. Additionally, though the project is as of yet unnamed, the end of my next writing endeavor will help shape a significant part of Against His Vows.
Even though Guises to Keep is a Regency Era piece as well, it’s not in the same corner of my depiction of it.
I’m also planning to use a different pen name for Guises to Keep because I feel like I am a different writer now than I was when I started working on it. Unlike my first novel, Bound to the Heart was written as part of the research project for the travel course I participated in during my senior year of college. By that time, I had taken several writing classes including fiction, poetry, screenplays, news writing, playwrighting, and an independent study where I worked with one of my professors to begin edits on Guises to Keep. I (at least hope) I have a better idea of what I’m doing than I did when I started writing a novel sort of on a whim just to see if I could do it and feel like my style has become matured and developed over time.
Guises to Keep also strays from the expectations of a historical romance. It explores the divisions of class in the early nineteenth century, and at times where it might be similar. James himself is something of a reflection on the role of the Regent that the period is named for, the young heir apparent taking on the duties of his ailing grandfather who is the current earl. There are brief moments where I touch on the role of religion in society as well.
But the thing that, in my mind, makes Guises to Keep fit more into the realm of Literary Fiction is what I’ve been calling “Grey Morality.” While I endeavor to create characters who are multifaceted, regardless of the novel’s categorization, Guises to Keep is the one I feel this concerns the most. Each of the three protagonists have their own dilemmas in addition to the main plot that ties them together. In several cases, it’s a matter of what will be sacrificed if one path is taken and what will be sacrificed if the path is not taken. Duty and desire. Going against the morals one has always believed in for the sake of the family who instilled them.
It’s a lot more complex than the only novels I have written and am in the process of writing.
Looking back on this, I’m made to wonder if part of the reason I’ve always wanted to publish Guises to Keep under a separate pen-name is because I was subconsciously aware that it was Literary Fiction, while the novels to be published as Avril Marie Aalund are Genre Fiction.
Some Final Thoughts
The lines dividing Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction can be pretty blurry, and they don’t get clearer upon further investigation. If anything, what I have found is a debate that has yet to be settled. While there are some areas that are defined more clearly than others, there is a lot of room for interpretation about what is or isn’t Literary Fiction. What is certain in this, as it is with many things in life, is the way things change. What might be listed as Genre Fiction today could very well become Literary Fiction in a generation or two.
In my mind, I’d rather not have the way my books are sorted be based on their marketability or prospective profit, but the stories they tell. I’m more interested in writing something that will last. Even if it helps to shape only a few minds out there instead of the masses in search of something specific, I will be pleased enough with that.