Thursday, February 10, 2011

Literary vs. Genre Fiction

This post started out as a discussion of quality in novels and has morphed into a discussion of literary vs. genre fiction.

Last week there was a bit of a brouhaha regarding the quality of some self-published books. The debate mainly centered on cover art, editing, product description, etc. But during the ... uh... discussion there was some whinging about "crap like Harry Potter, Twilight, fill-in-the-blank getting published." The fallacy of personal taste being a good measure of the quality of the story.

And then there was the idea that we should be teaching our children how to identify quality fiction.

So how do you define quality in regards to fiction?

Digging around on wikipedia gives these useful gems: Quality fiction is one that has literary merit. The concept of literary merit is impossible to define. Literary fiction is serious fiction it is not romance, horror, thriller, mystery, western, science fiction, fantasy, et al... And then my brain imploded.

Interestingly enough there are ways to identify quality in genre fiction. Good genre fiction has a compelling plot, believable characters, evocative descriptions, and the like.

The more I thought about quality in literary fiction vs. quality in genre fiction the more I realized that it's not just comparing apples to oranges, it's more like comparing apples to brussel sprouts.

Literary fiction is more about style, the use of literary devices such as irony, satire, alliteration, et al. Word choice, sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, and the like are all important in literary fiction. The reader is meant to see them and can tell that they are reading something with literary merit.

Whereas in good genre fiction, all of those things are invisible to the average reader. When one reads a bestselling author of genre fiction, one is pulled into the story. The reader sees the setting, hears the dialogue, and watches the action. They aren't as concerned about how they are told a story, but that they are told a story with a compelling plot, believable characters, evocative descriptions, and the like.

Which is not to say that genre fiction can't have elements of literary fiction nor that literary fiction can't be compelling to read.

Thus genre fiction is crap using literary criteria, and literary fiction is crap using genre criteria. Which is like saying apples are disgusting because they don't taste like brussel sprouts and brussel sprouts are disgusting because they don't taste like apples.

So true crap is a story that doesn't have literary merit and/or doesn't have a compelling plot, believable characters, evocative descriptions and the like. Personal taste doesn't enter into the equation.

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