Literary vs. Genre Fiction: The Line? (Part One)


Abyss & Apex’s most recent editorial features a series of interesting questions asked by a seventeen-year-old student about the difference between literary and genre fiction. These are questions we’ve heard before that are worth answering, but what I find most curious are the responses by Wendy S. Dalmater (editor of Abyss & Apex). Her responses routinely drag up false stereotypes that we’ve seen perpetuated for decades, not because there is any truth to them, but because they’re convenient for creating that “us vs. them” situation. After all, the divide between literary and genre fiction has been a ridiculous battlefield since the non-genre world realized that genre fiction, in all its stripes, wasn’t going away. I’d like to dispel some of these stereotypes, and, by way of critiquing Dalmater’s responses, answer the questions myself (in five parts).

Part One: Why do you think there is a line between literary and genre fiction?

It’s all in your head!

The first question is a big one. Dalmater argues that the line “exists only in the minds of academic” and in “literary circles.” If only that were true. In fact, the line has existed culturally since its inception. It’s not just academics who say “that’s genre fiction, and I don’t read it.” Millions of readers, some of which might be academics, hold this viewpoint. It’s about time we get past this “academics are evil” phase of discussion, because the reality is that academia has shifted remarkably since the 1950s. How do I know? Because I’m an academic. The two people who are on my M.A. committee study science fiction, at least five others in the department do so as well, and my M.A. thesis director was mentored by Fredric Jameson, one of the most important theoreticians alive today who has actually written a book on science fiction (Archaeologies of the Future, in case you’re wondering). Throw in the fact that dozens of universities all over the world are open to discussions of science fiction and you’re really going to have a hard time making the case that only select types of individuals think the line exists.

But Dalmater then offers two very curious things: J.R.R. Tolkien is apparently a “literary masterpiece” in the minds of those who created the line, and her attempt to describe the line.

The the latter: I don’t know if she is an academic herself (a teacher, yes, but an academic, not necessarily, since the student is likely a senior in high school), but it seems somewhat silly to say “only academics and literary circle people think like this” in a negative sense, and then to say “but here’s what the line is.” The implication of the argument that the line exists “only in their minds” is that it’s fictive. If it’s fictive, then it doesn’t exist. Strange.

Said the kid to the writer!

To the former: I don’t know many academics or literary circle types who would see J.R.R. Tolkien’s work as a “literary masterpiece.” Bradbury (who she also cites)? Yes, absolutely. But this isn’t hypocritical. The problem with the line between literary and genre fiction is that the two categories overlap. There is such a thing as literary genre fiction. Fahrenheit 451, for example, is generally considered to be both. There’s nothing wrong with that. But Tolkien’s work has had a hard time finding purchase within the academic community. There are academics who study it, and a few folks who have written papers and lectures on the man’s material, but because Tolkien is a fantasy writer, his work is often relegated to a lower status. Science fiction has had an easier time of getting past the stigma.

Thus came the novel…

Dalmater’s explanation of the difference between literary and genre fiction, however, seems to suggest that she agrees with the notion that the two categories can overlap. She sees “literary” as an inherently aesthetic mode of textual creativity, and “genre” as an extension of the science fictional mode of “the literature of ideas.” I don’t quite agree, but I think the point is clear: the two genres do overlap, since one (literary) places focus on the style of writing, the emotional register, and the creativity of form, while the other (genre) looks at plot, ideas, and so forth. Those are basic distinctions, and it’s not unheard of for something from one side to have an affair with something from the other. In the last few years: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, The City and the City by China Mieville, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon, and many more.

The point is that the line between “literary” and “genre” is fuzzy, and, to be fair, always has been. It’s not distinct and never will be. So long as folks from both sides of the aisle keep flirting with one another, we’re going to keep ending up with unexpected generic mutations (two-headed literary scifi babies, if you will). But things are different now. Genre is widely accepted both among readers and academics. There are still folks holding back, but these are the folks in academia who are becoming, in my opinion, increasingly irrelevant. For now, though, we have to accept that it’s not an “us vs. them” thing anymore. It’s about finding out what we’re doing wrong and how we can make genre better. Science fiction isn’t hurting right now because academics hate it; it’s hurting because because the genre, as a whole, hasn’t figured out what it’s doing wrong. I have a few ideas, but that’s for another post.

(Part Two and Part Three)

P.S.: Special gold stars to whoever can find the hidden haiku. It’s not very good, but whatever.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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