Writing “Literary” vs “Genre” Fiction

I freely confess; I mostly write genre fiction.

There is a little confusion about the difference between “literary” or “serious” fiction and “genre” or commercial fiction. A good rule of thumb goes like this: serious fiction is all about the writing technique itself, while in genre or commercial fiction the plot or characters are the most important.

In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he tells an anecdote of his days in a college fiction writing class. In short, he’d written a story for the class, but received a failing grade from the instructor, who’d commented on the work that it was “pulp garbage.” (Well, Stephen King wrote it). When Mr. King argued on the merits of the writing, the instructor wouldn’t budge, declaring “this kind of pulp garbage has no place in this class.” Stephen subsequently sold the story to a magazine and brought the check in to show the instructor, who told him that it didn’t matter if he’d sold it for a million dollars, it was still pulp garbage.

I believe Mr. King stopped taking college-level writing classes after that.

He’d encountered literary snobbishness but was strong enough and confidant enough to walk away.

I encountered a similar mindset when I was young and taking the University writing classes. We were all reading and studying literature in our other classes. The unspoken rule was that we were learning to create literature. We were to be experimental, avant-garde. We were the new generation, training to advance the art form.

I bought into it too. I wanted to win the Nobel Prize. I wanted to be the new literary wunderkind.

Which is fine, in and of itself. There’s nothing wrong with having a goal and as far as literary goals go, the Nobel Prize is about as good as it gets. The problem is in choosing the road you must travel to reach that goal.

See, the problem is that outside the ivy-covered walls of the University is a real world and the rules in the real world don’t always mirror the rules in the University. And one of the first rules you learn in the real world is that outside of the University communities, almost no one reads “literary” or “serious” fiction. Since no one reads it, almost no one will publish it.

For those who dreamed of making a living writing fiction, writing experimental fiction doesn’t seem the most favorable path. If you want to make money writing fiction, it’s going to have to be commercial. It’s going to have to be genre.

Another factor in my decision to concentrate my efforts on genre writing was (of all things) a passage in one of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee detective novels. In this passage, Travis is talking with another character, an aspiring young artist. She asks him what he thinks of her work, an abstract expressionist painting. He looks it over, then asks her to do him a favor and sketch a nearby lamp. When she couldn’t do it, he advises her that before you can successfully experiment in your art form, you have to master the fundamentals.

That statement resonated for me. Before we can push the boundaries of our chosen art, we must master the fundamentals. In my mind, as a fiction writer, that means mastering plot, characterization, pace and all the other details of successful fiction.

And the final nail in the literary snobs’ metaphorical coffin is the realization that most of the literary greats we students were to emulate did not write their works thinking that people would consider them the height of literary art. Most wrote them hoping to entertain their readers, express themselves, and maybe make a buck (or farthing, drachma, whatever). Even Shakespeare, probably the paragon of English language literature, wrote his plays not so he’d be admired by future generations, but because he wanted to sell theater tickets right then. It was a business.

So the next time someone looks down their nose at me for writing commercial fiction, maybe I’ll hand them a pen and paper and ask them to describe a lamp.


4 thoughts on “Writing “Literary” vs “Genre” Fiction

  1. Bailey Jackson says:

    I agree. That kind of literary snobbish-ness is ridiculous. I’ve known plenty of people who say that they only write “real literature”, but in my experience those are typically the people who sit in coffee shops all day with their laptop and will tell anyone who will listen that they’re writing a novel, but never actually write anything. Those kind of people, in my opinion, don’t want to actually write, they just want to be writers because our culture has romanticized the writer into a tortured artist. It’s just silly. People shouldn’t write because they think they’ll be applauded and given awards, but because they want to or feel a need to.


  2. Pingback: So, why have I written romance fiction? | Margaret of the North

  3. Pingback: So, why write romance fiction? | Evy Writes

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