The Literary v. Genre War Is Over

We don’t turn to story to escape reality. We turn to story to navigate reality. — Lisa Cron, Story Genius (2016)
Narrative imagining — story — is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend upon it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, or predicting, of planning, and of explaining. Mark Turner

Let’s admit it. The war between genre and literary fiction has claimed a good number of casualties, soaked up a good bit of ink, paper, and bandwidth, and, if we’re honest, wasted a good deal of time. It is time for reconciliation — like any war-torn community. Although literary lost the war and genre, with its massive war chest, won the largely asymmetric conflict, we still see in college classrooms, in the occasional Facebook or Twitter following, the call to keep these two concerns separate.

Numerous arguments come in support of these differing sides. It’s like we’re experiencing the literary equivalent of the American Civil War, with Dixie calling for resistance to dangerous, foreign influences of the militant North. In lieu of serious arguments, we, those writers and readers caught in the middle, are given ideological mudslinging and art-bashing that has little place in the literary community that we, the readers and the writers, inhabit. The elitists on both sides have their opinions concerning the values of their respective genres. These same arguments are, of course, generalized below. However, I have attempted to tackle their ridiculous essence and offer my take on the situation.

For the literary elitists, the following arguments are made about genre and literary fictions: Literary fiction is only for the serious, who don’t dabble in the so-called escapist imaginary, the fantasy, or the truly fantastical. Genre, on the other hand, is the realm of fiction that can’t be taken seriously, that has little artistic merit, and has little concern for dangerous stereotypes, clichés, and euphemisms.

The other side, what I will call the genre elitists, isn’t much better: Literary fiction is pretentious fiction, read only by the educated elite, the literati. Literary fiction doesn’t sell well. And, more importantly, literary fiction doesn’t speak to our times.

Although the arguments above make some valid points, I will outline an interesting way to bridge the gap between genre and literary fictions. Moreover, I will point out the attempts taking place right now to do so, in order to point out that the war has ushered the decline of influence of genre in writing and that we’re all better for it.

When I started a graduate English class in creative writing, we were warned that we couldn’t write what was termed genre fiction. Ironically, the same instructor who told us to avoid genre was mixing genre and literary fictions in much of his work. This is the future of the writing in the twenty-first-century. We are no longer beholden to genre, at least not in the same sense that previous writers were. Although I would argue that genre provides a useful cataloging tool for bookstores and libraries, it becomes problematic when this same technique, this tool to facilitate cataloging, becomes the standard by which we gauge what fiction is worthwhile, what fiction is inferior, and the like.

Literary fiction’s concerns about longevity of fiction, of quality of prose, and character-centric narratives, are all legitimate concerns for writers, even, dare I say, genre writers.

What’s wrong with literary fiction writing is the elitism that pours from it. Although literary novelists and short story writers say they don’t espouse elitist views, that doesn’t always line up with reality. In fact, I remember sending off a roughly situated speculative fiction story to an estranged mentor of mine, only to find out that his literary journal, “Didn’t publish science-fiction.” Oddly enough, this same mentor writes speculative fiction, under the façade of literary fiction.

Genre fiction writers suffer from similar myopic tendencies. They tend to believe that success is based on dollars earned. Moreover, they tend to believe that commercialization of fiction acts as a sort of great crucible from which the unwanted material, the terrible writing, the craft-blind writers are separated from the good, the right stuff.

In a corner of genre fiction, there are those who believe that literary concerns about representation, language, themes, subject matter, and the like are the concerns of genre writers as well. Slowly, ever so slowly, the genre world has pushed against the commercialization fantasy, and, more importantly, emphasized the need for inclusivity has struck a chord with those writing genre fictions. The literary realm has begun melding with the genre world, creating such works as Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf, among other unique creations. Despite changes in the literary world, literary fiction stills refuses to be a part of the larger literary community. In other words, literary fiction, despite some wonderful work, still remains exclusionary, and, moreover, literary fiction has refused to adapt to the needs of twenty-first-century audiences.

What can we learn from this? Simple. Literary concerns are genre concerns, especially if you have published in the last ten years. Moreover, despite the garbage that permeates both sides of the aisle, we need to reconsider the whole genre v. literary debate. Literary won a few battles, but, in the end, genre became more inclusive and more concerned with matters that were once within the realm of literary fiction. The war is over. Genre won. Literary died out, losing its purpose and its place within the publishing world.

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Gregory M. Rapp

Gregory M. Rapp

A writer of fiction and nonfiction, a blogger, an avid reader and writer, and gamer.
New Mexico