EPISODE 5: LITERARY VS GENRE FICTION: POLITICS, LESSONS, TRANSCRIPTS
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Now don’t be fooled. Just because I use the word “vs” in the title of my radio cast, it doesn’t mean I think these two genres are diametrically opposed. But to deny that there has historically been a weird divide thrown up in between these two different ways of reading and writing is to be naïve, in my opinion.
So according to the literary world, what is literary and commercial fiction?
Literary fiction is fiction that is considered to have some sort of academic and literary merit. It’s the more “serious” fiction, which according to some people expresses a wide diversity of emotion, human experience, and life meaning. Stuff like Fyodor’s Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Toni Morrison, are all considered to be literary fiction. They usually come in trade paperback form, and have book covers that you’d sort of expect for an artsy indie movie. (A long-shot of a lone girl kicking a rock on a beach or something.) Literary fiction tends to focus on character and theme development, many times without much central emphasis on a plot. The character is the object of interest.
On the other hand, genre fiction (also called commercial fiction) appeals to specific categories or genres, are read mainly for their entertainment value or escapist value, and fall into specific strata. These strata can include sci-fi, fantasy, crime & noir, romance, erotica, thriller, action and adventure, and historical fiction. Depending on which genre a genre novels falls into, each genre is going to appeal to a different kind of market. Also, under the umbrella of genre fiction is mainstream fiction, which doesn’t fall into a specific category, but can still be read widely by the masses. And of course, even genre fiction itself has sub-genres.
If you’ve ever heard of steampunk, cyberpunk, dieselpunk, urban fantasy, high or epic fantasy, so on and so forth, then you realize that science fiction & fantasy as a genre has many sub-categories which have their own conventions and markets. At base though, what defines a genre novel from a literary novel is that genre fiction typically focuses on the plot and the telling of a story rather than on character development. It is far more concerned with entertaining and gripping the audience then an exploratory analysis of the soul.
So on and so forth.
So I know what you’re thinking. This sounds way too divisive. And I would agree entirely. I’m here to call BS on the whole government of fiction and novel writing, because I don’t think the lines should be so cleanly divided. But you find that a lot of people do operate along this false divide, and in my opinion, it’s usually because they are told they have to.
For others, though, you’ll find that they genuinely feel fulfilled by their choice of genre. I’ve heard some lit fic folks talk about how they have to have their minds wrapped around some soft of conundrum or life issue, or be totally razzle-dazzled by a writer’s wordsmithing, wherein they’ll feel inspired. Otherwise, they feel empty. For others who like genre fiction, they will claim that much of literary fiction is inaccessible because of the dense nature of it. Either the topics are obscure or the language is to twisty-twirly, and they just prefer a nice simple plot with interesting people caught in interesting situations. My mom for example, is a technical telecommunications engineer and manager and has to read all these boring technical textbooks all day. The last thing she wants to read when she gets off of work is a layered literary fiction novel. She just wants to be relaxed and entertained.
My point here is that everyone’s desires are valid and should be acknowledged, so lit fic fans turning down their noses at genre fans is a bit foolish and vice-versa (yes it goes both ways). As writers, I think we should focus on writing on topics that move us and on writing about things that we care about. No matter how large or small, everyone can find an audience, because readers are just as diverse as writers are.
So instead of discussing which kind of fiction is “better”, let’s talk about what makes a great novel instead. Both literary and commercial fiction have some important lessons to contribute regarding a larger understanding of wonderful writing, and I think we can learn a lot from both.
- Wordsmithing & prose: Aim for language that is rich, lush, and layered, but also make it accessible to your audiences. Use nuance, metaphor, simile. Use onomatopoeia. Be poetic and read poetry to see how poets bring language to a whole new level.
- Character development: All characters should have a problem, a conflict, or “stakes” in a novel. They should also have at least one major life event that has effected a profound change in them in the past. Characters should also have “arcs”, or points at which they have to make new decisions based on a changing situation.
- Dialogue: The dialogue should be engaging and must move the story forward. It’s actually difficult to write very good dialogue, as it must do so many things. It must reveal your characters with their good and bad traits, their motivations, their fears and confidences, and it also must get us from point A to B in the plot. Any dialogue that isn’t giving us new information needs to be taken out.
- Psychological reflection, inner change, and Point-of-View: I think these three concepts all amount to the “self- awareness” aspect of the characters. All characters must change, regardless of what kind of fiction you’re writing. The only characters who shouldn’t change are dead ones, and even then, you can still effect some character change if necessary (a good example of this is “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold). Sentient beings should show some progression, and depending on how close we are to the character’s psyche, we may have a front row seat to this change or nosebleed seats. I’ve seen a wide variety in both literary and commercial fiction, and you should read widely in order to get a feeling for what is best for your own story (or stories).
- Plot progression: I’ve mentioned dramatic structure in my last broadcast, and it bears repeating here. Not every single novel is going to have a fast-paced plot, and I would argue that this is where literary fiction and commercial fiction tend to diverge the most. However, any good fiction novel will have a plot, with a beginning, middle, and conclusion, where some significant change has been made.
- World & civilization building: This is where your creativity, especially as a science fiction & fantasy author should shine as well. Build religions, interesting looking people, new customs, new languages, new foods, new technologies, be as creative as you like! Innovations in how worlds work and look are the strength of sci-fi & fantasy, so hone your skills in world & civilization building.
- Setting, description, and senses: Your readers should be able to map out the environment of your characters with a clear eye and be able to step into it, regardless of the location. The devil is in the smaller details, so pick elements to focus on. A tree shouldn’t just be a tree. It should be a sycamore or redwood. The forest floor should sigh beneath a character’s feet as they walked through. Use sound, touch, taste, smell, and sight in interesting ways, and perhaps you want mesh different senses together. Experiment, see what charms your senses and write sensory and setting seduction into your novel where the reader will be sucked in.
- Varying literary devices: The list of these different kinds of devices is expansive. From allegories to paradoxes to verses, there is a wide variety of literary devices you can use to enhance your writing. Whether literary or commercial, any good, gripping fiction novel is going to enlist the help of at least some of these literary devices, and you should strongly consider practicing your skills here! In the future, I will be developing some awesome workshops helping you to build skills in each kind of literary device, so stay tuned!
Final lesson: If you see someone who can do well what you cannot, then it’s wise to respect and learn from that. This philosophy should cut across genre. Because in truth, if you stay on the line, you’re missing out on a lot of great literature and on a lot of wonderful writing.
Keep it indie,