Whether you’re a reader, and English-major, or a writer, the concept of two categories defining all of fiction may seem confusing and totally unnecessary. But if you are interested in the literary fiction vs. genre fiction debate, here are the ground rules that are often ambiguous and muddled and ever-changing.
Character Driven Vs. Plot Driven
This is often the first “defining” factor. Many say that literary fiction is driven by characters and their needs, wants, wishes, and dreams. The story revolves around people–not an event or a journey (although the people may certainly go on one). The best example I can come up with is Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. It is a novel in which nothing of significance really happens. We see the protagonist, Jake Barnes, bouncing around Paris, getting into bull-fighting, and realizing the woman he wants to be with, Brett, is not that into him. There is a lack of structure that may infuriate some and delight others. On the other hand, genre fiction is deemed plot-driven, which means a lot of structure goes a long way. When we think of plot-driven novels, we think of those which have the typical elements of dramatic structure: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, and denouement. The Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling are great examples of plot-driven fiction.
A lot of popular fiction (another name for genre fiction) ends in a way that is either predictable, happy, or rewarding for the reader. In romances, the female will end up with the man she is really meant to be with. In mysteries, the cop or detective will uncover a bunch of secrets and make an arrest. In fantasies, the hero will find his or her way home and save the day. These are all excellent endings, and I would argue that predictability and “happy endings” do not discredit the novel as valuable or significant. Fans of this so-called genre fiction would say that the meat of the book is what makes it wonderful. The journey is most important. On the other hand, literary fiction tends give the readers what they might not want, and this excites them. The ending is not easily revealed in the early chapters. The protagonist may actually die. The mood might not be inspiring; in fact, you may be shaken by the books oppressive connotations. In a sense, character driven endings make you think about things you might not normally wish to think about.
Academics Vs. The Masses
Finally, there is this: literary fiction is read by academics, students, and people who wish to learn something while they read, and genre fiction is read by the majority of literate people who are simply seeking an escape from their day jobs. Sounds a little elitest, don’t you think? Unfortunately, it is. I myself desire a career in academia, but I read just as much genre fiction as I do literary fiction. Heck, I write genre fiction (fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, suspense, horror, etc–there’s no limit). But at the same time, I like to write literary fiction when I’m in the mood. I am not discouraged by this classification, because I think it’s bogus.
The problem is, there are some people in this world who believe stories of the mind and of the personal journey are somehow superior to genre fiction which, in my mind, presents journies and adventures in ways that enlighten and inspire. For whatever reason they use to defend their opinion, I offer a different approach this topic. Look at fiction as just that, FICTION. Sure, there will always be categories for marketing purposes. But when you start labeling fiction as superior or inferior based on its content and structure, you’re robbing the writer of his or her right to be creative. I love to see fiction that plays with and mixes the various qualities I’ve described here regardless of how it will be categorized once it lands on bookstore shelves.