Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Literary vs. commercial fiction

This showed up in my email box today:
I have what may be a silly question: what is the difference between genre writing and literary writing? I have asked many people/authors and I'm still confused. At first I thought a genre work couldn't be literary, but I have a friend who published fantasy novels that were considered literary. So apparently it's possible to be both.

I've also heard that literary writing is writing that is good for writing's sake, so that a literary writer is good with writing as an art form. Does that mean literature is good by virtue of the way it is written and not necessarily by the content of what is written? That seems to go against what I learned in high school about content being integral to good writing.

Do you consider yourself a literary writer?
And here's my three-minute response (because that's all I had time for); I'm not wedded to these observations, and please don't expect me to defend them to death, but I think they're a good first approximation of the right answer, and certainly a decent starting point for discussion:
I am a commercial fiction writer (meaning I write books to make money, and my publisher publishes them with that end in mind).

I am also a genre fiction writer (meaning I work in one of the specially labeled categories you see in bookstores: science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, horror, western, etc.; commercial fiction that does not fall into these categories is called mainstream fiction).

Literary publishing is done without hopes of making a lot of money, and often in small print runs produced by small publishers.

Commercial fiction tends to emphasize characterization, plot, action, and dialog, and may, or may not, include beautiful, or highfalutin, or arch language, and may, or may not, have an overall theme.

In contrast, literary fiction usually gives short shrift to plot and action, but often has a theme (a statement other than a plot synopsis describing what the story is about).

However literary merit is often found in commercial fiction including that subset of commercial fiction called genre fiction.

But having literary merit is not a requirement of successful commercial fiction, and doing well commercially is not a requirement of successful literary fiction.

In any event, to call oneself a "literary writer" has always stuck me as either a silly redundancy (I'm a "woody carpenter") or pretentious; if the person saying that means that his or her work has literary merit -- sorry, that's for others to judge. :)

By the way, nine years ago, I was approached by an academic (whose biases I think were quite evident from the questions he asked) about whether or not I considered myself part of that special form of literary publishing known as Canadian literature (or "Canlit"). I absolutely do consider myself part of that, for the reasons I gave him, which you can read here.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


At February 05, 2008 7:53 PM , OpenID jamietr said...

I like your explanation, Rob. What I often wonder is why literary fiction isn't considered a genre itself? It, too, typically has its section in the bookstore. And the definition of the word tends to mean a loose set of criteria used to categorize. You mentioned some of those criteria for the genre of literary fiction: stories and books with less of a focus on plot and action and more of a focus on theme. Of course, there are always crossovers.

Genre, it seems to me, tends to get used as a more derogatory term, but for no good reason that I can see. Back when I was in college, one of my creative writing professors always tried talking me out of writing "genre" stories in favor of "literary" stories. When I asked him why, he could never give me a good reason. I kept writing the genre stories and never looked back.

At February 05, 2008 7:59 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Agreed. We don't refer to literary fiction as a genre because the practitioners of literary fiction don't like to think of it as such; it's just good manners to call people what they wish to be called, and not call them what they don't want to be called. But, yes, "literary" could indeed be thought of as its own genre.

I'm proud to be a genre writer, working in a genre that has great traditions and a great history.

At February 05, 2008 10:06 PM , Blogger Anne Gilbert said...

I have a blog called The Writer's Daily Grind at :


The only reason I mention this is that your blog is linked to mine, and I really like your comments and sage advice about writing.

I wouldn't quite characterize "literary fiction" the way you do, but that's partly because I heard that such fiction tends to pay much more attention to character development than "genre" fiction. And you are both "right on" when you mention that "English major" types, as I like to call them, tend or have tended to look down on just about all types of "genre" fiction. Which is really too bad. Because there is awful literary fiction, as well as quite awful writing in the "genre" categories. But that's not my problem. My problem right now is finishing up my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece/Epic With Neandertals. . . .
Anne G

At February 05, 2008 10:11 PM , Blogger ryan mannik said...

Heinlein. That is all.

At February 05, 2008 10:53 PM , Blogger zafri said...

As a fourth year English major some might find it somewhat odd that I prefer genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, etc.) to "mainstream" fiction (whatever that means). Some books are considered "literary" because they are an important work in the 'great literary timeline' for whatever reason. However, the term "literary fiction" is a very nebulous one for me, as I remain ignorant of publishing distinctions between it and other types of writing.

I'm not surprised that creative writing teachers have tried to dissuade others from writing genre fiction instead of "literary" stories. I have sent stories to be published in Ottawa, which were rejected in part, presumably, because of their status as humour or sci-fi stories.

If the term "literary" means good literature, then I think that my defenition would include novels which are able to get readers to think about important questions of life AND are entertaining (a prerequisite for them actually promoting change, or at least changes in thought).

As far as I'm concerned, genre fiction has a bad rep that isn't deserved, since many novels could easily be taught in philosophy, english, sociology, psychology, etc classes.

At February 05, 2008 11:38 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Hi, Anne Gilbert. I'm not sure I precisely agree that literary fiction tends to portray more "character development." Development means change, growth, modification; genre fiction excels at that -- the character changes in response to events. Much literary fiction is concerned with characer portrayal -- a snapshot of a character at a given stage of life -- but change is more frequently portrayed in genre than in literary fiction, I think. :)

At February 05, 2008 11:54 PM , Blogger Scott said...

I agreew with your assessment completely, and I would add one point -- that 'commercial' fiction tends to emphasize not only 'plot', per se, but also STORY.

Meaning, 'genre' fiction -- mystery, SF, fantasy, thriller -- tends to be focused, primarily, on telling a good story. Everything else -- characterization, theme, metaphor -- is subordinate to a narrative that PROPELS, rather than plods.

Most 'literary' fiction tends to emphasize anything BUT story -- which is why one often reads tales with fantastic characterization and moving characters that don't really go ANYWHERE...

(And part of the reason may, indeed, be the fact that most Creative Writing programs look down on genre fiction, blatantly. As a graduate of your pal Edo Van Belkom's alma mater -- same program, same teacher -- I can relate that it was frustrating to see 'story' sidelined to a lower status...)

At February 06, 2008 9:36 PM , Anonymous Ryan Oakley said...

When genre fiction is well written, it becomes literature. When literature has an idea, it becomes genre fiction.

At February 07, 2008 7:57 PM , Blogger John McFetridge said...

Lately I've been using this definition:

Literary fiction is written by people whose day jobs are exclusively in academia.

Genre writers work in many, many fields (some in fact, make a living from writing).


At February 07, 2008 11:47 PM , Blogger Josh said...

It always surprises me that there are still creative-writing professors out there looking down their noses at genre fiction. I mean, don't they know what a tired cliché they're embodying?

But then, maybe they don't, because they haven't read enough genre fiction to be familiar with even the most basic stereotypes. ;-)

I'm mostly of the opinion that you ought to master the fundamentals -- the qualities Rob highlights as key to commercial fiction -- if you want to write good literary fiction. For example, I think Michael Chabon's work, like The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, qualifies as "literary," but it's a story well told, too; it pulls you along. (Of course, I say mostly because I just finished Samuel Delany's Dhalgren for the second time, and while that's not a book that pulls you along -- or that everyone will enjoy -- I think it's sublime, man, and worth the work.) Just my thoughts...

At February 07, 2008 11:53 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

My buddy SF writer Terence M. Green was for many years a high-school English teacher. Colleagues often reproached him with, "How can you read that garbage?," meaning science fiction.

He took to asking them what work of SF they'd read that had led them to form such a negative opinion. And, of course, they never had an answer: they were slagging it out of pure prejudice.

At February 08, 2008 10:44 AM , Anonymous Hayden Trenholm said...

The destinction between literary writers and genre writers is mostly arbitrary -- one created by marketers on the one hand (more on that in a second) and snobs on the other.

Incidentally, snobbery cuts both ways -- suggesting literary fiction is somehow inferior for not focusing on plot or "story" or is confined to creative writing classes. Nonsense. Someone mentioned Michael Chabon for example -- winner of the pulitzer prize and darling of the NY Times Book Review. Is he literary or genre? Most of his books contain elements of the fantastic and of mystery and his most recent is an alternativwe history. And he tells a good story and his characters change.

Yet there is no doubt that Chabon is trying to do what all good writers try to do -- achieve the transcendent.

I can't speak for all writers but I know that is an element of my writing and I'm familiar enough with Rob's writing and his process to suspect that is an important element in his raison d'etre as well.

Back to those marketers. While I'm not sure about the division between literary and genre writers, I know there are literary and genre readers -- people who will only read a book if it is labeled 'literary' and would never be seen dead with a genre novel and people who will read any thing as long as someone has called it science fiction or fantasy or mystery but read nothing outside their chosen niche. And that's too bad, because both of them are missing out on some pretty entertaining and transcendent literature.

At April 02, 2008 10:58 PM , Blogger see write said...

Since I originally sent this email I started this writing class where the teacher (who shall mercifully remain nameless) said during the first class that he was looking for literary fiction and "nothing about spaceships and elves." I couldn't believe it. And then this other "literary" teacher looked at me like some alien when I mentioned that Stephen King was one of my favourite authors. I had to practically pledge my allegiance to The Edible Woman to feel accepted.

There is like this crazy idea among "literary" folk that sci-fi and other genre fiction is the stuff of dimwits, nothing to taint their intelligence with. And then when you ask them to define literary fiction they give these elusive "art for art's sake" answers (nothing like your response Robert which was concrete and coherent) and act like genre fiction is something that might taint their intellectual minds. But why isn't genere fiction considered art by these people? I still don't get why they turn their noses down (or up) at it.

I have concluded, mainly to retain sanity, to screw all these labels and just write.


Post a Comment

<< Home