Genre Fiction vs Literary Fiction: A Professor’s View

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Last night I went to a university open day (well, evening, I guess) to see about doing an MA in Creative Writing. Pretty much all my writing technique is self-taught out of craft books and making mistakes. When I started work on my current novel project, which has a more ambitious narrative set-up than I’m used to, I ran pretty hard into the limit of my skills. So I figured it was about time I got me some proper learnin’.

The professor I spoke to was quite helpful, in a not-helpful kind of way. He explained that the course was only for literary fiction, which he defined as ‘books that fulfil no expectations and which demand their readers are intellectually or emotionally involved in telling the story’. Now, I totally take the point about expectations. There are certain things – nebulous, optional things – which genre readers assume will be in a SF&F book. But the idea that genre readers aren’t required to put in to the storytelling process? I actually found that pretty patronising.

He went on to say that literary fiction is about people – not good guys and bad guys, but flawed and realistic people. It’s true that SF&F hasn’t always been great at complex characterisation but it’s something the genre has definitely improved at over the last decade. Locke Lamora, FitzChivalry Farseer, Kvothe, Tyrion Lannister – these are all seriously flawed, complex, interesting characters. When I pointed out that genre can be a way to look at difficult issues without emotion blinding people (religion being an excellent example), he looked surprised at the idea. That was pretty much the point when I decided his course wasn’t for me.

But there was one final point he made, before I left. Literary fiction is the stuff that everyone holds in high regard… and nobody reads. One of his most successful pupils has just published her second book, and it’s won an impressive array of awards. It’s also sold less than 20,000 copies.

Sometimes I feel like genre fiction is regarded as the Cinderella of the literary world. But at least we have readers. Intelligent, emotionally involved, hungry readers who will buy our books and care about our stories, and create fanfiction of their own as a result. Sod the snootiness of the literary elite – the genre audience is the one worth writing for.

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5 responses »

  1. I got my Bachelor’s in Creative Writing and decided at that point not to bother pursuing further education along that line, because it wasn’t very useful to me. Most of the writing courses were about short stories (which, while good to practice, weren’t what I was looking for), and the major was focused on literary-style work, also not my forte. It did teach me how to roll with criticism and solicit better feedback from my beta readers, but as a SF/F writer… Not so helpful. All the progress I’ve made since then has been from writing, writing, writing — to my own specifications, not someone else’s arbitrary view of what writing should be.

    Best of luck finding your own way!

  2. I find it frustrating and annoying that people get superior about fiction, which is, by definition, made up stories. Obviously not all stories are equal. Some books and some authors are better than others, but the idea that an author or story is better simply because it happens to be labelled “literary” is ridiculous.

    I sometimes wonder if such people would consider non-fiction to be even more worthy than literary fiction, since it’s educational, rather than simple entertainment. I’ve never had the chance to ask, though.

  3. we should talk about this. A lot. It’s fascinating. I’d love to argue with this guy about this. But do have a different take on it to you I think.

  4. Oh dear! Well this is the opinion of only one man. Have a look elsewhere and keep an open mind – but in the end you may decide that you don’t need academia after all (although I think they might need you!)

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