Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Armchair BEA: Genre Fiction

Design credit:
Emily of Emily's Reading Room
Today's topic for Armchair BEA is Genre Fiction.  From the main post: If you’re a reader of genre fiction do you have a favourite author or series? And what keeps bringing you back for more fantasy/sci fi/horror etc? And if you don’t read one (or more) of these genres what is it that deters you from those sections of the bookstore? I’m also curious to hear why you think these genres often don’t get the recognition they deserve.

So, genre fiction.  When I was in middle school and high school, I read a lot of genre fiction, especially by Stephen King.  Then, for a long time, I was a bit of a book snob.  I read "literary fiction"and classics, and that was about it.  Well, except for Harry Potter of course, but that's allowed, right?  It probably wasn't until I started this blog that I started to really read much else in the way of genre fiction.

But first, what distinguishes genre fiction from literary fiction?  I think the difference really comes down to plot development.  When describing a literary novel to somebody, I often find myself saying, well, it's hard to say what it's about but it's got great writing!  Whereas when describing a genre novel to somebody, I say something along the lines of it's about a detective investigating a murder that occurred in the same place where his own childhood friends mysteriously disappeared years before, leaving him behind (using In the Woods as the example here).  Often literary fiction focuses exclusively on language, character development, and other aspects of form, whereas genre fiction creates more of a story.

That's not to say that the two are mutually exclusive.  I would say that In the Woods is pretty literary - there's great character development, the language flows, and the mystery is almost incidental to a lot of this - though the mystery is still what we as readers tend to focus on, at least in description.  There's nothing barring a genre novel from being literary, except, probably, the long history of genre writers who weren't particularly literary.  A recent example of this is the A Song of Ice and Fire series.  Those books have a great plot and are interesting and engaging but lets face it, the writing is not something to rave about.  In fact, it was hard for me to get into the series because the writing was so unoriginal and excessively wordy but the story - that's what got me.

Despite my defense of and appreciation for genre fiction, I will admit that I rarely stray into those parts of the bookstore.  I generally browse the "fiction and literature" sections, and only cross over when I've gotten a pretty strong recommendation for a book in those other areas, usually from my fellow bloggers.  Some of the best genre novels and series that I've read were recommended by other bloggers, like the A Song of Ice and Fire series and the Dublin Murder Squad series.  I also love The Hunger Games and the Divergent series.  Dystopia is probably my favorite genre and often lends itself to straddling the line by literary and genre.  Take The Handmaid's Tale and Never Let Me Go - both are clearly novels of dystopia but are also very literary in their form.  Despite their genre leanings, both of these books are found in the literature section of the bookstore.  Why the distinction?

I think that the separation between literary and genre fiction often comes down to a high art/low art dichotomy.  Literary fiction is seen as inherently better, more of an art form, even inaccessible - it can be hard to "get it" - whereas genre fiction is of a lower quality and therefore more approachable.  I don't necessarily agree with this assessment of quality, though to some extent it can be true.  It also comes down to your purpose in picking up a novel - are you exercising your brain, looking for beauty and conversation, or is a book an escape for you, a way to relax and give your brain a break?  I personally read for both purposes.  At the moment, I'm reading Cutting for Stone, which does make me think and all that but when I first picked it, I was extremely stressed and it wasn't really the best choice - I needed something a little more escapist to give myself a break.

How about you?  What are your thoughts on the literary/genre fiction distinction?  And what are some of your favorite "genre" novels??


  1. I like your way of separating out literary and genre fiction as genre fiction does tend to be more plot driven, I think.
    Me, I enjoy both types, depends what kind of mood I am in.

  2. thanks for trying to clarify this fine line. Surprised to that Never Let me Go would be in the literary section. I thought maybe those would have focus more on the writing itself than the plot, apparently I'm really wrong.
    I loved that book, Cutting For Stone as well [great audio], but my favorite genre is HF

    1. I'm not really sure about Never Let Me Go, actually. It's an odd one. Rather than seeming to fit into both categories, it almost doesn't fit into either.

  3. Great descriptions. Nice to meet you!

  4. I read for multiple reasons too. I love literary fiction, but I often just want an engrossing story which may or may not have beautiful writing and literary merit.

  5. There definitely is a "high art/low art" stereotype when it comes to fiction, which is kind of sad. There are SO many wonderful books in all different genres. Unfortunately I don't really see a way of changing people's perceptions of genres like that.