Why can’t genre fiction be literary?

It may be genre fiction, even called pulp fiction, but Chandler sure had a literary quality in his work.
It may be genre fiction, even called pulp fiction, but Raymond Chandler sure had a literary quality to his work.

THE MORE I WRITE, the more confused, confounded, frustrated, and generally upset I become. Within the hallowed walls of publishing – particularly in those cubicles where editors, critics, and the elitists reside – there seems to be a genuine dislike, disregard, and dismissal of genre fiction.

Let the bright lights touch literary fiction. It is, after all, publishing that reflects the best and the brightest.

Sweep that genre fiction – mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, horror, and fantasy categories – over in the corner of the back room where the high-brows can’t be tainted with good, solid, old-fashioned storytelling. God forbid that the novel be a page turner.

Great fiction – literary fiction – must be read slowly, then re-read even more slowly, as the author tells us every time his or her character inhales, exhales, and examines the psychological demons of a fragmented psyche that is driving the good and evil deeper into the human condition.

And if you understand that last sentence, then you’re ready to tackle literary fiction. I wrote it, and I don’t know what the hell it means.

So what is literary fiction anyway? Some editors says that works of literary fiction are complex, literate, multi-layered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas.


Or how about: “Literary fiction avoids focusing on the plot – it isn’t about solving something. The focus in on the inner narrative: the emotion and struggle of the protagonist.”

Or, “Literary fiction, in general, emphasizes meaning over entertainment,” as if entertainment can’t have meaning.

Or, “Literary fiction will be introspective, examining the thoughts and feelings of its main characters. There will be a deep study of a person or persons, showing us layers of experience, emotion, thought, and behavior.”

That’s what some of the country’s top editors have said. And in her book, The Beginning Writer’s Answer Book, Jane Friedman says that literary fiction is the kind of work that would be read in college English classes. Genre fiction, on the other hand, is best read in the grocery checkout lane.

Fool that I am, I always thought that writing literary fiction had more to do with style than anything else.

Forget the genre.

Forget the introspection.

Forget the universal dilemmas.

It was all about style.

The writing should be lyrical and elegant, perhaps with artistic or poetic qualities. The narrative should be beautifully written with a voice that is distinct and different and maybe even haunting.

I’ve read novels written by authors who possess those elements of style: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ray Bradbury, James Lee Burke, Cormac McCarthy, Nevil Shute, Larry McMurtry, Charles Frazier, Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee.

But wait a minute, they write genre fiction: mysteries, science fiction, historical fiction, legal thrillers, and even Westerns, for God’s sake. Their novels, if the elitists are correct, should be read in grocery checkout lanes.

I realize that some of my other favorite authors – Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and John Irving – may not have written pure genre fiction, but their plots were damn important to them. Their stories went some place.

So much of the so-called literary fiction in today’s marketplace seems to have one thing in common. The stories don’t start from anywhere. They don’t go anywhere. And they are in no hurry to get there.

But the prose is stunning.

Every sentence has been crafted by an artist.

The language is overpowering.

The characters have more layers than I have dandelions in the backyard.

But the author has forgotten the plot. There is plenty of emotion and maybe even some scattered conflict.

But nobody wins.

And nobody loses.

Nobody does anything, consequential or otherwise.

I believe that indie authors working in a particular genre should strive to impact their novels with style and grace and an elegance of the written word. Their stories, too, should be stitched together with a literary quality that Bradbury and Chandler and James Lee would approve.

No author should ever be satisfied with mediocrity. Average has no place in the publishing world.

When you write, don’t just scatter words. Take the time to look at each sentence, each paragraph, each chapter, and think: How can I make it make it better? How can I make it read more smoothly? How can I give it more relevance? How can I add more panache? (Panache is a big word in the discussions of literary fiction, which has it, and genre fiction doesn’t.) What can I do to make my reader glad that he or she took the time to come along for the ride.

Editors may still ignore you, especially if you have written something crass like a plot or a meaning.

The critics still won’t accept you, especially if you have an ending that somebody actually understands.

But you will have raised your writing standards another notch, and you’ll know the difference. So will your readers.

There’s even a chance that you may be out front and on the cutting edge of a whole new genre of fiction. The publishing world would be better off if the eReaders were filled with literary mysteries, literary romances, literary fantasy, or literary erotica.

Write it. Promote it. And, if necessary, let the critics choke on it.

If Secrets of the Dead isn’t literary, it’s not because I didn’t try.


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Related Posts