Dispatches | February 05, 2004

[By Charlie Green]

Cowboys, dragons, orcs, and hunks: I see these character clichés in introductory fiction workshops often, the signs of genre fiction. Teachers of fiction writing commonly prohibit such work; one of my friends and colleagues here at TMR summarizes the rule as “No orcs”(link). Most often, here at Mizzou, anyway, teachers of fiction writing codify the restriction in the syllabus by saying that students must turn in not genre fiction, but literary fiction.

I guess I don’t understand the term “literary fiction.” Don’t get me wrong; I know literary fiction when I see it, and I read publications that distinguish themselves for publishing literary fiction (TMR is one). But when I try to define it, and when I hear or read other definitions, I find myself unsure what the phrase really means. The connotation (which, to be honest, I tend to agree with) is that genre fiction is “bad” and literary fiction is “good.” But I can define specific genres; science fiction, fantasy, mystery, western, romance, horror, all have more or less set conventions for form and content. There are divisions within these genres, but even those divisions have their own rules; literary fiction, on the other hand, has few rules or parameters, and even fewer clear definitions.

In her popular textbook Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway defines literary fiction two ways. The first is in the context of mainstream fiction: “Mainstream fiction is literary fiction [she bolds the text to indicate a definition] if its appeal is also lodged in the original, interesting, and illuminating use of the language; the term also implies a degree of care in the psychological exploration of its characters, and an attempt to shed light on the human condition.” The second definition is in contrast to genre fiction, one that I’ve heard frequently: “the former [literary fiction] is character-driven, the latter [genre fiction] plot-driven.”

Burroway’s first definition seems tenuously balanced: “an attempt to shed light on the human condition.” Simply an attempt draws the line between genre and literary? And what does “a degree of care” mean? How exactly do we quantify it? I admire Burroway’s effort to define the phrase (full disclosure: when I teach Introductory Fiction Writing, I use her text), and I generally agree, but how do we show students when “a degree of care” is taken? This may seem like mere semantic nit picking, but semantics matter in definitions.

More important, I think, is the effort put into distinguishing literary fiction from genre fiction. Though readers can easily identify genre fiction, from the above definition one might think that genre fiction necessarily does not “attempt to shed light on the human condition” or take “a degree of care in the psychological exploration of its characters.” Not all genre fiction does those things, but much of it does. Conversely, “literary” writers use genre in their work. For example, George Saunders, Toni Morrison, Richard Russo, Cormac McCarthy, Jonathan Lethem, John Updike, Junot Diaz, and many others employ genre as an integral element of their fiction. Does the term “literary fiction” do justice to the diversity of their work? How do students (or writers, for that matter) benefit from considering these writers under the same rubric when their differences offer us more to learn from as writers and readers?

Predating Burroway’s text, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction reveals another problem of Burroway’s second definition: “the artist’s primary unit of thought—his primary conscious or unconscious basis for selecting and organizing the details of his work—is genre” (notably, his italics). He then goes on to give what seems to me a better understanding of what could be termed literary fiction, though he doesn’t use the term: “Novelty comes chiefly from ingenious genre-crossing or elevation of familiar materials.” Good fiction, whether it qualifies as literary or genre, surprises us in the way it shows us what we already know.

Gardner’s statement brings me back to the prohibition of genre fiction in workshop: student genre fiction most often avoids novelty by copying the most basic elements of genre, whether they are from movies or books. Good fiction does so much more than replicate basic elements; young writers learn more by writing beyond genre, beyond what they know, by writing the foreign into the familiar.