There’s an interesting divide in the academic literary world based on the question of “what constitutes Literary Fiction?”

This rift has spread to the publishing world. The Literary Fiction camp holds the belief that Genre Fiction writers are cookie-cutter sellouts, pumping out as much trash as possible to earn a quick buck. Whereas the Genre Fiction camp views the Literary Writers as idealistic snobs, writing from an ivory tower and waxing poetic in ruffled shirts.

With some of the stubborn and pompous attitudes of literary authors and all of the garbage self-published on Amazon, it’s hard not to agree with both stereotypes. But I think if you want to get in the habit of writing successfully, you need to understand and aspire to both schools of thought.

Speaking of schools, here’s a story from my last class I ever took at University. It was a Renaissance Fiction Class, 400 hundred level. Through all of the reading, we were asked a simple question: is this Literature? No one, not even the teacher had a solid definition of what that meant. The vague answer is something like, “a written work that has literary merit,” which loops infuriatingly into itself.

The term began taking upon its popularity as its own thing around the time travelogues came into vogue–somewhere in the early 1500’s– and it’s easy to understand why, as a written, true account of a journey strikes on the “beginning, middle, and end” narrative structure naturally. These were supposedly non-fictional accounts, but there’s no doubt that details were embellished. The trend of intentionally fictionalizing these travelogues is traditionally credited to Sir Thomas More with his work UtopiaWe also read a bunch of martyrologies, another supposedly non-fictional account that has some, shall we say, mystical qualities to it (in addition to being objectively metal). With every chunk of reading we were asked if this was literature. 

More questions followed. Does literature have to be fiction? (A: “Not… really?”) Does it have to be interesting? (A: “Apparently not, because travelogues are boring as hell.”) Does it have to share significant insight into humanity ? (A: “Uhm, hmmm.“)

One answer was certain: that everything we read was written to the guidelines specific to a particular genre.

Another question: Was this considered Literature at the time? Nearly everything we hold in literary prestige garnered its accolades long after the author died. Shakespeare’s works didn’t get the literary treatment until the 20th century. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a horror novel. The Great Gatsby was considered a failure until after World War II. Is it literature? (A: “Let’s sleep on it and figure it out next century.”)

Now, as far as it relates to the publishing world, a distinction between literary and genre fiction can be made. As far as I can tell, the difference is this:

Literary Fiction focuses on introspective character studies that attempts to reflect a philosophical truth of the modern age. The character dictates the plot.

Genre Fiction focuses on universally recognizable characters driven to make choices by external actions. The plot dictates the character.

Modern fiction necessitates an overlap– Don Delilo’s White Noise, for example, ends a meticulous and surreal study of a modern family with elements borrowed from a thriller. It’s in that overlap that you should aspire to. On one hand, learning and understanding the conventions of basic storytelling is important, because those elements don’t really change over time. Our brains are wired to understand stories and, ideally, you want the reader to understand and enjoy the act of actually reading your book. On the other hand, you should give a shit and try to make your work as affecting and relevant to the world around you as you possibly can.

Because at the end of the day, literature is like pornography. No one really knows what it is, but we know it when we see it.

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