For students: A few words on genre and literary fiction

A while back I received an interview request from a high school student.  Based on the questions this student asked, it was obvious he'd run up against a teacher who believed that literary fiction was "good" and genre fiction "bad."

Since I encountered this same attitude from some of my teachers in high school and college, I thought I'd share my responses to the interview. Maybe this will help other students understand that great fiction can exist in both the genre and literary fields.

1. Do you think it is possible for a work of fiction to be literary and genre at the same time?

Absolutely. There are many works of genre fiction which exist on an equal plane with the best literary fiction. Examples include Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun and the writings of great genre authors like Samuel R. Delany and Ursula K. Le Guin. You will also find that some of the most famous works of literary authors like Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, and Michael Chabon are actually genre works, with Morrison's Beloved being a ghost story, McCarthy's Blood Meridian a western/horror story, and many of Chabon's works resting fully in the fantasy and SF fields.

2. Why do you think there is a line between literary and genre, and what can writers and readers do to overcome it?

The line between literary and genre fiction results from the shared history of these types of fiction. By its nature, literary fiction attempts to hold itself up as the serious fictional genre while genre fiction is supposed to be mere escapist reading. But where there may have once been a bit of truth to these distinctions, that difference fell apart decades ago. The best genre fiction is the equal of the best literary fiction and vice versa. You'll find great stories in all areas of fiction. Likewise, you will also find horrible writing in all areas of fiction. As the science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once said, "Ninety percent of everything is crud." That applies equally to literary fiction as to genre writings. But that other 10 percent--that's the fiction worth reading, regardless of genre. And if writers and readers look for that 10%, we'll all be happier.

3. To you, what qualifies a work of fiction as literary, genre, or both/neither?

These days, that qualification depends on how a publisher wishes to market a book. There are many readers who will read one type of novel and not another (even though, as I mentioned above, there is a ton of overlap between genre and literary fiction). So if a publisher believes they can sell a book as a genre novel, they do so. Likewise with literary fiction.

4. What do you like about literary fiction, and what do you like about genre fiction?

It would be better to ask what do I like about fiction. I demand that my fiction be well written and take me to places I've never been and introduce me to people I care about. More importantly, I want my fiction to teach me something new. To open my eyes to new possibilities. What I don't want is to read fiction which merely reinforces what I already know or is a reworking of what I've already read.

5. What do you like about writing literary fiction, and what do you like about writing genre fiction?

While I've published fiction which could be considered both literary and genre, my goal has always been the same: To create the best possible story. I believe well-written stories take on a life of their own. That's what I aim for with every story I write.