The differences between literary fiction and genre fiction parallels the differences between an experimental independent film and a typical genre film. A person who picks a comedy with Adam Sandler knows what to expect and they are in the mood to watch a certain type of movie. An independent movie is supposed to be different, transcending genre expectations, and essentially becomes a genre based on the director. For instance, Mira Nair, director of Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala, and The Reluctant Fundamentalist has her own style that viewers and critics recognize. I can name many other independent films that are beyond the typical genres. Likewise, literary fiction is meant to be avante-garde fiction with critical value that touches up on cultural and historical significance. Part of writing and rhetoric is the form (genre). Understanding the forms and their purposes is an important part of writing. It is important to know the conventions in order to transcend them. That makes a story uniquely your own.
We’re living in the post-genre world and the lines between literary and genre fiction are blurring. This is mostly due to the digital age and its influence on publishing. This change can be good news for writers. I would even go as far as saying that literary fiction (or whatever it becomes) will be saved by self-publishing and new advances. If you are still asking, “So what exactly is literary fiction?”, please allow me to explain.
I have heard some people describe literary fiction as character-driven and genre fiction to be plot-driven. That simplistic explanation has some truth to it. Most French films known outside the francophone world are literary fiction in film form. Both the French films and literary fiction tend to focus on character-driven stories. Literary fiction shudders at the thought of conforming to any genre boundaries as that could be blasphemous. The plot (of literary fiction) is meant to be experimental.
When watching an independent film, the viewer does not usually know what to expect and wants something “different.” I love watching independent films because it is different from the familiar motifs. Those looking to read literary fiction tend to be educated, sophisticated readers who want something with substance. Hence, an agent told me that well-crafted words and sentences make up literary fiction. Writers of literary fiction spend a lot of time on word choice and crafting the right sentences. Some people interpret literary fiction as snobby, pretentious writing. That is probably why bad literary fiction exists these days. Trying too hard to be academic or intelligent backfires. Years ago, I remember seeing an Argentine film at the Portland Film Festival. It felt like the director was trying too hard to make the film avant-garde or “artsy.” The film ended up becoming cliched, over-the-top at times—and the message became murky. That seems to happen a lot lately with literary fiction. By all means, a writer should experiment with writing, take risks, and try different things. My advice is to let the first draft be playtime and find “your own room.” Then, spend significant amount of time revising and polishing the script. We all have been exposed to the writing stages since 4th grade. The difference between a professional writer and an amateur writer is that a professional writer is comfortable with complete revisions, overhaul, and rewriting. Revision does not mean a quick fix after the first draft. The best writing is re-written. This applies to any form of writing.
Another thing I’ve been wondering is whether literary fiction (as we know it today) relevant? Literary fiction came out of late 19th century psychorealism and early 20th century modernism. The term “literary fiction” came out in the 1960s to distinguish serious fiction from commercial fiction. To understand the need for genre boundaries, we should consider bookselling and publishing culture. Large mall bookstores became popular around this time. A reader looking for mystery would walk to the mystery section. A reader looking for romance would walk to the romance section. Likewise, literary fiction had a place to distinguish itself. Large publishers will pay to have the bookstore put the book face out in a store. Did you know that? Publishers are in a way manipulating exposure to potential readers. Then, comes the digital revolution. In the internet world, a self-published author can potentially have the same level of exposure to potential readers as a NYT bestseller. The way to distinguish yourself is to self-brand and become an expert in the subject. That also means transcending beyond genre.
Now that we’re in the post post-modern world, internet, and changing norms of publishing, I’d say that we need to ask ourselves, “what exactly is literary fiction?” Does literary fiction have to be dry, overly academic, (and dare I say it) boring.
No so. With the lines between literary and commercial blurring, new genres started appearing. There is now upmarket women’s fiction such as Jodi Picoult. Upmarket fiction tends to blend both. Women’s fiction doesn’t have to be “ditzy girl” novels. This sexist attitude irks me to the core. Women’s writing or topics doesn’t mean subpar writing or less intelligent topics. I think of women’s fiction and writing as the equivalent of The Atlantic having political and commentary as well as fashion, beauty, food, entertaining articles. What’s wrong with being a woman who is interested in the traditional female topics of entertaining, cooking, fashion, and at the same time interested in politics, culture, psychology, writing, art. Why such dichotomy have to exist? After all, can’t a smart woman love fashion? Maybe someone got fed up with that artificial dichotomy and decided to write fiction for intelligent, educated women.
Then, you have Toni Morrison. Her works are an example of “couture” literature becoming mainstream. Her works have been recommended by Oprah Book Club and she is mentioned in both academic journals and mainstream magazines.
And who says literary fiction writers cannot self-publish? Ten or twenty years ago, self-published books were assumed to subpar writing because there has to be a reason why the publishers rejected the book. Now-a-days, self-publishing is becoming common. Yet, literary fiction tends to have this snobby attitude against self-publishing. Terri Giuliano Long and Cari Noga have self-published literary fiction. Do you think self-publishing will save literary fiction?
Where did the artificial divide between character-driven, plotless, snobby literary fiction and plot-driven, conformist, audience-catering mainstream genre fiction arise? One thing I can’t stand about literary fiction and MFA programs is a lack of diversity. After, our world is becoming increasingly diverse and global-minded. My writing is third-culture literature and I don’t see it fitting in anywhere in the MFA/literary fiction world. Likewise, I don’t like it being loosely categorized as ethnic/multicultural literature. Any writing from the perceived “other” cannot all be thrown into one big category of multicultural literature. I’ve been told that there is a need for different voices in American literature and novels. Yet, as an ethnic minority, I feel that the various genre molds expect me to write the token minority topics. I took writing classes with a liberal professor and students who tout their liberal, inclusivity horn and rants against hegemony. But, I could tell that they weren’t comfortable with any perceived differences. The interesting part was that during critiques the readers were trying to find differences. The discomfort was the idea that another culture has the same universal themes and experiences. One comment was, “I’m not sure if this is cultural. I can see this happening with my family too.” Seriously? It seems the critic is trying to say, “Where’s the difference? And if it is different, it shouldn’t be relevant to me.” A college educated adult should not have this naive, narcissistic reading attitude. I have also been in casual writers’ circles that didn’t have a teacher with a MFA degree. The reception, critique, and feedback was much more thoughtful. FYI, some of those people have never lived abroad but were able to see the characters of another ethnicity as people first. This makes me glad that I didn’t waste my time (and money) on an MFA degree. Maybe the issue is that there is a glut of MFA degrees that are a disservice to students.
In that workshop, feedback helped me. I could improve some of my techniques and at that time I haven’t processed some things, so my writing could have been better polished. Domestic violence and sexual abuse of children are tough topics. At the same time, I grieved over the attitudes of people. I can definitely improve on my techniques to bring others into the world of my characters. Yet, I cannot reduce or change the experiences of my characters to suit the myopic types. The experiences of my characters are collective situations and experiences of people I’ve known or read about, and I believe they speak a truth that needs to be heard. In a way, I’m thrilled that my writing makes some people uncomfortable. Fiction isn’t the place to receive validation. Why should I be expected to attempt the impossible task of pleasing everyone, especially through my writing? I wonder as a woman, there is this stupid expectation to people-please. I still face the expectation to be “seen not heard.” Fiction writing is the last place where I should have to deal with this expectation. Regardless of ethnicity or cultural background, most writers I encountered tend to think outside the box and are rebels. This is true whether in Singapore, Arizona, Portland, Boston, Dubai, and everywhere else I’ve been. I suppose we all think alike. As someone said in my old Singapore writer’s group, “Us crazies got to stick together.”
Fiction has the power to unite people across cultural, ethnic, social barriers rather than divide. So, why doesn’t literary fiction keep up? Considering the history of MFA programs, the purpose of MFA programs was to create a workshop for professional or serious writers to get together, commune, critique, and have access to information. At that time, literary fiction was considered to be the most distinguished writing. Now-a-days, we have access to information and it is possible to meet up with other writers and receive critiques. It can be done outside an MFA program. I believe that MFA programs are becoming passe.
According to Donald Maas, literary agent, “Literary fiction isn’t necessarily superior writing.” There are genre or mainstream novels that are well-written and with unique characters that surprise the reader with something different. I highly recommend Maas’ Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling in Modern Fiction. This book has questions in the end of each chapter to help me examine my own writing.
How about getting over the 20th century mentality? I agree with Maas that both literary fiction and commercial fiction have something to bring to the table.
Transcending genres can be done. It starts with the writer having an important story to tell.