The Most Misunderstood Genre

I have done a piece about the L Word before on my own personal blog. L is for literary, as in literary fiction.  Actually it’s not a genre at all, but that is rather the point. It is a non-genre.  It is rule-breaking.  It is not formulaic in the sense that most other genres are.  This is not a criticism of genre fiction, in any way.  Hell, genre fiction is the most popular, it’s what sells in shedloads, hence it is also known as commercial fiction.  But for a writer of such fiction there will be stricter rules about word length, there will expectations about so many aspects of the book, about content, plot, resolution and endings.

But hang on a minute, you might well ask, aren’t these important for all books?  Well, yes.  But with non-genre or literary fiction, you are freer.  You can explore beyond the boundaries. Many readers like to know what the boundaries are and that’s fine too. Publishers like it because it taps into this appetite. But as a reader and writer, I don’t like to know the kind of ending or formula to a book. I want something a bit less predictable which is why I prefer to read – and write – literary or non-genre fiction. With this fiction you can push back the frontiers, you can experiment with form, style, language, structure, viewpoint.  It is often more driven by character, than plot.  It is often more poetic than the prosaic.  But this is also what makes it less popular, more niche and vulnerable to accusations of pretentiousness, even though all art is artifice, it’s just the best examples will not appear to be so.  It has perhaps, at times, more in common with poetry and fine art, than commercial fiction.

But so many people close themselves off to good books because of devices that have been used in literary fiction for years, yet seem strange to readers who aren’t used to them.  How many times do you hear readers say they don’t like a story because it’s written in the first present, present?  Or because a story has multi-narrators or viewpoints?  Or no quotation marks?  Maybe some people think they are gimmicky when in fact they are not uncommon in literary fiction.

Literary fiction has always been at the cutting edge of fiction and the best of its kind will be award-winning. If you have read wonderful books that defy genre, then chances are they are literary fiction.  Of course, many genres crossover into others and this is also true of non-genre fiction. Kate Atkinson is an example of an author who successfully crossed over into literary crime fiction.  I recently read The Miniaturist. If it had been marketed as historical fiction I may not have had the pleasure of reading it but I’d describe is as literary historical.   Think of such classics as Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night-Time or The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.  Think of all Toni Morrison’s books. These books and so many of our cultural masterpieces defy genre.

But as I said in my previous blog on this subject – the L word is often misunderstood. People think literary must mean highbrow. It might be but it is just as likely to be raw and gritty.  This is why authors of such work prefer to find another category. Some of us prefer to use include edgy, contemporary, gritty, retro, coming-of-age or popular culture.  A few of us who have enjoyed such books set up a Facebook Page – Edgy Paperbacks – where we recommend such books, mainly indie ones. But too often our writing is homeless – and desperately seeking a home. But maybe it should stop trying.  Maybe finding a home will compromise its very genre-defying existence.

 

This post is brought to you by Kate Rigby.

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4 thoughts on “The Most Misunderstood Genre

  1. Thank you Kate for such a clear description of the literary novel. I am often asked what I mean when I describe my debut novel ‘ Too Loud a Silence as just that. I find readers themselves want to re- classify it. It has been described as contemporary, women’s fiction and more recently as a political thriller. I prefer not to be bound by genre. It is enough that people read and enjoy my book getting from it whatever resonates with them. Thanks for the blog.

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    1. Many thanks for your feedback, Jo. Yes, many people will try and reclassify our books and I find myself doing it myself!

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  2. I agree with all of the above, except to say that – having made a reference to Kate Atkinson (brilliant writer!) – you also say that literary fiction is more driven by character than plot? Well, KA is a shining example of someone who can do both to perfection!

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