The dreaded genre label

Girl reading, Francesso Bartolozzi

Girl reading, Francesso Bartolozzi

It was one of those air-punching moments that brought with it a sense of justification for the countless shelves and the innumerable hours ‘wasted’ with my nose in a book. Reading fiction is good for you. Officially and scientifically. According to a recently published study reading fiction increases empathy by opening a door on human experience. It transports the reader to situations beyond their own sphere, allows them to predict the characters’ responses and attunes them to the emotional reactions of their fellow man. Basically it says that reading fiction teaches you to read life and people.

Not that the report was needed by those of us who enjoy such works… we’ve known that all along; but there is a peculiar literary coterie who have always looked down bespectacled noses at the readers of fiction and a critical snobbery that renders the escapism of a good story an intellectually guilty pleasure.

Both those same critics and the aforementioned report do draw a distinction between popular and literary fiction. The latter is intellectually acceptable. We can sit at a pavement café, our limbs artistically arranged, reading Tolstoy, Dickens or Victor Hugo (but only in the original French, please) and draw smiles of approbation; but God forefend you sit there giggling at a Terry Pratchett or lost in something that smacks horribly of being genre fiction. There is, after all, no hope for the readers of such stuff…

Interesting point… what the hell is ‘literary fiction’ anyway?

We all know it refers to the classics; those beautifully written books that have withstood the passage of time and fashion. We possibly assume that for modern works to qualify they have to be prose poems or dark and deep explorations of the human psyche and whose covers frequently display ‘Booker Prize Nominee’.

Not according to the dictionary, which, in fact, holds no definition at all for this composite term. Wikipedia begins its definition by saying this is “a term principally used for certain fictional works that hold literary merit…” which to me says very little and manages to denigrate the literary merit of every book that fails to meet with critical approval somehow.

The Oxford English dictionary does however define ‘literary’ as ‘concerning the writing, study, or content of literature, especially of the kind valued for quality of form’ , ‘with literature as a profession’ and ‘associated with literary works or other formal writing; having a marked style intended to create a particular emotional effect.’

Which looks pretty much as if ‘literary fiction’ therefore should really mean ‘anything written by a writer using words’; more specifically if it is well written and seeking to elicit an emotional response from the reader. Of course, accepted idiom means that we all have a vague idea that there is more to it than that.

I suppose modern ‘literary fiction’ could best be said to refer to those works that will withstand the test of time and, in the opinion of critics and reviewers, become classics one day. The trouble is that they will then join the ranks of others guilty of producing recognised classics… people like Tolkien, Bronte and Shelley, for example… who wrote fantasy, Gothic romance, and science fiction/zombie horror respectively, if we were to classify them within modern genre fiction. Because the vast majority of our ‘classics’ were not written with the literary prize of critical or academic acclaim in view; posterity and the engagement of their readers gave them their place in out literary history. These works  were created by writers in an act as old as Man… they were simply telling stories.

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She has written a number of books, both alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com
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32 Responses to The dreaded genre label

  1. ..well observed, m’Lady… an entirely literary commentary! 🙂

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  2. alesiablogs says:

    And yes. Story Telling is one of my fondest hobbies and loves I have of other authors….Not always the classics either although I do love a good Mark Twain!

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  3. socialbridge says:

    Well-observed, Sue.

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  4. Brilliant. A perfect deconstruction. Now if I can only get on an write another story…

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  5. Reblogged this on graemecummingdotnet and commented:
    Just read this and couldn’t agree with it more

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  6. Wonder how many classics were considered genre fluff when they first came out. I never got the snobbery when it came to genre and non-genre fiction. A well-written book is worth reading no matter the topic as long as the reader is interested.

    Something I’ve heard recently is that USA English/Language Arts education is removing many of the classics from the curriculum. They’re going more non-fiction for some reason.

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    • Sue Vincent says:

      I read that too… it would be a crying shame to remove fiction, though speaking personally, I know Hardy and Dickens were ruined for me for years by dissecting them in English Lit. On the other hand, another teacher opened Shakespeare for me and took him from highbrow to delight… The teacher makes a lot of difference.

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      • It is tough to teach the classics because you have to do it without making them a chore. Still at least people were exposed to it. I’m not sure what the logic behind removing fiction is, but it has me worried for my son. I’ve heard from several friends that the workload is making their kids never want to read in their spare time. It’s removing ‘fun reading’, which makes me think it’s a terrible system. I could go on for hours about this including conspiracy theories about why. I’m just really dreading when my son starts getting into the bigger things.

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        • Sue Vincent says:

          My granddaughter… now two days old… is getting books for Christmas.Reading to them starts arly, making memories that give a love of stories…. regardless of what they get in school.

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          • I agree. The problem comes about when school pushes reading so much that you can’t get kids to read when they have free time. That’s an issue that I’ve been hearing from friends who have read to their kids since infancy.

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            • Sue Vincent says:

              I had one who was all outdoors given chance and never really read much… though he would happily read with or be read to. The other would read by streetlamps under the covers given half a chance. As long as they know how, have books available all the time and get the input of stories from parents .. which I’m sure your son munchkin will… I think that’s about all we can do.

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  7. really enjoyed this – and everything else you write in your quite literary blog

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  8. I really liked your observation. I think reading is also good for the mind as it ages. My mother was am avid reader – she wrote too – and was sharp as a tack until she died at age 95.

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  9. barbtaub says:

    Fantastic and timely blog. I remember when my editor asked me about my book’s genre. I did my best goldfish imitation. Then she said, “Where do you see it shelved at Barnes & Noble?” I finally said it would be on the endcap between Fantasy and SciFi, casting longing glances at Romance. “Steampunk” she wrote. I’m fairly certain that “literary fiction” was not an available choice.

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  10. Terry Tyler says:

    I’ve always thought that the term ‘genre fiction’ is particularly daft, too – ‘genre’ means ‘type, class, variety’, after all. It’s like saying ‘flavour yogurt’. Or ‘model car’, or ‘weave fabric’; it’s about as meaningless!

    I think the OED definition of literary just says that it’s something of quality. But the lighthearted or more commonplace is of quality if done well too, isn’t it? And using clever words doesn’t make something good.

    Back to my zombie apocalypse novel….

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    • Sue Vincent says:

      It does seem a meaningless epithet, doesn’t it? The problem I have with it is its use as a sneering denigration of the work of anyone who writes along a popular theme.

      Of course there is a lot of badly written stuff out there… but then, many excellent writers break literary conventions to good effect. And why not?

      One of the most pertinent distinctions I came across was that genre fiction is written by those who would like to make a living from writing… literary fiction by those seeking the plaudits and approbation of peers and official bodies.

      Having said that… would I refuse a hypothetical (and exceedingly unlikely) literary prize nomination? Probably not 😉

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  11. Reblogged this on Pamela Turton and commented:
    I sometimes have ‘Genre Issues’ too – if you think it’s a good story it’s a good story, isn’t it?

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