Genre v. Non-Genre Fiction: Who Wins? or, which is better?

Is genre fiction inherently less valuable/worthy than non-genre fiction? If not, is it more likely to be less worthy?

Here’s the issue, to me:

Writing is an art. Any kind of art contains works which can be classed together based upon their similarities. However, the entire known body of that art will contain works which defy categorization with other works due to their incredible uniqueness, like, say, Ulysses. Fiction is one class within the body of works produced by the art of writing. Within that class of fiction, we have genres, i.e., horror, mystery, romance, etc.

However, I fail to see the logic which demonstrates that a work of fiction which defies categorization into a known genre is superior or likely-to-be-superior due, in some measure, to that defiance.

In other words, there’s no inherent reason why Tale of Two Cities is necessarily better than Wuthering Heights (a romance).

Hope that makes sense.

I was all prepared to come in here and get pissy over having to argue that no one “wins” and neither one is inherently better…

I agree completely. :slight_smile:

A genre is nothing more than a set of expectations for both readers and writers. They help to heighten the enjoyment of the reader, because he knows what to expect when he picks up a “Sci-Fi” or “Mystery” novel.

Genres are very useful things, but they’re not the end-all and be-all of literature, or the other way around.

Genres are marketing categories (some “non-fiction” books, for instance, are works of fiction). There are good books in every genre, and bad ones, too.

The issue is often that mainstream literary fiction often tries to lay claim to the concept that it is 1) not a genre and 2) automatically superior to genre fiction. That’s just plain false.

The problem with genre fiction is that it can become formula fiction.

But then, so can “mainstream literary” fiction.

See Sturgeon’s Law.

The following is something I posted on the funtrivia message boards:

In another thread I said, “Looking back I wish someone would have discouraged me as a teen from reading all the fantasy, horror, and science fiction and found me some better books.” Pearldust asked, “What’s wrong with fantasy? What’s wrong with books like Harry Potter?”

The short answer: Nothing wrong with fantasy or any genre fiction, in moderation. The following is about reading too much of any genre, so if your reading is well-rounded, don’t worry about what I’m about to say.

For one thing, most genre fiction is unoriginal and repetitive. It’s an obvious irony that genres like fantasy and science fiction, in which anything can happen, are rigidly bound by convention. A few authors will pioneer a genre, your Chandlers, Tolkiens, Asimovs, Christies, etc., and they spawn a load of imitators who deviate from the forms the pioneers set only in details. How many independent cowboys, intuitive detectives, and crafty wizards does anybody really need? Once you’ve read the trend-setters there’s not much need to read the imitators, other than to fill time that might be spent more profitably.

Again, reading a bit of fantasy isn’t a bad thing, but too much of anything is. Reading exclusively science fiction and fantasy distracted me from other books I would’ve liked and should’ve read. I didn’t get around to reading “The Catcher in the Rye”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, Hemingway, etc., etc., until I was in my twenties. I was ready for them earlier but I was too busy reading books that were, to be frank, junk. I’m not saying that all genre novels are junk, but a large proportion is. By focusing so much on genres I increased my junk intake as I read more of the best authors’ second-rate stuff and the second-raters’ best stuff.

Which leads me to my next criticism of the form: much of it is unchallenging. Thinking back there weren’t many books in the genres that made me think. Few tough questions were asked and solutions tended to be presented after the fact. While one could argue that certain genre novels and stories are based on problem solving, the problems in science fiction and mysteries are conventionalized and unrealistic. I suppose I could learn from Bilbo’s problems, but the lessons are pretty obvious: don’t give up, you gotta do what you gotta do, sometimes mercy is better than revenge. That’s actually a pretty rich haul for a genre novel. I think all the really useful information I’ve netted from all the detective novels I’ve read is a couple pointers on rolling cigarettes. Books like, say, “Huck Finn”, on the other hand, contain not only moral lessons but a picture of real life as people lived it, and I find it much more rewarding to return to Twain than to my favorite science fiction and fantasy authors. Most of my reading is for recreation, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try for something a little tougher and hopefully a little more rewarding.

Even worse, genre fiction tends to be unenduring. In my old favorite genre, science fiction, even the originators are going unread more and more, let alone the imitators. In fact, some people claim the genre as a whole is dying off, failing to attract new readers. I feel safe in assuming that the current fantasy genre heavyweights, your Rowlings and Pratchetts will most likely see their readerships taper off as they are replaced by a new fad genre, probably within their lifetimes if they have reasonably long lives. More and more books of my favorite author as a youth, Robert A. Heinlein, are going out of print. What’s more, his books haven’t aged well for me personally and I was a big fan.

One unfortunate side effect of genre fiction’s unchallenging nature is that I was unprepared for the demands of literature. For example, genre fiction never has been much for symbolism. If E.R. Burrough’s hero John Carter says he’s on Mars, he’s on Mars. However, if Ernest Hemingway’s hero Nick Adams says he’s fishing, well, maybe he is just fishing and the story’s OK if a bit pointless. Then again, maybe the author is telling the story of his youth, the river is a symbol, and if you pick up on that the story is much more than a simple fish story. Coming from a background of strict literal-mindedness didn’t help me spot things like that and to this day fairly obvious symbols in books and films pass by me unnoticed. If I’d started sooner I might be doing better.

Unoriginal, inferior, unchallenging, uninformative, short-lived, and literal-minded-- these things don’t apply to all genre fiction, but do apply to a great deal of it. Some of the other charges leveled at fantasy, science fiction, horror, westerns, and mysteries-- chiefly the charge of escapism-- don’t hold as much weight for me. While a bit of fantasy (or mystery, or science fiction, or whatever) is fine, reading exclusively or primarily genre fiction is, in my opinion, a mistake for a young reader. Or an old one.

Great post, Ironikinit!

Now, let me ask a follow-up.

You’re probably right. Why are things that way?

I think the a large part of the reason why a lot of genre fiction is so schlocky is because of the commercial nature of publishing today and pressures to sell to an audience by appealing to the lowest common denominator and delivering a punch (scare people) rather than letting up-and-coming authors take risks and write well. (Actually, that probably applies to all the arts which have been harnessed for commercial enterprises.)

Because I don’t think genre fiction need be schlocky. Consider Edgar Allen Poe or Emily Bronte or Jules Verne. “Exceptions!” you’re probably thinking. Yes, but Poe’s writing is still powerful today (read one of my favorites, “Hop Frog”), and also delivers a moral if you wish to see one.

So, I guess you are correct that a lot of it is, in fact, not edifying, but my argument is that this is due to factors not related to the nature of the writing itself or the class of fiction into which the writing falls.

If I had more time now, I would argue that the kind of discipline necessary to get published in a genre can arguably help some authors focus and actually deliver a product superior to one which is less bound to conventions, but I’ll save that for another time! :slight_smile:

Obviously as has already been said, a mix of genres and general (non-genre) fiction is best to get a wide education and the fullest experience. The danger of genre-writing is that it falls into a formula and isn’t allowed to break the formula or innovate. And also, a lot of it is very badly written and seemingly padded out or truncated to fit expected lengths.

There’s a lot of cross-over between serious literary fiction and genre writing, which means the lines are blurred: JG Ballard has moved from science fiction to being accepted as literature; Graham Greene wrote crime and spy thrillers, but was one of the greatest figures in British literature of his time; other writers like Martin Amis have dipped into various genres. Even in the past, the Gothic novel form was used by Jane Austen and Emily Bronte.

So to appreciate serious fiction you need a knowledge of genre, and there are great works in genre fiction, but simply reading those nasty rows of identical paperbacks in subcategorised sections of the bookshelf won’t give you anything like the variety of experience or quality of writing you’ll get from the best of fiction.

I read a great deal of genre-fiction, mostly mysteries and science fiction, seasoned with healthy dollops of “mainstream” fiction and history. One of the big attractions of genre fiction is that it’s story-driven. The classic authors that people still read, be they Bronte, Twain, Harper Lee, or Dickens, all tell cracking good stories.

A lot of critically-acclaimed mainstream fiction consists of navel-gazing, IMO. Many of them are beautifully written, with interesting characters, but nothing happens. And there is plenty of schlocky mainstream fiction out there as well. Family sagas about feisty Southern women, anyone? Troubled woman coming to grips with her past? Spare me.

Snobbery plays into it as well. There are critically-acclaimed mainstream writers, such as A.S. Byatt and Margaret Atwood, whose work I love. But there are also extremely talented genre writers–Ursula LeGuin, Sean Stewart, Gregory Maguire–who don’t get the recognition they deserve, because they write in story-driven genres.

NOTE: See this thread for the beginning of this discussion that led to nisosbar creating this thread - it is about what makes a great book great.

In that thread, I basically state that 99% of any category of books is crap - or, at the very least, will not endure. True of lit, sci-fi, crime, etc…

Genre books, as has been very well stated in earlier posts to this thread, are always in danger of becoming formulaic. To Ironikinit’s point, kids/teens can get sucked into the formula and not look past the crash-bang excitement and see that what they are reading is crap and that they are ready for Catcher or Mockingbird. Anybody with a kid who has endured 100’s of viewings of Thomas the Tank Engine knows what I mean when I say kids value repetition at least as much as quality.

Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily - reading anything is better than reading nothing. The question is whether a reader can be encouraged to read better material - genre or lit - when they are more mature as a reader and ready for it.

For the most part, I think transcendant, enduring classics in lit and genre are of equal quality and give me joy - both can communicate rich, interesting characters and make profound points about the human condition. Bad lit can be pretentious and confusing, but is easily avoided - it doesn’t sell well anyway. Bad genre fiction can be more seductive - for those caught up in a genre - it can be hard to look past the formula and realize that the book itself has few if any redeeming qualities. So I think folks are more likely to complain about the commonness of bad genre fiction as a result.

My $.02.

I’m with burundi here. I recall reading an essay years ago that said “First of all, tell a story,” and went on to define a story as “people you care about doing interesting things”. Too many “serious” writers forget that. Certainly it’s great if your fiction is deep and significant, but it doesn’t do any good if nobody reads it! Genre fiction is mostly crap (I see Sturgeons Law cited above), but at least it usually makes an attempt at a plot.

Most of my favourite books are ones where nothing happens. Perhaps this is why I find genre fiction so unsatisfying. It seems to me that plot is one of the least interesting characteristics of fiction (Shakespeare knew this, so he just stole pre-existing plots for his work). Genre fiction often becomes so plot driven that it loses sight of what makes writing worth reading: the ideas. That’s why a book without any substantial plot needs strong characterisation and ideas (things that are infinitely more variable than plot) to hold its own.

Of course, this doesn’t mean there isn’t valuable genre-writing. And of course, there are plenty of great works that have great plot. I just feel that plot isn’t a necessity and often gets in the way of more important things.

Which would I rather read? Genre.

Which actually seems to be more enduring? Genre, aside from romance.

I’ve read “literature.” I’ve read “literary fiction.” Not only are they not the same thing, they aren’t on the same continent.

I like mysteries for the same reason I like to read and write sonnets. What can be done within the constraints of the form?


Writer Theodore Sturgeon once said "Sure, 90% of science fiction is crud. That’s because 90% of everything is crud” (also know as Sturgeon’s Law). Of course there are bad genre novels, but there are plenty of terrible “literary” novels as well.

First, the notion that fantasy and science fiction are unenduring is just plain wrong. For example, the Greek fantasy The Odyssey was written more than 2,000 years ago and is still read and admired today. Similarly, Jonathan Swift’s satirical book “Gulliver Travels” continues to be read and enjoyed despite being written in 1726. Why, if William Shakespeare’s Macbeth was written today its fantastical elements such as the witches would make it a genre piece. In my mind these elements of the fantastic do nothing to diminish the greatness of Shakespeare’s play.

Science fiction is a newer genre and therefore it is harder to point to examples of similarly enduring works, however, I shall try. Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World is hardly a new novel but its message continues to resonate today. Likewise, the nightmare society presented in Orwells 1984 has never been realized, and yet this novel is as powerful today as it was fifty years ago. Of course, how well a novel ages is somewhat subjective, for example to me “To Kill a Mocking Bird” feels very dated, an opinion that I am sure would put me in a minority.

This brings me to my next point. There is nothing innate about science fiction (or other genre fiction) that prevents it from being metaphorical, indeed the best work of genre authors such as Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, and Kurt Vonnegut (to name a few) work on both literal and metaphorical levels. Joe Haldeman’s Forever War may be about an interstellar war, but it is also about the author’s experiences in Vietnam.

Finally, I reject the notion that genre fiction is less challenging. Read Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun for example, and you will find a multifaceted work with layer upon layer of complexity.

I would put novels such as 1984, Brave New World, Ender’s Game, Fahrenheit 451, Slaughterhouse-Five, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, or Novellas such as Varley’s “The Persistance of Vision” or Harlan Ellison’s “Mefisto in Onyx” against the best of “Literature” any day of the week.

Occasionally a book has such a beautiful turn of phrase and such compelling characters that I can forgive a lack of plot. In general, though, novels without plots remind me of what Katherine Mansfield wrote about E.M. Forster:

“E.M. Forster never gets further than warming the teapot. He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea.”

I have a pretty simple system for ranking books: good books are good, and bad books are bad. I don’t see the value in trying to figure out of a good book that falls into such-and-such a genre is inherently better than a good book that falls into a different genre, not even the genre of “literary fiction”.

Now, much of what is now considered “classic literature” is going to be better than most things you can pick up in other sections of Barnes & Noble these days, but that’s simply because the books that have managed to appeal to readers a century or more after they were written usually have something big going for them. Only time will tell which of our contemporary novels (of any genre) will hold up so well.

I do think that for fans of a particular genre then a bad book of that genre will probably be more appealing than a bad book that is not of that genre. And there are some genre books that play with the conventions of their genre and insert interesting twists that might be lost on people who don’t normally read that genre, and so would appeal more to fans of that genre than others. But typically I think a good book is a good book, and the only point in splitting things up is for marketing purposes.

That’s similar to the conclusion I came to when I gave up on Cold Mountain after attempting to finish it for over a month - beautiful prose and vivid imagery do not make up for lack of plot. That’s what poetry is for :slight_smile:

Nicely said, Lamia - I concur completely.

And elfkin477? I agree with you, too, regarding Cold Mountain - it just wasn’t there for me.

I really tried hard to come up with a response here and all I can say is

That guy said it better.