To introduce a discussion of literary vs. genre fiction, how can I resist...
The Tandem Story
This is an old piece of humor that's been circulating for years -- I've seen a dozen different universities where this story supposedly happened. Like most Internet urban legends, it's almost certainly entirely fictitious. But having hung out on writers' forums, I can assure you there really are plenty of "Gerrys" and "Rebeccas" out there. (And a lot of them really do write this badly.)
Below is the result of a writing assignment given by an English professor from the University of ________. A "tandem story" was to be written by two students, one male, one female.
The story was to be compiled in alternating paragraphs via email, with CC's to the professor. There was to be no communication between the writers aside from each successive email. The story would end when both participants agreed a successful conclusion had been achieved.
(first paragraph by Rebecca)
At first, Laurie couldn't decide which kind of tea she wanted. The chamomile, which used to be her favorite for lazy evenings at home, now reminded her too much of Carl, who once said, in happier times, that he liked chamomile. But she felt she must now, at all costs, keep her mind off Carl. His possessiveness was suffocating, and if she thought about him too much her asthma started acting up again. So chamomile was out of the question.
(second paragraph by Gerry)
Meanwhile, Advance Sergeant Carl Harris, leader of the attack squadron now in orbit over Skylon 4, had more important things to think about than the neuroses of an air-headed asthmatic, tea-drenched bimbo named Laurie with whom he had spent one sweaty night over a year ago. "A.S. Harris to GeoStation 17," he said into his transgalactic communicator. "Polar orbit established. No sign of resistance so far..." But before he could sign off a bluish particle beam flashed out of nowhere and blasted a hole through his ship's cargo bay. The jolt from the direct hit sent him flying out of his seat and across the cockpit.
He died almost immediately. But not before he felt one last pang of regret for psychically brutalizing the one woman who ever had feelings for him. Soon afterward, Earth stopped pointless hostilities toward the peaceful farmers of Skylon 4. "Congress Passes Law Permanently Abolishing War and Space Travel," Laurie read online one morning. The news simultaneously excited and bored her. She stared out the window, dreaming of her youth, when the days had passed unhurriedly and carefree, with no cell phones, no Internet to distract her from her sense of innocent wonder at the beauty around her. "Why must one lose one's innocence to become a woman?" she pondered wistfully.
Little did she know she had less than 10 seconds to live. The wimpy peaceniks who'd pushed the Unilateral Aerospace Disarmament Treaty through Congress had left Earth a defenseless target for hostile empires determined to destroy the human race. Just hours after the passage of the treaty, alien ships were on course for Earth with enough firepower to pulverize the entire planet. Their lithium fusion missiles entered the atmosphere unimpeded. The President, in his top-secret mobile submarine headquarters on the ocean floor off the coast of Guam, was rocked by the inconceivably massive explosion which vaporized poor, stupid Laurie.
This is absurd. I refuse to continue this mockery of literature. My writing partner is a violent, chauvinistic, semi-literate adolescent geek.
Yeah? Well, my writing partner is a self-centered tedious neurotic whose attempts at writing are the literary equivalent of Valium. "Oh, shall I have chamomile tea? Or shall I have some other FUKING TEA??? Oh no, what am I to do? I'm an air headed bimbo who reads too many romance novels!"
FUCK YOU - YOU NEANDERTHAL!!
In your dreams, 'Ho. Go drink some more fucking tea.
I hate you. Don’t ever talk to me again.
A+ I really liked this one."
Nothing will start fights among writers faster than a debate about literary and genre fiction. Usually the fighting will start with the attempt to define "literary."
Genres as personified by Bill Willingham
If you go to Barnes & Nobles or Borders, you'll find a "Literature" section which is basically the catch-all for fiction that doesn't fit anywhere else (science fiction, fantasy, YA, romance, mysteries, horror, thrillers, etc.) It's a term almost without meaning, or with whatever meaning people choose to assign to it.
There is a general perception that "literary" fiction means Important Books by Serious Writers. You will not find spaceships, wizards, aliens, vampires, detectives, or time-traveling Scottish highlanders in literary fiction. Literary fiction is full of Theme and Metaphor and Meaning and other literary stuff. Among people with inadequate exposure to books in all genres, "literary" becomes shorthand for "well-written books." Literary fiction is real writing; genre novels are just mindless entertainment for the masses and any storyteller can bang one out.
Harold Bloom has famously dissed J.K. Rowling and Stephen King. The BBC was recently accused of ignoring, even sneering, at genre fiction. Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for The Road; apparently, for a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel to win the Pulitzer, you have to use repetive, unappealing prose and make it seem as much unlike a science fiction novel as possible. Margaret Atwood has been accused of running away from the "science fiction" label. (Even here in her defense of science fiction, she hedges with "speculative fiction.") When Booker-prize winner and unapologetic literary snob John Banville goes slumming to write crime novels, he does so under the pseudonym Benjamin Black.
Conversely, there's an anti-literary bias common among genre audiences and writers. Genre novels are actually about something! There's a plot and characters who do things! They're interesting and you'd actually want to read one outside of a college class. Literary fiction is self-indulgent navel-gazing by Pulitzer-seeking MFAs who craft perfect, pretty sentences and meandering metaphors. Zzzzzzzzzzz.
Obviously, these are two ridiculous extremes, but the perceived distinction, artificial or not, is alive.
The distinction between high-brow and low-brow fiction is relatively new. Charles Dickens (whose books are universally classified as "literature" today) was also a runaway bestseller in his day. The distinction between "low-brow" and "high-brow" fiction developed a little later. From Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel:
Novelists after James and Tolstoy were shaped by their influence in several ways. In England, the next generation of novelists reacted strongly against James in a formal sense, constructing the modernist novel in contrast to the "traditional realist novel" (which was really more or less the novels of Henry James and his English contemporaries such as Arnold Bennett, since James had excluded the stranger characteristics of the novel represented by Dickens, Stowe, Melville, and the Brontes from the realm of true art), but they accepted his basic idea that the novel was, or could be, exclusive rather than inclusive, and that a novel without much popular appeal could do things artistically that a novel with popular appeal could not. They accepted his idea that the audience for a quality novel might not be large enough to support the author by means of commerce; this idea is a truism today, but it was new, and even revolutionary, for Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and many of their contemporaries.
Note Smiley's subtle implication that "quality novels" necessarily have a smaller audience.
Is 'Literary' a genre?
The view of literary fiction as "serious" fiction is the one that only lets genre novels become "literary" after a hundred years or so. (E.g., Dracula, Sherlock Holmes. Some literary types will let Tolkien into the club.)
But there is also an argument that "literary" is itself a genre, written with its own prose conventions and an emphasis on style over story. Usually this argument is leveled by genre authors (along with words like "pretentious"). The affected prose and thin plots of John Banville's The Sea, Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe all argue for such a classification. On the other hand, does that genre equally encompass Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, William Faulkner, and Joyce Carol Oates? Is Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go science fiction or literary? Is Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall historical or literary fiction? Clearly, there are plenty of "literary" novels that are also enjoyable reads and sometimes even have mass appeal. But don't tell the Man Booker prize panel.
Do you prefer literary or genre fiction?