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That Genre Known As Literary 6 February 2011

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Random Thoughts.

I’m not sure exactly how “genre” fans get away with bashing “literary” writing, and “literary” readers and writers get away with mocking “genre” fiction, given that “literary fiction” is just another genre. It has its various styles, techniques and conventions, just as every genre does; it has its past masters and its modern greats, as do all other genres; and it has just as much imitative dreck as any other genre, too.

I think the problem might be that the word “literary” is confusingly close to the word “literature”, which suggests that there may be some relationship between the two (other than that both involve reading, obviously). But to make that assumption presents a serious problem: it means that either you have a special limited genre only open to total geniuses, and less-than-perfect writers are not allowed to call their work literary, or you have a situation where free passes to the genius club are issued to anyone who writes literature… er, literary fiction.

Can you imagine a world in which only the most skilled writers were allowed to term their fiction romance, and anyone learning his or her craft who attempted a romance piece would be mocked and told to call it humour or just “other” instead? Or a world in which any science fiction story was automatically considered literature?

So, no. The literary genre does not somehow equal great literature.

Literary fiction does mean an emphasis on style, form and language. The literary voice is often distinctive. Story arcs in literary fiction are often more subtle than in other genres, and may appear in the form of a character arc, a moral or emotional arc that takes place within the protagonist. Does this make it automatically better or worse than any other? No. That would be down to the writer’s skill.

I don’t believe in a free pass for any genre, I don’t believe in a genre label that excludes the less-skilled, and nor does it make sense to me to deride any genre as a whole.

In my work for EDF, I read stories of every genre and style from writers of all skill levels, and there’s just one thing I know for sure – a good story is a good story, and when it grabs you and won’t let go, you don’t even notice the genre label.


1. fishlovesca - 6 February 2011

“So, no. The literary genre does not somehow equal great literature.”

I would say that not all lit fic stories that are written are great literature. But the literary genre makes up or is included in great literature.

2. Jonathan Pinnock - 6 February 2011

I think this post sums up what I love about EDF, both as a writer and a reader 🙂

3. Mickey Mills - 6 February 2011

I agree that literary writing is more of a genre than a a whole ‘class’ of writing. Although I enjoy pure genre masters like Stephen King, Mickey Spillane, and Tolkien, I don’t get the same kind of satisfaction from reading literary. Reading someone masterful with the language and literary metaphor is a real enjoyment. I also think the literary genre lends itself better to short fiction rather than full length novels.

I may not be able to tell you exactly what literary fiction is, but I know it when I read it.

4. Jordan - 6 February 2011

One reason genre suffers compares to “literary” is that literary writers have the crutch of the real world to lean on. Much of the work is already done in the readers mind, so you don’t have to write the big stuff, and focus instead of the small details. For instance, in literary fiction, the colour of the sky is assumed.

5. 100 Stories for Queensland Again and Other Stuff : Jonathan Pinnock’s Write Stuff - 7 February 2011

[…] picked for the Every Day Fiction Three anthology (if you’ve got time, check out this excellent post on genre and literary fiction by EDF supremo Camille Gooderham-Campbell which pretty much sums up […]

6. The Genre That Dare Not Speak Its Name : Jonathan Pinnock’s Write Stuff - 18 April 2011

[…] though. In the small presses, the distinctions are beginning to blur (I refer you once again to this post by Camille Gooderham-Campbell of Every Day Fiction, for example). And writers like Adam Marek are being taken seriously even when […]

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