Literary Fiction versus Genre fiction…

My writing group recently had a discussion about this topic and after doing a ton of research

Writing styles are as distinct as personality traits—and debates about which way of writing is “best” can often be just as volatile. Where one writer might luxuriate in the complexities and varieties of the lexicon, another might prefer to tell it like it is in the most familiar way possible. Such was the case, in fact, with celebrated novelist William Faulkner, who famously griped that his contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, “had never been known to use a word that might send his reader to the dictionary.” Hemingway retorted, “Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” It’s neither productive nor accurate to argue over whether or not there can even be a “best” style of writing, but it is certainly entertaining to figure out which one we most prefer.

I believe the concept of telling good writing from bad is subjective.   Of course, there are clues that most can agree on:  grammar, spelling, story, accessible theme, does it emotionally impact you or change your life in some small way?  And how do we take into account taste in genre, style, voice, etc.  There are classics that I personally find abhorrent: Joyce’s “Ulysses” is one,  whereas I read Shakespeare for fun!  There are best sellers I find tedious at best, and fantasy genre novels I reread over and over.

… as I said, subjective.

Literary fiction is a term used to distinguish certain fictional works that possess commonly held qualities that constitute literary merit. Genre works are written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre …  Literary fiction may fit within a classification of market fiction, but also possesses generally agreed upon qualities such as “elegantly written, lyrical, and … layered” that appeals to readers outside genre fiction. Literary fiction has been defined as any fiction that attempts to engage with one or more truths or questions, hence relevant to a broad scope of humanity as a form of expression.

Nancy Pearl, Now Read This: A Guide to Mainstream Fiction, Libraries Unlimited, 1999, 432 pp. (1-56308-659-X)

“Literary fiction”, then, is not a genre, but more an accolade… a cross-genre description of merit. Novels from all genres (yes, even fantasy and romance) have been declared “literary fiction”.

See also the post that has the questionnaire I developed as a result of this.  What kind of a reader/writer are you?