- by Laura Resnick
Disclaimer: The following comments represent only the view of their author (me) who, though she is a brilliant and insightful individual, is speaking strictly on the basis of personal opinion and observation (albeit extensive and worthy of tremendous respect) rather than conveying any universally-accepted definitions or Received Wisdom whatsoever.
Pretty much everyone who reads books is aware that, for the purposes of marketing, shelving, browsing, and sales, books are classified by genre. The primary genre-division separates fiction from nonfiction. Then each of these is subdivided. In fiction, we’ve got science fiction and fantasy, mystery and thrillers, romance and erotica, mainstream and general fiction, and so on. Genres, in turn, are divided into subgenres, and most readers of a given genre are aware of these. Mystery/thriller subgenres, for example, include categories like cozies, police procedurals, espionage, and historicals.
But there’s a genre division as sturdy as the Great Wall of China which is often unknown even to well-read, dedicated book lovers who’ve spent thousands of hours in bookstores; and since there are no separate shelves in bookstores or libraries for “popular fiction” and “literary fiction,” it’s not at all surprising that many avid readers (and many of my non-writing friends) look at writers with puzzled frowns when we casually toss around these phrases.
Literary fiction is usually shelved as “mainstream” or “general” fiction. Non-genre popular fiction is also shelved as “mainstream” or “general” fiction. Yet popular fiction and literary fiction are quite different.
I have no idea why they’re not shelved separately. At a guess, I’d say it’s because there’s no generally agreed-upon means of identifying what’s literary and what’s not, so no one would ever be satisfied with the shelving system, and there’d always be a great deal of confusion (perhaps also whining and huffiness) about which shelves books wound up on. So it’s easier just not to mess with the current widespread system, in which popfic and litfic are shelved together.
(For example, every time I read a litfic book that I actually like, someone immediately tells me it’s not really litfic. And I wish I had a dollar for every writer I’d ever met who told me his/her novel was really litfic even though it was being packaged and marketed as popfic.)
Popular fiction, whether mainstream fiction or genre fiction, typically follows certain storytelling conventions and traditions: There must be a plot which is built around a central conflict. The plot must rise to a climax and then be resolved. The story resolution may make the reader happy or break her heart, but it is always intended, in either case, to satisfy the reader, to leave her with a sense of the inevitable rightness of the way the story has concluded. In the vast majority of popular fiction, the protagonist is (or, at least, the author intends him/her to be) someone compelling; the protagonist may be deeply flawed, but s/he is nonetheless almost always written with the intention of making us care about this character and what happens to him/her. The protagonist of a popular fiction novel grows and/or changes as a result of his/her journey through the story. There are consequences for a protagonist’s actions and decisions in popfic, there are motivations for characters’ actions, and there are reasons for significant story events. (There isn’t a “reason” behind a hurricane, but there is always a “reason” in popfic, for example, for a murder, a divorce, a love affair, or quitting a job.)
These are the hallmarks of popular fiction—which is also called “commercial” fiction.
None of the above is necessarily true of literary fiction. A character may or may not change and grow in litfic. The protagonist may be someone we aren’t expected to like or care about (though we’re probably expected to “be interested in” following the character through the story). Actions may or may not have motivations and consequences, and these may or may not be revealed to the reader by the end of the book. The story may simply STOP in a litfic novel, rather than climaxing, being resolved, and concluding. And the conventional sentence structure and grammar which are almost always used in popfic are strictly optional in litfic where you may choose to write runon sentences and entirely abandon things like grammar and punctuation so that your reader may not even be able to tell the difference between dialogue and narrative or really be sure when a new sentence is beginning so that one page gradually runs into another in litfic until someone like me hasn’t the faintest idea whats going on but i digress.
Certainly the most common misconception about litfic is that it is a “better” or “more serious” or “more worthy” or “more intellectual” form of reading than popular fiction. I find this mystifying, since it’s a genre that treats storytelling disciplines which I consider essential to good writing (such as, for example, a plot built around a central conflict, which rises to a climax and then resolves in a satisfying manner) as optional.
In my personal perspective, this makes as much sense as defining a particular genre of music as inherently superior because it eschews boring things like requiring the musicians to be in tune and in tempo.
You may be a HUGE fan of such music, for all I know; but it’s not for me.
And that’s okay. I don’t like horror or Westerns or erotica or science fiction; along with litfic, these are genres that don’t speak to me as a reader. Everyone’s different, everyone’s entitled to their own taste. I have no quarrel with people who love litfic genre novels;. I just object to anyone who asserts that I’m reading “lesser” fiction because I prefer other genres, or—hullo!-writing “lesser” fiction because I don’t write in the litfic genre.