Genre Fiction vs Literary Fiction

When I tell someone that my major is Creative Writing, I usually get judged. Sometimes, it’s positive curiosity about how long I will wait before trying to publish my first novel. But a lot of the time, it’s negative. In my experience, a large part of this negative attention comes from how the major as a whole is viewed; a lot of people judge us because they don’t know what we write. But what are these judgments that are being made, you may be asking yourself. Quite simply, these family members, friends, or co-workers think we are writing something called “genre fiction.” If you just heard the soundtrack from the climax of a horror movie, don’t worry, that’s supposed to be there.

At this point, you, the reader might have a few questions. What is “genre fiction”? Why haven’t I heard of it before? If Creative Writing majors don’t write “genre fiction”, what do they write? Don’t worry, I have answers to all of these questions, but I want to answer the second before the first. If you have never heard of “genre fiction” that is okay. How about “formula stories”? “Popular fiction”? “Category fiction”? All of these terms connect to one idea. They are all fiction intended to appeal to audiences for certain kinds of novels (taken from writersonlineworkshops.com fiction definitions). If you’re still confused, let me make this even simpler. Genre fiction is any story that can be labeled as fantasy, romance, mystery, adventure, or science fiction. There are many different terms for this idea because there are disagreements on what should be included in this group. The term for what I write as a Creative Writing major is “literary fiction” or “mainstream fiction”. Writers Online Workshop defines “mainstream fiction” as fiction that transcends popular narrative categories.
The moment after I explain the situation to whoever I was talking to is where the conversation seems to change a bit. I have even had some people puzzled as to why our major leans towards literary fiction over genre fiction. Why should we only focus on some parts of literature? Why does out major lean towards literary fiction over genre fiction? The answer to this question is because literary fiction poses fewer issues and is easier to review. It’s also easier to gauge where everyone is in the class when they are all writing within certain parameters, which makes sense.

On the other hand, this only makes sense when we are strictly kept within the parameters of literary fiction. If you keep your eyes open during workshop there will sometimes be a piece that would fall under genre fiction, though I can only think of three examples from all three fiction classes I have taken. Two of these were not reviewed so well, while in the other story the narrator awoke from his dream at the end. Do Creative Writing majors have to steer clear of genre fiction this much? For my novel class I tried to write a mystery novel. It was not a very good idea from the start. The majority of the story focused around a guy who was trying to find out more about his ex-girlfriend’s disappearance. It did include way too many elements of the mystery genre, but what if I had deleted most of those. Would it have been reviewed better? I don’t think so. One of the main reasons why workshops for it did not go so well was because people wanted to know whether she was dead or alive. I was even asked if I knew the answer during workshop. Even though the novel itself didn’t do so well, I noticed a lot of the elements that were being critiqued were the elements that connected back to the idea of genre fiction as a whole.

But what is wrong with genre fiction? Yes, it can be overly formulaic, but in the end some genre novels sell very well. Why? Because it is what some people want to read. If there are lots of people who want to read novels like these shouldn’t there be ways to help us work on our skills by writing genre fiction every so often and have it treated like literary fiction? Genre fiction and literary fiction have become so separated in some writing departments that I have seen graduate schools where you can focus on “writing popular fiction”. Why should they be separated?

When I found out about this aspect of the writing department I was a little bit sad at first. But I have learned to write better stories by focusing on literary fiction. Apparently, the beginning of the major is where the “don’t write genre fiction” rule comes into play. But what about in the later stages of the major? When we are taking the middle or later classes, should we have larger literary boundaries? I’m not trying to change the major, but the idea of having an option to write genre fiction is an interesting one, especially if other college experiences are like my own.

–Will Rowen

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