Lit-Fic vs Genre

Lit-Fic vs Genre

I looked up the definitions of “literary” and “genre” fiction and everything I found seemed pretty damn condescending and ignorant.  Typically the people defining the terms hold literary fiction to be higher than genre fiction because it relies less on plot or “happy endings”, and denigrate genre fiction (usually sci-fi and fantasy) because they “have” to be about certain tropes (such as futuristic technology or magical beings). 

I call shenanigans on that because I can think of dozens of classics in both fields that eschew those limitations.  

To me there are only two kinds of fiction:  
Aesthetically good and aesthetically bad.

What the fans of so-called “literary” fiction call “genre” is what I call formula writing.

Now to a certain degree all writing follows some sort of form (not formula):  Present your characters with a challenge, raise the stakes, find a satisfying resolution.  

To me “formula” means following a precise recipe for telling a story (the screenwriting gurus are notorious for this, telling tyros which page of the script to have specific plot points occur).

Formula is…was helpful to lesser skilled writers, be they tyros or faded hacks, insofar as it laid out an easy to follow plan that still left enough room for individual expression:  Lester Dent famously told how to write a sure-to-sell adventure story in 6K words and Michael Moorcock showed how one could write a novel in less than a week.

But formula works only when there’s a large enough demand for fiction for even mediocre works to find a receptive audience.

If a dozen markets publish a dozen fantasy stories a month, that’s 1.7K fantasy stories a year; there’s a big enough demand to let some Conan-esque formula barbarian tales in, and to give those writers a chance to stretch their creative wings.

(Let’s not forget Ray Bradbury published over 30 stories -- almost all of them utterly forgettable -- before the key finally turned in the lock with “The Lake”.)

But we’re no longer in the golden era of short fiction; the markets are shrinking, and by and large, formula just don’t cut it no mo’ (certain specific niche markets aside).

If I remember correctly, the late Damon Knight once defined science fiction as “what you find on the shelves of the library marked ‘sci-fi’”.

Good writing is good writing.  

It may don a variety of cloaks and masks, but at its core it speaks truthfully about the human condition.

Insofar as “literary” fiction strives to speak that truth, it does have higher ambitions than formula writing.

But just because a story wears a ten gallon hat or a space helmet or a wizard’s cap or a detective’s fedora doesn’t prevent it from being good writing.

Good formula writing -- skillful formula writing -- can be fun comfort food (Good lord, I must’ve read and re-read “Kenneth Robeson” a.k.a. Lester Dent’s Doc Savage novel The Sargasso Ogre over 50 times by now!).

But it is limited by its very formula:  
Much like Japanese kabuki theater or American B-Westerns, the connoisseur’s delight is in how well the formula is fulfilled.

Good writing let’s the story tell itself…and good writers are the ones who learn to trust their stories.


© Buzz Dixon


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