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06.03.2013 13:35    Comments: 0    Categories: Fiction Writing      Tags: linda busby parker  genre  mainstream  literary  

Since books were first published on a large scale basis (the dime novels of the 1850s were the earliest), writers have disagreed about the quality and the role of various kinds of novels.  Generally speaking, genre fiction is regarded as entertainment while literary fiction is regarded as edification.  Historically, lines of demarcation have been drawn with each camp--genre writers and literary writers--maintaining their individual encampments.  In truth, each form of writing has its unique characteristics.  When those characteristics are understood, it becomes obvious that both genre and literary fiction have much to offer and one is not better than the other--just different.  In teaching my university fiction writing classes, I define for my students the characteristics of three categories of novels:  genre, mainstream (sometimes called commercial), and literary.  The students can determine for themselves what kind of fiction they choose to write.


In my classes, I begin with a discussion of genre fiction.  Genre novels generally dominate the New York Times list of best sellers--it's not uncommon for eleven or twelve (from fifteen total) of the best sellers on the list to be genre.  Novels that fall into the genre category include:  mystery, suspense, thriller, police procedurals, military procedurals, romance, some science fiction, horror, and any number of other categories.  Some of the best-selling contemporary genre writers include:  John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell, Nora Roberts, John Patterson, Janet Evanovich, and many, many others.  Some of the characteristics of genre fiction are:  a fast paced plot, straightforward sentences, and characters who are fairly easy to understand--not extremely complex.  Many of the genre writers produce sequels much as television producers produce weekly shows.  In a recent interview that appeared in newspapers across the country, John Grisham stated that he wrote for entertainment.  He did not envision his work living for decades beyond his own demise, but he noted that the work of most writers (genre, mainstream, or literary) doesn't live many years beyond the life of the writer either.


Mainstream or commercial fiction is a little more difficult to define, but is generally considered to be: fiction that appeals to a wide swath of a particular reading audience.  For example, "women's mainstream" means fiction that appeals to women readers young and old, professional and housewife, educated and less educated.  Janet Evanovich, while a genre writer, might also be considered "women's mainstream."  John Grisham is another mainstream genre writer--"mainstream legal suspense."  Grisham's work appeals to men and women and cuts across age and class lines.  From my perspective (and especially for teaching purposes) I define mainstream in a slightly different way.  In the classroom, I define it as those novels that not only appeal to men and women and cut across all social lines, but those novels that fall midway between genre and literary.  There are not many books in this category.  One that comes to mind immediately is Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants.  Gruen's book doesn't fall neatly into any genre category, is well written, but not as complex in terms of plot or character as is a literary novel, and also doesn't employ as many figures of speech.  Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones might be another example--not really genre and not fully literary.  Both Gruen and Sebold were big sellers and hit nearly every best-seller list.  Their books appealed to men and women, young and old, and cut through social-class divides.  A truly "mainstream" fiction writer resides in a comfortable (and generally lucrative) spot on the publishing charts.


Literary fiction is the most complex and sophisticated of the three writing styles.  Literary fiction is said to be character driven while genre fiction is said to be plot driven.  Certainly, this is a major distinction.  In literary fiction the central character or characters are explored in depth and their lives change in major ways from the beginning to the end of the novel.  Also, the interior life of characters is explored in great depth.  The plot is frequently more subtle than in genre fiction and ethical principles or themes are considered (directly or indirectly).   The pacing of the plot is also frequently a little slower than in genre fiction.  In literary fiction style is also more complex.  Figures of speech--metaphors, for example--are used to a much greater extent than in commercial or genre fiction.  Good literary fiction might live well beyond the life of the writer and will be debated in academic and social settings.  A few writers from the immediate past who fit this category include:  William Faulkner, Ernest Hemmingway, Eudora Welty, John Steinbeck and the list could go on and on.  The work of many contemporary writers who fall in the "literary" category include Richard Russo, Sena Naslund, Jhumpa Lahiri, Philip Roth, Ernest Gaines, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Here too, the list could go on and on--and on some more.  These are the writers who win the National Book Awards, the Pulitzers and the Nobels. while genre fiction is said to be. So, what does this mean for The Loft Writers?  It means--write what you want to write.  Write where your heart is.  Write in the style and form that is most comfortable for you.  Write with the voice that is uniquely yours.  Write because you love what you're writing.  Good writing--whether genre, mainstream, or literary--is still good writing.  So, enjoy, and write in the form you choose.


About the Author


Linda Busby Parker is the author of Seven Laurels and a mentor at the Loft http://www.lindabusbyparker.typepad.com/

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