Genre Fiction as Literature
What is literature?
Yes, the dentists’ brochures on flossing, the neon green flyer tucked under your windshield, and the weight-loss ad cleverly disguised as an article in your magazine are all technically literature as written materials.
But I’m talking about the definition of literature as a creative work of excellent quality and lasting artistic value. Think Hamlet and A Tale of Two Cities. Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dante’s Inferno and Goethe’s Faust.
These are the pieces literati will hold up as paragons of literature.
But few people give credence to genre fiction as serious literature.
To paraphrase Wikipedia’s definition, genre fiction is work written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre in order to appeal to readers and fans already familiar with that genre.
Think romance, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, western, horror. You know … the types with their own sections at the bookstore. These are all considered genre fiction, as opposed to literary fiction.
The thing is, critics and “serious” writers will often sneer at genre fiction. No true scribe would profane the nobility of literature by writing that science fiction or hard-boiled detective schlock, they argue.
But I disagree. Genre fiction can be serious literature. It can give insight into the human condition, make us think, make us feel and stick in our minds for decades to come.
Our literary canon is full of genre fiction.
Sure, to be technical, every single book can be categorized into one or more genres. You can’t have a book without a genre any more than you can speak without an accent.
But since we’re talking about the common understanding of genre fiction, let’s look at some classics:
- George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was published nearly forty years before the title year and based on a dystopian future. Clearly science fiction.
- The author ventures into Hell, guided by a long-dead poet, encountering demons and Lucifer himself in Dante’s Inferno. File this one under fantasy.
- A magical portrait carries the weight of its owner’s sins, leaving Dorian Gray’s physical body unscathed and immortal – sounds like it could’ve been an adult-themed Harry Potter.
Some more examples of classics? You got it:
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (horror)
- Pride and Prejudice (romance)
- Frankenstein (science fiction/thriller)
- Grimms’ Fairy Tales (fantasy)
- The Odyssey (adventure/fantasy)
Even recent genre fiction can be literary.
Have you read Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union? Maybe check out The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Both have been critically hailed as emotionally and intellectually insightful, and both easily tagged in separate genres: detective and science fiction (and possibly others, depending on your definitions).
Some colleges and universities are picking up on the idea that even popular novels written in the 20th century can have lasting value. I’ve seen courses offered where the reading includes titles like Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Lord of the Rings.
Great literature makes us think and feel. And if it uses time travel, urban vampires, dragons or hard-nosed detectives to do it, who cares? Stories with a plot certainly can have emotional depth.
So, readers. I know you’ve got your own genre favorites, and I hope you’ll share with the rest of us. What genre stories have moved you? What books do you recommend to those who aren’t yet sold on your favorite genre?