Right off the bat I'll say that I'm not starting this discussion to get into the literature vs. genre debate. I just want to explore some of the differences and see what other members have experienced in the same realm.

To tell you the truth, most of my reading throughout my life has been based firmly in the genres of sci-fi, horror and crime. I haven't ventured into the world of contemporary literature much at all. But at the moment I find my desires leading me in this direction with mixed results.

I recently finished FIGHT CLUB by Chuck Palahnuik and absolutely loved it. Loved the rhythm, the plot, the ideas and messed-up philosophies of the main characters, loved that it didn't clearly fit into any genre but still felt like a genre novel.

Some time ago I read Peter Temple's THE BROKEN SHORE and loved its slow, laconic, introspective pace combined with a decent crime fiction plot. But I wouldn't call it crime fiction.

Right now I'm reading THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy. While it has beautifully bleak poetry, I find some of the devices jar me on a regular basis.

The use of obscure words that don't fit the voice of the character, the random flashbacks and drifting moments of introspection, the repetition of the dialogue, the needless detail in the description of actions.

Having said that, you might think I'm not enjoying the novel, but I'm loving being swept up in the world McCarthy creates and I appreciate his conviction in not using quotation marks or apostrophes.

But I'm definitely finding it to be a slow read.

I'm also reading AMERICAN PSYCHO by Bret Easton Ellis. It fits well within the crime fiction world but the way it's presented makes it seem more literary to me. The relentless descriptions of brands and products, the draining obsession with status, the detailed world of the 80s, all make for a novel that doesn't feel like crime fiction. But then the slow build of the serial killer nature of the main character does.

Literature has always seemed to me to be a separate genre that focuses more on character, description and language, whereas genre fiction has a much stronger plot element.

In a way, I see all the genres (including literature) as part of a spectrum, where at the far literary end I might see something like THE ROAD; pulling back in further would be AMERICAN PSYCHO and THE BROKEN SHORE, with FIGHT CLUB being more thriller based and more genre than literary.

You can see I'm not exactly making a clear point with this, and that's because I'm really just feeling my way through the differences. I don't see a clear divide between literature and crime fiction, but I can see the use of elements from both in what I'm reading.

I suppose I'm looking at broadening my reading horizons and would love to hear some recommendations and experiences from others.

As David Terrenoire loves to say, "Talk to me."

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I'll have to wander into a bookstore and have a read of a few pages of these, see what clicks with me. Thanks for sharing.
Ha ha!
For me, I think it's important to distinguish between 'literary' fiction and 'literature'.

The former is a genre, one that's at least partly defined by what it isn't, and partly by the approach of the author. I'd say literary fiction is general fiction (ie not obviously crime, sci-fi, etc) that focuses more on language and underlying themes than story. And obviously there's as much cross-over from it as there is between any genres.

Whereas calling something 'literature' is a comment on the quality, importance and effect of the book. It doesn't matter what genre it is. It matters that it contains insights or comments on the human condition - that it's worthy of study, rather than just killing a few hours on the beach. Literary fiction often aims to be literature, but that doesn't mean it's successful. Other genre fiction probably doesn't aim to be, and yet can turn out to have an equal claim.

That's why I always find the 'literary vs crime' debates pretty tedious - category errors going on everywhere, terms getting confused. (Not that that's what you're doing here, by the way - I'm just saying).
Oh, I like that point. I was about to say that one needs some distance (at least 50 years) to recognize real quality in a novel, and that I was frequently dismayed by the self-conscious quality that's so pervasive in current literary fiction (as in: "pay attention: I'm producing a work of genius here!"). I found it in Coetzee and in Banville. Kawabata, on the other hand, is unquestionably quality.
As for McCarthy: is that the post-cataclysm novel about people erring through an empty landscape? That, in my opinion, was tedious and weak.
Very well explained, Steve. I confess to using the two terms a little too freely.
I think the biggest difference is literary fiction is not tied down to formulas/tropes whereas genre fiction is defined by them. Therefore, genre fiction is less likely to experiment with form/structure, diction, syntax, etc. Going in you have a better idea of what to expect (even the cover design is exhaustingly similar: big name, big title, stock photo, whereas literary fiction covers have more diverse designs).

Aside from that, character-driven vs. plot-driven is a big difference, and I think it goes back to the first difference, that one has space to move around and explore, and the other is confined to a frame (however expansive that frame is varies, of course).
Well, I haven't done any exhaustive research or anything (though I did do an English Lit degree) and I have to say that literary fiction has plenty formulas and tropes and just a few books every year that do any experimenting. Is it 10% and in crime fiction it's 5% - I don't know, maybe.

Maybe my views are biased because I live in Canada. Just this week an essay was published online complaining about how our top literary prize, the Gillers, rewards exactly the same kind of middle-brow, poetic language, historical, "literary" novel every year. Can anyone really tell the difference between Michael Ondaatje and MS Vasanji? Between Miriam Toews and Lisa Moore?

Then, of course, people pointed out the Bookers and how every country produces a huge amount of rather bland, middle-brow "literary" novels rewarded for their "language," even though they go over the same themes again and again.

Every genre (and literary is just another genre) has its standouts, and in every genre they are few and far between.
I didn't say literary fiction doesn't ever use formulas, I said it isn't tied down to them. You can't have genre fiction without formulas and tropes. But you can have literary fiction that doesn't follow a formula. I mean, after reading said book you could come up with a formula for it and apply it to a new book, and if that happens and it gets repeated then you get another genre.

It is harder to know what you're going to get with a literary fiction novel just by looking at it in the store than with a genre fiction novel (assuming you don;t know anything about the author).
Genres are definitely defined by formulas and tropes but I think there are a couple of points to add here. If literary fiction is not genre fiction, then there are a whole range of formulas and tropes that literary fiction can't use, which in some ways is a limitation.

Also, amazing and completely different work can be done within defined boundaries. I can't help but think of the three minute pop song as an example. Sometimes a formula can free you to explore other opportunities.

I guess I'm trying to look at literary and genre fiction from some new perspectives. I'm liking this discussion so far.
I suppose a simple way for me to look at it then is a continuum between plot driven and character driven fiction. Which means that there will be plenty of situations where it's just down to personal interpretation whether a novel is classified as lit-fic or genre.
I do at least have artist-designed covers and they are gorgeous. As to the formula for genre: yes, there's a point to that. I just wrote a historical "thriller" which attempts to do a number of other things as well. I love the book, but my agent read and said she couldn't sell it. I take it that she feels it doesn't stay within the formula.
She said she couldn't sell it period, IJ? Or did she try but couldn't find a buyer?
HB x


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