The Limits of Genre: The Literary Fiction Debate

Literary fiction is a term used to define literature that supposedly adds something to our lives. More than just reading a book, we are meant to have some kind of reading experience. It is literature that does not fit into a singular genre and something that breaks the boundaries of generic prose. But what an Earth does that really mean? And does it honestly matter?

Literary fiction was designed so the elite among us could pick out works that were worthy of awards. For the purpose of a review, literary fiction is quite often fiction that is considered more "serious" and original. 

Bestseller lists are often dominated by "simple fiction"—books supposedly driven by plot and with little regard for anything else. Whilst there are obvious benefits for the creation of such a category, it is also extremely limiting to those who do write crime, thrillers, fantasy, and romance. 

I studied creative writing at university, and we were always encouraged to pick any kind of genre we wanted. At first, that scared me. How was I meant to critique a fanstay piece of writing, for example, when I myself didn’t read or understand anything about how fantasy should be written? But as the years went on, I understood it didn’t matter. We are all writers and we all have our strengths and weaknesses. Being forced to read my peers work also opened up my own library—I now don’t pick books based solely on what genre they are. 

Yet, the fantasy writers or the romance novelists among us were never told that our work would not be recognised as literary fiction and, therefore, rarely nominated for any kind of award. We were students in one of the top creative writing courses in the country—surely this meant we understood what good writing was? My university has produced an array of excellent writers and even Nobel Literature Prize winners; yet it also produces writers who straddle the bestseller lists with their genre fiction. 

Interestingly, this topic of literary fiction is being discussed more and more recently. Sales are down, and it’s no secret that people are reading less. Being a writer does not attract the same pay-packet or perks that it used to, especially if you are writing within the dwindling field of literary fiction. There are even calls to scrap the whole concept of this rather elitist category.

As in many parts of modern society, the disparity between men and women within literary fiction is also being dissected. Women are rarely nominated in equal numbers alongside men or go on to win the same level of prestigious prizes. But, they do dominate the bestseller list. Booksellers revealed that last year, 9 out of 10 of the bestselling writers in the UK were women. Yet where were their prizes?

Being a writer does not attract the same pay-packet or perks that it used to, especially if you are writing within the dwindling field of literary fiction.

Again, bestseller fiction is rarely regarded as literary enough to be nominated—booksellers admittedly work with narrow definition of literary fiction, i.e., books that have been nominated for/won awards. Given how men still dominate the awards categories globally, this provides a tiny selection of "eligible" female writers and excludes many female writers who are popular but have not received the needed literary recognition for their work—usually due to choice of genre or style of writing.

It would be interesting to see if the categorisation of these invisible works would change if the sex of the writer differed. As Stephanie Merritt of The Guardian writes, “When a male author writes about a family, it’s regarded as social commentary; when a woman does, it’s a domestic tale.”  

The all-inclusive bestseller lists are quite often frowned upon and ignored by judging panels. And this is only further distorting our view of what literary fiction is. 

Whilst I don’t dispute there is good and bad writing in the world, the fact that award nominations are handpicked from this literary fiction list that no one regular can apparently see, is old-fashioned and places limits on both the writer and the reader. 

Genres evolve and writing progresses. Dystopian plotlines used to be reserved for sci-fi movies, and now they appear among many box-office hits. Feminist novels are becoming wider read and lower-class writers are using their voices. We have an abundance of talented female crime writers, sci-fi novelists, and romcom authors who deserve the literary recognition they have worked so hard to achieve.