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What Is Genre Fiction?

Genre fiction is the term used to describe popular fiction that falls into easily-definable categories. For example, romance, science fiction, and horror are all considered genres. Genre fiction is usually written primarily to entertain the reader, but sometimes it can also be socially-conscious and deal with important political or societal subjects. Genre fiction is usually considered a separate thing from so-called “literary fiction,” because some individuals see it as a less artistic medium, but many genre fiction writers disagree with this assessment.

Some kinds of genre fiction deal with totally imaginary versions of reality, or bring imaginary elements into worlds that are otherwise relatively mundane. For example, fantasy and science fiction stories usually deal with totally invented worlds, either futuristic or magical. Then there is horror, which usually involves the introduction of dangerous supernatural elements into worlds that are relatively commonplace and, therefore, unprepared to deal with the dangers these supernatural factors pose.

There are also some varieties of genre fiction that exist in relatively realistic worlds, but bring larger-than-life stories into those worlds. For example, adventure novels put characters into exciting and dangerous situations that wouldn’t be common in most people’s lives. Mysteries and thrillers are also usually fairly realistic in their depiction of reality, but there are exaggerated elements in terms of the crimes committed, the deviousness of the villains, or the cleverness of the heroes.

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Romance is a very particular kind of genre fiction with a long history of great popularity. This fiction can often be very formulaic, but not always, and there is a lot of variation within the existing formulas. In any case, some fiction experts believe that people are actually drawn to experience the typical romance formula again and again because it appeals to them on an instinctive level. For these reasons, formulas in romance fiction aren’t always seen as a bad thing, even by critics, especially when they are handled effectively.

There are some kinds of genre fiction that are a little harder to define because they mix elements from different genres. For example, some people consider Western or historical novels to be singular genres, even though they often mix many different elements, and may function as romance or adventure novels in terms of structure and overall purpose. Both those genres also offer readers the ability to escape into a different world in much the same way as fantasy or science fiction novels do. Another example would be detective novels with larger-than-life heroes, which seamlessly blend exciting elements from both detective and the adventure genres.

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Discuss this Article

browncoat
Post 3

Personally I think that people make a distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction simply because they are being snobby. They are all simply genres of fiction and in fact I would argue that in a lot of cases so-called literary fiction should just be put into some other category.

I think most people use the term to describe what they think of as "good" fiction. I've even heard people use it to describe The Lord of the Rings, because the prose in that is very ornate and the characters are developed quite a bit.

But I just don't think it works to classify some works as literary, just because you think they have lasting power.

I know that Moby

Dick has lasted a long time, but it was panned when it first came out and a lot of people hate it now as well. So who gets to say that it is literary, rather than just a revenge story or a sea story?

It's a useless category in my opinion.

bythewell
Post 2

@pastanaga - I think the line can be blurry however, between the two types of genres and when they are perfectly mated together you generally end up with a classic book.

Jane Austen's novels, for example, might be considered romance, or, nowadays, historical fiction, but they are exquisitely written, and so have survived longer than the romances of her peers.

Likewise with Oscar Wilde's novels. His were various genres like comedy and even fantasy, but most people today would consider them to be literary, because of their beautiful style of writing.

Modern examples of people who straddle the lines are Margret Atwood, who has written several science fiction novels that are usually found in the literary section, and Barbara Kingsolver's books. They are as engrossing as a Dan Brown thriller but they are usually placed among literary novels.

pastanaga
Post 1

The way I've always liked to define the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction, is that genre fiction is more concerned with telling a good story, while literary fiction is more concerned with the way the story is told.

Obviously, both types of fiction prefer to have a good story and both types prefer to have an engaging way of telling the story.

You can't just say that if something magical happens in the story it's a fantasy story now, because there is magical realism, which is when something 'magical' happens in a literary novel.

Life of Pi, for example, I would call magical realism (although it depends on how you interpret the book) but I wouldn't call it

fantasy. I would call it literary fiction.

You might say that everything should be equally concerned with the story and the method of telling, but when you think about how difficult it can be to read some literary novels, you realize that dense and symbolic prose isn't always what people want to read. Sometimes they just want a plain thriller.

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