Critical Essay: Literary vs Genre Fiction

May 16, 2014


In the creative writing classes I attended it was not uncommon for science fiction or fantasy stories to be banned from workshop. In college the subject of “genre” fiction was often met with discouraging comments or disparaging silences. However, while I am sure that workshops like that still exist, the always somewhat imaginary line between literary and genre fiction appears to be loosening. In my past three years teaching fiction writing, I saw more students than ever turning in science fiction, horror, magical realism, fantasy, fairy tales, and mysteries. On the whole, these stories were impeccably written; their worlds were fully imagined, their characters complex; their language rich, often lyrical.

It’s no surprise to see this wealth of “genre” fiction in the classroom, as popular literary authors turn out work that could easily be shelved under several categories. Karen Russell, much-beloved author and recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, recently released Sleep Donation, a science fiction novella in which insomnia has become an epidemic. The book is beautifully written and insightful, but it also delves deep into its sci-fi elements; the process of donating sleep is described as clinically as the process of donating blood. This is by no means Russell’s only work of genre fiction; her stories include westerns, other sci-fi tales, and works of magical realism (the last of which, admittedly, is more widely accepted as a literary genre). Kevin Brockmeier is another excellent example of a popular literary (award-winning) author whose work spans several genres. He dabbles in science fiction, fables, fairy tales, and magical realism. He even has a story that manages to be both Star Trek fan fiction and Anton Chekhov fan fiction. (If that does not illuminate the ridiculousness of strict genre distinctions, I don’t now what does.) The widely popular George Saunders (also a MacArthur recipient) publishes stories in The New Yorker and Harper’s that have elements of science fiction, stories in which scientists have developed concoctions (tested on convicts) to make people fall in and out of love (“Escape from Spiderhead”) or in which there is a pill that will make you think like a knight (“My Chivalric Fiasco”). There is a strong popular interest in writers whose work blends literary and genre fiction, even if their writing is seldom characterized as the latter.

When I noticed this interest in genre fiction in my creative writing classes, I tried to work it into my lesson plans. We spent a long time talking about the use of detail in Kevin Brockmeier’s science fiction story “The Ceiling.” One of the best undergraduate stories I encountered drew from this discussion. I only outlawed fan fiction (though Kevin Brockmeier has proven me wrong about this one) and strictly pornographic works (although there is no saying that these, too, can’t be also literary). In retrospect, I wish we had covered even more of those genres that have often been deemed “non-literary.” Rather than avoiding labels like “science fiction,” and “mystery,” as words whose mention alone will corrupt our fiction, we should be teaching students how to use the tools of these genres in literary stories.

What excites me about the new workshop environment is not only the growing tolerance for works of genre fiction that would previously have been snubbed by students, but the increasing interest in this type of fiction. With creative writing education spanning more and more college and post-graduate workshops, it’s worth asking: Why not devote one session a semester to the discussion of science fiction, or fantasy, or horror, or westerns? As many of the best writers have taught us, one work of fiction can span multiple genres. There is always the question: why label it in the first place? But, in order to discuss work that defies categorization, we have to first know what genres it both encompasses and resists. We have to talk about them.

 by Sadye Teiser


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