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Row of Old Leather Bound Books

In this age of inclusivity we must not lose sight of the difference between literature and genre fiction.

In these days of inclusivity, equality, and the breaking down of barriers, there are those (both writers and readers) who would abolish the boundary between literary and genre fiction. Some now say that genre writers are striving for the same things as literary writers; they just do it in a different, more accessible, reader-friendly kind of way. That is to say, literary writers are just a bunch of stuck-up snobs who look down on hard-working genre writers for no good reason. If this is true, then either everything is literature, or everything is genre fiction. The argument has successfully removed the time-honoured distinction.

This is not constructive. Anyone who reads both literature and genre fiction must certainly notice the difference between the two. First, there is the question of degree. Literary writers spend far more time polishing their prose than a genre writer. They have to. Standards are so much higher in the literary world. Genre writers and readers who disagree have not spent enough time reading literature. Furthermore, a work’s “content” has to be more sophisticated, more deeply emotional and profoundly philosophical, to qualify as literature. Genre writing is about amusement. It is about story. Literature often has no plot whatsoever being only a superbly crafted and perceptive “slice of life.”

We must be careful not to confuse general or mainstream fiction with literary fiction. Mainstream fiction is writing which does not fit into a category, yet falls short of literature’s lofty standards of style and content. It lacks the outstanding quality of writing and does not have the striking degree of freshness and originality we associate with literature. We might think of mainstream fiction as “run of the mill” fiction.

Finally, it is easy to acquire the bad habit of talking about literature itself as a genre. When you hear someone say that literature should not too closely resemble writing in other genres you are hearing this error. Literature is not a genre in the way that word is now used (category), for the simple reason that it covers far too much ground to be pigeonholed. Categories are by definition narrow and well-defined.

The current preoccupation with ideas like inclusivity, equality, and the removal of barriers is really another way of declaring that we no longer have (or want) any standards. Saying we have no standards sounds bad, so some of us have come up with euphemisms like “inclusivity” to mask our intentions and make them more acceptable or even desirable. The vocabulary is a cunning smokescreen. Instead of trying to be inclusive, we should be asking ourselves why we are so determined to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator. Luckily, there will always be people who can tell the different between ordinary and exceptional. No matter how we choose to label or mislabel it, literature will survive.

Does this mean genre fiction is no good? Not at all. Most people prefer an engrossing or exciting story to a superbly crafted, profound piece of literature. Many people enjoy both. The best genre-fiction writers deliver the goods by entertaining their readers in the way they want to be entertained.