Is Literary Fiction a Genre?

Via a comment which Steve Malley left on my blog, I discovered a vigorous — and very comment-rich — discussion by genre fiction writers on the perceived deficiencies of (some) literary fiction, a discussion carried on here after starting here. (Coincidentally, Polly Frost tackles the same topic from a different angle over at The Short Review.)

Apart from the debatable characterisation of Chaucer as some kind of early literary academic, I thought it was a very interesting discussion: and since I write both literary and genre fiction, and have even folded both in together in my short story collection Transported, I thought I would try to come up with a response.

At the core of Charles Gramlich’s complaint is this question:

Can someone please explain why “literary” writers get to freely eviscerate the normal rules of writing but don’t get called on it, while you or I would be pilloried soundly if we tried the same thing?

My immediate reaction was to say that “the normal rules of writing” apply to genre fiction but not to literary fiction, but that did not seem adequate. I’ve read plenty of books which are classified as genre fiction (in particular those genres I’m most interested in, science fiction and fantasy) but which break the rules Charles lists.

What’s more, literary fiction seems to have rules of its own. In a New Zealand context, these might be:

Write mimetic (“realistic”) fiction …
about middle-class and upper-middle class characters …
with no significant political interests or concerns …
who do not experience anything which could be labelled a “plot” …
and whose close personal relationships …
… and personal emotional development are of paramount interest in the fiction.

These “rules” have changed over time; formerly, working class characters were more common, and latterly, the stranglehold of realism has eased. But I think the most characteristic feature of literary fiction is the absence, or at least the downplaying, of plot, and of narrative in general.

After the fashion of Carrie Bradshaw, doyenne of Manolo Blahniks and really large closets, I ask the readers of this blog this question: are the set of characteristics I’ve listed above a reasonable description of much New Zealand literary fiction, and if so, are they distinctive enough to act as a set of rules for literary fiction?

In other words (Carrie sits cross-legged on her bed, looking down at her laptop):

  • Is literary fiction a genre?

A Space for Science Fiction

Without much fuss, a space for science fiction, and fiction about science, is opening up within New Zealand literature. Recently, the Royal Society of New Zealand and the Listener sponsored the Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing, with prizes for both fiction and nonfiction. The 2007 theme was climate change, and Bryan Walpert wrote the winning fiction entry.

Now comes news that a forthcoming issue of the venerable Landfall magazine will be devoted to Utopian and dystopian fiction, poetry and essays. This announcement comes from the New Zealand Society of Authors:

Landfall 216 (November 2008), edited by Tim Corballis, will be on the theme of Utopias. Our past is scattered with visions of an ideal future – what is left of them? How do they look now?

Is our present made of the various, contradictory, failed efforts to realise them? And have we really given up on the hope of leaving something radically new to the future?

Utopian and dystopian fiction, poetry and essays should be sent to Tim at utopias (at) by, or preferably well before, the end of June 2008.
Landfall 216 is also a Landfall Essay Competition issue.
For details, see

Although the announcement doesn’t say as much, utopian and dystopian fiction is also science fiction. When I started writing SF, I was told that there was no prospect of getting SF published in New Zealand, as literary magazines here wouldn’t look at it. My own publication history for short fiction has shown that the barriers between literary fiction and science fiction were never so rigid; now it seems that the barriers are, slowly, dissolving away. That’s good news from someone like me, who writes within both genres. I think it’s good news for readers as well.