“Literature and Fiction” — You’ll find this category listed on a plaque in the major bookstores. These titles are the industry’s marked division between contemporary/historical-themed stories that have been divided from the genres typically titled “Horror” or “Mystery” and “Thrillers” or “Science Fiction” — plot-heavy stories whose characters are, well, part of the plot. Oh, and then there’s one of the newer categories, “Dark Romance” (love that has an obsession with fangs, is my guess).
“To Categorize” has been an ordering device since Caxton’s day. Cervantes based his most famous character on the delusional fantasies one gets from reading too much — in Quixote’s case, Chivalric Novels. You need only jump a few generations to find what LeCarre and Fleming had developed on top of Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” … and how Steven King brought back what Edgar Allen Poe had begun with most of his short stories a hundred years earlier.
Are there differences between the “literature” of Cervantes and LeCarre and Conrad and Poe and the “genre” of King and Fleming and (most recently) Larsson and Meyer? I can only answer with my opinion, not any difinitive answer. And my answer is…
Yes, but less are the differences in writing quality as there are with intent. You can investigate this yourself by going to the library, bookstore, or look through your own shelves. Pull out several genre-category books you know well, and the same for literature-category titles. How does each begin? How are the stories sustained? What happens at the end? Easy questions to answer, really. The more difficult questions to answer are What do you know about the three main characters? How did the beginning make you feel; and how was that different compared to the ending? What is the turning point in the psychology of the main character? Do the characters represent real life, and does the story say anything about the culture in which it was written?
If you answered the first series of questions with details about the events that take place, in which a character must do something in order to prevent, or make certainty, something happening; and if you can tell me only that this character lives in a particular city, likes wine over beer, and eats sandwiches standing up at the kitchen sink, then you’ve probably gathered the definition of genre fiction: plot heavy, light on character introspection, with “twists” at the end, or beginning, of each chapter.
If you answered the second series of questions by focusing on relationships, emotions, character action & re-action to each other, dialogue rich with introspection and investigating each others’ motivations and emotions, then I think you’ve gathered a good definition of literature: little or no obvious plot (or that which doesn’t turn every other chapter), focus on characterization and motivation and emotional connection to events/other characters, and an overall relationship and association with contemporary culture. Also, information that is left out is as important as that which is given. Likewise, on nearly every page you’ll find something wise.
But let’s face it, lots of classic AND contemporary “literature” sucks because its intent is not well planned and then poorly executed by a less-than-competent wordsmith whose best-formed sentences often begin with “The…”. On the other hand, such well-plotted — and highly crafted sentences — can be found throughout the novels of Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Sophie Hannah, Larry Niven, John LeCarre, Tom Clancy, King and Straub.
However, they won’t be found in James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham, Dan Brown, or Sue Grafton. Heavy names on the Best Sellers lists every year, right? That’s true. But that doesn’t mean they write good story, nor good prose.
What people read is as personal as who they marry. This makes sense. Yet even a marriage has its ups and downs, and must evolve over time; evolution that’s not so much going toward something “better” by anyone’s definition, but at least something different.
My marriage with genre fiction ended shortly after I finished writing my second novel. It was crime fiction, and it was pretty good: lots of story, plenty of twists, some blackmail and murder, and sex that was less gratuitous and more in line with the plot. But I had found that, with this second novel, there was nothing more I could “say” to readers.
My divorce with genre happened because I married too young (first novel, 18; second, 24). And then I realized there was far more to talk about, and the stories in which I could say so much more, in the “category” of literature, where characters reigned, not plot twists; where life could be investigated against the backdrop of contemporary society; and, finally, a place and “person” whom I could love over and over, finding more inside her, getting more from her, giving more of myself to her, than anything from that youthful, whimsical love.
Lit-Fict: if the “plot” can best be explained by ITS THEME, then it’s literary (eg, “A man thinks the world is against him and his revolutionary ideas about architecture, but in the end he is proven wrong by his success.” — “The Fountainhead”)
Genre Fict: if the “plot” can best be explained by WHAT HAPPENS, then it’s genre (eg, “A vampire tells his life story to a journalist, and we learn the chronicles of vampirism over a two-hundred-year period.” — “Interview with the Vampire.”)
The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.