A good friend of mine asked me this week to clarify the difference between literary and popular fiction. Ah, the eternal question! I decided to take a very informal Twitter poll and crowdsource the answer. Got some great replies from authors, editors, friends, and followers.
@kwtaylorwriter One has a plot and one doesn't? (I kid. Kind of.)
— Sarah Hans (@steampunkpanda) January 30, 2014
People read popular fiction. People want others to think they have read read literary fiction. One enjoys; other dissects. @kwtaylorwriter
— Donald J. Bingle (@donaldjbingle) January 30, 2014
@kwtaylorwriter "They are different rubrics which can overlap. One judges popularity, one judges thematically/stylistically." ?
— Jim Turnage (@jim_turnage) January 30, 2014
@kwtaylorwriter Literary fiction is Pop fiction 5 decades or more later.
— Iananon (@aeirould) January 30, 2014
@kwtaylorwriter where the books get shelved, pretty much.
— Ydnam (@ydnam) January 30, 2014
@kwtaylorwriter Populat fiction is football. Literary fiction is polo.
— Emily (@distaff) January 30, 2014
@kwtaylorwriter Popular fiction elicits emotional responses from its readers 🙂
— Jenni Spoon (@jspoonwrites) January 31, 2014
— Steven Saus (@uriel1998) January 31, 2014
Some other choice responses included “popular fiction is Twitter, literary fiction is Livejournal,” “Literary is what they make you read in school. Popular is what you read instead and then have to fake the book report,” “Literary focuses on the internal and pop on the external,” “Pop fiction is rock music, and literary fiction is the opera.” I love all of these replies, partly because they seem to skew “yay popular fiction!” but also because it all goes to show that there is no consistent response (other than that I know a lot of really funny people).
Personally, I don’t make a ton of distinction other than that “realistic” or “non-genre” fiction is probably meant to be considered “literary,” or perhaps that popular fiction is the movies that win technical Academy Awards, whereas literary fiction is the movies that win for acting and directing. Literary is important, fancy, thinky, whatever any of that means. Popular or genre fiction is popcorn, fluff, unimportant, bubblegum, unintellectual and whatnot.
Except we can all think of examples of bad literary fiction and we can all think of examples of popular novels that are just as experimental and thought-chewy as literary fiction. Is the distinction the academy? Libraries? Things that are classics rather than just flashes in the pan? Is it akin to musicians with 50-year careers of selling out arenas versus one-hit wonders? Is it the distinction between PBS and Lifetime? Vincent Van Gogh versus Andy Warhol?
Even if I polled literature scholars, I would get different answers. Most people who are avid consumers of fiction would still be able to take ten books and sort them into the two piles, even if they hadn’t read them. As the saying goes, “you know it when you see it.” But is seeing it a matter of snobbery? Bestseller lists? Contemporary versus classic status?
What about The Catcher in the Rye? Literary, I suppose, but if we had this discussion in 1951, it would probably be considered popular, as it was controversial, profane, and a runaway bestseller. What about China Miéville? Popular, we might say, but he eschews genre pigeonholing and has a doctorate in International Relations and thus is hardly the generator of your average pulp sci fi.
I’ve heard people joke that to write literary fiction you should write a popular novel and cut the first and last chapter. I’ve also heard that literary fiction is about big themes, big truths, and everything inside is just used as hollow symbolism. Yet truly great speculative fiction is all about positing possibilities, proposing ideas and themes and truths. Is speculative fiction automatically non-literary?
Perhaps it’s the author’s intention of “art versus craft” or “write to tell a story versus write to produce art.” I would argue that you can do both. Is Downton Abbey high art or a soap opera? Should we ignore Joyce Carol Oates’ forays into gothic horror because she also writes things with “themes”?
I guess my point here is that the distinction often boils down to the tastes of the reader or scholar. Telling a story with a good plot or telling a story with a compelling theme, purpose, or character study is still all about telling a story, and ultimately I want to be the sort of author who can grow, stretch, change, and experiment.
Write the story you want to read. Read the story that draws you in. Labels? In 2014? That’s so last century.