Classic Storylines: Why do we categorize and divide fiction?

We do it all the time; the obvious example being that literature and genre live in two different worlds, and according to most academics, never the  “Twain” shall meet…  But is this wise?

I have heard it said that literature is more character/relationship driven and genre is more action/story driven.  I don’t deny that there is some truth in that, but I do feel that most of the best genre stories are full of deep characters in relationship and most of the best literary works also tell a good story and deal in conflict, action and resolution.

These days, of course, it is not enough to divide the world of fiction into two camps.  There must be sub-divisions and sub-sub categories until the poor reader is left baffled and confused.  What is a paranormal, historical romantic mystery with horror elements, especially when it is deemed “literature” as opposed to “genre”?

I believe these kinds of categories might entice a few readers who might like paranormal or romance or mystery stories, but more often I believe they turn potential readers off – people who might otherwise read and enjoy your story!  Yet I hear authors themselves agonizing about how to categorize their own work.  Why?  So you can turn off some potential reader?

I don’t believe Bradbury cared where Fahrenheit 451 got put on the shelf, as long as it got on the shelf.  Kurt Vonnegut, on the other hand, always fought the “science fiction” label, even as Stephen King has worked hard to be known as more than a mere horror (genre) writer.  The reason for this is obvious.  As the cliché puts it, “they want to appeal to a larger audience.”  (Duh?)!

I truly believe we have not done ourselves a favor by dividing the written word into anything other than fiction and non-fiction.  I am not sure H. G. Wells contemplated that his books were anything other than works of fiction; and the same with Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” (horror?) and Twain’s “Connecticut Yankee” (science fiction/time travel?). 

Gulliver was political commentary, granted, but as a story it was the epitome of a fantasy story.  Why shouldn’t we call it a genre story?  How about Alice in Wonderland: a tome about language?  I could name thousands of literary works that reason says should be called “genre” stories, and I could equally name thousands of genre stories that meet the criteria of anyone’s “literary” ideal but one…  That one will have to wait until my next post.

For now, how do you feel about the divisions in fiction?

2 thoughts on “Classic Storylines: Why do we categorize and divide fiction?

  1. We categorise everything and fiction isn’t about to become the exception. When someone asks you what someting is like they don’t want a three hour discussion they want you to sum it up quickly. Maybe that will turn them off something that is good but then maybe it was just mis-classified.
    Good discussion.

    • Yes. I suppose we are a bit like Adam in the garden and have to name everything even when we do ourselves a disservice. I certainly can’t disagree with what you say. Thanks for stopping by.

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