Classic Storylines: What is and What if: fiction divided against itself.

The question I posed last time was why do we divide fiction into literary and genre and then divide it again into mainstream contemporary, historical romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and then further sub-divide it with words like paranormal, chick-lit, high, low, space opera, sword and sorcery, steampunk… sea chanteys?  God only knows!

My suggestion was to stop.  I feel that for every reader attracted to an arbitrary word like “paranormal” there are ten who are turned off.  This is not what any author wants to do, I’ll bet.

However, there is one way of dividing fiction into two camps which I am willing to do, and it stems from the fact that some people are not interested in reading anything that isn’t “real.”  This is especially true of any number of academics who are determined to maintain the illusion of literature as against all of that other “junk” fiction which is deemed “unrealistic” or worse, worthy only of children. 

Between you and me, “real” may be the most arbitrary word of all, but I am willing to go with it.  To that end, I divide stories (when necessary) into these two categories: 

There are stories about WHAT IS, that is stories that strive to be real world – “realistic.”  These would be mainstream, “literary,” historical, memoir and “based on a true story,” type of stories.  Most mysteries, some thrillers and many romances easily fall into this category, even if the larger world calls them genre.

“What is“ stories lean in the direction of non-fiction or are fictionalized accounts of real stories.

Then there are stories that are WHAT IF, and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” falls here, even if most call it “literature.”  The Shack, the Time Traveler’s Wife, and plenty of other recent so-called literary works also fall here. 

What if stories speak closer to the truth, which is always “stranger than fiction.”

Apart from that, though, I do not find the division of fiction into all of the labels helpful.  It may be helpful to know what kind of story the group, magazine, agent, editor or publisher and ultimately the reader might be looking for, but I recommend reading works and lists to see if your story is comparable to the interests of the person or group.  Otherwise, what a paranormal, historical romantic mystery with horror elements means to any two people might be two totally different things.  The author might think the description is perfect, but on hearing the categories, an agent, editor, publisher or reader might imagine something else. 

Enough.  I do recognize that we are indeed like Adam in the Garden, determined to name everything and my rant is not going to stop anyone from categorizing writing in every imaginable way.  Clearly, I do not find the words we use helpful for a discussion about fiction, though, since each person has their own definitions.  Yet I do believe there is a way in which fiction can be divided and discussed, reasonably.  That would be by plot or theme such as competition, relationships, vice/virtue, journey, etc.  I will be looking at these classic storylines in posts to come and I look forward to discussing them with you.

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