Classic Storylines

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?

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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