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Literary Fiction vs. Popular Fiction

When it comes to creativity, it is safe to state that the literary world has stretched its boundaries. We live in a time where fans can take their favourite works of fiction and write new stories around them, authors can self-publish, and comic books (or graphic novels) are gaining more esteem in the literary circles. However, despite those developments, there are still talks about genre boundaries and genre appropriation.

The discussions around popular and literary fiction started around the beginning of the 20th century, when Modernist writers tried to distinguish themselves from the writers of ‘pulp’ fiction. Some academics, such as Ken Gelder, have gone to the extent of writing an entire book on the differences between popular fiction and literary fiction. In The Opposite of Literature, Gelder gives the following dichotomies: literary fiction is related to creativity and purity while popular fiction is connected to an industry and profit; literary fiction is based on life itself, while popular fiction is based on escapism; literary fiction is elitist, popular fiction is open to everybody. The list goes on. There are many reasons to criticize these oversimplified distinctions. For example, given the fact that they both include fictitious worlds, could we not say that literary fiction is also escapism? Does popular fiction not include hidden meanings about life as well? So how different are the two, really?

We are not past discussion of genre; there are still literary events that spark new debates around the topic. One such event is the publication of Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant. The novel is set in a mythical time and age and uses fantasy tropes to explore ideas. However, Ishiguro denied the suggestion that it is a fantasy novel. While popular fiction writers such as Neil Gaiman praised the book, science fiction/fantasy writer Ursula K. LeGuinn criticized Kazuo Ishiguro for “despising” the genre. Furthermore, she questioned the author’s choice to not identify his novel with the fantasy genre, saying that “the author takes the word for an insult”. Ishiguro answered back by saying that “genre rules should be porous, if not nonexistent”. Both authors’ statements make a point. One one hand, genre labels used for marketing purposes can restrain authors who want to cross boundaries. On the other hand, LeGuinn has a point. If genre rules shouldn’t matter, then what is the harm in a book being labeled as fantasy?

I think the solution to the question is quite simple. It is not the genres that are restrictive, but the weight readers, writers, and marketing executives give them. In the battle between literary fiction and popular fiction, the latter loses. Popular genres are often regarded as not as ‘serious,’ as something that you read to pass the time. I believe this is a misconception that puts unnecessary pressure on both writers and readers. As a reader, I can honestly say that they both have their good and bad points. While reading James Joyce’s Ulysses will make me feel like I’ve achieved something intellectually, it is definitely not a book I’ll read to relax. As with many other readers, I enjoy a book that isn’t full of complicated metaphors and hidden meanings, just as much as a high-brow classic novel. And when the two meet, it’s even better!

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