I recently read a piece on the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction. The author seemed to think that genre fiction is mostly read for entertainment, while literary fiction is the kind that makes you think deeply about life, the Universe and everything. I don’t really agree. Mainly because Chris Brookmyre, Terry Pratchett, J. K. Rowling, Gillian Flynn, have all made me think about various aspects of the human condition and their writing falls into genre fiction if I use the above definition.
So left to me, I’d say the tone of writing also contributes a great deal to whether a piece of writing is classified as genre or literary fiction. If it is light-hearted, or doesn’t dwell too deeply on the analysis of why we are the way we are or why we do the things we do, it is categorised as genre fiction. If it throws you into a fit of gloom, makes you want to hug your knees and wonder if life is even worth living, then it’s literary fiction.
Oh, I know that sounds uncharitable. It may even sound as if I don’t like literary fiction and the conclusion isn’t entirely untrue. I remember reading tomes and tomes of literary works as an English Lit student and I found a lot of them quite unspeakably dreary. Beautifully written, elegantly plotted, but dreary. I was particularly wary of Booker Prize winners. They seemed to be entirely made up of big and small tragedies, not a moment of levity in sight. And I’ve always felt reality doles out enough of anguish. I don’t need my moments of leisure punctuated with it. (Or, more accurately, I would like my moments of leisure punctuated with both anguish and levity. Wouldn’t that be nice.) So I steered clear of literary fiction and literary award winners in particular.
That said, Julian Barnes is slowly changing my mindset. His writing is so clear, simple and concise, yet filled with wisdom and an understanding of mankind. (That sentence itself sounds loftier than his prose.) I’m currently reading The Only Story, my second Barnes read after The Sense of an Ending. Both have intriguing plots, the intrigue building slowly and steadily, set as they are in times long gone. Barnes manages to catch the ethos of his setting perfectly and there is a subtlety to the way he builds tension, without resorting to drama. (Look at me, sounding like a lit geek again!)
There are lessons to be learned here. As a reader and a writer. But for now, I am content taking in the sights of 1960s Britain and discovering the strange truths we internalise without realising what we’re doing. Or something.