The Journal Pulp

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What’s The Difference Between Popular Fiction And Serious Literature?

with 8 comments

Popular Fiction, also known as Genre Fiction, is, according to screenwriting professor Robert McKee (and I agree), “[concerned with] specific settings, roles, events, and values that define individual genres and their subgenres.”

Here, then, is a simplified rundown of some of the most common genres:

Gangster/Crime: fiction that focuses on the lives of criminals.

Mystery: a crime has been committed, but by whom? Solving that mystery makes up the plot, and almost invariably, the story’s protagonist is the woman or the man who discovers the answer.

Western: stories usually (but not always) set in the American Old West, with cowboys, horses, and plenty of gun-play.

Spy/Espionage: heroes, like James Bond, who frequently work for government-intelligence agencies and who seek to obtain clandestine information, usually international, upon which the fate of many hang.

Fantasy: stories of monsters, sorcery, world-building, magic, and supernatural phenomena.

Science-fiction: stories of an often futuristic quality, with futuristic technology, space-travel, alternative possible futures.

Romance: fiction which, as you would suspect, concerns romantic love that is sexually charged. Its distinguishing characteristic is that the man and the woman must at some point bed down, and they usually, by the story’s end, end up together and happy.

Horror: stories wherein evil haunts the hallways of your house — or your head.

Young Adult: the distinguishing characteristic of Young Adult literature is that young people are at the center of the stage.

Literary: this is the genre usually regarded as “serious literature,” though it’s often, in fact, not serious (see Gertrude Stein’s puerile prattling, or Finnegans Wake), and the distinguishing characteristic of literary fiction is an emphasis on writing style.

All fiction, no matter the genre, consists fundamentally of two components: subject and style.

Subject is what the writer presents.

Style is how the writer presents it.

(It’s important to note here that the Thriller genre is a more general genre and can include any of the previously mentioned. The hallmark of a thriller is conflict, which presupposes the pursuit values. Literary fiction can indeed be thriller fiction, as in the novels of Alexander Dumas or Victor Hugo, and so can, for example, fantasy fiction, as in the Blue Sword or the Gandalara Cycle.)

The difference between serious fiction and genre fiction is this: the sophistication of the writing style, the seriousness of the approach, and the integration of theme and plot into the story.

Some genre stories are so well written that they blur the line between genre fiction and serious fiction, purely on the strength of style alone. Yet much — though by no means all — genre fiction is themeless, or near-themeless.

Theme is the core meaning that the events of a story add up to. (The events, incidentally, are the plot.) Theme is complicated because it’s philosophical. Theme is abstract, and plot is the concrete.

For instance, the theme of Rocky is the triumph of the human spirit. Rocky is genre fiction that crosses over into serious fiction.

The theme of Anna Karenina is adultery and marriage in 19th Century Russia.

The theme of Quiz Show is honesty.

The theme of Miller’s Crossing is ethics and order in an orderless society. (Note: Miller’s Crossing, a film by the Cohen Brothers, is also a genre story that crosses over into serious literature. The depth of its style and the integration of its theme with its plot is what makes Miller’s Crossing serious fiction.)

The theme of Bladerunner is human life and the constant struggle against death, which is what after all gives life meaning.

The theme of Les Miserables is justice-versus-injustice in 19th century France.

The theme of Othello is the destructive nature of jealousy.

It is important to note that theme isn’t synonymous with symbolism: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for example, is symbolic story about a doubleminded man, but that is not the story’s theme. The story’s theme is the psychological deterioration of a man who holds within him two opposing desires, which is also, not coincidentally, the essence of the conflict. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is another example of a genre story that crosses over into serious literature.

It’s vital to stress here that not every story has a theme, and that this is okay. It’s theme, though, combined with the depth of style, which will distinguish genre from serious literature.

Some of the most popular examples of themeless stories are genre stories known as soap operas, which are pure event, pure concrete, pure plot. A well-done story, however, blends theme and plot, so that the events dramatize that theme, and the characters embody that theme’s characteristics. This is why more in-depth characterization also, secondarily, distinguishes serious literature from genre fiction.

A good story — like Othello — integrates the concretes with the writer’s abstract meaning. A good story dramatizes the theme by means of the character’s actions with which the reader can (in theory) relate, because the events and what they mean are all a part of the human condition. Who among us has not felt jealousy at one time or another, and who among us cannot relate with Othello’s psychological hell, Desdemona’s helpless frustration?

That — the explicit integration of the abstract and the concrete — in collaboration with a cultivated style, is the thing that makes the difference between popular fiction and serious fiction.

8 Responses

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  1. Awesome and comprehensive post! It gives me something to think about as I finish my book.


    November 27, 2011 at 12:17 am

  2. I think there’s usually a huge difference between the two (genre and serious fiction) but agree that the boundaries blur with really fine genre writing. By saying that, I seem to be implying that genre writing typically tends to be less than fine or more formulaic and that’s not what I mean. I mean that, as someone much smarter than I said a long time ago, you’ll know (the difference) when you see it.

    This is an awesome post with so much information to consider. I certainly appreciate the thoughtfulness, research, experience and devotion you put into your blog. Thanks.


    November 29, 2011 at 12:00 am

  3. Thank you so much, Sue.


    November 29, 2011 at 9:43 am

  4. Love your take on this. I’ve never heard the terms ‘serious fiction’ versus ‘fiction’ used… I have heard many arguments regarding ‘literary’ versus ‘genre’ fiction. Have to say that I prefer ‘serious’ to ‘literary’ seeing as all books–genre included–are literary.

    Though I’m personally more drawn to genre fiction (but read both), I believe that there’s a place and audience for all well written stories. Thanks for this insightful, informative post!

    August McLaughlin

    November 29, 2011 at 4:33 pm

  5. Greetings and salutations, August. And thank you. I did not, for the record, coin those terms — serious fiction versus fiction — and I agree that all books are literary.

    One of the main things I wanted to get across here is exactly what you say: there’s a place and an audience for all well written stories. Literary snobbishness — in either direction (i.e. the serious writers who loathe genre fiction and the genre writers who loathe serious fiction) — is, you may bet upon it, a sure sign of stunted thinking.

    I might in a later post try to explain why.

    Thank you for dropping by.


    November 29, 2011 at 11:14 pm

  6. […] The Journal Pulp – What’s The Difference Between Popular Fiction and Serious Literature […]

  7. Hearing that “The best literature is highly serious.”, and that satire is on a lower rung but still somewhat serious and studied at some colleges, made me interested in what serious literature is.

    Robert Cothern

    November 4, 2013 at 5:54 pm

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