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