When I sat down to write a novel, my goal was to tell a great story with great characters. Now that my novel is almost finished, I’m faced with a new dilemma: should I market it as a genre novel or as a literary novel?
Honestly, I’m not sure. “Genre” novels—that is, novels that fit into a genre, such as mystery, romance, or science fiction—tend to follow a specific formula. They’re driven by plot, follow a straightforward narrative that remains in the present, and are written to entertain. “Literary” novels don’t fit into a formula, are driven by character rather than by plot, follow a less straightforward narrative (flashbacks are common), and are written to convey meaning.
My own novel doesn’t quite fit into either of these categories. Like a genre novel, it has a strong plot, but a lot of the story is driven by the two main characters. It follows a non-linear narrative with flashbacks, and it deals with darker truths about the characters’ lives, two of the hallmarks of a literary novel. At the same time, my novel, like many genre books, is (I hope!) an entertaining, fun read.
What about characters? The characters in genre novels tend to be conventional, and the focus is on their outer lives, that is, their words and actions. Characters in literary novels tend to be more complex, and the focus is on their inner lives, their thoughts and feelings. Once again, the characters in my novel don’t fit neatly into these categories: they’re unconventional, and their exterior and interior lives are equally important.
Well, then, what about the other elements? My novel has the big climax (romantic) often found in a genre novel, along with the type of smaller climax (a series of insights) more characteristic of a literary novel. The ending? It’s a toss-up: it’s (sort of) happy like a genre novel’s, but some of the characters’ problems remain unresolved, similar to the endings of many literary novels.
Based on the above criteria, my novel doesn’t really fit into the genre or literary categories. But maybe it’s time to rethink this narrow system for classifying novels. There’s no reason why a novel can’t be both serious AND entertaining and contain both exciting plots AND complex characters. Or cross more than one genre, or appeal to a wide audience.
Want to Read More?
Novelist Elizabeth Edmondson tackles this subject in her post “The genre debate: ‘Literary fiction’ is just clever marketing.” See https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/apr/21/literary-fiction-clever-marketing-genre-debate
Do you think the system of classifying novels as “genre” or “literary” works? Feel free to post your comments.