Do you prefer to read literary fiction or genre fiction? Up until I was in college, I didn’t realize there was much of a difference. Isn’t literary fiction the same as genre fiction? Apparently not.
In publishing, literary fiction is considered “high brow” literature with more “merit.” Whereas genre fiction is more commercialized. Something like “Severance,” by Ling Ma, would be considered literary fiction. It has more to do with character development than plot. But a book like “The Da Vinci Code,” by Dan Brown would be more like genre fiction. It has a set plot and the reader eagerly flies through each page to find out what happens at the end.
I was thinking about the two different forms of fiction and asked myself whether I had a clear preference. To answer this question, I went on my Goodreads page and started browsing the list of books I’ve read over the years. It seems like I mostly prefer genre fiction with a scattering of literary fiction thrown in here and there. If I’m being honest, I do prefer a book that forces me to ask “what’s going to happen next?” At the same time, some of my more favorite titles have fallen into the category of literary fiction. For example, one of my favorite books is “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” by Ottessa Moshfegh. It’s about a woman who is independently wealthy and lives in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Her goal is to hibernate and alienate herself from the world with the use of some heavy drugs. As you can imagine, not a whole lot happens with the plot of this book. Yet, I still found it to be an engrossing novel.
The irony of the two different forms of literature is that even though literary fiction is considered “high brow” and its books are often short/long listed for some notable literary prizes (think Booker Prize, Orange Prize, etc), they don’t sell as well as genre fiction. As much as I loved “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” very few people have actually heard of it, or even heard of Ottessa Moshfegh for that matter. Yet, everyone has heard of Dan Brown. And everyone has heard of Nicholas Sparks, Nora Ephron, Lee Child, John Grisham, etc. But those aren’t the writers who win the greatest awards in literature. Even so, they still earn the most money.
It’s not just the publishing industry that is like this. Movies are similar. Whenever I watch the Oscars, I noticed that many of the movies nominated are movies that I’ve never seen or heard of. Most of the movies that were my favorites are often not nominated at all. Many of the movies I like go on to make millions at the box office, but it’s the lesser known movies that get the awards. In that regard, books and movies are similar.
Even so, probably the majority of my reading is still going to be from “commercialized” books. What can I say? They’re entertaining. And sometimes it doesn’t matter that something carries more merit in our society. At the end of the day, we read what we want to read. And even though I consider myself to be a “serious” reader, today I may just read “Crazy Rich Asians,” and escape from my own reality.