Is Literary Fiction a Genre? Hint: Yes.
by Salvatore Pane
In a recent profile of Justin Cronin in the New York Times Magazine, Colson Whitehead is quoted as saying he’d “rather shoot [him]self in the face” than have another discussion about literature genres. I don’t blame him. When people ask me what kind of fiction I write, I usually say, “It’s about people,” and leave it at that. But as I read Ringwald’s book, I found myself pondering literary fiction: as a genre, as a taxonomical category. When It Happens to You, you see, is a sterling example of literary fiction, if we were to consider literary fiction as a straightforward genre like romance or science fiction, with certain expected tropes and motifs.
Today, Edan Lepucki argues that literary fiction is a genre. This is something I’ve long thought. There are stylistic tics and repeated themes in literary fiction just as there are in sci-fi or fantasy. Lepcuki uses her argument to satirize a few recent trends from the major presses, but I would take this one step further. What I’m always telling my students is that lit fiction is the ultimate genre because it can synthesize all of the other genres as once. Lit fiction can use sci-fi tropes (look at George Saunders or Alissa Nutting), and it can use horror tropes (looks at Comrac McCarthy or John Fowles), and it can even draw from fantasy (look at Seth Fried or Wells Tower). It’s an umbrella genre that can examine “low” art through a “high” art lens. Do you guys think about it this way? Do you think of lit fiction as one more genre, or is it totally separate from the world of dime fiction and supermarket novels?