What is the difference between so-called genre fiction and so-called literary fiction? Another way to ask the question is to wonder: When did genre fiction begin to be called genre fiction?
The distinction seems so clear these days when you can walk into a library, a bookstore, or search online for your favorite genre: romance, detective, western, science fiction, paranormal, fantasy, etc. The detective novels of P.D. James are sometimes cited as examples of work that transcends the genre. But even this evaluation is made in terms of the genre.
Everything else is known as fiction, literary fiction, and/or serious fiction, which is work read not for mere fun but for some other kind of experience, say, an aesthetic one or for insight into the human condition. Upon reading the work one feels somehow (supposedly) improved. This fiction is the kind reviewed in prestigious outlets and considered for prizes such as the Pulitzer, Booker, Goncourt, and Nobel.
In the 19th century the term pulp fiction came into existence to refer to mass-produced stories printed on paper made from cheap wood pulp. There has long been a literary distinction between the Sacred and the Profane, as I point out in my blog post On the Term Bodice Ripper. So there is no surprise that a term arose in particular historical circumstances to identify one phase of the Profane.
The appearance of the term genre fiction on the scene remains to be explained.
Hoping for a handle on literary distinctions, such as they exist today, I recently read Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957). It is a series of four essays:
Historical Criticism: Theory of Modes
Ethical Criticism: Theory of Symbols
Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths
Rhetorical Criticism: Theory of Genres
I figured the fourth essay would be the most helpful. I figured wrong. I hasten to add that all four essays were helpful, just not in the way I anticipated.
Early on Frye surprised me with the statement: “We discover that the critical theory of genres is stuck precisely where Aristotle left it. The very word ‘genre’ sticks out in an English sentence as the unpronounceable and alien thing it is” (13).
Aristotle? What does he have to say about genre fiction? Nothing, as it turns out. The term genre for Aristotle – and then for Frye – has to do with the rhythm of the work, it’s construction and meter. The four classical genres are: drama, epic, lyric, and history.
In other words, Frye holds no sense of genre in terms of the category currently known as genre fiction.
Frye continues, “The Greeks hardly needed to develop a classification of prose forms. We do, but have never done so. We have, as usual, no word for a work of prose fiction, so the word ‘novel’ does duty for everything, and thereby loses it’s only real meaning as the name of a genre” (13).
One of Frye’s goals is to sort out the “miscellaneous heap,” he says at one point, covered by the term novel.
What does he have to say about my quarry, namely Romance? For him it’s not a genre, it’s a mode – one of five, in fact. They are distinguished by who the main characters of the narrative are with respect to the audience:
Myth: if the hero is a divine being, the story is myth.
Romance: if the hero is superior to other men and to his environment, the story is romance.
High Mimetic: if the hero is superior to other men but not his environment, he is a leader; he may be greater than those in his audience, but he is still subject to the order of nature.
Low Mimetic: if the hero is one of us, we find ourselves in most comedy and realistic fiction.
Ironic: if the hero is inferior and we have a sense of looking down on him, we are in a story of bondage, frustration, or absurdity.
I’ll pursue the implications of these five modes in Anatomy of Criticism II, III, and IV. In the fourth I’ll also answer my opening questions.
As a romance writer I can easily get in a funk about the lack of respect accorded my chosen profession. Frye reminded me that feelings of being abused are widespread.
In his Introduction Frye notes that literary critics have often been stigmatized as parasites or jackals. “Those who are concerned with the arts,” he laments, “are often asked questions, not always sympathetic ones, about the use or value of what they are doing” (10).
Despite the naysayers, Frye pursues his chosen occupation with intelligence, dignity, and flair. I’ll do my best to follow suit.
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen