When it comes to the wide world of reading, it is commonly believed that there are two major types of fiction: literary fiction and genre fiction.
Genre fiction, also known as popular fiction, usually refers to plot-driven fictional works written to fit into a specific literary genre, such as romance, sci-fi, horror, western, and so forth. Popular authors include Stephen King (horror), Danielle Steel (romance), George R.R. Martin (fantasy) and Dan Brown (thriller).
Literary fiction, on the other hand, is slightly harder to define. Basically, it is a term reserved for works supposedly containing literary merit (however that is measured), that focus more on themes than on plot, and offer deliberate commentary on larger social issues, political issues, or the human condition. Think of works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ian McEwan, Vladimir Nabokov, or Tan Twan Eng, to name a few.
This classification system, however, has often been criticised by literary scholars and by writers themselves. One problem constantly raised is that many books could fit equally into both categories; for example, are Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five literary fiction? Or should they be classified under romance and science fiction respectively? Others say that literary fiction itself is a genre, thus making the whole distinction unnecessary.
Despite this debate, however, the distinction can still be a useful one for readers, especially in explaining their reading tastes.
A look at the fiction nominees for this year’s The Star-Popular Readers’ Choice Awards (RCA) shows that the majority is genre fiction, much more than in previous years. For example, the first and second prizes in 2013 were won by works of literary fiction (Dina Zaman’s King Of The Sea and Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden Of Evening Mists, respectively), but this year, almost all the nominated titles are genre fiction. Are we experiencing a golden era for Malaysian genre fiction?
We interviewed, via e-mail, three of the nominated genre writers – Zen Cho (Spirits Abroad), Kris Williamson (editor of KL Noir: Yellow), and RodieR (One Fine Day) – and put the question to them.
What genre do you primarily write in?
Cho: I mostly write fantasy, but also the occasional science fiction and romance.
Williamson: If I had to categorise my fiction writing, I suppose it could be described as urban or contemporary. Most fiction that I’ve published takes place in the present in urban settings. But the focus of what I write usually revolves around societal commentary that is not a visible part of the plot.
RodieR: I can say I write mostly in the romance genre. But, unlike most other romance novels, I write love stories which focus more on proper Islamic teachings.
What draws you to your genre?
Cho: It’s fun. I read for a lot of different reasons, but I became a reader because reading is immersive and it transports you to other worlds like nothing else. Fantasy offers that ultimate escapism, but it’s also a good vehicle for exploring the issues that everyone has to deal with – growing up, growing into yourself, figuring out what matters to you and what your role is in the world.
Williamson: Writing fiction of any sort is a treat for me. But I prefer the way that an imagined present in a familiar city surrounding can open the mind. I appreciate it when an author can take something so familiar and show me another perspective that I had not considered. I try to do the same in my writing.
RodieR: I believe the majority of fiction readers are female. And stories with love as the theme appeal to the ladies. I know that because I’m one of them. My personal motto is “I write what I like to read”. Hence, I’m drawn to romance. But with my writing, I also want to share something. I want to share knowledge, wisdom, and experience, and since the romance genre is generally well received among readers, I write in that genre and slip in the thoughts I want to share.
Do you think the distinction between literary and genre fiction is necessary? In your opinion, can genre fiction be literary?
Cho: They’re just marketing categories designed to sell books. I think of them as keywords that help readers find the sort of things they like. It’s interesting to talk about the conventions and tropes that have developed in each category, because I think genre books often (though not always) have a different conversation from literary fiction – so to that extent, the distinction is useful. But I feel that people who use it to dismiss a whole category of books or readers as either juvenile or snobbish are missing the point.
Williamson: Assigning literature into categories makes it easier for publishers and booksellers to market it to readers who identify with specific genres or classes. While literary and genre fiction both have their fair share of gems and bombs, one person’s trash is another’s treasure. So if one reads only romance novels and shuns literary fiction for a perceived lack of accessibility or other reasons, that reader is missing out on the romance found in the novels of Jane Austen, D.H. Lawrence, or even Leo Tolstoy … something they may enjoy.
RodieR: The difference is important, yes, so that readers can have a wider window to choose from. I like literary fiction too because such books are more complex and thought-provoking. It is my personal opinion that we can’t be reading one genre only, and as a writer, that is even more important. Genre fiction can be literary, if it is strongly-themed and character-driven, but that is not easy to do.
This year’s The Star-Popular Readers’ Choice Awards fiction nominees are dominated by genre fiction. Do you think this indicates that genre fiction is becoming more popular?
Cho: I think it indicates that Fixi (Amir Muhamad’s indie publishing house) is good at selling books.
Williamson: I would say that genre fiction in its entirety is more popular than literary fiction, in Malaysia as well as globally. The world’s wealthiest and most commercially successful authors all write genre fiction and likely would be scoffed at by the establishment if they began writing literary fiction (regardless of the quality and merit of the final product). But the definition of “genre” is one that is in constant flux. What is considered genre fiction today could later be classified as literary fiction. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is an example of this.
RodieR: I think that genre fiction is already popular. With new publishers emerging every day, and most of them producing stories in genre fiction, be they romance, fantasy or even sci-fi, genre fiction is fast becoming more and more popular.
Do you think stories from your genre can adequately capture the Malaysian experience?
Cho: Yes. The truth of a story doesn’t depend on whether there are dragons in it or not. Also, given how superstitious most Malaysians are and that hantu sightings regularly appear in the news, what we might consider mimetic fiction fits pretty easily into the fantasy category elsewhere.
Williamson: With seven of the 10 nominees this year in the fiction category coming from Fixi Novo (the English language imprint of Amir’s Fixi publishing house), it is clear that urban fiction resonates with Malaysian readers. Malaysia’s population has been shifting from the rural areas to KL and other smaller urban centres for decades at a quick rate. But urban fiction, as represented by the popularity of Fixi books in small towns across the country, has appeal for those who don’t live in the cities. The rawness and grittiness of life as a reality, not a fantasy based on morality or would-be-should-be ideals, connects with readers all over the country.
RodieR: Of course romance can effectively capture the Malaysian experience. Quite a few novels in the market under romance fiction by a number of publishers, including Jemari Seni, provide an insight into Malaysian culture and upbringing so precisely-detailed that readers may feel they are truly experiencing it. And these kinds of stories do not give you merely fairytale happy ending stories, but real stories with shortcomings to overcome that can even trigger pure sadness and tears among their avid fans.
Some people consider genre fiction to be escapist literature and less “serious” than literary fiction. What do you think about this? Do you feel that genre fiction gets the respect it deserves?
Cho: I think genre fiction gets all the respect and attention it deserves from the people who read it. There are SFF (science fiction and fantasy) writers who yearn for the recognition of the mainstream literary establishment, but who cares? It was nice when Ursula Le Guin was recognised by the US National Book Awards, but we fans knew she was good already.
Williamson: Genre fiction is escapist and usually fun for readers. And that is what many readers of those genres expect from those novels. Those who claim genre fiction is inferior to literary fiction are readers/writers of literary fiction who have a poor sense of self worth and are probably bitter about the commercial success of genre authors like J.K. Rowling, Danielle Steele, John Grisham, and Stephen King. What author wouldn’t want to be as widely read as these genre fiction authors are?
RodieR: Genre fiction might be less “serious” than literary fiction, but it doesn’t mean it is less important. For me, to have both is to have balance in my reading material. Genre fiction broadens my imagination and lets me travel to places that don’t even exist, know characters that I can rarely meet in real life. Meanwhile, literary fiction keeps me grounded, and provides me with stories based on real life and gives me opportunity to think and ponder beyond what I see every day.
What say you, dear reader? Register your opinion by taking part in the RCA’s “Read to Vote, Vote to Win” component, which rewards you for reading and voting.
Vote for your top three fiction titles – and don’t forget to vote for the non-fiction titles too! That’s six choices all together; by sending them in, you will be in the running for prizes such as a RM50 Popular gift voucher and a Popular card with a free one-year membership.
To vote for your faves by May 31, you can fill up the voting forms available at all Popular and Harris bookstores nationwide, or you can vote online at either popular.com.my, facebook.com/popularmalaysia, bookfestmalaysia.com or facebook.com/bookfestmalaysia.
You can also look out for the voting forms in Star2 over the next few days.
The winners of the RCA will be announced on July 11 at 10.30am at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre.
All Popular and Harris bookstore outlets will be selling 19 of the 20 nominated titles at a 20% rebate from today till July 31. One title, Penang History, My Story, will be sold at its nett price.