As a writer, I tend to think that my fiction doesn’t quite fit neatly into any specific genre — but my work is definitely “genre” fiction, because otherworldly elements play a huge part in my storylines. Now, as a reader, this is also the case with many of my favorite novels. I’m a big fan of books that straddle the line between genres, dancing back and forth between literary fiction and genre fiction.
But what is genre fiction, exactly?
Generally, I think that the genre element of the tag “genre fiction” is referring to a distinct kind of “alien” presence existing in the narrative, this “alien” being something abnormal, something unusual, something outside of normal life.
Using genre fiction as the umbrella, we can then fit horror, science fiction, slipstream, fantasy, bizarro fiction, and so on all into the same grouping. While these genres are all very distinct from one another, they all have that “alien” factor in common, which literary fiction does not. Whether it is bloodthirsty monsters (horror), cyborgs (sci-fi) or a wardrobe that leads to a magical alternate dimension (fantasy), all of these fantastical things are simply well dressed narrative devices, doorways which allow the author to take the protagonists outside of their usual lives.
The only difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is the existence of the “alien” as a narrative device. The alien is the tool that the genre author uses, not for the sake of itself, but rather because the use of the alien can bring greater illumination to real life fears, woes, and insecurities.
There’s a strange sort of idea out there that genre fiction is somehow inherently lesser than literary fiction, which is rather foolhardy. Any story can be great, no matter what genre it springs from: it just has to mean something.