Literary Fiction, Genre Fiction and Why the Difference Matters.

As an English teacher, I have experienced the groans and complaints of students when you announce with enthusiasm that the novel they will study for term will be one of the classics such as Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Frankenstein, or, even better, the great William Shakespeare himself. Not fair! they cry. They want Rowling over Orwell, Riordan over Melville, Taylor Swift over Keats or Byron. One of the first questions out of their collective mouths when you announce the title of the text is, “Have they made a movie of it?”

I’ve heard all the comments. “It’s boring.” “I don’t understand it.” “Nothing happens for page after page.” “Why doesn’t she just tell the story instead of all this description?” There are many other similar observations. Students today find it hard to see the relevance of these works. They live in a world of immediate satisfaction, of CGI movies, of plot over characterisation, of story over theme or form.

Schools have students study the classics–also termed literary fiction or literature–for a very good reason. They’re hard. Teachers want their students to use their minds, to analyse, to question, to be exposed to great writing, to begin to question the world and seek truth. You have to work at literary fiction. You have to think about it. Your mind must be engaged and functioning on all cylinders in order to appreciate it fully. That’s why it’s taught.

There are basically two types of fiction (a term which includes drama, film, art and music as well, but I’ll stick to novels for the purposes of this essay to make it easier). Literary fiction is more than simple narrative or polemic. It presents complex ideas about life, the universe and everything (thanks Doug!). Its form and content influence each other. It explores critical perspectives, the individual’s relationship to society and emotional manipulation. Most importantly, it is not reducible to any one correct interpretation. Genre fiction is more popular, does not normally explore theme or allow for deep critical analysis. It declares that form and content are separate entities which do not influence each other. It is usually only capable of one interpretation and does not invite resistant readings.

books one

“texture” by honeycut07 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The terms form and content, so important to both of these, require further explanation. Form is exactly that: the form of the work, the structure and style. Genre fiction follows a particular form. The standard romantic comedy has boy meet girl, they hit it off initially, have a falling out, re-unite at the 5/6 point and, after the clearing up of misunderstandings, live happily ever after. A romance author who deviates from this tried and true formula risks readers’ disapproval. Science fiction creates expectations of science-based ideas, aliens and spaceships. Horror is usually expected to explore supernatural themes, and so forth . I know I’m generalising here but it’s to make a point.

The generally accepted structure of genre fiction follows that tried-and-true formula of exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, denoument and resolution. This structure is taught in creative writing classes. It’s spouted as the way to write a story, and woe betide the author who strays from it. The style must follow the style of books of a similar genre.

Literary fiction does not necessarily do any of this. In it, form and content influence each other. Rules are broken for structure and style because the depth of theme, the examination of character, the complication of the story demand that they be free to follow whatever course they need to in order to put across the message. In Moby-Dick  Herman Melville stops the plot and lectures on such esoteric topics as chowder, harpoons, try-pots and the taste of whale meat because that information helps the reader to fully appreciate the word of whaling, so that the last hundred pages, in which the pursuit of the white whale becomes some of the greatest hunting-themed prose ever written, can be appreciated on a deeper, more visceral level, than might otherwise have been possible if the reader plunged in without all this “knowledge of the trade”. Melville even has an entire chapter is which is “proves” that the whale is not a mammal but a fish, simply because this misinformation better serves the story.


“Yup, whale.” by ScottDonald is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Literary fiction is given to students to study because they have to work at it. The themes–for there can be more than one–must be hunted for. The reader can draw from it their own individual reaction and understanding. Genre fiction is produced for the mass market. It nestles in the safe world of the tried and true. The author is confident that readers will want to read it because they, too, like the comfort of a known structure and style. While the content of genre fiction is infinitely variable, its predictable form carries reassurance.

I’m not saying that genre fiction is less worthwhile than literary fiction. I love genre fiction. I write genre fiction. It’s great to read a book in which I can turn off the brain and the critical analysis and happily plunge into the world of the story. Nothing wrong with that at all. But there is equally a place for literary fiction, and a need for it to be taught in schools.

If you want to write literary fiction, go for it. Experiment. Do your own thing. But be careful: what the reader takes from it might not be what you intended. Your baby is open to multiple interpretations. Critics will see things you never anticipated. You might even be told you’re wrong!

There is a place for both types of fiction. Make sure you know which type you’re reading or writing. And enjoy both. That’s what good writing  and reading is all about.

(Featured image “Book Store Heaven” by C_Greengrass is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 )



The Greatest Sin of All

The world has never been easy. Let’s face it, there’s a lot out there that’s downright dangerous,  misunderstood and unknown. Even walking to the bus stop can get you killed these days. Terrorism, poverty, global warming, pollution…Homo sapiens has done a pretty good job screwing up a planet that had been just great for billions of years. And we’ve only been doing it since the last few thousand years, since we stopped being hunters and gatherers and settled down into communities.

And there are many reasons why we’ve done that. Not settled down, I mean screwed up the planet. But there is one thing that drives the destructive gene in human beings, that is the seed, as it were, for all the other stupidity we’ve managed to pull off since we climbed down from the trees and decided walking on two legs was a good idea (which it wasn’t).

I’m talking about ignorance.

You know what that is. We’ve all been guilty of it. Hell, I’ve managed to look pretty dumb on the odd occasion. But by ignorance I don’t mean just not knowing something. I mean deliberately deciding not to know something.

There are four types of ignorance. I mention these in my novel Plato’s Cave, but here they are again:

(1)   What we know we don’t know. For example, we know that we don’t know if there is life on other planets.

(2)   What we don’t know we don’t know. Until we know about it, we can’t actually know that we don’t know something.

(3)   What we think we know, but don’t. Maybe apples don’t really grow on trees, it just looks that way. We’ve been fooling ourselves with appearances.

(4)   What we don’t think we know, but do. Maybe we already possess the key to time travel. We just haven’t realised it yet.

Those types of ignorance are fine because they allow the possibility that our ignorance will one day be lifted. If we keep asking enough of the right sort of questions and keep looking for the answers in a practical way, there’s a chance our ignorance will change to knowledge. In other words, the four types of ignorance listed above are scientific. Used properly, they have the ability to lead a sufficiently curious anthropoid ape towards the truth.

But there is another type of ignorance that actually lies beneath these four. And that is the type I’m calling the greatest sin of all.

(5) What we choose not to know.

For many reasons, there are people who deliberately decide not to know about something. The knowledge they eschew might conflict with their own personal beliefs. If they accepted the truth, it would contradict what they choose to believe, and that keeps them ignorant. Or, they might think that discovering the truth is too much like hard work. Or it requires them to associate with people they don’t wish to acknowledge. There are many reasons. None of them are legitimate.

This is what makes that type of ignorance a sin.

A few examples:

  1.  Homophobes choose to be ignorant about why people are LGBT. They think there is a choice in the matter, that gay people somehow, at some point in their lives, choose to be gay. The homophobes don’t want to know that gay people are gay because they are gay. They were born that way. Maybe homophobes object on religious grounds. Maybe they think gay people have some kind of hidden plan to steal children because they can’t have their own. Or that there is some kind of  “gay agenda”. (If there is I missed the memo). All poppycock of course. It’s worth remembering that the word “homophobe” means “fear of man”. That’s what their hatred stems from. Fear. Not knowledge.
  2. Literature.  Love it or hate it, it’s still a necessary part of our lives. I am a teacher and when I teach poetry I tell my students that there are only two types of people who read poetry: other poets, and students who are forced to read it by their teachers. That’s not true, of course, but it breaks the ice. I then tell them that the reason people don’t like reading poetry is because it forces them to think. And who wants to do that? Then I ask them what pop songs they like and get some responses. Their interest in poetry usually shifts after I explain to them that songs are just poetry set to music. They already like poetry, they just weren’t aware of it (see types of ignorance number 4 above). So too with other types of literature. Reading helps relieve ignorance. But some people choose not to read because it interferes with their decision not to think about things, or it’s too much hard work.
  3. Global warming. Most people accept global warming. A few don’t. A dangerous few. They have chosen to be ignorant for commercial reasons. Because the fact of global warming interferes with their desire to make enormous wads of cash they refuse to accept the truth. These people unfortunately have the capacity to influence politicians who decide to accept their dangerous disbelief because it keeps them in power.

There are many other examples. War. Religion. Conspiracy theories. World hunger. Terrorism. Astrology. All of these stem, ultimately, from deliberate ignorance.

That’s why I became a teacher. I help take some of the ignorance away from the world. Sometimes I despair when I go on the internet and find someone touting homeopathy, or warning that the world will end next Tuesday week. But I keep trying, because deliberate ignorance can be fought and defeated.

Russell Proctor


What a Coincidence!

Often when reading stories, I come across what can only be described as a million-to-one shot coincidence. You know the type I mean – a character in the book just happens to come across the secret letter that reveals who the villain is. The person the detective met in a random encounter at the café just happened to be the murderer they were looking for. The magic spell needed to unlock the hidden room was the one the hero accidentally stumbled across in the wizard’s book the day before. And it’s a million to one shot. Of course, there’s no alternative for the poor writer: if those coincidences weren’t there the story wouldn’t happen.

But actually, coincidence happens every single day. To every single person on the planet.

Look more closely at that million-to-one shot. I live in Brisbane, Australia. Population: 2.2 million. For the sake of argument, let’s round that down to 2 million. What are the chances that a million-to-one shot happens on any given day in the balmy, sunny (but cyclone-and-flood-prone) metropolis I love? You guessed it: about 2:1. So each day in Brisbane 2 million-to-one shots happen. Each day.

What about the planet as whole? Earth’s current population is 7.3 billion. Now that means that 7,300 million-to-one coincidences happen each day. Read that again: every day 7,300 people shout, ‘What just happened?’ as they face-palm themselves in disbelief.

So what about coincidences in stories? To what extent does the reader accept that the hero just happens to come across the key that unlocks the safe containing the documents everyone is after? How is it that the detective just happens to see the murderer talking to another witness, which forms the ultimate clue that solves the crime? What, he walked into the restaurant, out of all the restaurants in the city, at that exact convenient moment?

Yeah, right.

The bounds of credulity are often stretched (or ignored) for the sake of the story. In The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, Bilbo Baggins is lost in caverns under the Misty Mountains. Blindly groping through the tunnels, his hand just happens to touch the One Ring – the ownership of which will determine the fate of the world for years to come, cause wars and lead to the deaths of thousands – and he picks it and puts it in his pocket. Had this blindingly unlikely chance not happened, none of the ensuing story would have taken place. Tolkien tries to explain away the Ring’s million-to-one shot discovery in The Lord of the Rings:

‘Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.’

(The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien: Book One, Chapter 2)

But is it enough just to put it down to fate? Of course, the heavily veiled Christianity in Tolkien’s works, which is in no way intrusive, could satisfy the reader, perhaps, that some ‘higher power’ is working through its mortal agents to defeat evil. But let’s face it, in the end it’s just a coincidence that Bilbo finds the One Ring.

And, in the milieu of that story, the coincidence can be ignored. The reader takes it for granted. We turn the page on Gandalf’s dismissive statement above and just accept that now the Ring has been found, all we have to do is worry about what’s going to happen to it.

The film Slumdog Millionaire is based on the premise that the events that occur during the childhood of a competitor in a game show just happen to provide him with the knowledge he needs to answer questions in a TV quiz. Somehow, the questions just happen to relate to events in his life which, by the sheerest good luck, give him the precise bit of knowledge he needs to answer. Coincidence? You bet. Big, fat coincidence stuffing its face with unlikelihood. But it’s a great movie, and we accept its excesses of credulity.

Real life is full of coincidences too. Millions of times a day. But here we are.

So what does the writer do? How far can he or she take that lucky shot?

I’m guilty of it myself in my writing. I would venture to say all writers are faced with this dilemma. Will the reader believe this? I lie in bed at night, tossing and turning as I try to work how such an unlikely chance as I plan to put in my book can actually be believed. Will the supposed ‘suspension of disbelief’ the writer aims for actually carry it off this time? It’s a tough call.

In the end, I think it comes down to careful writing. Surprising the reader at the climax of the story that the hero just happens to be an electronics engineer and can open the locked security door by tinkering with the circuits using the handy tool-kit he just happened to have in his pocket won’t fool anyone. The reader will curse the writer and toss the book away with a vow to never again read anything written by that particular pathetic hack. But, if the writer were to foreshadow somewhere near the start of the book that the hero has a degree in electronics and always carries tools around in order to tinker with various bits and pieces as he goes about his other adventures (in other words, giving him business to flesh out his character) then the fact that he has the appropriate knowledge and equipment at the necessary time is more acceptable.

So there’s two rules I guess that can help sell coincidence to some degree at least:

1) Don’t underestimate your reader. Readers are smart people, otherwise they wouldn’t be readers. And writers are smart, too, otherwise they wouldn’t be…no, hang on, that doesn’t work. But anyway, don’t stretch things beyond what you, the writer, would accept yourself if you were reading someone else’s story.

2) Use foreshadowing to ‘set up’ the coincidence long before it appears. If the reader can think at the appropriate moment, ‘Of course! The railway station porter saw the villain hiding the diamond in the safe-deposit locker on page 45! That’s how the hero knew where to look! Man, this guy’s a good writer!’ then you have done well.

Coincidence has its place, but it’s a dangerous toy to play with. However, it shouldn’t be something to fear. Just tell a good story and the reader will play the game.

I keep telling myself that, anyway.

Russell Proctor

The Horror of Children’s Stories

Picture this: a little girl has just thrown a bucket water over a Witch. What happens next is quite disturbing.

“With these words the Witch fell down in a brown, melted shapeless mass and began to spread over the clean boards of the kitchen floor. Seeing that she had really melted away to nothing, Dorothy drew another bucket of water and threw it over the mess. She then swept it all out the door. After picking out the silver shoe, which was all that was left of the old woman, she cleaned and dried it with a cloth, and put it on her foot again.”

Now let’s get this straight… a little girl calmly melts an old woman, sweeps the gooey slime she has become out of the door like so much swill, and then calmly cleans her shoe like this sort of thing happened every day.

You might thing the extract is taken from the latest gore-filled treat from Permuted Press, but it’s actually from L. Frank Baum’s children’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. A children’s book. Of course, if you are only familiar with the 1939 Judy Garland film, you may remember the witch-melting scene was a little more wholesome. Certainly in the movie Dorothy didn’t have to clean up the disgusting sewage of what used to be a human being like she was doing a simple household chore. And in the movie version Dorothy felt pretty upset about the whole thing as well, even though the witch was evil and had tried to kill her.

Take another story: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Now there are no violent scenes in that timeless classic, surely? Admittedly the Queen of Hearts threatens everyone with having their heads chopped off, but no one is unfortunate to actually have it done. But most of the violence of the Alice books is more subtle. According to Hugh Haughton in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Carroll’s books (1998), there is an underlying theme of eating and being eaten in the book. The characters are in more danger of being consumed by other characters than anything the Queen of Hearts might threaten. Alice eats and drinks various substances and changes size; the baby oysters are consumed by the Walrus and the Carpenter; the Hatter is obsessed by tea and bread and butter. There is also, of course, more overt violence: the Duchess physically abuses her baby son, the March Hare and the Hatter try to drown the Dormouse in tea, and the terrifying Giant Crow threatens Alice in the forest.

It doesn’t end with those books. In Peter Pan by J.M Barrie, the fairy Tinker Bell is a right bitch. Her first act on seeing Wendy is to get Tootles to shoot her with an arrow in an attempt to kill her. He almost succeeds. Tootles is so distraught he asks Peter to kill him.

Now, the point is that these are probably not events most people recall when remembering these tales. But they are there in the original books.

There have, of course, been many criticisms of traditional fairy tales as being too violent. Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and so forth contain considerable murder and mayhem. The difference between them and the more modern stories I’ve referred to is that these stories are folk tales, handed down over many years and added to, extended and changed over generations before being recorded by people like the Brothers Grimm. They were not written specifically for children. The adventures of Alice, Dorothy and Peter Pan were.

So what do we make if this? Are these stories in their original forms just too violent? I say “in their original forms” because each of those I mentioned has been “toned down” when made into films. Disney and Warner Brothers made a point of changing things so the stories were more wholesome for tender readers (or, in their case, viewers). Dorothy melts the Wicked Witch, but feels bad about it at least. Admittedly, modern versions of Alice (I refer specifically to the recent Tim Burton CGI extravaganza) may take liberties with the plot in which they do present a more dangerous version of Wonderland than the Disney version. But this is a modern trend, I submit, and I’ll mention it again later.
My point is (and I’ve taken a while making it) is that there is a wealth of trauma available to writers in children’s tales. Quite often where you wouldn’t expect it. In The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Toad not only steals a motor vehicle, he is actually in involved in numerous car accidents and is thrown in prison as a result. And I’m sure most of us remember the Narnia series by C. S Lewis, which tells of children not only fighting in wars but killing their adversaries with barely a nod at any feelings of guilt afterwards.

Writers might well find ideas in these tales. And that’s a good thing. While I’m not condoning the exposure of children to violence, death and horror, it certainly can entertain the adult reader and inspire the adult writer.

Back when these stories were written, I submit the world was a more violent place. There was no such thing as being an adolescent. One went from the caterpillar stage of childhood to the butterfly stage of adulthood without any inconvenient chrysalis stage of adolescence in between. People grew up earlier. Children’s books were violent because life was violent. It still is these days, but we don’t like to admit it and try to protect our children from its excesses. An example of this is the scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where the Duchess throws her baby boy to Alice (who only just manages to catch him) after singing a song about how beating a child was a justifiable punishment for it sneezing. This would hardly have raised an eyebrow back in 1865. Children were beaten. The world was perhaps no better or worse than it is today, but violence was condoned more and seen as an acceptable solution to social and domestic problems. Carroll was using violence as nonsense, and perhaps as a comment on the philosophy of child-rearing at the time: the air in the Duchess’s house was full of pepper, the baby sneezed as a result, and so the Duchess beat him. Problem solved.

We would not condone such a practice today, even as nonsense, which is why this incident has not, my knowledge, been incorporated into any film adaptations of Alice so far ( I don’t include the Burton film there, as it is so far removed from the original story as to be a separate entity).

Burton’s film does, however, seek to make an adult vision of Wonderland (with a bit of Looking-Glass Land added into it). And that is how the horror of children’s stories can be used to good effect. Tales like Frank Beddor’s The Looking-Glass Wars is a classic use of a classic to create something new and insightful.

So horror is there in children’s stories. If you sit and read the originals and wonder why they all seem so different to what you thought they were about, or what you remembered when you read them as a kid, then I hope you can take a whole new delight in these children’s stories for grown-ups. And, as a writer, that they inspire you in your own tales of horror and fantasy.


I have written my own version of Alice and Dorothy in my forthcoming series The Jabberwocky Book. The first volume The Red King, is due for release in March 2015 by Permuted Press.


Russell Proctor

The Thot Plickens

Some writers plot. Some don’t. I sort of do it. I don’t sit down and carefully write out everything that’s going to happen in my books. If I did, I would no longer be interested in writing them. I sort of have an outline, or at least a vague idea of what I think might happen, and go from there.

After that, I start writing along the lines of what I had in mind for that chapter, and make it up as I go. I discover new things as I write, develop new ideas for the characters, and sometimes things go in a very different way to what I had intended.

Take today for instance. I was writing a scene in my new book (I hate the word ‘Chapter’. I don’t regard the divisions within my books as chapters, although they are, mostly. I call them scenes. My background as an actor coming back to haunt me, I guess). Anyway, I was writing a scene and half way through I had an idea that changed the direction of the entire book. That’s ok. I think the new direction is a superior one. The scene didn’t end at all the way I had planned. But that’s writing.

Such irresponsible activity usually means that I have to reconsider other chapters, particularly what has gone before, and re-write them to conform to the new stuff.

Occasionally, I do plot something out in detail. Below are some notes I made for several scenes in my novel ‘An Unkindness of Ravens’ which detailed two sets of characters doing two things separately from each other. Most of the ideas on these pages ended up being scrapped anyway. But this level of detail in my pre-planning is rare.


Usually it’s more general ideas, most of which I won’t use eventually. This makes my writing more dynamic, and to me more interesting.

Some writing teachers abhor plotting. Some encourage it. One, namely James Scott Bell, suggests you try a combination of both, or neither. It’s up to the writer. I am kind of the school that goes with, ‘Well, if I know what’s going to happen, I don’t feel inclined to write it anymore.’ On the other hand, ‘winging it’ from start to finish has a lot of dangers, too. The only writer I knew who could wing it entirely and get away with it was Roger Zelazny, who is one of my influences and one of the best dialogue writers I ever had the pleasure of reading.

I guess writers do whatever it takes to produce the goods. I start and stop, do research when I discover I need to, write the ending sometimes very early on so I know where I’m going, think up characters and then try to justify why they are in the story, realise they aren’t, get rid of them and bring them back later when some justification for their existence comes to mind.

Writing is dynamic, and pre-plotting sometimes gets in the way of a good tale. So I do a bit of both. I think it works.

Russell Proctor,