Last month, when the fiction finalists for the National Book Awards were announced, one stood out from the rest: “Station Eleven,” by Emily St. John Mandel. While the other nominated books are what, nowadays, we call “literary fiction,” “Station Eleven” is set in a familiar genre universe, in which a pandemic has destroyed civilization. The twist—the thing that makes “Station Eleven” National Book Award material—is that the survivors are artists.
Mandel’s book cuts back and forth between the present, when the outbreak is unfolding, and a post-apocalyptic future, when the survivors are beginning to rebuild. In the present, actors are putting on a production of “King Lear,” and a woman is writing and illustrating her own comic book—a mournful science-fiction story set on a malfunctioning, planet-sized spaceship called Station Eleven. (The comic book sounded so interesting that I searched for it on Amazon—unfortunately, it’s fictional.) Meanwhile, in the future, a group of survivors have formed the Travelling Symphony, a wagon train that travels the wasteland, performing Shakespeare and Vivaldi in the parking lots of looted Walmarts. (“People want what was best about the world,” one man says.) Eventually, past and present converge: a few issues of the comic book outlive the chaos, and end up influencing the survivors just as much as “Lear” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“Station Eleven,” in other words, turns out not to be a genre novel so much as a novel about genre. Unlike Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” which asked what would remain after the collapse of culture, “Station Eleven” asks how culture gets put together again. It imagines a future in which art, shorn of the distractions of celebrity, pedigree, and class, might find a new equilibrium. The old distinctions could be forgotten; a comic book could be as influential as Shakespeare. It’s hard to imagine a novel more perfectly suited, in both form and content, to this literary moment. For a while now, it’s looked as though we might be headed toward a total collapse of the genre system. We’ve already been contemplating the genre apocalypse that “Station Eleven” imagines.
It’s hard to talk in a clear-headed way about genre. Almost everyone can agree that, over the past few years, the rise of the young-adult genre has highlighted a big change in book culture. For reasons that aren’t fully explicable (Netflix? Tumblr? Kindles? Postmodernism?), it’s no longer taken for granted that important novels must be, in some sense, above, beyond, or “meta” about their genre. A process of genrefication is occurring.
That’s where the agreement ends, however. If anything, a divide has opened up. The old guard looks down on genre fiction with indifference; the new arrivals—the genrefiers—are eager to change the neighborhood, seeing in genre a revitalizing force. Partisans argue about the relative merits of “literary fiction” and “genre fiction.” (In 2012, Arthur Krystal, writing in this magazine, argued for literary fiction’s superiority; he fielded a pro-genre-fiction riposte from Lev Grossman, in Time.) And yet confusion reigns in this debate, which feels strangely vague and misformulated. It remains unclear exactly what the terms “literary fiction” and “genre fiction” mean. A book like “Station Eleven” is both a literary novel and a genre novel; the same goes for “Jane Eyre” and “Crime and Punishment.” How can two contrasting categories overlap so much? Genres themselves fall into genres: there are period genres (Victorian literature), subject genres (detective fiction), form genres (the short story), style genres (minimalism), market genres (“chick-lit”), mode genres (satire), and so on. How are different kinds of genres supposed to be compared? (“Literary fiction” and “genre fiction,” one senses, aren’t really comparable categories.) What is it, exactly, about genre that is unliterary—and what is it in “the literary” that resists genre? The debate goes round and round, magnetic and circular—a lovers’ quarrel among literati.
To a degree, the problem is that genre is inherently confusing and complex. But history confuses things, too. The distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is neither contemporary nor ageless. It’s the product of modernism, and it bears the stamp of a unique time in literary history.
The relationship between novelists and genre has shifted several times, often in ways that seem strange to us today. In 1719, when “Robinson Crusoe” appeared, many people considered “the novel,” in itself, to be a genre. The novel was a new thing—a long, fictitious, drama-filled work of prose—and its competitors were other prose genres: histories, biographies, political tracts, sermons, testimonies about travel to far-off lands. What set the novel apart from those other prose genres was its ostentatious fictitousness. When Catherine Morland, the heroine of Austen’s “Northanger Abbey,” is rebuked for reading too many Gothic novels, the proposed alternative isn’t “literary fiction” but non-fiction (a friend suggests she try history). “Northanger Abbey” was written in 1799. In England, “Middlemarch” is often cited as the first novel you didn’t have to be embarrassed about reading. It was published in 1872.
A vast cultural and technological distance separates “Robinson Crusoe” and “Middlemarch.” Between those two books, modernity and mass culture were born. Bookselling became a big business, as did culture in general. Realism appeared and ascended. The novel splintered; it came to seem less like a genre in itself, and more like all of literature except for poetry. It grew to contain genres: “Journey to the Center of the Earth” was published in 1864; “A Study in Scarlet” introduced Sherlock Holmes, in 1887; “Dracula” was published a decade later. Over time, the novel attained respectability and became an institution. At the top of that institutional hierarchy the social novelists, like Arnold Bennett and H. G. Wells, pulled away from the eccentricities of the Victorians; they aimed to recreate, in novel form, the non-fiction prose that the novel had displaced. By 1924, Virginia Woolf was complaining about the stuffy, intellectualized sanctimoniousness of those books. To finish them, she said, “it seems necessary to do something—to join a society, or, more desperately, to write a cheque.” The big-time novelists, she went on, “have developed a technique of novel-writing which suits their purpose; they have made tools and established conventions which do their business. But those tools are not our tools, and that business is not our business. For us those conventions are ruin, those tools are death.”
The modernists saw, correctly, that novel-writing, once an art, had become an enterprise. More fundamentally, it had internalized a mass view of life—a view in which what matters are social facts rather than individual experiences. It had become affiliated with manufactured culture, with the crowd, and with the sentimentality and repetitive stylization that crowds, in their quest for a common identity, often crave. In reaction, they created a different kind of literature: one centered on inwardness, privacy, and incommunicability. The new books were about individuals, and they needed to be interpreted individually. Instead of being public resources, novels would be private sanctuaries. Instead of being social, they would be spiritual.
Something of that spiritual aura still hovers around our sense of what it means to read and write “literary fiction.” And there are some ways in which the modernist critique of mass literature is just as trenchant today as it was back then. (The modernists never got to see “fandom”; if they had, I doubt they’d be pleased.) On the whole, though, we live in a different world. Today, the novel isn’t an ossified institution; it’s an uncertain one. (Television is the prestige medium; it’s where the “social novelists” work.) Literature has moved on: the books we now regard as “literary fiction” are actually very different from those the modernists sought to create and elevate. They are more diverse, and more extroverted. And mass culture has also changed. It’s been replaced by what Louis Menand describes as “a great river of pop, soulful, demotic, camp, performative, outrageous, over-the-top cultural goods”—in short, by pop culture. The distinction between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction” accurately captured the modernists’ literary reality. But, for better and for worse, it doesn’t capture ours.
It’s tempting to think that we might do without these kinds of distinctions altogether. Why not just let books be books? The thing is that genre doesn’t have to be vexing. It can be illuminating. It can be useful for writers and readers to think in terms of groups and traditions. And a good genre system—a system that really fits reality—can help us see the traditions in which we’re already, unconsciously, immersed. As it happens, there is such a system: it was invented by the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye, and laid out in his 1957 masterwork, “Anatomy of Criticism.” (Frye, who trained as a minister and never earned a doctorate, is one of the most influential genre theorists of the twentieth century.) It’s ideally suited for an era in which the novel seems more diverse and unpredictable than usual.
Frye’s scheme is simple. In his view, the world of fiction is composed of four braided genres: novel, romance, anatomy, and confession. “Pride and Prejudice” is a novel. “Wuthering Heights” isn’t: it’s a romance, an extension of a form that predates the novel by many hundreds of years. (“The romancer does not attempt to create ‘real people’ so much as stylized figures which expand into psychological archetypes,” Frye writes. “That is why the romance so often radiates a glow of subjective intensity that the novel lacks.”) Novels take place in the regulated world—in “society”—and are driven by plots. Romances take place “in vacuo,” on the moors, where “nihilistic and untamable” things tend to happen. The characters in romances are often revolutionaries, but “the social affinities of the romance, with its grave idealizing of heroism and purity, are with the aristocracy.” For that reason, novels, which thrive on social sophistication, often incorporate romance in an ironic way (“Don Quixote,” “Lord Jim”). Many young-adult books, like those in the “Hunger Games” trilogy, are pure romances: maybe, instead of asking why so many grownups read young-adult novels, we ought to be asking why novels are losing, and romances gaining, in appeal.
It’s still possible to find nearly pure novels (“The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.”) and nearly pure romances (“The Days of Abandonment,” “The Road”). But the confession and the anatomy, Frye argues, are just as influential, even if they are less likely to stand alone. Rousseau, of course, wrote the prototypical confession: a single prose narrative in which the personal, intellectual, artistic, political, and spiritual aspects of his life are integrated. “It is his success in integrating his mind on such subjects,” Frye writes, “that makes the author of a confession feel that his life is worth writing about.” (By this light, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” is a confession rather than a novel.) The anatomy is similarly intellectual; the difference is that it’s impersonal. It deals “less with people as such than with mental attitudes,” and proceeds through the “creative treatment of exhaustive erudition.” Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy” is Frye’s ur-example of an anatomy, but you can recognize the anatomy’s presence in books like “Gulliver’s Travels,” “Moby-Dick,” “Infinite Jest,” and “In the Light of What We Know.” Frye’s scheme is, on the whole, value-free: none of these genres are better than the others. But he can’t help being impressed with compound forms. He praises “Moby-Dick” for being a romance-anatomy, but he’s even more admiring of “Remembrance of Things Past,” which combines confession, anatomy, and novel. He is blown away by “Ulysses,” because it combines all four genres of fiction. He calls it a “complete prose epic.”
“Station Eleven,” if we were to talk about it in our usual way, would seem like a book that combines high culture and low culture—“literary fiction” and “genre fiction.” But those categories aren’t really adequate to describe the book. Using Frye’s scheme, we can see that it’s actually triply genred. It’s a novel, with carefully observed scenes set in the contemporary world of the theatre. It’s a romance, with heroes wandering a desolate post-apocalyptic landscape. (The in-set comic book is also a romance.) It’s also, as many post-apocalyptic books are, an anatomy: it tells you a lot about how the world is put together and examines, satirically, the mental attitudes of a world that’s ended. (It doesn’t incorporate the confession, but three out of four isn’t bad.) Much of the book’s power, in fact, comes from the way it brings together these different fictional genres and the values—observation, feeling, erudition—to which they’re linked. Reading it with Frye in mind, you can better appreciate the novel’s wide range. Instead of being compressed, it blossoms.
Frye’s way of thinking is especially valuable today because it recognizes that the clash of genre values is fundamental to the novelistic experience. That’s how we ought to be thinking about our books. Instead of asking whether a comic book could be “as valuable” as “King Lear,” we ought to ask how the values of tragedy and romance might collide. Instead of lamenting the decline of “literary fiction,” we ought to ask why the novel, with its interest in society and rules, is ceding ground to the romance. And as for the rise of the romance—with its larger-than-life passions, revolutionary aristocrats, and “nihilistic and untamable” occurrences—maybe we’re living in a romantic age. The last time the romance achieved real currency, Frye points out, was in the nineteenth century. Back then, too, it suffered from the “historical illusion” that it was “something to be outgrown, a juvenile and undeveloped form.” In fact, romances were contemporary. They protested the new values of cities and industrialization. They yearned for a way of life that had “passed away.” Apparently, we yearn for it, too.
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly gave 1874 as the year “Middlemarch” was first published.
For writers and readers alike, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between fiction and nonfiction. In general, fiction refers to plot, settings, and characters created from the imagination, while nonfiction refers to factual stories focused on actual events and people. However, the difference between these two genres is sometimes blurred, as the two often intersect.
Before we go any further, it’s important to note that both fiction and nonfiction can be utilized in any medium (film, television, plays, etc.). Here, we’re focusing on the difference between fiction and nonfiction in literature in particular. Let’s look closer at each of these two categories and examine what sets them apart.
When it comes to the differences between fiction and nonfiction, Joseph Salvatore, Associate Professor of Writing & Literature at The New School in New York City, says,
“I teach a course on the craft, theory, and practice of fiction writing, and in it, we discuss this topic all the time. Although all of the ideas and theories…are disputed and challenged by writers and critics alike (not only as to what fiction is but as to what it is in relation to other genres, e.g., creative nonfiction), I’d say there are some basic components of fiction.”
Fiction is fabricated and based on the author’s imagination. Short stories, novels, myths, legends, and fairy tales are all considered fiction. While settings, plot points, and characters in fiction are sometimes based on real-life events or people, writers use such things as jumping off points for their stories.
For instance, Stephen King sets many of his stories and novels in the fictional town of Derry, Maine. While Derry is not a real place, it is based on King’s actual hometown of Bangor. King has even created an entire topography for Derry that resembles the actual topography of Bangor.
Additionally, science fiction and fantasy books placed in imaginary worlds often take inspiration from the real world. A recent example of this is N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earthtrilogy, in which she uses actual science and geological research to make her world believable.
Fiction often uses specific narrative techniques to heighten its impact. Salvatore says that some examples of these components are:
“The use of rich, evocative sensory detail; the different pacing tempos of dramatic and non-dramatic events; the juxtaposition of summarized narrative and dramatized scenes; the temporary delay and withholding of story information, to heighten suspense and complicate plot; the use of different points of view to narrate, including stark objective effacement and deep subjective interiority; and the stylized use of language to narrate events and render human consciousness.”
Nonfiction, by contrast, is factual and reports on true events. Histories, biographies, journalism, and essays are all considered nonfiction. Usually, nonfiction has a higher standard to uphold than fiction. A few smatterings of fact in a work of fiction does not make it true, while a few fabrications in a nonfiction work can force that story to lose all credibility.
An example is when James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, was kicked out of Oprah’s Book Club in 2006 when it came to light that he had fabricated most of his memoir.
However, nonfiction often uses many of the techniques of fiction to make it more appealing. In Cold Bloodis widely regarded as one of the best works of nonfiction to significantly blur the line between fiction and nonfiction, since Capote’s descriptions and detailing of events are so rich and evocative. However, this has led to questions about the veracity of his account.
“The so-called New Journalists, of Thompson’s and Wolfe’s and Didion’s day, used the same techniques [as fiction writers],” Salvatore says. “And certainly the resurgence of the so-called true-crime documentaries, both on TV and radio, use similar techniques.”
This has given rise to a new trend called creative nonfiction, which uses the techniques of fiction to report on true events. In his article “What Is Creative Nonfiction?” Lee Gutkind, the creator of Creative Nonfictionmagazine, says the term:
“Refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques ﬁction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonﬁction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonﬁction stories read like ﬁction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.”
Although it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between fiction and nonfiction, especially in the hands of a skilled author, just remember this: If it reports the truth, it’s nonfiction. If it stretches the truth, it’s fiction.
Between fiction and nonfiction, which is your favorite, and why?