I think getting one’s panties into the proverbial wad about the distinctions between “genre” and “literary” fiction is pretty stale (ex: “It’s all a sham by the publishers to sell books!” My answers being, A.) "Is that so, Professor?"; and 2.) "So what?”). That said, there are differences, and they are kinda palpable.
Genre is plot-driven. There is a propulsion to the story, a lack of the feeling one gets in many literary books that explore moreso than move in a tangible direction. I’m thinking here of books like The Moviegoer or, I dunno, Anna Karenina. Of course, there are books that are distinctly and entirely literary and are also plot-driven, like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Many genre works also have a lengthy section in the beginning to middle where the groundwork is laid out, the pieces put into place, that can feel like the exploratory aimlessness of the literary; Robert Stone is a master of this (as is The Wire).
Genre also has certain conventions that are almost always either utilized or played against, or both. Crime is grounded in, and draws meaning from, a particular region: Lehane and Dorchester; Price and Dempsey; Chandler and LA; Nunn and a surfboard. It almost always involves a simple act of betrayal that spirals into widespread damage. Death is thrown around a bit more casually (true also of westerns, a lot of space epics, and fantasy, especially if you’re cannon fodder) even if the author goes at lengths to make it seem a signal of “a world…gone…mad”. Espionage usually spans multiple locations, and focuses on the inhumanity of large institutions, and how they destroy individuals (holla atcha Le Carre). Westerns are usually coming-of-age (played against by McCarthy in Blood Meridian, which is certainly not plot-driven and only genre on the surface), revenge (choose your Eastwood), or quest tales (Lonesome Dove a definitive example; played against in Drop Edge of Yonder).
These conventions are often pointed to by those strawman town fathers who cluck their tongues and stroke their beards, saying, “What is to be done with this popular fiction?" I’ll be the first to admit that a great deal of genre work, the purely potboiling, is for shit. You flip to the end, find out it was Mrs. Moistpanties all along, and there is no further reason to read the book.
This is not to say that there isn’t a powerful craft to designing a strong plot, and an inherent joy in wanting to find out what happens, and then finding out. But I’d venture that most readers want something more. I think the highest form of that something more – and here’s the thesis for all you sexy t.a.'s – is the blending of character-driven and plot-driven. In the works of genre that I consider truly great, or just really good, there’s at least one character who feels so realized that they seem to strain from the bounds of plot.
And that’s the constant problem and joy of genre, how to balance between the Bataan-rigorous demands of plot and the more ambiguous demands of autonomous character. The snob in me loves the surprises afforded following a character, but the slob in me loves the strictures of plot – knowing that a story is going somewhere and that things will happen, often with Bowie knives.
For the duration that I’m using this blog as a grown-up version of my imaginary friend Pete, who lived in the gazebo by the Presbyterian church and required constant supervision and scolding from me, I’ll be discussing genre that I think transcends the label, genre that succeeds, and genre that fails, fails, fails (Dan Broooooown).
So here’s a little showing of genre that most certainly does not fail. Spoiler alert if you didn’t know the Indianapolis sunk:
Quint blows your goddamn doors off
And, for the flip side, here’s Quint getting totally the fuck eaten. Spoiler alert if you’ve avoided being afraid to go back in the water:
Screaming like a half-devoured girl