Will Online Magazines End the Eternal Slugfest Between Genre and Literary Fiction?

[SF Signal welcomes the return of guest commentator Jason Sanford!]

For decades we’ve heard this so-called truth—that the genre and literary fiction worlds are out for each other’s blood.

The long-time complaint from genre lovers is that the literary fiction community hogs the glory—the major awards, the academic prestige, the ever-frak’in canon, and most importantly the ability to define themselves as “literary” and exclude fiction they dislike. While the literary community is more quiet about their complaints, it’s no secret they despise how the SF/Fantasy/Horror/Crime/Mystery/Romance world claims the majority of readers—you know, the masses of people who actually enjoy reading fiction, as opposed to worshiping the latest Thomas Pynchon metafictional tree-killer without actually cracking open said novel.


Yes, there’s some serious bad blood between the literary and genre camps. And I’ll be honest—I’ve participated in said blood splatter myself. But I’ve also been in a position to see the fight from both sides. As a founding editor of storySouth, a literary journal focused on Southern literature, I’ve mostly published non-genre fiction. As a science fiction and fantasy writer, I’ve mostly written, well, take a guess.

And then there’s the Million Writers Award, where I’ve set up a true-life slugfest between literary and genre fiction.

Okay, that actually wasn’t my true goal with the award. Instead, it was created to honor online short stories regardless of genre. With the Million Writers Award, I wanted the best online stories to compete against each other. May the best story win!

But a funny thing happened during the last seven years of the Million Writers Award. Genre distinctions ended up not mattering as much as I thought they would.

For example, both literary and genre stories have won the award’s public vote. The preliminary judges who select the notable stories of the year inevitably fail to act as I predict, with judges from the “literary” side of the tracks picking genre stories and judges with “genre” ties picking literary stories. And readers and writers from every nook and cranny across the fictional spectrum have embraced the award. I have rarely heard anyone complain about the award honoring literary and genre stories on the same platform.

All of this makes me wonder if online fiction is finally ending the literary-genre wars.

Think about it. In the days before the internet, short fiction was essentially ghettoized by the magazines that published it. If you subscribed to The Atlantic Monthly or The New Yorker, you read literary fiction. If you published in Analog or Realms of Fantasy, you were a genre writer. While there was some ebb and flow between those worlds, by and large the print magazines were the de facto enforcer of the differences between the different genres, at least at the short fiction level.

But today, the acceptance of online publications as a legitimate place to both publish and read short stories has blurred the distinctions between genres. The stigma once wrongly associated with genre short fiction—that it was only published in low-grade “pulp” magazines—doesn’t matter when the publishing medium consists of electrons skipping around a virtual world. When a reader can instantly click between top-flight online venues like Clarkesworld and Narrative Magazines, there’s less of a sense that one place is “good” and the other “bad.” Both are seen as equally great online magazines.

Another change I’ve noticed during the seven years of the Million Writers Award is that online magazines appear to be more open to publishing stories outside their specific genre. Online literary journals publish fantasy and horror stories. Online speculative fiction magazines publish stories The New Yorker could be proud of. It’s almost as if the new breed of editors and readers and writers supporting online magazines are less concerned with old genre divisions and more focused on simply publishing great stories.

Does this mean online fiction is destroying the literary-genre bad blood? To a degree, yes. Obviously, there will remain genres divisions in fiction since they are a useful marketing tool to help readers find the stories they love. But as the Million Writers Award appears to illustrate, those who love online fiction have moved beyond the old literary-genre blood feud.

Naturally, that makes me wonder if a similar trend will happen with novel-length fiction as e-reader platforms become the publishing standard for books.

But until that day, have some fun with online fiction. The popular vote for this year’s Million Writers Award runs through May 31, 2010. So whether or not you buy my argument about online fiction ending the literary-genre wars, go read this year’s award finalists and vote for your favorite.

Just avoid spilling any virtual blood.

2 thoughts on “Will Online Magazines End the Eternal Slugfest Between Genre and Literary Fiction?”

  1. Very interesting article.  It reminds me of the feud between music with instruments (rock, country, jazz and classical) vs. electronic music (house, techno, rap). 

    I think your right though, the internet is the true melting pot.  Its easier to sit in front of your computer (laptop, tablet…etc) and be open minded about reading different types of stories than walking into a bookstore.  When someone walks into a bookstore they generally know what they want and they go there, but on the internet its easier to search, you feel more comfortable looking into different things.  

    Its like this with music too.  One thing I like about lala (Damn Apple) is that I can listen to albums from different artists and if I like it, I can buy it.  Its easy thanks to the internet.  Sure you can walk into a bookstore and pick up any book and read it, but like I said usually people go into a bookstore with a specific subject in mind.  Most don’t want to spend hours at a bookstore looking for something they like. Its easy to do this at home on the internet.  So people are becoming more open minded because they see that both genre and literary fiction both have really good writers and equally good stories.   

  2. Online publications aren’t exactly ending the war, they’re helping to show that the war was an illusion that never really existed in the first place outside of people’s minds and assumptions. Younger editors, authors and readers aren’t as easily swayed by packaging, have grown up with genre fiction, studied it in school as literary fiction, and read more widely. The increased internationalism of the fiction market, the increased interest in things like graphic novels and anime, etc. have all helped to show that judging the quality of a work by who sells it and where in the market, rather than by its contents, is not of value. The Internet has certainly contributed to this by connecting far flung people and having them more aware of what’s out there and more able to talk, including to people whom they wouldn’t have heard before. And online magazines are definitely a part of that, as are online websites like Media Bistro that cover a wide range of subjects and offerings, not a narrow one. The Internet philosopy of inclusivity over exclusivity means a broader exchange of ideas. And when that happens, claiming that genre fiction and literary fiction are separate and fighting each other is an idea that just seems pointless.

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