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The question grammar for describing plots had a few comments that touched upon the differences between literary novels and entertainment novel which made me think. So I searched the SE for any previous questions pertaining to the difference between the two and found what is literary fiction?, which collected answers that, while interesting, were mostly opinion based.

So I ask: What is the difference between (capital L) Literature and entertainment literature?

Please note:

  • Let's try to avoid value judgements (just because some books within both categories may be utter rubbish, that does not value the category itself has greater or lesser value)

  • I predict some of you will mention genre, but there are canon literature books that are also genre (Frankenstein is horror, Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is a dystopian sci-fi fantasy, etc)


I've been thinking over the comments and answers which have led me to a better understanding of what I'm looking for.

The fact that there isn't an authoritative definition of literature and literary works leads to many definitions (academical, commercial, popular, ...). Therefore I'll try to clarify some working definitions for the purpose of this question.

literature / literary novel = a genre (that may overlap with other genres, just like romance can overlap with sci-fi)

Literature = a novel (because we're mostly dealing with novels here) written within any genre (sci-fi, romance, literature, mystery, ...) that is recognised (usually after some years, if not decades) to be above its contemporary works because of (elusive reasons).

Now say you've been asked to organise a workshop for aspiring writers who long to create an elusive work of Literature in their own preferred genre. The first point of the workshop is precisely to understand what separates Literature from all the rest (while the rest includes from works ranging from terrible to fairly good or even overall great).

So, what are those elusive reasons that can have a piece of work in whatever genre stand out above everything else?

  • As I mentioned in my answer to the earlier question, a lot of what we now consider as literary fiction began its life as "pulp" (entertainment). Philip K Dick is a recent example of an author who was largely dismissed as doing pulp genre work during his life, but who has been subsequently "canonized." – Chris Sunami May 11 '17 at 15:07
  • @ChrisSunami: "In practice, some of the best respected classics began life as genre fiction, while many celebrated or uncelebrated works of literary fiction are quickly forgotten." Which means that what eventually becomes 'canonized', to use your expression, has nothing to do with the tag given at the time of marketing, but with something deeper. What is it? What makes a 'genre-born' novel join the canon of Literature while the 'literary-born' novel joins the genre of (faded) literary fiction? – Sara Costa May 11 '17 at 16:20
  • @ChrisSunami: The way I see it, if a pulp novel becomes Literature, then maybe it was Literature from its inception. Which is why any novel in any genre can be Literature. Since to be part of a genre does not stop a novel from being Literature, then what separates genre novels that become Literature from those that never do so? – Sara Costa May 11 '17 at 16:26
  • Actually, when I raised that distinction on the other thread, I was not thinking about genre, writing style, or literary endurance. I was thinking only about "making a quick buck," (as we say in the USA) for reasons other than having the book assigned as required reading. – user23046 May 13 '17 at 22:40
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Books are classified for various reasons. The word literature is used in more than one classifications scheme.

For the purpose of selling books, "literary fiction" is a genre like any other. Genre is sometimes thought of in terms of subject matter, but it would really make more sense to think of it as a kind of contract with the reader, a promise to deliver a certain kind of pleasure. Take science fiction for example. You are not likely to find Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos, or C.S. Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet, shelved in Science Fiction, even though they are all set in space and on other planets. They don't deliver the kind of pleasure that typical sci fi readers are looking for, and are more likely to be shelved as literature. Literary fiction, for this purpose seems to mean works that are more contemplative in nature, or that focus more on character or place than on action. It may cover the subject matter of other genres but with a different focus.

Academically, Literature seems to be more a function of time. Literature is the classics, though I am not sure this distinction necessarily holds any more.

Personally, I draw a distinction between Literature and Pulp based on whether the work is morally serious, by which I mean whether it attempts to portray the human experience as it really is, of it is portrays it aspirationally, as we would like it to be, not as it is.

But I think you will find that there is always a value judgement involved in the use of the word literature. It is fundamentally about worthiness and people will clearly disagree about what constitutes worthiness in art. At best you can expect to get a definition that represents the views of a particular school of thought, not one that depends solely on concrete observable characteristics.

It is fashionable today to doubt the viability to aesthetic judgements. They are fundamentally not scientific and it is fashionable to regard any judgement that is not scientific in nature as meaningless. I am not of that school, but I recognize that in modern parlance that pattern of thought essentially reduces all aesthetic judgement to mere opinion. It is up to each of us to decide if we grant them more credence than that.

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    I think part of the confusing nature of "genre" is that it can describe more than one aspect of a work. Not only does genre seem to define content (science fiction, fantasy, period fiction), I've also seen it refer to form (novel, short story, essay, poem.) Is "literary" more like one of the 'form' genres, rather than 'content' genres? – Michael May 11 '17 at 14:10
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I think it comes down to the percieved effect of the work. There's an assumption (rightly or wrongly) that "literature" should do you good in some way, whereas "entertainment" doesn't necessarily have to, as long as it's pleasurable to read. There's a sense (sometimes unspoken, sometimes not) that people should read literary works, that they might become better people by doing so.

Thus, things that used to be regarded as "genre" or "entertainment" fiction can eventually transform into "literary" works, because over time they come to be seen not just as works that are pleasurable but, for whatever reason, also as works that will have a lasting positive impact on the reader.

I would argue, however, that "literary fiction" and "literature" are not necessarily the same thing. Lately, "literary fiction" has become a genre of sorts, in that it tends to denote works with a specific set of qualities. This sort of fiction is generally somewhat realistic, generally focuses much more on internal than external conflict, tends to place heavy emphasis on the beauty and/or significance of its observations, and tends to be quite heavily driven by theme.

I suppose the rationale for calling this work "literary" is that - since it sets out to sincerely observe life - it is much more likely to do you some lasting good, and therefore qualify as "literature", than most "genre" or "populist" fiction. This doesn't mean that works outside of "literary fiction" can't be "literature" necessarily, or even (I would argue) that all works within this genre are in-that-sense "literature".

Ultimately, though, the terms aren't well defined. Different people use them differently, and with different agendas. It's a bit like the term "junk food". We all know it means "food that's pleasurable but not that good for you", and we could all name something that's clearly an example of junk food, but if asked to sort a load of food into two piles (i.e. junk food and not junk food), I doubt any two people would divide them up in exactly the same way.

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There are many many differing opinions on this topic and discussion can be had at length about this issue. Here is my definition, which is short, irrespective of genre and as a result somewhat vague:

Entertainment Literature

Works that are meant for consumption by the masses.

Literature

Works that have have become popular and remained popular through time or have had a significant impact on world event or their genre. Usually they have been deemed to have an inherent artistic value.


In sense everything (with notable exception of experimental literature) starts as entertainment literature and if it has some great value (which often means that it stands the test of time), then it becomes Literature that is being deeply analyzed and studied.

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