At first blush, there would not seem to be different ethical norms in one versus the other. But on reflection, perhaps there are ethical approaches to one that are ill suited to the other. It isn’t so much the ethics of one as opposed to the other as to the writer’s goal in succeeding at one. That entails a clear understanding of how they are different.
Until the middle of the last century the dividing lines between literary and genre fiction were vaguely clear—at least in occupational terms. Literary fiction authors were a cut above in the sense they were supported by the book industry in New York, and at universities and colleges, by securing critical acclaim. There were no genre authors seated at the Algonquin Round Table. That luncheon table was a gathering of writers, critics, actors, and wits. All were true “book people.” Writing literary fiction helped them to maintain their status, not to mention their book sales. Outside the hotel, genre fiction writers struggled to be published. That was before self-publishing became a thing.
Literary fiction then and now is social commentary explaining, defining, or defiling the human condition. But so did science fiction, which was not considered a genre, but rather a highbrow version of Earth-based writing.
Genre fiction then, but not necessarily now focused on character study over narrative plot. It was not profluent or “literary.” It was a slower or quicker read and could be ostentatiously written. Today, genre fiction includes crime, fantasy, romance, science fiction, western, religious/ inspirational fiction, historical fiction, and horror. A healthy percentage of genre fiction is escapist and well written. Some of it gets higher scoring reviews that literary fiction does. However different in style and presentation, the big difference is in readership. In 2007, romance books garnered a $1.3 billion share versus literary fiction’s paltry $466 million. That says more about readers than it does about authors.
So, should authors lean toward literary or genre fiction in search of ethical readers? How could they? Readers have unknown and unknowable ethical compasses. They vary enormously. Horrid conduct for one could easily entice another. What was immoral in the last century is negotiable today.
Take this media headline for example. “You Are What You Read–How the Literary Genres You Prefer Reveal Your Sense of What Is Ethical.” This reporting found that fans of science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction, lean toward a more permissive moral style. Romance and mystery readers abide by a more rigid sense of right and wrong.”
The ethical norm in writing fiction—literary or otherwise—starts with authors but includes readers. If you accept the research suggesting reader’s ethical values are in part guided by what they read, then the reciprocal follows. Authors should examine their own ethics as they write manuscripts, turn them into manufactured books and advance or retard morality. It knows no bounds save for what we build in what we write. The apparent truth of this can be seen on Goodreads.com. They have a category for Ethical Moral Fiction Books.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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