Note: I would like to thank the women of Book Lovers Inc. for starting this conversation.
Here is the best and most well-informed thing I can say about the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction:
The more I read about it, the more I realize how little I know.
For example, romance novels feature tropes. A trope, according to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, is "a common or overused theme or device." We are all familiar with the tropes of romance. There's the Lead Woman, who has suffered some trauma before the start of the book. This could be a divorce, the death of a loved one, or just a string of crummy relationships.
Then there's Lead Man, or, as one of my recent reads calls it, the Alpha Male. He usually shows up on Lead Woman's turf. This is what happened in the first romance I ever read- Kay Hooper's Elusive Dawn. Robyn Lee, bookstore owner, is at work when Shane Justice approaches her. Shane is a race car driver. His job is another trope- the Alpha Male often has a dangerous occupation, or one that requires him to be away a lot of the time. In recent years we have even seen Nascar, military, and police/fire/rescue romances. These are all new twists on an old trope.
We all know what happens once Lead Woman agrees to see Alpha Male a second time. She sees him, decides not to see him, and changes her mind. He charms her by violating her boundaries. She agrees to have these boundaries broken, sees that they were holding her back, and is recast in Alpha Male's image. At the same time Alpha Male, who has trauma of his own, learns how to be both sensitive and a can-do guy.
When we come to the end of the book, Lead Woman almost always marries Alpha Male. We, the readers, knew all along. We would not go back to an author who ended her romances any way other than happy.
There. Romance novels are genre fiction. Right? They named a whole genre after them. There's a problem, though. Webster's defines literature like this:
"Writings in prose or verse, especially writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest" (italics mine).
What is more permanent or universal than wanting to be loved?
Have you ever finished a romance novel that did not express this theme in an excellent way?
I am not arguing that romance novels are literary fiction. Going strictly by the book, they are genre novels. My point is that the terms are confusing. As a teacher, a literary critic, and a reader, I am rejecting them. I know enough to discuss them, and I have some idea what other people mean when they use them. But I am letting go of the need to categorize the books I love.
Here's a final thought. Reading romance novels has changed me. I now view myself and other people differently than I did before. I expect different things from my reading experience, and I care more about character than I do plot. These changes are starting to show themselves in my writing too. Any text that changes you has to be literature.
I support every person's right to decide for herself where the lines are, what the lines look like, and whether they even exist at all. And I encourage every reader to allow the books she reads to change her. If that isn't happening, why read books at all?