How to Tell if You are a Literary or a “Genre” Writer

As a teacher of literature and a creative writer, I frequently get questions from students—who are usually also scholars of literature and/or creative writers—about the difference between “literature” and, well, the fun stuff.

The debate about the difference between literature and genre writing is very old and has already been answered by some of the best writers in history, writers like Jane Austen and Herman Melville who answered with a resounding: What? There’s a difference?

Basically, the problem is that the only real difference between literary and “genre” writing is that literary writing is often genre writing done superbly well. So the question that people are really asking is, Do I have what it takes to be a literary writer?

To help you answer that question, I have composed this helpful quiz.

The easiest way to tell if you are a literary writer, of course, is to determine whether or not you are currently living in your parents’ basement. If the answer is yes, there is at least a 98.4% chance that you are in fact a literary writer. But let’s break it down a bit more clearly.

THE THRILLER:
If you just love writing about evil people and things blowing up and high stakes, odds are good you’re a thriller writer. But are you a literary thriller writer? To answer that question, pick the Baddie who sounds best to you:

A. An ordinary man in a business suit who just so happens to be a serial killer. He is friendly and a good neighbor and no one suspects a thing about his hidden proclivity!
B. An enormous giant of a man who is as hairless as a boiled egg who enjoys nudity, theology, making gun powder, and murdering children.

If you answered B., congratulations! You’re the next Cormac McCarthy.

THE HORROR:
Answer the following questions to determine whether you are more suited to be the next R.L. Stine or the next Edgar Allan Poe:

A. You enjoy a nice glass of absinthe when the delirium is at an ebb. WHAT IS THAT SOUND? IS IT THE DEVIL? Oh, no, it’s just the sound of your own heart beat. You also enjoy the ladies a little bit…deader than usual. Such a pretty young corpse! WHO IS THAT? WHO JUST KNOCK—Oh, that’s just your landlord. Money. Bah, who needs it? And where is your absinthe? WHO DRANK ALL YOUR ABSINTHE?
B. You have an orderly writing schedule. Five hours a day of productivity, and three hours for revision. Your editor appreciates your ability to keep to a quick and efficient schedule.

If you answered B., so sorry: It looks like you’re destined to be a gabillionaire pop writer.

THE “LITERARY POTBOILER”:
If you enjoy writing about sexy, hairy-chested werewolves and/or sexy, chest-waxed firefighters, you may be a “potboiler author.” But are you a literary potboiler author? There is one test to determine whether or not you are an author of literary potboilers. Take the following quiz to determine which you are!

The test: Circle the sentence that sounds best to you.
A. Sheila, with her heaving breasts, threw her arms around the Cannibal King.
B. Sheila, with her undulating bosoms, threw her arms around the Cannibal King.

If you circled “A” you are a potboiler author. If you circled “B,” congratulations! You are still just a potboiler author. But you have literary pretensions! You do you!

The point is, literary writers tend to do all the things they say you really shouldn’t do: they write terribly overblown badguys, they write while high as a kite and they’re not afraid to bring the kink. The trick is that they just write what they want to write, and they do it awfully well.

And that’s the real problem right there. To determine whether you’re a literary writer or a genre writer, you’ve got to answer this question honestly: So you’re a writer, and you’re a good writer. But are you a damn good writer?

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