There is an ever-expanding discussion going on over at Jeff Vandermeer’s blog. I’m thinking someone needs to start organizing this thread into book form. Interesting (and sometimes exhausting) reading: http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2009/07/05/war-of-all-against-all-realism-vs-fabulism-er-no/.
Me, as a reader, I honestly don’t pay too much attention to genre. When going to the bookstore, I generally head straight to the bargain rack because I’m a cheapskate. If I don’t see anything new there, I tend to wander around the literary section more than anywhere else. Here lately, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to Young Adult, comics, and children’s books (being a dad and all). I would spend more time in the science fiction and fantasy section if less of it was occupied by media tie-ins and epic doorstops. I have nothing against the media tie-ins and the never-ending series books. In fact I do enjoy some of them. I also greatly appreciate the talent and skill involved in writing the epic story in a fully-fleshed out alternative universe, but I don’t really have time to get wrapped up in a story that takes 15-20 books of about 1,000 pages each to tell. Too much to do, too much to read, too much to write, and, of course, too little time, but that’s a post for another day.
In my opinion, genre is irrelevant. An interesting book is an interesting book. For example, I’ll look at the last three books I read: Children of Hurin, Tolkien (Fantasy); Heart Shaped Box, Joe Hill (horror); and The Bone People by Keri Hulme ("literary"/realistic fiction)*. All very different, but even so, they have similarities. All three books are about broken people trying to fix themselves to some extent.
I grew up reading fantasy, horror, and science fiction. In college I was brainwashed into thinking this was wrong. Now I see that the "literary" is really nothing more than another label. It is the story, the ideas, and the interaction between characters that counts in the end, after all. If it takes place in a fantastic setting, so much the better, as far as I’m concerned. A little escapist fiction can be fun, and I also tend to get a kick out of experimental narratives when done well and coherently.
What’s the difference between Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams? In the end, the main difference came down to marketing and bookstore classification. Each write satires that can be pretty biting. Sure Vonnegut was a little more experimental in form, but if you read them together you can see that both authors are working with some of the same themes, both are using genre tropes as tools, as metaphors. All the same, one is classified or shelved as literary while the other is sci-fi.
Even as a writer, I don’t really pay too much attention to genre. I like writing dark fantasy and horror. I’ve got nothing against a fantastic science fiction setting. All the same, some stories are best told in a real world setting. It all just depends on what you want to say and how you want to say it. For me, it all comes down to the ideas in your mind and the format that you feel most comfortable using to transmit those ideas.