On Genre Fiction.

I’ve always been conflicted about genre fiction, in the sense that I love a good mystery or sf story, but I’ve never taken them as seriously (in some sense) as I do literary fiction, and I’ve sometimes floundered in trying to explain why (and have irritated John Cowan, who fiercely defends genre writing as just as worthy as the fancy stuff that gets National Book Awards and Booker Prizes). I cackled with glee while reading Tim Parks’ NYRB evisceration (subscriber-only, I’m afraid) of a trilogy by Stephen King: Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch. He starts out by describing the enjoyable plots King is so good at creating, then explains why he doesn’t enjoy them as much as, er, real literature. He describes the plots in detail, but I’ll avoid that material above the fold, quoting a general analysis; after the [Read more…] I’ll quote the end of the essay, which has serious spoilers, so avoid that part if you want to read the books.

“You have to admire a man,” wrote John Leonard reviewing Stephen King in these pages in 2002, who treats “scaring the bejesus out of us” as if it were “a domestic art.” But is King really scary? Not in this trilogy. Not for me. And I’m hardly immune from being scared by fiction. Reading Hardy’s Jude the Obscure I remember as a terrifying experience. Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground was another book that made me extremely anxious. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Per Petterson’s [In] Siberia, and Peter Stamm’s short stories have all had me extremely fearful for the well­-being of their characters.

Bringing in literary heavyweights might seem inappropriate, yet King has been awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and peppers the pages of his writing with literary references. Aside from Nietzsche, this trilogy mentions or alludes to Philip Roth, Dickens, T.S. Eliot, Wilfred Owen, Tobias Wolff, Robert Louis Stevenson, Steinbeck, Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, and many others. […] In any event, a moment’s reflection on our emotional response to these different authors immediately reaffirms the distance between genre writing and literature. One is anxious reading Jude the Obscure, or Disgrace, because one quickly senses that the authors are so intensely engaged in following through their characters’ dilemmas and predicaments that they would not hesitate to have things end badly if that is where their genius leads. There is no easy division into good and evil and no feeling that order need necessarily be returned to the world in the closing pages.

Quite the opposite is the case with King, whose persuasive openings are quickly drained of their power by the all too evident mechanisms of genre. […]


And the final peroration:

At a certain point in End of Watch, I became fascinated with the many analogies King uses. […] There is a childish energy about all these images, a comic-strip exuberance, that both keeps us reading and excludes our taking the work too seriously. And it is this mood that will bring us to the point that is the real payoff for the reader in these novels; we good folks, who always feel a little guilty when we do something mean, can relish the utter destruction of our utterly evil enemy without any qualms or misgivings. “Look who wins, Detective Hodges,” cries a triumphant Brady, who has now taken up permanent residence in the body of his neurologist and has Hodges and Holly at his gun­-toting mercy.

But the reader knows it is not true. The reader knows that very soon we will be the ones exulting as the villain is crushed into the dirt. Sure enough, in the inevitable melee, Holly, who has never used or held a weapon before and was committed to never doing so, happily fires off a Victory revolver she’s grabbed from the floor. How wonderful guns are when we are firing them at a man who deserves to die, when we can kill without feeling guilty. Game over, Brady.

And back to reality. Hodges’s doomed struggle with pancreatic cancer and Holly’s difficult future after his death are not stories King will write. But an endnote has the author gracefully thanking his researchers and collaborators and reminding us of his two philanthropic ventures, “the Haven Foundation, which helps freelance artists down on their luck, and the King Foundation, which helps schools, libraries, and small­town fire departments.” We are also given the National Suicide Prevention Hotline phone number, just in case. But it’s hardly necessary. The reader closes the book feeling immensely reassured.

Exaggerated? Probably. Unfair? Maybe. But it’s precisely that factitious moral clarity, the division of humanity into good guys whose gritty struggle is rewarded in the end and unfathomably bad guys who are doomed to fail, that genre delights in and real literature avoids, and I thank Parks for his clarity in putting his curmudgeonly case.

Comments

  1. Boromir. Judge Dredd. Ellison’s Harlequin. Frankenstein’s monster (or is that “literary”?). Almost everybody in A Song of Ice and Fire, from what I’m told. Gully Foyle. Elric of Melnibone. Loki (almost always). The Lords Jestocost and Crudelta (whose names are no accident). Sergeant Bothari. Thomas Covenant. Philip Marlowe. The Master Summoner of Earthsea. Emperor Leto IV. Long John Silver. George Orr’s Dr. Haber. The list goes on.

  2. Now what’s the point of setting up “genre” as a team to cackle gleefully against? King and Le Guin are not really doing the same thing.

    “no feeling that order need necessarily be returned to the world in the closing pages”

    There’s plenty of that non-feeling in genre fiction if you don’t select for an example that lacks it. Radically transforming the status quo for an unknown future is practically a science fiction standard. Fantasy is more often conservative, but not always.

  3. Now what’s the point of setting up “genre” as a team to cackle gleefully against?

    I agree. There are different types of fiction that set out to do different things. Comic writing to make you laugh. Romantic novels to make you swoon. Porn novels to help you fantasise. Etc. The main feature of genres is that they tend to be aimed at a very narrow target (or experience) and frequently use hackneyed templates. They are also escapist. The old-style Harlequin romances were notorious for this, and I don’t think their successors are any better.

    King aims very narrowly, too, and he is very good at what he does. But the readership picks up these books knowing what to expect, and the author delivers within those limits. It’s like being an aficionado of red wine, enjoying the same experience with subtly different flavours every time — rather than trying something completely different with their meal, like ouzo or LSD.

    In detective fiction, some of the older writers (Sherlock Holmes, Dashiel Hammett, Maigret) are still arguably fresher than the genres they created because they were not yet so hackneyed. It’s the narrow, targeted experience that makes these genres unsatisfying in large doses unless you happen to become addicted to that particular experience.

    Incidentally, Wikipedia has a list of most translated individual authors. It is interesting how many of them are what we would call “genre authors”: Agatha Christie, Jules Verne, Enid Blyton, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steel, Hans Christian Andersen, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Arthur Conan Doyle, Georges Simenon, Isaac Asimov, etc. Hang your head and cry, pure literature!

  4. I’d be interested to hear how Parks classifies Pierre Boulle’s La Planète des singes (Planet of the Apes) and Le Pont de la rivière Kwai (The Bridge over the River Kwai). Superficially the former is a genre work while the latter is literary fiction, but Parks’ description applies perfectly to both, in much the same way:

    > […] one quickly senses that the authors are so intensely engaged in following through their characters’ dilemmas and predicaments that they would not hesitate to have things end badly if that is where their genius leads.

     
    Overall, I agree with John Cowan and tangent. Parks is positing a plausible distinction to be drawn between different types of works, but has erred in identifying this distinction with the one “between genre writing and literature”. The parts that you’ve quoted would work equally well — which is to say, equally poorly — as an explanation of how American novels differ from English ones, or novels by people named “King” from novels by people named “Hardy”.

  5. I gotta agree if someone put a gun to my head and said “Define the difference between literature and genre!”, “Clearly distinguished goodies and baddies” would _not_ be my first pick.

  6. it’s precisely that factitious moral clarity, the division of humanity into good guys whose gritty struggle is rewarded in the end and unfathomably bad guys who are doomed to fail, that genre delights in and real literature avoids

    I can summarise the rest of the thread: Cowan and various outraged genre fans will now produce huge numbers of examples of genre fiction without clearly defined heroes and villains, or genre fiction in which the villain succeeds, or real literature with whiter-than-white heroes and irredeemably bad villains. All these examples will be ignored.

  7. Whatever may be the case about dividing the goodies from the baddies it is difficult to accept the sub-argument that only in genre fiction do we know that the goodies will succeed and the baddies fail. Unless Jane Austen is genre fiction — which, come to think of it, she is.

  8. The only form of writing that freaks me out is non-fiction (Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands or something by George Monbiot for example).

    I don’t know whether JG Ballard or PK Dick is even counted as a genre writer these days, nor whether their writing is really that good, but the books are read because the relation of the subject matter to current non-fiction situations on Earth and the possible consequences is imaginatively investigated – isn’t that Booker-Prize or NBA material? – not for any trite moral goody-and-baddy setup, which can only be construed as a slur on genres that throws the Dick baby out with the Stephen King bath water (I like King ok, by the way).

  9. squiffy-marie von bladet says:

    Good and bad, I defined these terms,
    so clear, no doubt, somehow.
    Ah, but I was only genre then;
    I’m literary now.

    — Bob “Nobel Laureate” Dylan (no relation).

  10. When you bite off more than you can chew, you
    pay the penalty
    Somebody’s got to tell the tale, I guess it must be
    up to me.

    Jane Austen

  11. Unless Jane Austen is genre fiction — which, come to think of it, she is.

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man who has been seventy days dying and is not yet dead must be in want of revenge.

  12. defends genre writing

    For what it’s worth, I am not a defender of genre fiction as such, still less a defender of every work in it. I am an opponent of the idea that there is a meaningful divide between the two. Le Guin, delightfully, on the distinction.

  13. it’s precisely that factitious moral clarity, the division of humanity into good guys whose gritty struggle is rewarded in the end and unfathomably bad guys who are doomed to fail, that genre delights in and real literature avoids

    Does that mean we can no longer count Charles Dickens as a real writer?

  14. des von bladet says:

    Literary fiction is a genre too. Not lately a particularly flourishing one but what can you do?

  15. ” . . . who fiercely defends genre writing as just as worthy as the fancy stuff that gets National Book Awards and Booker Prizes . . . ”

    At least one of the National Book Award finalists last year (Her Body and Other Parties: Stories), and two of the Man Booker finalists (Lincoln in the Bardo, the winner, and Exit West) were or incorporated genre.

  16. This thread is going exactly as I anticipated!

    Now what’s the point of setting up “genre” as a team to cackle gleefully against? King and Le Guin are not really doing the same thing.

    No, of course they’re not, and there’s plenty of genre fiction that exemplifies literary virtues. Like I said, Parks’ critique, if taken too generally, is exaggerated (though it’s not in the specific case of King). Maybe Parks himself would generalize his point too broadly, maybe he hates everything but High Literature—I wouldn’t know. But that’s certainly not true of me. Not only do I like genre writing, as I said at the start, I enjoy it even if it doesn’t have the higher literary virtues (though I prefer it if it does); I cut my teeth on shitty writers like Asimov (sorry, Asimov fans) and still get a nostalgic thrill if I open a book by E.E. “Doc” Smith (I can think of him by no other name). All I’m claiming is that Real Literature at least tries to manifest virtues like elegant sentences, realistic characters of complex and shifting moral stature, and plots that don’t go in a predictable direction (even if it often fails), whereas those virtues are not demanded by genre fans (though of course authors can supply them anyway), so as a general rule it is fair to say that genre fiction is not going to satisfy readers who demand them. I still mutter bitterly when I see authors interviewed by the NY Times’ Sunday book review supplement who when asked “anything you avoid?” say “I never read sf,” but I know where they’re coming from. Life is short and you play the percentages.

    For what it’s worth, I am not a defender of genre fiction as such, still less a defender of every work in it. I am an opponent of the idea that there is a meaningful divide between the two.

    Tell that to the booksellers, or for that matter the genre fans. If you like sf, you like sf, and you want it all in the same part of the store so you don’t waste your time.

    Does that mean we can no longer count Charles Dickens as a real writer?

    It has nothing to do with being a real writer, which can only plausibly be defined as a writer whose books are published and sold (unless you subscribe to the romantic/bohemian notion that the realest writers sit in garrets and starve); it’s a matter of exhibiting the virtues I mentioned earlier, and you’re right, Dickens does not exhibit them and I find him unreadable.

  17. Let’s see what we agree on and what we disagree on. Languagehat, you agree that some genre fiction exemplifies literary virtues (at least the Booker judges thought so), and I assume you’d agree that some non-genre books fail to exhibit literary virtues (Jacqueline Susann, anyone?). But your argument, as I understand it, is that *most* non-genre fiction succeeds in manifesting those virtues, whereas *most* genre fiction doesn’t even try, because genre readers don’t demand it. I’m not sure how well that holds up, though. I don’t read a lot of mystery or romance, so I can’t speak to those; I do read some fantasy & science fiction. Readers in that field just awarded their annual Hugo awards, and — no surprise — the works those readers picked out included a whole lot of “elegant sentences, realistic characters of complex and shifting moral stature, and plots that don’t go in a predictable direction.” It’s not so hard to draw a line between non-genre and genre fiction; genre fiction is the stuff with lots of genre elements (like Jane Austin’s romance novels). But it’s much harder to draw a line between “literary fiction” and genre fiction, if you define literary fiction as stuff manifesting literary virtues and genre fiction as the stuff with genre elements. Not only does that offer no guidance as to where to put the stuff in both categories, but it also leaves no place to put the bad non-genre fiction.

  18. All I’m claiming is that Real Literature at least tries to manifest virtues like elegant sentences, realistic characters of complex and shifting moral stature, and plots that don’t go in a predictable direction (even if it often fails), whereas those virtues are not demanded by genre fans

    This is a particularly odd statement because it is not just about SF, it is about genre, which includes detective stories.

    It’s asserting that detective story fans don’t like plots that go in unpredictable directions!

  19. I’d say one important distinction is whether the writer goes with the flow or tries to create a new thing, maybe a new flow. Both things can happen in purportedly “high” fiction and genre fiction. Azimov is actually a good example. He was a bad writer counting usual literary virtues. Yet, he was engaging at least to his (not so small) audience and done it not by the steady supply of well-processed diet, but by creating something new. So if you like a nicely turned phrase, allusions, allegories, complicated an conflicted characters, unpredictable, but psychologically realistic plot twists, etc., etc., just don’t read him.

    Author setting herself a task not to stay within prescribed limits of a genre gets merit points, but there are plenty other things around to earn or loose them.

    Vysotsky for those who love and can understand him (it’s mostly about life, not authorship, but still, you know, you cannot go wrong with Vysotsky)

  20. Jon W: I don’t think we disagree except in emphasis.

    But your argument, as I understand it, is that *most* non-genre fiction succeeds in manifesting those virtues, whereas *most* genre fiction doesn’t even try, because genre readers don’t demand it.

    No, I specifically said that Real Literature “at least tries” to manifest those virtues; it fails more often than it succeeds (see Sturgeon’s Law), so “most” is wrong. Genre fiction used to not try at all; during my lifetime at least sf and mystery (the only genres I’m at all familiar with) have tried more and thus succeeded more, and you’re right, the Hugo awards have been going to some really excellent books (Ann Leckie!). But the odds still say if you want the aforesaid virtues, you’ll do better on the literary fiction shelves than the sf or mystery ones. That could, of course, change.

    It’s asserting that detective story fans don’t like plots that go in unpredictable directions!

    Oh, come on, that is willful misinterpretation. It’s asserting that detective story fans like plots that go in the kinds of directions they’re used to, with mysteries solved (in, obviously, unpredictable ways). When authors present books where the mysteries aren’t solved, most fans get very unhappy. We’re talking about what Bakhtin called “chronotope” — the ways in which the fictional universe is expected to function in a particular genre. In a common sort of Hellenistic fiction, the hero has all sorts of adventures before he can get together with the heroine, but it’s taken for granted that he’ll triumph and they’ll get together; furthermore, the adventures have nothing to do with the actual world the readers live in, they take place in remote regions full of bandits and villains and demigods and what have you. They don’t appeal to many readers now, who have different expectations, but people loved them at the time.

  21. So if you like a nicely turned phrase, allusions, allegories, complicated an conflicted characters, unpredictable, but psychologically realistic plot twists, etc., etc., just don’t read him.

    Exactly the approach I take!

  22. I think that a big part of the problem here lies in how we think of the category that we oppose to “genre.” Take a look at the current NYT best-sellers list; it includes some genre and some non-genre, but nothing, so far as I can tell, with literary aspirations. (I haven’t read the two books on the list from the “Crazy Rich Asians” series, but I’m guessing that they’re not all about the elegantly crafted sentence.) So if we said that all non-genre fiction reflects an attempt to manifest literary virtues, we’d be badly wrong. If, on the other hand, we define a category of Literary Fiction as works that try to manifest literary virtues, then of course works in that category are more likely to succeed in manifesting those virtues than works in any other category we’re likely to define. And so long as we agree that some genre works are Literary Fiction and some non-genre works are not, I’ve got no argument. But at that point we’re not saying very interesting about genre v. non-genre.

  23. I believe that genre fiction is often criticized because it feeds a kind of wish fulfillment in the reader. The reader indulges the fantasy of a world where a wise detective resolves all mysteries and leads the criminals to justice (detective fiction); or the right people find true love (romance); or the world simply is more magical and interesting than the everyday world (fantasy and science fiction). Horror is an inversion of this, but it serves the same purpose for the people who like it. It’s ultimately reassuring (as Parks says about King) because it represents a morally comprehensible world and because all the horror can be dealt with just by closing the book and putting it away.

    Now, maybe all fiction involves this kind of wish fulfillment, but the more a book is purely genre fiction the more obvious and stereotypical it is. And the more a book stimulates and satisfies the reader’s desire for, say, romance, the less well written it needs to be to be successful. Also, the reader typically knows what kind of fantasy is going to be indulged just by which shelf in the bookshop the book is on.

  24. Kristian: Well said. And I’m certainly not criticizing genre fiction because it feeds wish fulfillment — we all need that itch scratched from time to time! I love hamburgers too, and plenty of times I want a hamburger rather than a fancy meal out, but I still take a fancy meal out more seriously (and get annoyed when I go to the restaurant and see people not bothering to dress up, but that’s an East Coast thing, and I digress).

  25. “Literary fiction is a genre too.” First of all, this, absolutely. Treating every genre except for one particular genre as “genre” is the same rhetorical device as treating every group except for one particular group as a “special interest group”.

  26. From the article: “the authors are so intensely engaged in following through their characters’ dilemmas and predicaments that they would not hesitate to have things end badly if that is where their genius leads. There is no easy division into good and evil and no feeling that order need necessarily be returned to the world in the closing pages.”

    So noir detective fiction is literature par excellence?

  27. the world simply is more magical and interesting than the everyday world (fantasy and science fiction)

    Lois McMaster Bujold, an excellent writer of sf and fantasy with romance admixture, says that sf is the fantasy of political action, and I agree with this.

    As for the bookstore, I agree that sorting out books into rough-and-ready categories makes marketing sense. For that matter, genres themselves do make sense as shared contexts of comprehension. I do not agree that a binary division into literature and all-other-genres makes any sense at all, and I think the moralizing that people who make this division are generally doing is the best indication of its bogosity.

  28. “Literary fiction is a genre too.” First of all, this, absolutely. Treating every genre except for one particular genre as “genre” is the same rhetorical device as treating every group except for one particular group as a “special interest group”.

    Good point and good analogy.

  29. J.W. Brewer says:

    Writing fiction that is not genre fiction is perhaps like speaking English without an accent?

  30. The idea that there’s such a thing as “non-genre writing” makes me think of those people who believe that everyone speaks with an accent except themselves. Isn’t a genre just a category? Anything can be categorized.

    ETA: jinx, JWB.

  31. Ha!

  32. I must disagree. Genre fiction is fiction written in established genres. It is reasonable enough definition, as usual with all sorts of cross-breeding and edge cases and there is no need to be a purist about it. Non-genre fiction comes also in many types and flavors, but with less obvious boundaries and with authors more willing to try something new. Let’s take “great American novel”. Everything included in the category has some common features, but it’s still too nebulous to form a genre. Or say “postmodernist novel”. Usually you know what kind of tricks to expect or at least that you should expect tricks (it would be ironic for a postmodernist to write a 1000 page boring family saga and then say “see, I tricked you”) , but still it doesn’t restrict the author and announces to the reader enough details to make it genre.

  33. David Marjanović says:

    Or say “postmodernist novel”.

    Tropeless tale?

  34. a good discussion, thank you all..

    E.E. “Doc” Smith, haven’t thought of him in decades.. those books were great fun.

    To the defense of Harlequin romances – there were times in the Army when those were all the novels I could find. Many of them were a lot better than you might expect, with subtlety and complexity, far from simple fantasy/wish-fulfillment. Not that I seek them out as such, but in times of no books they were a fine solace.

    “My issue with litfic is not that it is a genre but that (a) it doesn’t think it is and (b) it thinks it’s ipso facto better than all the ones that are genres.”
    – China Mieville, interview in the Guardian.

  35. a good discussion, thank you all.

    Yes, I was a little nervous posting it but I figured my esteemed readers would have interesting things to say, and I was not disappointed.

    E.E. “Doc” Smith, haven’t thought of him in decades.. those books were great fun.

    I’m glad somebody else remembers E.E. “Doc” Smith fondly! I was very excited when If serialized Skylark DuQuesne in 1965 — I awaited each new issue breathlessly.

  36. When I used to argue with people of about the relative merits of “literary” fiction, versus “genre” fiction, one of the most common arguments in favor of the superiority of the literary genre was that it represented an exploration of the human condition in a way that fantasy/science fiction/mystery/romance fiction did not. To some extent, it is true that that the those genres sometimes do not delve very deeply into their characters, but that does not automatically mark them as inferior.

    However, my counter-argument was that a great many literary novels, from authors like Charles Dickens, to James Joyce, to Pat Conroy, present their characters with successions of increasingly improbable happenstances. They are exploring human nature by exposing their viewpoint characters to unrealistically outlandish events, and I am not convinced that that is any deeper than an author developing character by exposing them to entirely fantastical occurrences.

    Moreover, there are plenty of examples of fantasy and science fiction where the characters are faced off against some fictional universe with its own exotic set of rules and then left to their own devices, to come to whatever end is dictated by the logic of the setting and characterization. And this is not a new phenomenon. In The King of Elfland’s Daughter, there are no heroes and no villains; it just tells the story of a place and a family that become entangled with the magics that exist in different ways on both sides of the border of Elfland. In the middle of the book, Dunsany actually interrupts the narrative to parody the tendency of historical novels to tie their plots into well-recorded real-world events, to make their fictional plots more “believable.” Of course, while The King of Elfland’s Daughter is often cited as an extremely influential work of fantasy fiction, it is probably not read that much these days.

    A similar thing happens in the Gormenghast novels (written a few decades later), especially the first one, Titus Groan. As the description in Realms of Fantasy pointed out, the only character in the first book who behaves like a normal human being is Steerpike; although he is the villain, he is the closest thing Titus Groan has to a viewpoint character (Titus himself being only two years old at the book’s end). The book begins with Steerpike deciding he is not going to work in the kitchens any longer and heading out into the bizarre, partially-inhabited labyrinth that is the castle of Gormenghast. It is an utterly fantastical place; even though there is no magic, things in the castle and environs do not work the way they do in the real world. Much of the story concerns the confrontation between Steerpike and the peculiar world he has set out to explore and possibly master. There are other character who are more sympathetic and have some seemingly normal traits, like Earl Sepulchrave or Doctor Prunesquallor, but they are too tied to castle’s weird ways to be normal. Steerpike, on the other hand, has no history that the reader ever encounters; there is no backstory to constrain him to operate in accordance with the warped reality of Gormenghast, and so his character is free to behave like a real, if fairly repugnant, person, with motivations that make sense. Is exploring this example of humankind any less meaningful than something like Great Expectations, where Pip is moving through a web of preposterously cross-linked flat characters?

  37. Earl Sepulchrave or Doctor Prunesquallor

    You cannot write a book seriously exploring human condition with character names like that.

  38. @D.O.: Worse than Uncle Pumblechook?

  39. Dickens is overexposed in the Funny Names Serious Story genre, so I’ll just mention Trollope instead, with his Duke of Omnium (who lives in Castle Gatherum). For that matter, both authors have funny names.

  40. I think that Twain provides the clearest demonstrations that profound commentary on the human experience can exist side by side with quite a bit of out-and-out silliness.

  41. Right. It’s possible to write a book humorously exploring human condition and many from Rabelais (or maybe even Aristophanes) onward sure did. I am pleading ignorance about both suggested characters. I find Duke of Omnium’s name not humorous, but bizarre and Pumblechook doesn’t sound to me funny either. Sorry. Anyway, I meant my previous comment in a lighthearted way.

  42. If there must be a binary distinction, it’s this: genre fiction writers make money by selling books to readers, whereas literary fiction writers make money by becoming critically acclaimed so that they can make money by getting grants and/or university jobs. (Robert J. Sawyer, a Canadian sf writer, made a point of getting an Ontario Arts Council grant to write a book to prove that “genre authors” could get grants; the book was very successful commercially as well.)

  43. Unlike Brett, I’ve had little occasion to argue with people of about the relative merits of “literary” fiction, versus “genre” fiction, so my views are necessarily fairly elementary.

    However, it seems to me that the main difference between genre novels and ‘real literature’ is that the former attracts more hacks because you need only work within set templates and reader expectations.

    If genre literature succeeds within those limitations it’s regarded as acceptable. Of course, a great writer can rise above those limitations and produce something remarkable.

    It’s harder to write ‘real literature’ because the templates are more diffuse and a higher level of writing is required to produce anything even remotely acceptable. Writing is judged to high standards (there are no comforting conventions to fall back on) and a failure is a failure.

    In my opinion, that is why (some) people look up to ‘real literature’ and down on genre literature. One is considered to be for authors, the other for hacks — however unfair or distorted that might actually be.

    I don’t know if I am giving a penetrating analysis here or trotting out platitudes. Probably the latter.

  44. It’s asserting that detective story fans like plots that go in the kinds of directions they’re used to, with mysteries solved (in, obviously, unpredictable ways). When authors present books where the mysteries aren’t solved, most fans get very unhappy.

    Quick, someone tell Patricia Highsmith.

  45. “Among the spy and detective fiction writers of today there is no distinction more dubious than “transcending the genre.” What does it mean for a work to transcend the genre? To have outgrown its form? To be better than it should be? It is with this backhanded honorific that the spy and detective genre is robbed of its greatest works,….’
    So starts a recent book review, (not by me; linked at aldaily):
    https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/267974/daniel-silva-and-the-art-of-the-beach-read

  46. If there must be a binary distinction, it’s this: genre fiction writers make money by selling books to readers, whereas literary fiction writers make money by becoming critically acclaimed so that they can make money by getting grants and/or university jobs.

    This is an absurd caricature that I would have thought beneath you. It’s right up (or down) there with “My five-year-old daughter could draw better than this!”

  47. One good caricature deserves another. 🙂

  48. Would it be better to say that “genre fiction writers’ only hope of making money from writing is to sell books to readers, whereas literary fiction writers also have the option of making money by becoming critically acclaimed so that they can make money by getting grants and/or university jobs”?

    Very few SF authors have managed to get grants or university jobs on the strength of their writing. Robert Sawyer managed a Canadian government grant at one point, I think.

  49. My brother went through one of the top MFA programs in creative writing not too long ago. He writes mostly science fiction and fantasy, and he said that there was a lot of sneering at his aspiration to be a “genre” writer, from both other MFA students and university faculty.

  50. Definitions of literature:
    “[King] peppers the pages of his writing with literary references. Aside from Nietzsche, this trilogy mentions or alludes to Philip Roth, Dickens, T.S. Eliot, Wilfred Owen, Tobias Wolff, Robert Louis Stevenson, Steinbeck, Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, and many others…”

    So “Slaughterhouse Five”, “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” and “A Christmas Carol” are apparently all literature!

    Thank god that the author of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, at least, always made sure that “there is no easy division into good and evil”.

  51. @ajay: Actually, one of my favorite elements of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde is the often overlooked fact that, by the end of the story, it is clear that Jekyll simply does not understand what Hyde is. The doctor first claims that Hyde is his slighter, underdeveloped evil side. Later, after he can no longer control his transitions into Mr. Hyde, Jekyll’s statement of the case insists that they are two completely different people (although his choices of pronouns seemingly belie such claims). Mr. Hyde is certainly a villain, but ultimately the reader cannot trust Jekyll’s original contention that Hyde is simply distilled from all the evil of Jekyll’s character, since events demonstrate that Jekyll does not really understand the transformation process at all.

    When I was a kid, we had two 115-minute, two-disc albums with Tom Baker (of Doctor Who fame) reading classic early science fiction. One was Journey to the Center of the Earth; the other was Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. The adaptation did a reasonably good job of maintaining some suspense, while not trying to hide the fact that Jekyll and Hyde were facets of the same person. The twist ending is to well known to be a surprise nowadays, but it still makes for a compelling story. There is obviously a great deal of dramatic irony as the main character, Mr. Utterson, tries to work out what is actually going on.

  52. J.W. Brewer says:

    Re Slaughterhouse-Five: Once upon a time Vonnegut was thought to be a Serious Literary Figure and frequently mentioned in the same breath as stylistically-experimental up-and-coming novelists like Thomas Pynchon and John Barth as if they were part of the same trend. At some point starting probably shortly after my graduation from high school (1983) his reputation somehow slid back into genre-hackdom. But maybe Philip K. Dick was being posthumously recategorized as a Serious Literary Figure around the same time, so it was a fair trade?

    I was once talking the vagaries of literary reputation with a fellow ten years older than me and made that point, viz. that I thought I had been in the last cohort of US high school students taught to think of Vonnegut as a Serious Novelist, and he responded that he had been in the last cohort of such students taught to think of Carl Sandburg as a Major Poet.

  53. Last spring, my daughter wanted to read Slaughterhouse Five, so I requested it from the library. When the book arrived, I found they had, through some miscommunication, sent me Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, a volume of critical essays that was, all told, longer than the novel itself. So it goes.

  54. Would it be better to say that “genre fiction writers’ only hope of making money from writing is to sell books to readers, whereas literary fiction writers also have the option of making money by becoming critically acclaimed so that they can make money by getting grants and/or university jobs”?

    I mean, I’m sure there exist people who try to write literary fiction in the hope that they can make money by getting grants and/or university jobs, just as there exist people to fulfill every dumb stereotype you can think of, but considering the virtually infinite variety of careers more likely to provide a mortgage payment and the well-known odds against succeeding in that particular market, I’m pretty sure such people are a small percentage and the vast majority of people who try to write literary fiction do so because they love literary fiction and want to try to produce some. When I hear such a suggestion (“they’re just doing it for the money!”) I have the same reaction as when I hear people talk about “welfare queens” or shiftless/greedy/fill-in-the-blank you-know-the-prejudices: I don’t consider it a rational proposition about the world, just a flaunting of one’s own biased attitudes.

  55. J.W. Brewer says:

    One can, without being cynical about any given individual’s subjective motives, think that the late-20th-century rise of MFA-in-creative-writing programs, with faculties largely consisting of graduates of such programs who have published multiple well-reviewed-in-certain-circles books but aren’t making a living just from their writing, has not necessarily been a net positive for the quality of literary fiction, and that things were perhaps better when established writers had to either figure out how to make a living on royalties alone or have some less self-referential day job (like Wallace Stevens cranking out his poems after he got home from his office at the insurance company). And when aspiring writers had to go work as merchant seamen or what have you to gather the life experience they would draw on in their later published work.

  56. So “Slaughterhouse Five”, “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” and “A Christmas Carol” are apparently all literature!

    Is there even a slightest doubt that they are? Unless the definition of literature is that it should have boring plot and exquisite writing.

  57. One can, without being cynical about any given individual’s subjective motives, think that the late-20th-century rise of MFA-in-creative-writing programs, with faculties largely consisting of graduates of such programs who have published multiple well-reviewed-in-certain-circles books but aren’t making a living just from their writing, has not necessarily been a net positive for the quality of literary fiction

    Sure, I have no problem with that formulation.

  58. But note that I used “make money” in both halves of the opposition. Certainly one can write other than just for money; indeed, one can write not for money (though Dr. Johnson called such people blockheads). So it’s about this: to the extent that they write for money, the source of the money is different for literary fiction and for genre fiction, and that’s the only genuine opposition I see. If you want to point to present-day writers of literary fiction who consistently make money directly from customers, I’d be interested to hear about them.

  59. If you want to point to present-day writers of literary fiction who consistently make money directly from customers, I’d be interested to hear about them.

    Zadie Smith, Elena Ferrante, Richard Powers? Or am I misunderstanding what you mean by “make money directly from customers”? Lots of people buy their books, from which they make money.

  60. Iain (M) Banks was in the odd position for much of his career in writing mainstream works which sold better than (and subsidised) his SF.

    “Until the last few years or so, when the SF novels started to achieve something approaching parity in sales, the mainstream always out-sold the SF – on average, if my memory isn’t letting me down, by a ratio of about three or four to one. I think a lot of people have assumed that the SF was the trashy but high-selling stuff I had to churn out in order to keep a roof over my head while I wrote the important, serious, non-genre literary novels. Never been the case, and I can’t imagine that I’d have lied about this sort of thing, least of all as some sort of joke. The SF novels have always mattered deeply to me – the Culture series in particular – and while it might not be what people want to hear (academics especially), the mainstream subsidised the SF, not the other way round. And… rant over.”

    That quote from him, gently correcting someone who had assumed he wrote SF to make money to subsidise his non-genre work and getting it backwards, I had remembered the gist of and found here: Iain M. Banks explains he wasn’t writing science fiction for the money

  61. Interesting, thanks!

  62. Zadie Smith, Elena Ferrante, Richard Powers?

    I haven’t read a word of any of these authors, so I may be completely off. But I did read a lengthy plot summary of Ferrante’s series, and it seems to me to be a romance: a subverted romance, certainly, but subverted genre books still belong to their genre. And though Powers doesn’t seem to be writing sf in the sense of fantasies of political action, he work is science fiction, in the sense that Asimov’s science mystery A Whiff of Death is. Attwood praises him, and Attwood claims that her own work is not sf (though it plainly is, including The Handmaid’s Tale as a fantasy of political action) because its foundation is already-known rather than fantastic science. But if that’s right, then Hal Clement’s books are not sf, which is absurd: all their science is already known except the offstage FTL travel that got his characters to the planets they are on.

    Lots of people buy their books, from which they make money.

    Yes, you understand me correctly.

    As for Iain NMI Banks, I think his non-sf novels are urban fantasy.

  63. I mentioned Pat Conroy above, and he is somebody who got quite rich writing novels that are stylistically quite “literary” (sometimes to an almost absurdly affected extent). However, the reason I mentioned him was that his books also suffer very strongly from the deficiency I also noted—that he piles so many outlandish happenings one upon the other that the worlds his protagonists inhabit are clearly not the same as our real world.

  64. Here we are at the point where we have to again ask in how far the distinction “genre” vs. “non-genre” makes sense. Of course, one could probably sort everything into genres – Kafka writes horror stories, Hemingway adventure stories, Dostoyevsky detective stories and romances, Lolita is exploitation, War & Peace and the Tin Drum are historical novels, etc., etc. If you don’t want to do that, you need to add qualifiers, like genre being formulaic / written to a template, and then basically genre is only that part of literature that is written without artistic ambition, or where the ambition is there but the execution didn’t succeed in going beyond the template. And I think that’s the core of the dispute here – some look at the stuff that goes beyond the templates and say “that’s not genre anymore” while others say “that, by its subject matter, is still genre XY, but it’s also serious literature / great art”.

  65. Most of the discussion thus far is about novels. Many a literary author’s short story collection includes a few that might as easily have been written by a genre author. I think critics mentioning such stories are more likely to laud the author for irony or subversion than condemn them for slumming or self-indulgence.

  66. I thought novel was a genre

  67. And I think that’s the core of the dispute here – some look at the stuff that goes beyond the templates and say “that’s not genre anymore” while others say “that, by its subject matter, is still genre XY, but it’s also serious literature / great art”.

    Exactly right.

  68. I’m pretty sure such people are a small percentage and the vast majority of people who try to write literary fiction do so because they love literary fiction and want to try to produce some. When I hear such a suggestion (“they’re just doing it for the money!”) I have the same reaction as when I hear people talk about “welfare queens” or shiftless/greedy/fill-in-the-blank you-know-the-prejudices: I don’t consider it a rational proposition about the world, just a flaunting of one’s own biased attitudes.

    Your reaction, specifically, seems to be to completely misread the statement, foolishly attribute offensive beliefs to someone who does not hold them, and then condemn them on the basis of your own folly. I said nothing at all about why people write. I was talking about how they might make money from it. Read more slowly next time and get it right.

  69. As for Iain NMI Banks, I think his non-sf novels are urban fantasy.

    Really? Most of them don’t have any fantastic elements and quite a few aren’t set in urban areas.

  70. Your reaction, specifically, seems to be to completely misread the statement

    My apologies. I’m having a hard week and am doubtless touchier than usual.

  71. Somebody here surely knows who wrote this:

    “SF’s no good!” they shout until we’re deaf.
    “But this looks good.” “Well then, it’s not SF.”

  72. Robert Conquest, the late British historian of the Soviet Union, poet, and (surprisingly to me) science fiction writer.

  73. Conquest was probably best known in SF circles for editing a series of five SF anthologies with Kingsley Amis in the early 60s, Spectrums I to V – mentioned in the Wiki link above, but let me link to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction anyway:

    http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/conquest_robert

  74. genre fiction writers make money by selling books to readers

    The Darknight Academy for witches, wizards, troubled vampires and tragically abused children was just waking up when the screaming started. Secret Agent Sam Glowingly sprang athletically from his bed and immediately reached for his pistol. He had been undercover for three weeks now and this was the first sign of trouble, unless you counted the theft of the Holy Grail the previous week, which he didn’t.
    ‘McSleet. Wake up,’ he hissed. His grizzled, cynical, alcoholic yet oddly sympathetic Scottish colleague mumbled an unintelligible curse at him and went back to sleep. Fine, thought Glowingly. He would just have to tackle this one alone, with only his gun and his mysterious otherworldly powers to help him. He knew he could do it. He had faced seemingly impossible odds before, like that time his wife had been forced to choose which of their two daughters to donate a kidney to, even though the girls were twins and one of them had accidentally killed their younger brother in a shocking yet poetically haunting accident at the old lake.

    —Joel Stickley, “Write with half an eye on the market”

  75. Joel Stickley is Teh Man, even if he seems to have gotten tired of his essays (in the sense of ‘attempts’) in criticism-by-parody.

  76. John Cowan says:

    my daughter wanted to read Slaughterhouse Five, so I requested it from the library. When the book arrived, I found they had, through some miscommunication, sent me Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five

    That reminds me of Gordon Dickson’s 1965 short story “Computers Don’t Argue. Read it and shudder: de te fabula narratur.

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