Genre vs. Literary Fiction: A Rebuttal

Taking a quick break from my Rules of Writing series to comment on an article on The Guardian’s website that appeared this morning (and that I found through the Absolute Write forums). The article, Are Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown a match for literary fiction?, written by Edward Docx, kinda pissed me off to put it bluntly. The basic premise of the article is that genre fiction, no matter how “good” it is, will still never be as good as “good” literary fiction. I can hear the hair on the backs of the necks of genre writers everywhere standing up on end from all the way over here in Vermont. 

I mostly write genre fiction, or mainstream fiction. Some of it may stray toward the literary (in the sense that literary fiction is character-driven and multi-layered), but if shelved in a bookstore, it would likely be in the genre section, or classed as “commercial” or “mainstream” (I write mostly speculative fiction and women’s fiction). And that’s fine with me. I could get petty here and say, “That’s fine with me, because that’s what sells,” but I won’t go there…

Now, a few things about the article. First, Docx (is this actually some crony from Microsoft trying to drum up support for the new versions of Office?) seems to base most of his assumptions on the works of Dan Brown and Steig Larsson. A lot of people would agree that the writing of either of these authors isn’t exactly what one would call “great”. They sell because they tell stories that people want to read, and because there’s a fantastic marketing engine behind them that make people think they want to read them. They’re also easy to find at any Walmart, grocery store, or airport newsstand. The second thing that always bugs me about these kinds of articles is that they always take the worst of popular fiction (Larsson and Brown, et al) and compare it to the best unheard-of authors in another genre. Can we stop doing that? Is it fair that great books go unnoticed while mediocre ones sell millions? No. But life’s not fair. Get over it.

The other thing that really bugged me was that he states that because genre fiction is formulaic to a degree, it’s easier to write than literary fiction, where anything goes. Here’s a direct quote from the article:

…even good genre (not Larsson or Brown) is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material. That’s the way writing works and lots of people who don’t write novels don’t seem to get this: if you need a detective, if you need your hero to shoot the badass CIA chief, if you need faux-feminist shopping jokes, then great; but the correlative of these decisions is a curtailment in other areas. If you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise. Lots of decisions are already made.

Bullshit. (I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately and have been using my uncle’s favorite word a lot.)

Here’s the thing about working within a “formula” for fiction: in order to create good genre fiction, you have to be original despite the “constraints” imposed upon you by the conventions of the genre. But even those constraints are pretty basic. In mysteries, the only true constraints are that you need a mystery to solve, and your protagonist needs to solve it. How you go about that is entirely up to you. In romance, you need character A and character B to meet, have problems, and then end up in love at the end.

So great, genre writing has cleared up all those pesky questions about the need for two characters and some obstacles in their way. The rest of writing those novels is a breeze! A monkey could do it!

If anything, working within a genre where there is a certain amount of “formula”, it takes more imagination to keep things interesting. Romance readers read these novels because they want a love story with a happy ending. But they want each story to be unique. They don’t want to read the same thing over and over again. They want new twists, new obstacles, new characters, and if they don’t get them, they’re bored. The thing about a lot of genre fans is that they’re voracious readers: they’ll recognize it if you’re telling the same story over and over again.

Docx then goes on to compare genre fiction to a fast-food chain, and literary fiction to an exclusive restaurant that carefully sources it’s ingredients. Both have the potential to be good, and both have the potential to be bad. But somehow we’re supposed to be more frustrated when the “exclusive” restaurant is bad, because they’ve put more time and effort into it? And that regardless of how you dress your different burgers, they’re all still just burgers?

We pay more attention to the restaurant that claims to have carefully sourced its ingredients and then used skill and imagination to bring those to the table in a manner that is original, surprising, beautiful, clever and delicious. Failure in this second case, therefore, is far more irritating. But equally, if you are in the burger-selling business, then although your burgers may appear different – you can flip them with bacon or jalapeño or even Stilton – the truth is that they are all fundamentally the same; you are in the burger business or you are not in business at all.

Now, I’m sorry, but that’s just a load of crap. The idea that genre fiction is like a burger from your local fast-food joint—a greasy, artery-clogging, guilty pleasure that’s not even really pleasurable—is insulting to say the least. It’s like saying that we should be ashamed of liking genre fiction, despite that fact that millions of others do. It’s something to read when there’s nothing better, or when you’re in a hurry, or when you just need something to read and you don’t really care what.

If we’re going to go with food analogies, I’d rather equate genre fiction to sandwiches. You could eat a sandwich every day for the rest of your life and still not run out of possible combinations. Sure, they all consist of bread and filler, but those constrictions mean so little in the grand scheme of things. You can have good sandwiches and bad, simple sandwiches and impossibly decadent ones. You can get them at your local diner or at a fine dining establishment, and pretty much anywhere in between. Some are decadent and rich and leave you full for hours, while others don’t have nearly enough between the bread and leave you very unfulfilled. But even if you have a bad sandwich, you’re still not going to swear off all sandwiches forever. Because you know there’s a better one out there, somewhere.

Literary fiction, on the other hand, is like Crème Brûlée. It’s usually decadent and rich and downright delicious. But it can also be bad. The crust on top can be burnt. And come on, there’s a blow torch involved! Plenty of room to get burned, or to set your house on fire. And the unfortunate thing about creme brulee is that if you have a bad experience with it, you might not ever bother trying it again.

I’m a fan of a lot of literary authors. There’s Cody James, for one, who writes darkly beautiful, heartbreakingly-real novellas and short novels. There’s Jeffrey Lent, who was one of the first literary authors I really loved, and who has written both contemporary and historical fiction. I enjoy reading Melissa Bank (The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing was fantastic) and loved Atonement. There’s Atlas Shrugged, which will forever be my favorite novel (I was even lucky enough to get my hands on a first edition, first printing). And I enjoy the classics, though I haven’t read as many of them as I would like.

And I’m a fan of a lot of genre authors, too: Neil Gaiman will always be my favorite author if I’m forced to choose just one. I enjoy Sophie Kinsella and Marion Keyes. I’ve read and enjoyed romance by Jenny Brown, YA paranormal romance by Lauren Kate (y’all thought I was gonna say Stephenie Meyer, didn’t you?), and romantic fantasy by Fiona McIntosh. And I love Stephen King. 

I like a lot of the “mainstream” writers who aren’t really genre but aren’t really literary (and are often called “commercial”, as if it were a dirty word).

What I’m really sick of is this war between literary and genre writers. We’re all writers. Some of us write fast, and some of us write slow. Some spend years doing dozens of rounds of revisions and some only revise once or twice. Some of us put story above all else, and some put language above all else. Some literary fiction has a barely-discernable plot and so does some genre fiction. Some of us are good writers and some of us are bad. Some of us are still learning, and others have learned all they wish to learn. Some of us want to write literary fiction, and some of us want to write genre (and some of us want to write all of the above). And some of us just write to write, because it’s what we love to do or feel we have to do, and to hell with the rest of it.

But we’re all writers. Bickering amongst ourselves about who is “better”, who has it “harder”, and who deserves the attention (and money) of the reading public, is pointless. It doesn’t make us better at what we do. It doesn’t encourage people to read. And it sure as hell doesn’t make any of us look better.

So rather than bitching and fighting about all this, why don’t we get back to what matters? Why don’t we spend our time writing what we want to write, and never mind what other people want to write, and let the readers decide what they want to read?

On that note, I’m going to take my own advice and get back to this damn rewrite…

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One thought on “Genre vs. Literary Fiction: A Rebuttal

  1. Nice post. I’m convinced writers write about writing, other writers, what’s good, what’s bad, in order to flee from the terror or having to face their own stuff.

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