Genre Vs Literary Fiction, Again

Tuesday, September 01, 2009, 11:59 PM

A couple of interesting articles were brought to my attention today, both concerning the ongoing genre fiction vs literary fiction debate. The first was sent to me by the very nice lady who gave me a most kind review for The Twelve in The Observer back at the star of July, literary agent and critic Nicola Barr (who is actively seeking Northern Irish writers, let it be known). It was an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that asserted the importance of contemporary plot-driven fiction, describing how the character-based fiction of modernists of the twentieth century, and its tendency to focus on internal (i.e. character) rather than external (i.e. plot) conflict, had its place in the 19-whatevers, but that in the twenty-first century, so-called genre fiction is better placed to reflect our society.

I'll admit my bias on this point. I've made my case on this before, stating my belief that "genre" story-telling can address big issues in a way that other forms of fiction can't, particularly when those issues are so big and so raw that tackling them in a more literal way is impossible. My hat's off to Lev Grossman for taking this stance.

I saw the converse of this point of view when I posted a link to my Facebook page. Gavin Carville responded with a link to a Guardian article about comments made by Booker-winning Scottish author James Kelman during the recent Edinburgh Festival. I hesitate to quote a newspaper, knowing first-hand how slippery and tricksy a newspaper quote can be, but his words are reported thusly:

"If the Nobel Prize came from Scotland they would give it to a writer of fucking detective fiction or else some kind of child writer or something that was not even news when Enid Blyton was writing the Faraway Tree because she was writing about some upper middle class young magician or some fucking crap."

No prizes for guessing that Mr Kelman was referring to Ian Rankin and JK Rowling in that quote. I was tempted to call the latter part of his spiel simple class bigotry, but I remembered that I myself have used the term "middle class navel gazing" to describe much of today's literary fiction, so I will point out my own hypocricy rather than someone else's. I confess I have not read any of Mr Kelman's work, so may not be fully qualified to comment, but I can't hold back on my contempt for this statement, if it is indeed accurately represented. It is the worst kind of snobbery (not even inverted) and literary bigotry, and utterly pompous. For an author who sells himself from a working class soap box, it displays a shocking arrogance regarding the reading habits of the proletariat he claims to embody on the written page. Worst of all, it is precisely this kind of supercilious intellectual vanity that has most people watching X Factor on a Saturday evening instead of reading a book.

There's an interesting debate here about the rights and wrongs of the statement. The fundamental point that most of them miss, however, is that the distinction between literary and genre fiction is purely a matter of commercial expediency. A means of categorisation that publishers and retailers use to arrange books on shelves, and target their respective audiences, is being used by so many as a measure of quality when it has no bearing whatsoever on the intellectual or emotional weight of the material being sold. So-called genre fiction is equally capable of revealing the truth about ourselves that is for some reason seen as the preserve of "literary" work. So-called literary fiction is equally capable of being the vacuous eye candy time-and-shelf filler that so many dismiss "genre" books as.

Here's a point of view from someone who came from a working class housing estate, and still lives on one: Class is not only a matter of money and social borders. There is also a self-sustaining intellectual class system that is based not on actual intelligence or the value of ideas, but on the pomposity of individuals who regard their own expressions of self as being superior to those of others based purely on an aesthetic laid down by the artistic establishment.

Thank God no one really listens to them.

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Blogger Linda said...

I also tire of the 'distinction' between literary and genre. The WSJ was a provocative piece, but yeah, to succeed in the traditional pub model, you better write something with a plot - and write it well. 'Literary' has become a dumping ground for anything not easily categorized into a 'markletable' genre.

A good read well-written defies categorization.

Speaking of which... yours is just that. I'll be reviewing in the next two months. Peace, Linda

1:27 AM  
Blogger jjdebenedictis said...

Awesome rant, and I really agree, especially with your last two paragraphs.

The snobbery some published writers show for genre fiction is amusingly akin to that demonstrated by some unpublished writers--the ones who blame their lack of success on the public being too stupid or superficial to comprehend the brilliance of their work.

They'd rather believe a cynical conspiracy theory than admit their writing maybe just doesn't resonate well with other people.

2:00 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

You see the same biases between genres, too-- fantasy, romance, vs mystery and thriller. For instance, there's rampant snobbery against romance (and erotica) but there's also a reason it accounts for such a large percentage of overall book sales (last I heard it was in the 50s, maybe higher if we count TWILIGHT). It's obviously speaking to many people on many levels.

I doubt I'll ever write or even read straight romance, but I'll forever defend it. Sheesh, writers need to get over themselves already.

4:09 AM  
Blogger McKoala said...

I loathe the 'if it's difficult to read then it must be good' school of thought. If it's difficult to read then it's often a pile o' poop and the fact that some people force their way through the tedium just so they can say they've read whatever it is to impress people is an even bigger pile o' poop.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Jamie Eyberg said...

having gone through a university system where Genre was shunned (although they did have a very interesting class in modern Gothic literature) It was a case of students versus faculty. The students enjoyed genre and defended it to no end. The faculty loathed it. Still, they couldn't argue that genre writers typically made more money than they did.

1:44 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I view the genre-versus-literary issue as a lot like the gun debate in the US: any argument is ultimately academic, because we all know who'd win in a fight.

Of course, re: fiction, the thought makes me smile, while re: gun nuts, it makes me shake in my liberal, gun-control-supporting boots.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Mary said...

Hear hear. :)

What’s amusing about the James Kelman quote -- slipperiness taken into account -- is how poorly this literary writer expresses himself. “Child writer,” indeed...

9:10 PM  
Blogger thewritekat said...

It's snobbery of the highest order, not to mention nacissistic B.S., to believe that "literary" fiction is somehow superior to genre fiction. It's like saying that you'd rather eat eggs instead of cereal for breakfast. One is no better or worse than the other. They're both sustaining and satisfying if prepared properly.

6:52 PM  

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