Monday, August 13, 2007

The Continuing Battle: Literary vs. Genre Fiction

The tension within the publishing world over literary fiction versus genre fiction has long interested me. It's a recurring topic of discussion in my weekly writers' group. (All the fiction authors in my group write books classified as genre fiction.) We've noted that some books touted by the lit-crit crowd could easily fit within genre fiction categories, too--but if they were first called genre fiction, many of those lit-crit types would never touch them.

As you can tell from the preceding sentence, I am not among the lit-crit crowd. I love genre fiction, which has been my preferred reading matter for my entire life. As an English major, I put in the required four years of reading literary masterpieces. Some of them I loved--I've read and re-read Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and War and Peace several times each--but many of them I hated. (Get thee behind me, House of the Seven Gables, Moby Dick, and Portrait of a Lady!)

David Lubar's hilarious A Guide to Literary Fiction expresses my point of view on most literary fiction I've read. As he concludes,

One final hint. If you're ever in doubt about whether a story is literary, there's a simple test. Look in the mirror immediately after reading the last sentence. If your eyebrows are closer together than normal, the answer is yes.

(This is off-topic, but funny: According to Lubar's Little-Known Literary Facts, "Research into the archives reveals that Herman Melville was far ahead of his times. His working title for Moby Dick was actually Whaling for Dummies. His publisher changed it without informing him.")

I like books that have a happy ending, or at least an optimistic ending. I've experienced enough tragedy in my own life--I don't want to wallow in the miseries of others. Obviously, negative dramatic events are essential to a book's plot--how else do you put your main character in jeopardy? If I read about someone else's tragedy, however, I want the story to end on a positive note. I don't want to toss and turn through a sleepless night after reading a book whose ending can be paraphrased as, "Abandon hope: life is futile." That seemed to be the message in a lot of the literary fiction I've read.

Booksquare has had a couple of interesting posts recently on genre. Check out "A Rose By Any Other Name: Has Genre Become Irrelevant?", by Pam Jenoff, who "has experienced the ping pong nature of genre designation firsthand (and survived to tell the tale!)," and Why Did the Reader Cross the Aisle?, in which Booksquare (a.k.a. Kassia Krozser) wonders, "The question roiling in the scary place that is my mind is whether or not strict genre categorization serves a book well."

In an excellent post on Teleread, Isabelle Fetherston discusses "Why libraries should offer popular fiction--in both print and e-book formats." She points out that in the 19th century, most libraries didn't carry fiction at all, because librarians believed that reading novels weakened the mind. After libraries began admitting fiction to their collections, many librarians still limited their fiction purchases to classic or educational literature, disdaining books that had popular appeal. In the last 50 years, however, "reader choice has gained more acceptance among librarians—as an important aspect of intellectual freedom." Fetherston says,

The American Library Association even promotes a “Freedom to Read” statement, which includes the following quotes: “The freedom to read is essential to our democracy” and “There is no place in our society for efforts to coerce the taste of others, to confine adults to the reading matter deemed suitable for adolescents, or to inhibit the efforts of writers to achieve artistic expression” (emphasis mine).

She notes, however, there is still a cadre of librarians who believe they should choose what their users read:

In an opinion piece in the December issue of American Libraries, David Isaacson does not object to all novels. But he does “question the argument that libraries should go out of their way to acquire romance novels, thrillers, and other kinds of literature whose primary purpose is escape and titillation.”

Now that makes me angry. If escape and titillation are what I want, it's not Isaacson's place to say I can't have it. I want libraries to include all kinds of fiction in their collections, whether classic, "improving," or "escape" novels.

Let's face it, popular fiction IS genre fiction. Although literary fiction does hit the bestseller lists, those lists are overwhelmingly populated by genre novels. These are the books that satisfy reader fantasies. Including mine.


Steve Malley said...

Hi Sphinx!

I think there's an important distinction to be made too, between literary fiction and literature.

Much of our current canon of literature, were it to be released today, would be genre:

Jane Austen? Romance.
Poe? Mystery/Horror
RL Stevenson? Thriller
Walter Scott? Thriller
George Elliot? Thriller
Wilkie Collins? Thriller

Your much-reviled House of Seven Gables would likely find its home on the shelves next to other paranormal romances.

Back in the days when the literary canon where still 'new releases', novelists made a sincere effort to entertain. It was a very different beast to today's 'literary' genre (yeah, I call it a genre).

I think the ivory-tower elitism came into it around the time of the Victorian 'sensation' novel: Dickens was the first great writer to be tutted at for his commercial popularity.

And personally, I think if he were writing today, Daniel Defoe would be stuck in the crime genre: Moll Flanders would be a crime novel, because that seems to be our modern vehicle for biting social commentary...

Sorry to run on so long!

Charles Gramlich said...

Steve is right. I personally prefer the separation of genres because it makes it easier for me to find books I like rather than having to go through a bunch of stuff that I likely won't enjoy. A problem now, for me, though, is that a lot of paranormal romance are getting linked to horror and they are two very different things.

Sphinx Ink said...

Thanks for the comments. Steve, I agree that most classics of literature could be categorized within one of today's genres--another reason why the lit-crit crowd shouldn't look down on all genre fiction.

Charles, I too like categorization according to genre in bookstores or libraries, because it helps me find the kinds of books I like most. However, it also limits books that cross genres, by placing them into a single section. Fans of one genre may never discover a book that could fit into their genre, but has been shelved only within another genre.

I read websites, newsletters, and book club announcements about upcoming releases to find books I'll like, but which I may never discover if I simply shop at a brick-and-mortar bookstore.

Shauna Roberts said...

Great post. As you probably know, I read mostly genre fiction myself. I find it annoying to be looked down on by those whose reading tastes run toward the so-called literary. I find it even more annoying when such people read a genre book and insist it's not a genre book because they enjoyed it or because it's a classic.

Lisa said...

Hi Sphinx Ink, This is a great post and I wanted to come out from lurk mode and comment from the perspective of a reader only (I don't want to go near the topic of how various books are reviewed/not reviewed). In the past I read a lot of thrillers and horror, never much sci-fi or fantasy, but I primarily read general/literary fiction. I'm a little dubious about the distinctions made between general/upmarket/literary these days. It's just a matter of preference. I think what's happening in the publishing industry with regard to the ridiculous number of genres and sub-genres is similar to what started happening in the music industry a number of years ago (ever try to guess what category something you want to download from iTunes might fall under?). I don't think all the categories have done the reader, or most authors (unless the books are clearly in a specific genre) any favors. I don't look in the genre sections because I'm typically not looking for those types of books. But I have been surprised once or twice. A couple of years ago a friend told me about Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver and it sounded great. I searched everywhere in the bookstore and finally had to ask for help. It was in the science fiction/fantasy section. To this day, I have no idea why. I believe there was a time when with the exception of hard core science fiction and romance, all novels were just called fiction. I don't think there was any such thing as literary fiction and there sure wasn't any such thing as women's fiction. I think the vast number of genre labels only serve to enforce a bizarre kind of snobbery and reverse snobbery and they make us discount the vast number of books that don't fall into the narrow categories we think we like to read.

Sphinx Ink said...

Shauna, your comment is on-target with my feelings. Nothing more annoying than someone who condemns a genre without having read any or much in it or, vice versa, who refuses to consider anything he/she likes to read as "genre" because he/she only reads "real" books.

Lisa, your analogy of the music and publishing industries is apt. Your statement, "the vast number of genre labels only serve to enforce a bizarre kind of snobbery and reverse snobbery and they make us discount the vast number of books that don't fall into the narrow categories we think we like to read," is great. Couldn't have said it better myself. Thanks for commenting.