On the Literary and Genre

Here a ‘literary author’ (whose work is unfamiliar to me) decries the popularity of ‘genre’.

To summarise:

Edward Docx (has he taken a file extension as a Nom-de-Plume?) has had an initially cheerful, but subsequently less cheerful experience on a recent train ride. Firstly to the positive – everyone was reading. This he hails as a triumph of the novel over the gadgetry and distractions of the modern world. Too soon though his cheer is soured by a realisation that they are all reading Steig Larsson (and presumably none are reading any of his three published ‘literary’ novels). This he bemoans.

Docx makes his targets two of the most successful (read profitable) authors of recent decades. The aforementioned Swede and the American Dan Brown. On the basis of these exemplars he proceeds to rail against the popularity of ‘genre’ (as if these two authors of formulaic thrillers can somehow represent the diversity of all genre fiction). He compares genre fiction to the multinational hamburger chain and Lit-Fic to eel lasagne (I think this is meant as a positive for Lit-Fic).

The problem of course is that these analogies are abject nonsense.

To accuse Brown and Larsson of amateurism is hardly revelatory. That they are populist is demonstrable. That their writing is replete with clichés, unimaginative metaphors, derivative plotting, unenlightened gender politics, naff wordplay and unoriginal formulae… these things can remain undisputed. They are inconsequential to the argument.

What is of consequence is that these writers are not exemplars of ‘genre’ writing. To these authors I could easily add others: E.L.James of ‘Fifty Shades’ fame (infamy) springs quickly to mind, as does Stephanie Meyer and her sparklingly ‘vampiric’ creation. The fallacy here is a classical ‘straw man‘ (or straw woman in my examples). That Literary Fiction should be of surpassing quality to these examples is obvious, but it is no less obvious to me that genre fiction (if indeed there is a coagulant to combine sci-fi, fantasy, crime, romance, thriller, noir, dystopian… into a single category of fiction still somehow distinct from ‘literary’) should not also surpass a standard set so low.

‘Genre Fiction’ is susceptible to the misconception that its success is defined by sales figures, and to some extent this is true of any creative work, be that literary, statuary, musical or acrylic on canvas, but to make this the sole determinant is erroneous, and no less so simply because the work is genre fiction.

To be fair to Docx he does admit that Brown and Larsson are not ‘good genre’ writers, but he never raises any examples of those that are. Where’s his discussion of China Miéville? of Neil Gaiman? even Stephen King, who amid the airport-shelf dross and formulaic horror has written some enduring cultural touchstones – The Shining, Misery, Carrie, The Green Mile, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, The Body (Stand by Me), not to mention the Dark Tower series.

And what of the ‘literary’ authors who write genre? What of Michel Chabon? What of Alan Moore’s Hugo Award winner?  Or Ursula Le Guin’s? What of Cormac McCarthy’s dystopia? or Margaret Atwood’s? And that’s before we begin on Yann Martel or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Le Guin herself has written frequently on the ‘false dichotomy’ of literary and genre fiction. Here she responds (brilliantly, and with a zombie) to Ruth Franklin’s review of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. The implication here seems to be that Chabon has transcended genre because Chabon’s writing is ‘good’. He hasn’t been limited by the constraints of genre… but this is a stifling and rather dated view of genre. I defy anyone to read Perdido St Station or American Gods or The Lies of Lock Lamora and suggest that its genre has curtailed the imagination of either Miéville, Gaiman or Scott Lynch (and of course generally people don’t; generally they declare these works genre-defying, or cross-genre – an ad hoc rescue of their argument that genre confines).

Perhaps the solution is in Ursula Le Guin’s hypothesis that “literature is the extant body of written art. All books belong to it.” That’s not to say that all books are good literature of course, but all are literature (yes, even Twilight).

I went through the Guardian’s 100 greatest Novels of all time and found eighteen (nearly 1/5)  ‘literary’ novels that are (secretly or openly) genre fiction (as defined by… me):

Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift:                                                      Fantasy / Alternative World / Satire

Frankenstein Mary Shelley:                                                                    Sci-Fi / Horror

The Count of Monte Christo Alexandre Dumas:                       Adventure / Revenge Thriller.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Lewis Carroll:                  (Children’s) Fantasy

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson:                          Sci-Fi/Fantasy

The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde:                                        Uncanny / Fantasy

The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame:                                  Animist Fantasy

Brave New World Aldous Huxley:                                                          Dystopian Sci-Fi

The Big Sleep Raymond Chandler:                                                          Crime Noir

Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell:                                                 Dystopian Sc-Fi

Charlotte’s Web E. B. White:                                                                       Animist Fantasy

The Lord Of The Rings J. R. R. Tolkien:                                               High / Epic Fanatsy

One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez:          Magical Realism

The New York Trilogy Paul Auster (with which I’m unfamiliar but which is described by The Guardian as a “metaphysical thriller”)

The BFG Roald Dahl:                                                                                          Children’s Fantasy

La Confidential James Ellroy:                                                                     Crime

Wise Children Angela Carter: (with which I’m unfamiliar but which is described by The Guardian as a “Magical Realism”)

Northern Lights Philip Pullman:                                                               Young Adult Fantasy

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2 responses to “On the Literary and Genre

  • jikajika

    Shark infested waters old boy.

    Way I read it, Docx was using defensiveness of literary fiction as a lever to open up a debate on how we determine the value of artwork. Seems to me getting defensive of genre fiction in reply misses – at least fails to engage with – that fundamental question.

    And that is a shame, for it is an interesting topic to lever open. Eg. far as I know the bulk of arts funding still goes to ‘high arts’ like ballet, opera, and orchestra. Grassroots innovation gets nothing. Similarly, the most prestigious national literary prizes seem to be dominated if not monopolised by literary fiction, even though sales for literary fiction are generally very poor. So I guess both successful artistic innovation and genre fiction sustain themselves through self-commodification.

    Interesting contrast, I think, with urban development. It is often those local communities who have deliberately established functional common spaces and places, as well as lively and healthy street culture and communal living arrangments like community gardens that are highly valued (Brunswick anybody?). But what happens when the locals do this? Their urban space becomes commodified and they are priced out of their own creation when developers buy up property and wealthier (not to mention less communal) people move into the area. The locals who established the value in the first place and who sustain it can no longer afford to live there or no longer want to live there, and the urban space becomes devalued again (Brunswick anybody?).

    So I wonder if perhaps by definition high culture can always be highly valued but never successfully commodified, and if succesful commodification always obstructs art from being judged as high culture. I also wonder if gentrification will always mean highly valued urban spaces are ultimately devalued by their commodification.

    Anyway. That’s enough from me. What I really want to do is encourage you to tweet a link to your post here on Docx’s twitter account and invite him over for a yarn. Surely it is only polite to grant him right of reply?

    • J Michael Melican

      Thanks Seth,

      Defensive of genre? Well, yes. I suppose i must plead to that charge to an extent. I didn’t read Docx’s article as defensive though. My inference was that he was criticising genre fiction. Why else the modulation of his cheerfulness? Why else the snide aside about cows and the barrista? Why else the attack on genre’s low-hanging fruit?

      To the point of how we gauge the value of art, I do have a paragraph on how we judge the success of art, and perhaps that’s meant as a synonymous discussion. That said where I do more directly engage with the ‘not even good genre’ line by proposing some ‘good genre’ authors I am probably falling into the same trap of treating my subjective valuations as objective.

      Your point on arts funding is a good one, but I would like to think that the value of art is not as commodity. Perhaps (almost certainly) that is idealist.

      The point I was trying to make though is that sometimes ‘low art’ or ‘pop art’ or ‘genre fiction’ gets it right. Docx seems to me to be suggesting that even ‘good genre’ writing should not, indeed can not, be valued as highly as literary fiction. His ‘misquote’ of D’Israeli says as much. His final posed question does as well.

      Do readers deserve better than Steig Larsson and Dan Brown? Some readers may not wish for better, others might disagree with Docx’s suggestions of what is better, but those that do wish for better most certainly deserve it.

      If I can respond though with a question: Why is it that that ‘better’ alternative must be found in literary fiction? Why cannot there be a better alternative in any of the wide realms of genre? and as Le Guin hypothesises – Is this even a distinction we need make?

      As for Twitter… I have no account yet, but the weight of evidence is indicating I should get one sooner rather than later. The final determination to make I suppose is whether to have a purely professional one or mix it with the personal.

      Thanks for the comment, and stay tuned.

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