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The Old Divisions

At the Guardian, I came across an article about the division of literary and genre fiction. It's the old argument, of course, and here's a quote from it:

What Gaiman alludes to and Chabon tackles directly is the genre which we now know as "literary": the fictional worlds inhabited by people who think a lot and say a lot and feel a lot, but don't actually do very much over the course of the narrative - they might be caught up in the swell of an emotional riptide, perhaps, until Chabon's "moment-of-truth" revelation brings the story, such as it is, to a close.

The ongoing, endless war between "literary" fiction and "genre" fiction has well-defined lines in the sand. Genre's foot soldiers think that literary fiction is a collection of meaningless but prettily drawn pictures of the human condition. The literary guard consider genre fiction to be crass, commercial, whizz-bang potboilers. Or so it goes.

...

Maybe my tastes are overly simple, but if there really is a war between genre and literary fiction then, on balance, I'm with Neil Gaiman: while I want the technical accomplishment of a well laid-out meal, I also want to feel stuffed and satisfied afterwards. Good writing? Of course. Story? Why else bother writing, or reading?


Of course, the real problem with this war between literary and genre, is that it's stupid.

The divide between the two is based on a misconception of story. A story may indeed involve finding the forgotten key for a box that may unlock miniature dinosaurs. Or it may involve simply walking down a path. Both have narratives that begin, which rise, crest, and end in a moment of truth, to use the term that was nicked from Chabon's introduction to the very uninspiring McSweeney's. Be it the story about the miniature dinosaurs that can talk and offer car repair advice, or the man who checks the mail for the one letter he receives once a month, both stories require the reader to invest into the character and the events that are transpiring, be they internal or external events.

The problem with this argument is that it values one kind of story over the other. You'll not I'm not talking about the quality of writing, because good quality writing is always desired, though this comes in many forms as well--but just as there is good genre writing and good literary writing, there's shit on both sides. You'll all be able to name your favourites and hates on that, so I'll leave you to it, except to say anyone who lists Frank Herbert's Dune as an example of good genre writing is just wrong. But, as I was saying, this debate that exists is one that is based on putting a false value on a type of narrative, and claiming that either of them is somehow more fulfilling than the other, or that they function fundamentally different from the other.

(crossposted)

Comments

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catsparx
Jun. 28th, 2010 06:08 am (UTC)
I think the divide between the two is actually based on fashion. One camp is seen as being more high falutin' than the other, one is seen as being more 'commercial', whatever the fuck that really means. The folks who favour the top hats and long coats don't want to be seen hanging with the dudes in the flared polyester britches.

Personally, I'm completely over being told what to wear by anybody.
benpeek
Jun. 28th, 2010 11:57 am (UTC)
yeah, to a degree, i don't disagree there.
ironed_orchid
Jun. 28th, 2010 03:42 pm (UTC)
Interestingly, it often seems like both camps accuse one another of being more "commercial".
catsparx
Jun. 28th, 2010 08:46 pm (UTC)
I've never heard anything that sells only a few hundred copies described as 'commercial'
benpeek
Jun. 28th, 2010 11:53 pm (UTC)
yeah, but both sides sell books like that, and neither really talk about it.
catsparx
Jun. 28th, 2010 11:55 pm (UTC)
genre books that sell only a few hundred copies are considered flops. The same rules don't seem to apply to 'literary' books
ironed_orchid
Jun. 29th, 2010 04:13 am (UTC)
There are many literary authors who publish one book, and if it doesn't sell enough they never get an offer again.

Thing is, we never really hear about them unless we are in the right circles, or unless we were one of those people who picked it up, bought it, and actually liked it, and wondered whatever happened to the author.
benpeek
Jun. 29th, 2010 08:04 am (UTC)
that's not true. lots of literary authors--like genre authors--struggle to sell more than a few hundred copies in the small press, but in the mainstream press, they still have to sell, or its back to the salt mines, so to say. that kinda stuff is across the board, or so it seems to me.
lyndarama
Jun. 28th, 2010 09:53 am (UTC)
Thanks for this: I'm writing a chapter on Genre for this new writing course and its good to have something to point to - might use your blog post too come to think of it.
benpeek
Jun. 28th, 2010 11:56 am (UTC)
cool beans. anything else you need help with for it, lemme know if i can help.
ironed_orchid
Jun. 28th, 2010 03:41 pm (UTC)
It's totally stupid, and the only people who should care about are librarians and bookseller, because shelving systems do matter.

I think it would be neat if there were more booksellers who shelved entirely by alphabet instead of sub-genre (because I think the big genres, like fiction, history, cooking, drama, etcetera, do matter).

And the other dumb thing is the notion that all litfic is realist in nature, because, yeah, not so much but some stories about spaceships totally are...
benpeek
Jun. 28th, 2010 11:54 pm (UTC)
yeah, i wouldn't mind if we just did away with genre altogeher. imagine how different it would make some people be when looking for books.
ironed_orchid
Jun. 29th, 2010 04:16 am (UTC)
I imagine it would be a lot like when I was 12 and using the local library. I'd walk the entire length of the fiction shelves and see titles or covers which caught my eye, and read the blurb, and a page or two, and if it seemed interesting I'd borrow it. If I liked it, I would read everything else available by that author.

Of course, actually spending money on something might be a bit more of a gamble.
benpeek
Jun. 29th, 2010 08:04 am (UTC)
it sounds kinda how i browse and spend money on books already. lol.
ironed_orchid
Jun. 29th, 2010 08:41 am (UTC)
Yeah, me too, but I usually have to do it multiple sections.
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