What’s wrong with ‘genre’ fiction?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I read two articles in the last couple of days which has caused me to mull over, yet again,  the perceived gulf between ‘literary’ versus ‘genre’ fiction. In her piece in the New York Times, Karen Gillespie describes how, after losing her publisher, she enrolled in an MFA in creative writing to improve her skills only to find her work derided as being ‘parlour fiction’ (she was the published author of five humorous, romantic books). For those who want to read the article in its entirety the link is hereSuffice to say, her journey was one from ‘genre’ to ‘literary’ and right back to ‘genre’ again after discovering writing so-called ‘serious’ pieces actually meant losing her author voice and all commercial viability. I especially liked her description of how an agent flew in to be a guest lecturer in the MFA program, only to be greeted by an outraged faculty who deemed the agent’s advice (have a distinctive voice and a decent plot) as somehow ‘cheapening’ the art of writing. This made me smile, for who amongst us has not had someone ask “so when are you going to write a serious novel?” (to which I assume they mean a literary tome of immense weight and authority…)

Then I saw an article on the Guardian book blog arguing that ‘literary fiction’ is really nothing more than clever marketing (see the link here) and I smiled again – because, as the article points out, many famous writers like Jane Austen never imagined their work would one day be deemed ‘literary’ (she wrote, after all, to entertain and make money). It seems ridiculous to me that we are still having the debate over ‘genre’ versus ‘literary’ fiction but if Karen Gillespie’s article is right, many MFA programs still believe that somehow they are creating ‘literary’ writers to trump those who delve in crass commercial fiction.  

For me the important message I got from her article was that it is vital that, no matter what course your career takes (or what writing course you may take) that you never lose sight of your own ‘voice’ and writing strengths. In other the words, there’s no use trying to be the kind of writer you aren’t. In many of the writing groups I’ve attended, there is a pervading sense of the need to produce ‘literature’ rather than focusing on simply writing the story you want to write. I certainly felt this pressure and, for many years, it stymied my progress (I never felt I could live up to this amorphous literary ideal)- I only felt comfortable in my own writing skin when I decided to ignore all that and just write the book I wanted to write  The article in the Guardian concludes (quite rightly I think!) that rather than getting hung up on all literary marketing, that we should just accept that “all books can be thrust into a genre, and lit fic is simply one of many. As a tag, it tells us nothing about the intrinsic value of any individual title. There are good books and bad books, and both are to be found from one end of the fictional horizon to the other”.

So what do you think? Do you still feel there is a distinction between ‘literary’ fiction and genre fiction? Is the divide lessening or do you still find people looking down at writers of mysteries or other genre fiction, as if they are somehow less worthy, less ‘artistic’ than their so-called literary counterparts?

Literary Snobs & Commercial Sellouts

By John Gilstrap

I’m getting a little panicky. Tomorrow (Saturday), I am moderating a panel at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, called Literary Snobs & Commercial Sellouts, an exploration of the truths and truisms of the prejudice we all have felt at one time or another.

I’m one of those people who takes moderating responsibilities pretty seriously, so as I gather research for the panel (two genre authors and one literary author), I’m finding this all to be much more difficult than I had expected. Defining genres is fairly easy. You’ve got your mysteries, your thrillers, you romances and on and on, each with their expected constructs. Okay, I get that. Sure, there are some exceptions to the rules and some crossover authors, but basically genre is, well, genre.

So, what the heck is literary? I talked to my agent today to bounce my thoughts around and hypothesized that perhaps “literary” could be defined as absence of genre. No, she said, that would be “mainstream.” Literary is something else. Unfortunately, she wasn’t a lot of help when it came to putting a finger on a useful definition of that other something.

Some who post on the Internet posit that while a commercial novel stresses plot, a literary novel stresses other-than-plot. Okay, then explain how Harper Lee or even J.D. Salinger can be considered “literary.”

There are lots of throw-away insulting definitions of “literary,” but those aren’t useful to me in my hour of need. Seriously, what makes the difference? Is it merely a matter of personal taste? Surely it has to be something more that merely “well-written,” because most books fall within a ring or two of that bull’s eye.

If a book fails to move me, can it still be “literary”? If a book does move me, can it be anything but? All input is desperately welcome.