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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, September 15, 2005

literary vs. genre

Again it's the Grumpy Old Bookman who has provided the starting-point for today's post, on the topic of genre vs. literary fiction--a topic of some interest to me.

I don't profess to be an expert (and I would be skeptical of most of those who do so profess), but I did draft most of the (current) text for the Wikipedia article on genre fiction. I used it as an opportunity to try to sort out the main threads in the topic (the article does not necessarily represent my own point of view, which is still in formation). GOB strongly dislikes so-called literary fiction, and has never found an adequate explanation as to why it should be regarded as better than so-called genre fiction (sci-fi, romance, Westerns, and the like). He finds all enjoyable fiction to belong to the latter categories, and none to the former.

I mostly agree. That is, I too feel that fiction touted as "literary" is almost never something that I would enjoy reading. A more appropriate label for this class would generally be "pretentious".

I also don't feel that "genre" works are necessarily bad or inferior. I do, however, feel that they almost always are. Not inferior to the so-called literary fiction--they're usually no worse than that--but inferior to what I'll call, for want of a better term, a good book.

Everyone regards what they enjoy as good (except maybe those unfortunate guilty souls who feel bad about certain reading pleasures); I'm no exception. I suffer from fiction-reading anhedonia: I find myself able to enjoy fewer and fewer fictional works. But I know this: I'm no longer the fan of any particular genre. I don't enjoy a science-fiction book merely because it's science-fiction, or a mystery merely because it's a mystery. I have no taste for genres in that sense. My attitude is: you pick the genre, just give me a good story.

I'm perfectly willing to accept that any decent created work belongs to some genre or other. From Robert McKee's Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting:

Genres are not static or rigid, but evolving and flexible, yet firm and stable enough to be identified and worked with.... Each writer's homework is first to identify his genre, then research its governing practices. And there's no escaping these tasks. We're all genre writers.

And further:

Genre conventions are the rhyme scheme of a storyteller's "poem." They do not inhibit creativity, they inspire it. The challenge is to keep convention but avoid cliche.... With mastery of genre we can guide audiences through rich, creative variations on convention to reshape and exceed expectations by giving the audience not only what it had hoped for but, if we're very good, more than it could have imagined.

He speaks of screenwriting, but I don't think there's any real difference with fiction-writing. As McKee points out, no written work is so jarringly original that it doesn't resemble anything that's ever been done before. After all, writers learn to write by reading; that is, writers are first of all readers, and our teachers are those who have written before us and inspired us with their work. Indeed, the task of any writer who wishes to create something original is to get out from under the influence of the other creative writers who have been one's teachers--a condition that Harold Bloom called The Anxiety of Influence.

Genres are not static; they mutate, divide, and die. They're kept alive by the interest of readers, which is also the interest of writers. When reader interest in a genre wanes, it is faced with the Darwinian choice of adapt or die.

My suggestion is that self-consciously literary works are those that seek to defy genre conventions, and in so doing they more or less repel the audience. For defying the conventions is not the same as changing them or updating them. Defiance comes from disrespect; but changing the conventions, while still essentially staying within them, is a sign of respect. I remember in the late 1970s a novel called The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing became a bestseller. It was a romance, but it was set in the old West--so borrowed some of the qualities of the Western genre. As far as I know, this might have been the first Western romance--certainly it was the first one I was aware of. Now there is a whole Western subgenre within the romance field: an example of the division and crossbreeding of genres.

So I accept that all works are (or should be) genre works. What's my beef? I'm disappointed with the level of storytelling, even from those alleged to be great storytellers. Maybe more than that, the experience I truly seek is communion with the writer's mind: the intimacy of an honest sharing of experience. In my case, the benchmark experience is still A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. In terms of genre, this is a coming-of-age story. But the point of view, the telling, the honesty and depth of penetration of the author, and the powerful effects of his language, make it a classic. They make it literary, in the sense of providing a rewarding (enjoyable) aesthetic experience.

I've come to a distinction between "literary" fiction--works intended to be elevated, arty, intellectual, avant-garde--and "literature"--works by talented artists seeking to use narrative to express their truth, and in so doing create strong effects in the audience. If a writer can do this, the issue of genre dissolves. Whether a book is in or out of a genre becomes irrelevant. The "coming-of-age"-ness of A Portrait of the Artist is perhaps its least relevant feature. It's the narrative category to which it happens to belong. It's who is coming of age, and when, and how, and what that means for society and even for humanity as a whole, that matters here. The question becomes, how deeply does the writer understand the meaning of his or her story, and how skillful is the writer in telling it?

I think there's much more to say about this, but I'll stop here for now.

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