Genre versus Lit

I’ve been thinking a lot about genre and fiction lately… no great surprise, since that’s more or less the topic of my MA. But one of the things that’s come out of the mix of thought, conjecture, research and irritating postmodernist pontification is something of an insight into the process of writing genre-situated fiction.

You see, one of the Great Unanswered Questions of Literary theory is this: “What The Hell Is Literature, Anyway?” For over a hundred years, the Ivory Tower folks have been desperately searching for some definable, identifiable quality that will let them sort out the shining beacons of artistic wonderfulosity from the… well, from the Dan Browns of the world.

It’s probably a futile search, to be honest. And I don’t really care to go into why they think it’s important in the first place. Let’s just recognise that there are an awful lot of professorial sorts who really, really want a damned good reason to be able to point at Shakespeare or Joyce, and say “There! That’s Great Art. You Must Study That!”

Now, you may recall that I have in this very space advocated the reading of Really Crap Writing as a learning tool. My point being: that the crapulous writers make mistakes on a grand and grotesque scale, thus offering us very obvious examples of what to avoid. If you can manage to read Dan Brown, you can learn how not to write like Dan Brown — and that’s never a bad thing.

Of course, reading Dan Brown tells us nothing about Dostoyevsky, really. But I find that after wading through Dan Brown’s tripe, when I go back to reading something like Crime And Punishment, I do so with a new degree of appreciation, and I can actually see more in Dostoyevsky’s text than I could before I went down to Brown-town.

It’s not a stupid approach at all. In fact, as a principle it’s worth recognising: if you’re having trouble understanding a thing, go and consider its opposite for a while. You may well find unexpected insights.

So as I was thinking about genre-situated fiction, it occurred to me that the Literature people are really very dismissive of it. Alastair Fowler calls it Trivialliteratur and says it lacks value, and isn’t worth studying. Victoria Nelson describes readers of genre-situated fiction as addicts, drawn to an utterly empty and meaningless experience. John Sutherland likens readers of popular, generic (yeah, gotta use the word) fiction to alcoholics.

Now there are some solid reasons for them to do this, not least of which is that they more or less have to do so. “Literature” scores at least some of its points by being ‘exclusive’, and identifying with some kind of ‘high culture’ — and to do that, they need something ‘low’ to point at. But that’s far from the only reason that the Literature folks speak poorly of those of us across the genre divide. No — they look at generic fiction, and they see — well, something generic.

And that’s not entirely unfair, either. Think about the by-the-numbers Westerns that were churned out in their hundreds, the thousands of cookie-cutter romances, the Mills and Boon novels produced from a template almost as detailed and complex as any of their actual works of fiction. Can’t be difficult to do, can it?


Just try it some time, eh?

The thing is that when you’re writing for a tight genre, the readers know what they want. And you have to give it to them. If it’s that sort of crime novel, there must be a murder. There must be a detective. There must be clues, and various red herrings, and by the end, the good guy has to get everyone into the parlour and point out the bad guy.

As a writer, you have to make sure you get all those things in place. Not only that, but you have to kind of ‘hide’ them. You need to make it look like these pre-arranged plot elements and tropes crop up as a natural outgrowth of the narrative itself. If you’re clumsy, and you simply slot the scenes into place without really connecting them and without proper foreshadowing – then you’re a hack, and your readers will be disappointed.

As a writer, you do all this so that your readers can achieve that vital ‘sense of immersion’. The reader picks up your book, and even though they know the good guy is gonna catch the bad guy, even though they know the girl kidnapped in chapter three is gonna be rescued three chapters later — they want you to make it look like a surprise. They want to suspend their disbelief, and they want to pretend they don’t know how it’s going to come out, so you have to make it come out right but somehow still make it look like it could have happened otherwise.

Get the picture yet? This is a very, very complicated relationship, this one. Readers of genre fiction tend to follow their genres closely, often following favoured writers closely as well. (Hell, my wife has every Discworld book Terry Pratchett has ever written, and she even re-reads them while waiting for the next one to come out.) If you’re writing for people who know the genre — and perhaps your own work! — as well as you do, you can’t afford to screw it up. They’re trusting you to take them back into their favourite territory and yet still show them something new.

That’s quite a challenge, when you look at it that way.

Now, on the other hand let’s consider James Joyce’s Ulysses. Yes, it’s an amazing book. But what it’s not is generic. Joyce plays complicated literary games with his most famous text. The title is a giveaway: even though the main character is a tubby little half-Jewish Protestant Irishman, the book is named for one of the great epic heroes of ancient Greece. The chapters of the book are titled for events from The Odyssey, and the writing style (including the point of view) changes drastically from chapter to chapter.

Joyce isn’t trying to immerse you. He doesn’t want you to forget yourself and escape. He wants you to notice his work! He wants you to pay attention, appreciate the jokes and the puns and the clever imagery, and just to make sure you don’t get too comfortable, every time you just about get used to the storytelling he changes it again. He’s telling you loud and clear: THIS IS A BOOK! YOU ARE READING A STORY! THIS IS NOT AN EXPERIENCE! THIS IS A RETELLING! LOOK AT ME RETELLING IT!

You can get away with that approach in some genres of fiction. In the sixties and seventies, science fiction got a bit self-important and many of the writers began playing literary games. (Yes, British New Wave writers – I’m looking at you.) Alfred Bester did some amazing stuff with language. So did R A Lafferty. But that’s the nature of science fiction, after all — the literature of ideas, if you like, and therefore by definition open to experimentation. I’m pretty sure nobody ever published a romance written after the Joycean mode. I’d be surprised to hear of any Westerns or detective novels written in that manner either.

The point is that Joyce was creating Literature, and that was his goal. He wanted his writing (njot necessarily his story) to be seen and admired, so he created a book that forces the reader to see and admire the way that Joyce writes. No complicated rules for Joyce — or rather, no rules he didn’t invoke for his own enjoyment. There’s no detective in Ulysses, no murders, no gunfights at the OK Corral, no smouldering glances between the firm-chinned young doctor and the plucky, buxom nurse from the country.

Unconstrained by genre limitations, Joyce is able to write exactly as he pleases. And indeed, that’s one of the major points of Ulysses. Joyce was deliberately shaking up the idea of the novel, kicking the rules aside, demonstrating just how wild and broad the artform could be.

There’s no denying the talent of James Joyce. The man could write, yes. But he demanded a different relationship with his readers. Joyce is firmly in charge at all times, and you, the reader, can only follow and do your best to understand what he’s doing.

I’m going to step up here and say that there’s a real freedom in that approach. Yes, sure, if you’re betting everything on your devilishly fine writing style and you’re going to force your readers to see every word of every page, then you’d really better have your chops polished. You need real talent.

But then again, I’d argue that bringing an army of readers back, again and again, through twenty or thirty books around the same setting and characters also requires talent. It’s a different kind of talent to  be sure, but it’s no less real for all of that.

There may come a time when I decide to write something literary. But before I did that, I’d need to feel like I had something important to say, and that I had a unique and clever way of saying it. In the meantime, I enjoy being a storyteller, and I’m not at all convinced that’s the lesser of the two paths.

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