Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Why do I write this stuff?" - The literary vs genre fiction debate

On Sep 26, I spent the day at the National Book Festival in Washington DC.

(Yes, I know, that was about a month back. Which is one of the more liberating things about writing a book blog, as opposed to say a news or politics or sports blog. What I have to say isn't exactly time critical.)

The festival had great reader attendance, and a good many writers out in force working the audiences, signing books, and generally selling their stuff. There were tents where writers were making speeches and readers were following up with questions, townhall style. I saw the tent called 'Mystery and Thrillers' and was trying to give it a wide berth, muttering snootily to myself - "Boy, why does anyone write this stuff?" I would have crossed the spot, never to look back, had I not heard the writer of the moment ask rhetorically over the microphone - "So, why do I write this stuff?" How could I walk away from a question like that?

The speaker was S.J.Rozan, who described herself as a writer of the 'crime genre, private-eye sub-genre'. What she was doing right as I was walking by, was attempt to defend genre writing and writers against the 'snobbery of literary authors, critics and readers'. Since I consider myself to be one of those snobs that she was speaking against, I felt compelled to stay on and listen.

Before I go any further, let me state some definitions. To the majority of you who are no doubt already familiar, my apologies if this sounds pedantic. My intent is only to make sure we are all talking the same language through the rest of the post. The conversation here is about the merits or otherwise of genre fiction vs literary fiction. 'Genre fiction', or popular fiction, is fiction written intentionally within the norms and conventions of a particular kind of genre. Think of mysteries, thrillers, horror, romance, sci-fi, crime, vampire, whatever. Each of these genres has a dedicated fan base that the authors write for, a set of standard components they work with, and a sort of 'formula' that the fiction follows. Contrast this with 'Literary fiction', which is considerably more difficult to define. The best I can say is probably that literary fiction is precisely the type of fiction that does not fit into any of the standard genres. It is fiction that is more defined by character development, language, narrative style, psychological insight, social commentary and other such. Importantly, literary fiction does not lend itself to any specific 'formula' - each book, in other words, stands on its own merit.

Now, armed with those definitions, let us get back to S.J.Rozan, a proud genre writer, and her provocative question - "So, why do I write this stuff?" Rozan wants to tackle head-on what she (and all of her audience, based on all the head nodding I saw), calls the 'snobbery' of critics and literary readers. For all my identification with the group that she derides, I must admit I agree with a lot of what she says, and it is worth relaying to Brick and Rope readers.

'Where does the snobbery come from?', asks Rozan. Primarily from two drivers -

(1) 'There is a lot of crap published in the genres.' (Her words, not mine). This crap is what 'they' - meaning the literary guys - point to, to justify their snobbery. But that isn't
the real problem. Most of almost everything is 'crap'. What's special about genre fiction? The real problem the literary types have, in Rozan's view, is this: genre fiction is popular. Which gets us to -

(2) If something is so popular, it cannot, by definition, be high art. Because high art is defined by the rarity of the people that can appreciate it.

Now, that sounds reasonable enough, though I must say it is an awfully defensive line of argument for Ms.Rozan to take. But again, I am with her. I agree entirely that so much of genre fiction is 'crap' that it is hardly worth one's time to read that stuff. I also agree with her pique that when indeed there is work of high literary value that comes out of the genres, literary types are quick to say how the book 'transcends the genre' and is actually literary. John Le Carre comes to mind. Or Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre). It seems fair to me that genre writers cry foul when the best among them are highjacked by literary fiction as its own.

Rozan goes from here to ask an even more interesting question. Why, she asks, continuing her earlier thought, is so much 'crap' written in the genres in the first place? She lays the blame not on the writers, but on the publishers, and ultimately, on the readers. Every genre novel, she says, works under an overarching story (an 'uber story') that is common to the genre. For example, the uber story structure of whodunnits might be - Setting > murder > detective > misleading clues > danger > 'he done it'. Every reader already knows that uber story, and knows exactly what to expect. In fact, readers like those uber stories so much that they would buy and read those books even if they have no other literary value. It is not that these readers don't know the difference between good writing and bad writing, they just don't care! All they want is the story they expect from the genre, and literary value be damned.

Importantly, publishers know this about the readers! They know that these books will sell even if they are 'crap'. So they apply no filter before deciding what gets published and what doesn't. Why would they?

Literary fiction, on the other hand, has no uber stories. When readers start reading a piece of literary fiction, they don't know exactly what they are going to get. And there is no place for bad writing to hide. Readers spot it, and publishers know they will spot it. So all the 'crap' in literary fiction dies its deservedly silent death in the unopened drawers of college sophomores and trash cans of publishers unlucky enough to attract such 'talent'. Or maybe, in the new world, it gets a public burial as a self-published, internet-only novel.

So there you have it. The Literary vs Genre fiction debate, through the lens of one S.J.Rozan. I empathize with many of Ms.Rozan's positions and sentiments, though not all. I am not, for instance, sure of her assertion that all readers know good writing from bad writing. I also get the feeling that there is an element of patience that literary fiction demands, and genre doesn't - and I believe this demand for patience has a role to play in the popularity of genre.

Anyway, a few hours later, I am walking by the same tent again and find on the microphone James Patterson, the multi-bestseller thriller writer of such masterpieces as '1st to die', '2nd chance', '3rd degree' and so on till his latest 'The 8th confession'. A reader has just asked him what he himself reads and quite seriously he says 'Dickens, Tolstoy ...'. I am struck for a moment, and wonder whether I have underestimated the guy. The audience clearly knows better, because they burst out laughing. Turns out he actually reads Grisham. Oh well, what was I thinking?


  1. Good stuff. I like reading your posts. Mitti

  2. very interesting.