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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Literary vs. Genre Fiction: The Line? (Part Two)

[And now for the second part. You can read Part One here if you haven't already.]

2. Does the line do more harm than good?

Delmater thinks so. She suggests that genre fiction has been ghettoized by being shoved into the backs of book stores, relegated to tiny little sections, or mislabeled to sell more copies a la Michael Crichton (her example). The problem? As far as I can tell, Crichton was already labeled as a genre writer, just as a writer of thrillers, rather than science fiction. Genre fiction includes a lot of genres outside of fantasy and science fiction, such as romance, mysteries, westerns, thrillers (of all varieties) and other categories that I can't think of at the moment. Should Crichton have been categorized as science fiction? Yes, in most cases. The fact that he wasn't doesn't mean that he doesn't write genre fiction, just that he wasn't categorized as the most appropriate genre. At worst, Crichton has had his work shoved into the general fiction section, which is not actually a section that should be misconstrued as meaning "literary." The kinds of stuff that appears in general fiction are just the things that publishers label as general fiction. Literary fiction sits in that section, but so does a lot of other stuff that is less-than-literary.

But what about the whole shelving issue? Well, every chain bookstore I have been to has genre fiction right
smack in the middle of the store (next to general fiction) and YA fiction to its own section (sometimes in the back, and other times not; the YA/children's section is usually quite large, though). Small bookstores will sometimes have tiny sections buried in the back, but that's largely because what sells for them isn't genre fiction--otherwise they'd carry it. Most independent bookstores that I have been to, however, usually have a good supply of genre fiction on hand, and usually in a visible space. Maybe for Dalmater this is an issue of where she lives. If so, then I can't blame her for thinking that genre fiction has gotten a bad rap when all you see is the evidence of such things. Such things aren't "standard," though.

But Delmater also thinks that genre writers breaking into the "mainstream" are rare, citing J.K. Rowling as an example. I'm not sure that term means what she thinks it means, since "mainstream" readers do read a hell of a lot of genre fiction. In fact, if you look at the history of "mainstream," it is typically used as a pejorative term to refer to what is considered to be the "popular" strain. Literary fiction is not "mainstream." Not by a mile. In fact, there is so much talk about the general death of "literary fiction" these days and enough stories of literary authors selling only a few hundred copies of their recent literary venture that it's almost impossible to suggest that literary fiction is "mainstream."

YA, fantasy, and romance, however, are mainstream. They are three of the dominant genres in terms of the reading public (though not necessarily in that order). One could argue that science fiction literature is no longer mainstream, certainly, but there is absolutely no doubt that the most read works these days are genre fiction, and that film is largely dominated by science fiction (thus, SF is mainstream in the film sense). Look at the hardcover bestsellers list. Right now, as of Oct. 9th, 2010, there are seven genre fiction titles in the top 15, with two or three others that could be argued as genre depending on whether you include historical fiction in that category (I do, but others don't). On the trade paperback list, there are seven genre fiction titles in the top 20 and several that could be argued as genre. The list for mass market paperbacks, which sell better than the other two formats, shows fourteen genre titles in the top 20, and the number goes even higher if you decide to include historical fiction (once again). What does that tell you? People are reading genre fiction like crazy. There are all kinds of thrillers, mysteries, fantasies, and so forth in the top tier in terms of sales, and as soon as a Star Wars novel comes out, there'll be more (incidentally,'s top 100 has eight genre titles in the top 20; this is in contrast to the NYT lists used earlier because the Amazon list includes non-fiction titles, which accounts for eight of the remaining twelve books). The argument that these things are not "mainstream" in the literary world is, as a result, total bunk.

But--and here's the clincher--Delmater is correct that many titles do get shelved in non-genre sections, and that this produces a problem. It has little to do with the literary mindset that "genre is not literature," though. Margaret Atwood, for all her stupidity on the subject of science fiction, doesn't run away from the genre fiction title as Delmater suggests; she simply runs away from the science fiction title (speculative fiction, after all, is still a type of genre fiction). Atwood, however, isn't "mainstream" because she's a literary writer; she's "mainstream" because she sells a lot of books. But she doesn't sell as many books as Stephen King, Danielle Steele, Dean Koontz, and many others. They represent the "mainstream" too, and more effectively than does Atwood or the folks that Delmater suggests are behind the sublit-erizing of genre fiction. They are also all genre writers.

When it comes down to it, the argument about the "line" hurting genre writers only applies if one is concerned with "literary prestige." If we're basing the value of genre fiction on whether genre writers receive top literary prizes such as the Pulitzer or the Nobel, then obviously the line is killing genre fiction (even if a handful of genre writers have slipped through the literary cracks for those particular awards). But I don't think that's useful. We need to stop trying to hold ourselves up to the standards of a dying world. Literary fiction is dying. It's been dying. It has been forced to adapt to genre forms to survive largely because it's purest form cannot exist without the support of universities and patrons. People aren't buying pure literary fiction all that much anymore (which is sad, because there really are some amazing literary fiction books out there that deserve to be read). Genre fiction is doing well, regardless of the line. It seems like we need to move on and start figuring out how to keep genre going and how to revitalize genres that have been lagging, such as westerns and, dare I say, science fiction (in the literary vein). The "line" isn't the problem. It's us.

(Part Three is up.)

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  1. Maybe "literary" could just count as it's own genre. Then the average reader can pick up a literary novel without considering it a chore.

  2. It already is its own genre, but that doesn't stop readers from finding most literary novels chore-ish.