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Saturday, September 03, 2011

It's Still Not New (Literary Genre Fiction -- Pah!)

Kim Wright has an interesting article on The Million about why literary writers going out to write genre fiction. Here's a rather amusing set of paragraphs:
It will probably always be open to debate whether these innovations are the result of writers seeking creative expression and wider audiences or a calculated move on the part of publishers who are simply trying to sell more product, even if it means slightly misrepresenting a book to its potential audience. But either way, the future seems to be stories which combine the pacing and plots of genre with the themes and style of literary writing. 
In other words, this crappy market may actually end up producing better books. Because hybrids, bastards, and half-breeds tend to be heartier than those delicate offspring that result from too much careful inbreeding. Just ask the Tudors. The best commercial writers were moving toward this anyway, creating highly metaphorical fantasy works and socially-conscious mysteries, expanding the definition of their genres even before the ex-pat literary crew jumped on the bandwagon. “We’re going to see more blending as everyone attempts to grab a larger audience,” predicts Patriarche, “and the literary snobs are going to have to stop looking down on genre.”
Overall, the article is sound, but it does fall pray to an argument I've refuted before. Namely, that the whole cross-genre literary-genre fiction, and the literary authors who have crossed over to write the stuff, is new.  But it's been going on for a while.  The only new thing is that people are starting to pay attention to it. And the sad truth Wright reveals is that people are paying attention because of the money:

Scott Spencer, who has published ten novels dating back to the mid-1970s, was once able to live exclusively on the income from his books and “make this kind of old-fashioned writer’s life work.” But, noting the inherent contradiction between the ups and downs and further downs of literary writing and his need to make a living, he is publishing Breed
There are other examples in the article, including a moment when Wright points out that many literary authors are turning to commercial forms of writing, all of which seems to contradict a statement made by a quoted publisher in the article about how writers just want to write.

I don't want to suggest that wanting to make a living as a writer is a bad thing.  In fact, it's quite awesome to make a living doing what you love.  Rather, my issue is the continued colonization of genre history for the purposes of the literary elite.  All these literary genre books are following a tradition that has been around for nearly a hundred years, if not longer (though SF doesn't get codified as a genre as we understand it until the 1920s or so).  Literary writers who claim that switching to genre or including "literary tropes" into a work of genre is somehow "new" or part of an "emerging trend" are people who simply don't know the history of the genre they're appropriating in order to fill their pockets (though not all literary writers are like this, if we're being fair).

And quite honestly, this all tells me that some folks are doing a piss poor job of learning their literary history. I am a genre writer, reader, critic, and academic.  But I've taken the time to learn non-genre literary history precisely because I understand that the two forms inform one another.  SF/F does not exist without modernism, postmodernism, and the various literary movements that followed, preceded, or lived within those movements.

Maybe I'm just rambling and acting the fool here, but it's high time people start acknowledging that genre has been an active participant in the development of our literary and general culture since its inception.  That's not me saying that science fiction deserves to be loved by everyone.  Rather, it's me saying that genre forms are inseparable from the cultural history in which we live, in which writers write, and so forth.  The same is true of non-genre forms too.

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  1. Good post, Shaun. I really hate the assumption that "genre" has yet to be "literary," and that only these Very Literary Fellows (they're probably all straight white men) can do it for us. I also hate that the character novel is assumed to be of more literary merit in the first place - or to have been written by someone with more literary skills - than genre. After all, making some literature Not-Literature is a ridiculous fallacy.

  2. Thanks, Ben. Glad you thought it was good. I try not to talk about these issues very often, because they do have a tendency to get repetitive. But every once in a while, it seems important to acknowledge why these kinds of things keep happening...

    I should also note that to say that once needs "different skills" to write "literary fiction" is as meaningless as saying you need different skills to write "short stories" versus "novels." Neither form is superior. Both forms interplay (though obviously there aren't many novels which are essentially just short stories, but you get what I mean).

    It's all just silly nonsense.