Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Genre v. "literary": the ongoing war

I've known for a long time that there is, in some reading circles, a distinct distaste for certain kinds of "genre" fiction. Science fiction and romance tend to be particularly heavily derided by these critics, or if not derided, simply ignored. Books in these and other "genres" don't often get reviewed anywher, but "literary" authors routinely do. Why is this? Well there is a reasonable expanation right here. The author seems to think, and with some justice, that it is a result of what he calls "blind prejudice". He is talking mainly about science fiction, and I know for a fact that some science fiction writers feel the brunt of his prejudices very keenly. Who doesn't want to be taken seriously, when they have put effort and energy into what they produce.

It's true, there is a lot of very bad "genre" fiction around. One only has to walk into a Borders or Barnes & Noble bookstore, and browse through the science fiction or romance sections, to see this. In the science fiction sections, for example, the astute observer has only to look at the offerings in that section to see this: most of what is there is "Lord of the Rings"-derived stuff about a hardy band of wizards, knights, dwarves, etc., battling some rising evil that's supposed to take over the world. No matter who writes these things, they all seem to have the same basic structure and exist in the same pseudo-medieval world. One gets the feeling that, once you've read one, you've read them all. At least Lord of the Rings was more or less "original" when it first came out. But then, it seems that these things sell, to a lot of readers who demand little else.

The same thing seems to be true of other genres as well: the whole "sexy vampires" bit seems to appeal to a lot of romance reader, and has even seeped int "young adult" fiction: witness the popularity of Stephanie Meyers' vampire series set in Forks, Washington(why would Forks, a place known largely for a rainy reputation that apparently exceeds that of Seattle, where I live, and for battles over spotted owls, attract vampires? But that's another story). Why are there so mnay writers who write mysteries solved by Jane Austen, or Elizabeth I, or some other historical character(and which don't otherwise look all that good)? The answer is, this stuff sells. Never mind that it's probably not all that well-written(with some exceptions). And this is what makes "literary" critics howl.

But to be fair, there is literary fiction that is not all that good, either. The critics, mainly those who have an "English major" background, don't see this, because they tend to be trained to look at literature, and writing, differently than most of us. They want a story, soemthing that has a beginning, middle, and end, and a resolution, usually either a "happily ever after" or at least a hopeful one. Literary critics, at least the kind that mediate between the public and the book, have a different orientation, and that is, they look for "deeper" issues, either what is called "character development", or some sort of "coming of age" and "adjustment" to ""real life". Literary novels often emphasize these, and resolution generally does not happen, becase, well, that's not what happens in real life.

I have nothing against such novels; gifted literary writers have a lot to contribute, in their own way, to the ongoing cultural conversation that takes place in the world. But most wirters of literary novels, though sometimes praised for their efforts, simply aren't that gifted. Their writing may be dense, "experimental", and heavy with "character development" to the exclusion of much of anything else. Which is why a lot of people don't read these kinds of books. But it's also why "literary" critics and some others, don't read science fiction or other "genre" books. Basically, both groups inhabit their own worlds, oblivious to the others. Which is sad, because there good authors of both "genre" and "literary" fiction out there. And even more unfortunately, a lot of people who don't, but might read more, get information only on the "literary" side, which might also be offputting for these people. For myself, I wish each side would give up their prejudices and promote good writing everywhere.

Peace, everyone!
Anne G

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