Here a ‘literary author’ (whose work is unfamiliar to me) decries the popularity of ‘genre’.
Edward Docx (has he taken a file extension as a Nom-de-Plume?) has had an initially cheerful, but subsequently less cheerful experience on a recent train ride. Firstly to the positive – everyone was reading. This he hails as a triumph of the novel over the gadgetry and distractions of the modern world. Too soon though his cheer is soured by a realisation that they are all reading Steig Larsson (and presumably none are reading any of his three published ‘literary’ novels). This he bemoans.
Docx makes his targets two of the most successful (read profitable) authors of recent decades. The aforementioned Swede and the American Dan Brown. On the basis of these exemplars he proceeds to rail against the popularity of ‘genre’ (as if these two authors of formulaic thrillers can somehow represent the diversity of all genre fiction). He compares genre fiction to the multinational hamburger chain and Lit-Fic to eel lasagne (I think this is meant as a positive for Lit-Fic).
The problem of course is that these analogies are abject nonsense.
To accuse Brown and Larsson of amateurism is hardly revelatory. That they are populist is demonstrable. That their writing is replete with clichés, unimaginative metaphors, derivative plotting, unenlightened gender politics, naff wordplay and unoriginal formulae… these things can remain undisputed. They are inconsequential to the argument.
What is of consequence is that these writers are not exemplars of ‘genre’ writing. To these authors I could easily add others: E.L.James of ‘Fifty Shades’ fame (infamy) springs quickly to mind, as does Stephanie Meyer and her sparklingly ‘vampiric’ creation. The fallacy here is a classical ‘straw man‘ (or straw woman in my examples). That Literary Fiction should be of surpassing quality to these examples is obvious, but it is no less obvious to me that genre fiction (if indeed there is a coagulant to combine sci-fi, fantasy, crime, romance, thriller, noir, dystopian… into a single category of fiction still somehow distinct from ‘literary’) should not also surpass a standard set so low.
‘Genre Fiction’ is susceptible to the misconception that its success is defined by sales figures, and to some extent this is true of any creative work, be that literary, statuary, musical or acrylic on canvas, but to make this the sole determinant is erroneous, and no less so simply because the work is genre fiction.
To be fair to Docx he does admit that Brown and Larsson are not ‘good genre’ writers, but he never raises any examples of those that are. Where’s his discussion of China Miéville? of Neil Gaiman? even Stephen King, who amid the airport-shelf dross and formulaic horror has written some enduring cultural touchstones – The Shining, Misery, Carrie, The Green Mile, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, The Body (Stand by Me), not to mention the Dark Tower series.
And what of the ‘literary’ authors who write genre? What of Michel Chabon? What of Alan Moore’s Hugo Award winner? Or Ursula Le Guin’s? What of Cormac McCarthy’s dystopia? or Margaret Atwood’s? And that’s before we begin on Yann Martel or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Le Guin herself has written frequently on the ‘false dichotomy’ of literary and genre fiction. Here she responds (brilliantly, and with a zombie) to Ruth Franklin’s review of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. The implication here seems to be that Chabon has transcended genre because Chabon’s writing is ‘good’. He hasn’t been limited by the constraints of genre… but this is a stifling and rather dated view of genre. I defy anyone to read Perdido St Station or American Gods or The Lies of Lock Lamora and suggest that its genre has curtailed the imagination of either Miéville, Gaiman or Scott Lynch (and of course generally people don’t; generally they declare these works genre-defying, or cross-genre – an ad hoc rescue of their argument that genre confines).
Perhaps the solution is in Ursula Le Guin’s hypothesis that “literature is the extant body of written art. All books belong to it.” That’s not to say that all books are good literature of course, but all are literature (yes, even Twilight).
I went through the Guardian’s 100 greatest Novels of all time and found eighteen (nearly 1/5) ’literary’ novels that are (secretly or openly) genre fiction (as defined by… me):
Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift: Fantasy / Alternative World / Satire
Frankenstein Mary Shelley: Sci-Fi / Horror
The Count of Monte Christo Alexandre Dumas: Adventure / Revenge Thriller.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Lewis Carroll: (Children’s) Fantasy
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson: Sci-Fi/Fantasy
The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde: Uncanny / Fantasy
The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame: Animist Fantasy
Brave New World Aldous Huxley: Dystopian Sci-Fi
The Big Sleep Raymond Chandler: Crime Noir
Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell: Dystopian Sc-Fi
Charlotte’s Web E. B. White: Animist Fantasy
The Lord Of The Rings J. R. R. Tolkien: High / Epic Fanatsy
One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Magical Realism
The New York Trilogy Paul Auster (with which I’m unfamiliar but which is described by The Guardian as a “metaphysical thriller”)
The BFG Roald Dahl: Children’s Fantasy
La Confidential James Ellroy: Crime
Wise Children Angela Carter: (with which I’m unfamiliar but which is described by The Guardian as a “Magical Realism”)
Northern Lights Philip Pullman: Young Adult Fantasy