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Response to the Guardian: Genre Fiction Has Merit

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

CC2K’s Book Editor, Beth Woodward, responds to Edward Docx’s critique of genre fiction (read it here).

The Guardian published an article yesterday that had my Twitterverse all abuzz.  In it, novelist Edward Docx makes three arguments: 1) that genre fiction lacks literary merit when compared to literary fiction (he compares the latter to fine dining and the former to fast-food chains), 2) that writing genre fiction, because of its constraints, is inherently easier than writing literary fiction, and 3) that we’ve got to make sure the masses are exposed to the “finest writers of the [English] language”—meaning its literary fiction writers—or else we risk its (the English language, that is) “slow extinction.”



The Guardian’s comments section and the blogosphere—not to mention my Twitter feed—have devolved into a flurry of name calling.  I’m going to try to stay above that fray, because it’s petty and because, to Docx, I imagine it will prove his point: that we, the consumers of genre fiction, are blinded by overexposure to mediocrity.  Instead, I want to go through his essay and outline some of the problems and fallacies in his argument, and then bring up a few counterarguments.

And yes, I know I just made some of these points a few weeks ago in my “Rant Against Genre Bias.”  But Docx’s essay highlights some of the intellectual elitism—as well as the misunderstandings about literary and genre fiction—that I think are at the heart of the problem.

Problem 1: Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown do not represent the breadth of genre fiction.

Docx primarily cites two authors when he talks about genre fiction: Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown.  (Preemptive confession here: I haven’t read either Larsson or Brown.  Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is on my list of “books I should really read at some point just so I know what all the fuss is about,” but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.  As for Brown, I was in college when The DaVinci Code came out and my recreational reading was severely limited by my study time.  Plus, neither Larsson’s nor Brown’s work seems like something I would normally read without their commercial popularity.)  He calls both Larsson and Brown examples of poor-quality genre fiction, calling them “mesmerisingly bad.”  Yet Larsson and Brown are at the heart of his argument, representative of the crap the masses consume while overlooking all the “good” literary fiction out there.

Well, that’s hardly a fair comparison.  Even if we accept the argument that Larsson and Brown are “bad” genre writers—although I’m certain many would debate that as well—Docx is comparing the worst of the genre world to the best of the literary.  That would be like me saying that European chocolate is better than American chocolate by comparing Godiva to a Snickers Bar.

If you’re going to compare genre and literary fiction, let’s compare the best to the best.

Problem 2: “Constrained” does not mean “easier.”

Docx makes a second, though equally troubling, argument when he claims that writing genre fiction is easier than writing literary fiction because it is “constrained.”  And for that much, he’s correct.  When you have a mystery novel about a murder, the expectation is that the murder will be solved by the end of the book.  People who read mystery novels know this, and expect this.  (Though some genres are more constrained than others.  A novel may be science fiction, for example, based on its subject matter, but within that there really aren’t any restrictions.)  His argument is that genre fiction is easier (though not easy, he concedes) to write because of these constraints.  

Have you ever tried to write a sonnet?  Fourteen lines, in iambic pentameter, with a very specific rhyme scheme: abab, cdcd, efef, gg.  It’s extraordinarily constrained—and extraordinarily difficult to write because of those constraints.  I give mad props to Shakespeare, because I would have been tearing my hair out doing that.

Another metaphor: Sudoku.  Nine 3×3 grids that must contain all digits from 1-9, with no repeats in any row or column.  I can’t do a Sudoku puzzle to save my life.  My mind doesn’t work that way.  However, if you were to give me a blank grid, with none of the numbers filled in, I could do it easily.  In that case, again, it is the constraints that make it more challenging.

I don’t want to make the argument that, with the lack of constraints, literary fiction is easier to write because you can write whatever you want.  That’s simply not fair to the writers who work their butts off on their work, whether literary or genre.  Writing a book is an incredibly difficult endeavor, and each book will provide its own unique challenges to the author.  One book might be less difficult for an author, while another might be more challenging.  And different authors have difficulty with different aspects of the process.  Making the argument that genre fiction is easier to write is incredibly elitist, especially for someone who doesn’t write genre fiction!

Problem 3: Where does genre end and literary begin?

One of the problems I’ve always had with debating the merits of literary versus genre fiction is that the divisions between them seem nebulous at best.  According to the 2010 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, literary fiction is, “The general category of fiction which employs more sophisticated technique, driven as much or more by character evolution than action in the plot.”  Meanwhile, genre fiction is defined as “A formulaic type of fiction such as romance, western or horror.”  The book then goes on to name the following genres (including various subcategories within them): mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  (Western isn’t listed at all, but I think that it’s safe to consider it a genre.)

Among the writers Docx cites as being a “fine contemporary novelist” is Kazuo Ishiguro, author of Never Let Me Go, among others.  I read that book over the summer as the movie was gaining pre-release steam.  It focuses on the lives of three friends—Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy—who attend an English boarding school together.  As they grow up, they slowly start to unravel the mystery of their existences, that are—SPOILER ALERT—clones, raised with the sole purpose of ultimately donating their organs—END SPOILER.  Gee, sure sounds like science fiction to me.  (Specifically, according to the Writer’s Market, social science fiction, in which “the focus is on how characters react to their environments,” a subgenre that includes 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale.)

In 2007, Cormac McCarthy was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction—arguably the highest “literary” honor in America—for The Road, a post-apocalyptic novel about a father and son who journey south, to the sea, hoping that the environment will be more hospitable.  It’s a desolate, sparse novel, full of the kind of worst-case scenarios that populate arguments about climate change.  Definitely science fiction.  But wait, maybe it’s a fluke: McCarthy is a literary writer who just happened to write one genre-ish novel.  Except that his 1992 book, All the Pretty Horses, which won a National Book Award, was a western, and 2005’s No Country for Old Men was a western with a more contemporary setting.

And where a book is shelved in the bookstore is no help.  Nicholas Sparks is in the Fiction and Literature section, but Nora Roberts is in romance.  Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander both deal with time travel, and yet both are on the main Fiction and Literature shelves in the bookstores I frequent.  Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett can be in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Fiction and Literature, or Young Adult, depending on what book you’re looking for!  No wonder I shop online so often; I can’t find anything otherwise!

If we add a third term into the mix—commercial fiction—the waters become even murkier.  According to the Writer’s Market, while literary fiction focuses on “style and technique,” commercial fiction “is written with the intent of reaching as wide an audience as possible.”  Just to make things even more complicated, it also notes that the term commercial fiction is often used interchangeably with—surprise, surprise—genre fiction.

“Style and technique” are subjective terms, so without a rubric by which we can measure “literariness,” it doesn’t really tell me anything.  (And who would decide?  Critics?  Publishers?  Writers themselves?)  As such, the only quantifiable factor by which we can distinguish literary from commercial fiction is popularity.

Docx argues that we need to “bring the finest writers of the language more often to the attention of the carriages of people up and down the country who are evidently still willing and able to buy novels for the journey.”  In other words, we need to try to get more people to read literary fiction.  But, uh, wouldn’t that make it commercial fiction?  And if commercial fiction and genre are synonymous…duh duh DUM!  The plot thickens!  (But literary fiction is all about style and technique, right?  So maybe not.)

I make this argument because the boundaries between literary and genre/commercial novels are becoming murkier all the time, so much so that even the publishing industry seems to have difficulty articulating the difference (hence the ambiguous definitions in my copy of the Writer’s Market).  More and more novels are crossing genre boundaries, many genre novels are also gaining acceptance by the literary community, and many literary novels are also becoming quite popular.  Quite frankly, I think this distinction is unclear enough as to render the terms useless.


Next: Beth’s counterarguments…


Counterargument 1: Look at the classics.

When many people think about “good” literature, their mind immediately turns to the classics, the books that have maintained their popularity and critical appeal through the decades—or even centuries—and are still read and beloved by many today.

But would all of these classic titles be considered literary fiction today?  Probably not.  Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters would undoubtedly be considered romance and shoved away where poor male eyes wouldn’t have to see them.  Orwell’s 1984 would be in the Science Fiction and Fantasy section, and Animal Farm might have misguidedly been marketed as a children’s book!  (To Kill a Mockingbird most certainly would have been.)  A Christmas Carol?  Well, that’s definitely fantasy, or maybe horror (that Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come still freaks me the hell out).  Edgar Allan Poe—definitely horror.  Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Heart of Darkness—all adventure stories.  Yet these are some of the tales we remember best, the stories that have, and will continue to, endure.  Should we question their greatness simply because we can categorize them that way?  To do so would be to denigrate the impact they’ve had on literature all these years.

The publishing world is a different beast now.  It likes boxes and categories, even if—as I pointed out above—these distinctions are problematic.  But once upon a time, a novel was just a novel, judged on its merits rather than its subject matter.

Counterargument 2: Shouldn’t we all be on the same team?

Docx begins his article by talking about how he walked into a train car and realized that most of the people there were reading Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.  Instead of being elated that people are reading at all, his joy is dampened because of what they’re reading.

Every few years since my childhood, there’s been another wave of media sensationalism about the “death of reading.”  People don’t want to read books anymore.  They’re slow and boring.  Kids are reading less and less.  People don’t read because the [FILL IN THE BLANK] is taking over their free time.  When I was young, it was the television.  As I got a little older, it was video games.  Then it was computers and the internet.  Books will die if we’re not careful!  And the sky will fall!  And the world will end!

And yet, here we are in 2010, and the book is not dead.  If anything, I’d say it’s hotter than ever.  New e-book reader technologies have made books cheaper, easier to obtain, and more portable than cumbersome hardcovers.  And if recent blockbuster successes such as the Millennium trilogy, The DaVinci Code, the Twilight series, and the Harry Potter books have taught us anything, it’s that people do read, that there’s still a market out there for fiction.  You don’t have to like these books; God knows there’s a lot of good reasons not to.  But a lot of people do, and those people are reading and buying books.  And that, I believe, is good for all readers and authors.

As e-book readers become more dominant, I believe we’re going to see an upswing in the number of books sold.  No longer will people have to trek to the bookstore or library in the middle of a winter storm or summer heat wave to buy a book; they’ll have them instantly at their fingertips.  I was, and have always been, an avid reader, but in the year since I bought my Kindle I’ve read probably three times as much as I did before.  Other owners I know have had similar experiences.  Furthermore, online shopping allows readers to customize their books shopping to their likes.  I honestly believe the demand for books is going to grow and diversify within the next several years, and the book publishing and sales industries are going to have to adapt to that.

Docx’s doomsday prediction is much more narrow: that, if more people aren’t exposed to “better” fiction, the English language will slowly become extinct.  Yes, extinct.  I’m not sure how Docx can reasonably link the consumption of genre fiction—even bad genre fiction—to the death of the English language.  (Also, I’m not sure how Larsson can be linked to the problem, since the English versions of his books were translations.)  He never explains the linkage.

I call bullshit.  I’m sorry, but if something is going to kill the English language, it’s not going to be genre fiction.

I grew up reading, and a lot of it was crap.  And no, those Baby-Sitters’ Club books I couldn’t get enough of in 3rd grade weren’t exactly intellectually stimulating.  But every book that I read, no matter how good or bad, helped foster a love of language and reading and helped me learn how words and punctuation fit together.  If anything, I now credit my current life as a writer and editor to those early years of reading.

People cannot be forced to read a certain type of book because literary critics or the intellectual elite think it’s better than the allegedly lowbrow garbage on the bestseller lists.  There’s too many other things to do, too much competing for our attention and entertainment dollars.  People often critique literary novels by saying they’re boring, that nothing happens; Docx calls this a “fundamental dishonesty.”  Except it’s not dishonesty; it’s an opinion that many people hold.  And why would they read a book they find boring?

The fact is, people are reading novels.  And to me, it doesn’t matter whether they’re reading Stieg Larsson or War and Peace.  They’re reading something.  And more readers means more of a market for everything else—even those literary novels Docx loves so much.

Author: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

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