The difference between genre and literary fiction is the cause of most of the hard-fought battles in the book world. The difference is highly contentious, separating some groups of readers into those who think literature is elite and pretentious, while others decry genre as facile easy reading. These are fighting words, ones bound to elicit an emotional response rather than an intellectual one. And so I’m not about to consider the difference in such a provocative way. Equally, differences between genre and literary fiction exist on a sliding scale. It’s not black and white. But because there are differences, we can perhaps talk about tendencies, and my feeling is that one of several possible ways to distinguish between the two types is this: genre tends to reinforce current ideology whilst literary fiction tends to challenge it. I’ll explain what I mean by that in terms of character development.
In a novel I recently reviewed, The Chaperone, I spoke about the main character experiencing a kind of liberation from the strict 1920s outlook to which she had been conforming, thanks to her proximity to a young woman freed from all notions of convention. If this had been a genre novel of the 1920s, such a protagonist would have caused horror and alarm in her readers. In the new millennium, though, liberation is good, and a woman who learns to leave her corset behind so she can enjoy food, and who unbends mentally enough to enjoy sexual relations is smack in line with the ‘normal’ woman in our society. It’s a pleasure to the reader to see her released from silly old notions of respectability, which look to our eyes unhealthy and repressed. The main protagonist is a married woman who ends up taking a lover – an act that might seem to go against the grain of sympathetic behaviour. But in fiction, lovers are okay if there is a good excuse. And indeed, it turns out that her husband is gay and has had a partner he has been unable to give up throughout their married life. So this makes it all right; our sense of what is acceptable and proper (in the liberal 2000s) has not been disturbed. But what if our main protagonist had been taken further along the route of liberation towards hedonism and indulgence, and introduced into the hard drugs that were perfectly available in her time? If she had taken cocaine or heroin and enjoyed it, then even the millennium audience would baulk, and that precious sympathy of the reader, so coveted in genre fiction, would be lost. (And of course she doesn’t do any such thing.)
Essentially what I’m talking about here is referred to in academic circles as the ‘cultural gaze’, the sense that certain sorts of behaviours are looked at approvingly and valued, whereas others are not. The cultural gaze is shifting all the time, although when we are under it, the impression is that it is entirely ‘natural’, and that this is the way things are under the rule of common sense. It is surprisingly easy – and uncomfortable – to fall outside the cultural gaze, however. I am a skinny person, always have been and always will; it’s just a genetic thing. I can’t help but notice in genre fiction, particularly of the women’s fiction variety, how the thin woman is so often the bitch or the false friend these days, the super-competitive type, the neurotic, the unnatural slave of the gym who freaks if she eats two lettuce leaves. Thin has become the new bad, it seems, as main protagonists these days are comfortably plump and curvy, always meaning to diet but never quite sticking to it. That’s the sort of acceptable, non-threatening, easily identifiable protagonist who’s going to win the sympathy of the reader. I’m not saying here that genre always peddles stereotypes – it doesn’t. Lots of good genre novels develop characters of all kinds of different types. But it is unlikely that they will willingly or carelessly transgress the social boundaries that are understood to be the acceptable norms of the time.
It may be easier to understand this tendency when we consider a work of literary fiction. I’ll talk about Marguerite Duras’s novel The Lover, a highly unorthodox romance, as Duras is one of the most literary writers I know. Now, in The Lover, the main protagonist is a 15-year-old white French immigrant, living in Indochina. She comes from a poor family that has been stitched up by corrupt government officials; they own farming land that is flooded every year and thus unworkable. She catches the eye of young, rich Chinese man and the two begin a passionate affair. If this were genre fiction, you could imagine how it would go. The young girl would be charming and imperilled, the young man gallant and proud; there would be dreadful obstacles to be overcome before a happy-ish ending. In fact, Marguerite Duras does everything she can to make her protagonist unsympathetic. She uses the Chinese man, getting money out of him for her family, refusing to tell him she loves him, keener in fact, on her schoolfriend Hélène Lagonelle. The affair is a desperate attempt for her to separate out from a mother who both loves and hates her, and a family broken by poverty. But it has no triumphant ring to it, no sense of redemption or value. The whole thing is somewhat distasteful, and the reader is put not in a position of sympathetic identification with the characters, but shoved up rather too close to events that make him or her a voyeur.
None of this is pretty, but it has the ring of truth (misfortune such as poverty does not always make people behave well). What literature aims to do is to bring the reader alongside the reality of the human condition beyond the attributes and qualities that we are comfortable with. It shows us darker truths, truths that we are unwilling to accept, inconvenient and disquieting truths. Its skill lies in conveying these truths in ways which seem compelling for the fictional characters concerned and that chime with the reader, despite our orthodox inclinations. So to put this in rather schematic terms, genre fiction comforts us by reinforcing the image of the ‘ordinary’ person we aim to be, the person entirely acceptable to his or her society, while literature asks us to recognise the reality beyond that image, and feel perhaps a strange but profound solidarity with our less acceptable traits. In genre fiction, hysterical women are figures of contempt or fun; in literature, the hysterical woman is someone pushed beyond the boundaries of her tolerance, only able to act out the horror she feels. In this way, there is often more genuine compassion in literature than there is in genre for its characters. In genre fiction, we love characters if they behave the way we want them to; in literature we are invited to understand characters no matter what they have done.
As I said at the start, I’m considering a sliding scale here, not black or white categories, and there are doubtless exceptions. That’s what creativity is all about. And when it comes to genre there are gender divisions, the masculine imagination of the thriller finding it entirely sympathetic in a protagonist to commit acts of great violence in the name of saving his loved ones or his life, for instance. But the more literary a novel is, the more it asks the reader to go the extra mile into what is discomforting but real.
But we read for all sorts of reasons – sometimes to peer deeper into the injustices that persist in our world, and sometimes to be taken out of ourselves and away from the disquieting truths we are being forced to face in daily life. I don’t think we should ever sneer at either of those needs, as both are resolutely human. Stories can soothe and make sense, and they can disrupt and challenge. We need them to do both.