Genre/Literary Redux

Just a few more words on this debate, occasioned essentially by this article that the adorable Stefanie linked to on the comment chain of my previous post. It’s by Lev Grossman and whilst he makes many good points and I agree with him on a great deal of what he says, his article annoyed me by being somewhat sneakily and on the quiet, a defence of genre at the expense of the literary. Once again, I wonder: is there any way to conduct this debate without it sinking into a zero sum game of value judgements? To my mind, this is the biggest problem with the differences between literary and genre fiction – that they cannot be read as simple difference, but must be seen as engaged in a competitive hierarchy. This is fundamentally false: difference DOES NOT always and inevitably imply a difference in quality.

How many times do we have to learn this lesson? We’ve been through it all before with gender, with endless debate over evaluating the differences between men and women. We’ve been through it very painfully with race, and ugly questions of innate racial superiority. Now we keep dragging it out on issues as ultimately pointless as whether literary or genre novels make the ‘better’ fiction.

Perhaps it boils down to the very human need to assign justification to personal preferences. It seems we can’t simply ‘like’ something, without needing to rationalise why that might be, and to push for our preferences as being based in objective scales of value. But how foolish is this? If I like roast potatoes better than I like them mashed, does that make roast potatoes somehow superior? Of course not, it’s simply a personal preference. I suppose the defensiveness arises because of this spurious belief that what we read reflects on our characters. But let’s get a little perspective here: choosing whether to read Agatha Christie or James Joyce on the weekend is not in the same league as choosing whether to help the poor or experiment with chakra torture on small animals. Okay? It doesn’t matter what novels we read. The point is that we read, and gain the benefits of keeping our minds and imaginations open, of empathising with the plight of others and asking challenging questions about the way we live. All reading invites us to do this.

A much better test of character is what we do when we’re given a little power. And here’s where I think some public commentators on books let readers down. When I was teaching students, we began on the assumption that our experience when reading was very important, but it was the springboard for thinking about the book, not the last word on the subject. In fact, the job of the teacher was to show the students just how much there was to say about a book, beyond the fact of whether they had enjoyed it or not. The most admirable critic, for me, is the one who can really bring out the interesting and salient features of a novel, even if they did not personally appreciate it. In my mind, that’s being a professional. If the first thing critics do with authority is start pushing their partisan preferences and denigrating the competition, well, let’s just say that doesn’t impress me much. We have politicians for that sort of thing.

So, just in case I was not clear enough before, my position is this: in the creation of fiction, there can be literary elements and genre elements, and these do different things, both of which have value. And I still think it is useful and intriguing to explore the differences between those literary elements and the genre ones, without casting aspersions on any of them, or indeed thinking that terms like ‘convention’ or ‘experimentation’ naturally come loaded with value, either.

But I really do find I (personally) dislike the defensive rubbishing that goes on in the book world, whether it be over the difference between literature and genre fiction, or even individual attacks on authors or books. And I am particularly sick of reading slashing remarks about ‘literary critics’ as if we were all the same person! I know, I know, it can be amusing, reading one side stitch up the other. But starchy as it may sound, I have an ethical problem with it. On the one hand, there’s always a living, breathing human being behind a piece of writing, and one who has probably put heart and soul into their creation; they deserve better than clever, snide remarks. And on the other hand, it creates – well, has created as is so clear to see – a climate around the arts where extreme disrespect becomes commonplace and acceptable. Ultimately this devalues the arts themselves, makes them seem pointless and unsuccessful and worthless, which in turn leads to less popular interest, less official interest, and government cuts in funding and so on and so forth.

What I am talking about here begins and ends in balance. That we can own our personal responses of like and dislike without believing they are objective judgements. That we should, in other words, be fair in a way that mitigates our emotional reactions without denying them. And I should add that the debate in the comments on my previous post was pretty exemplary in this respect, thanks to the intelligence and good manners of my readers here. Isn’t it so much more interesting when people discuss in reasoned and respectful fashion? We don’t have to resort to insults and aggression to hold the attention of an audience.



On a different note entirely, thank you all so much for your wonderful messages of support, which I’ve found immensely comforting over the past week. I’m slowly getting better – almost free from infection now, just feeling a bit blitzed and a bit tetchy! I am so behind in everything it’s not true – dear friends to whom I owe emails, you will hear from me soon! And I’m reading everyone’s blog, just not got the energy to comment, but I’ll be back soon.


23 thoughts on “Genre/Literary Redux

  1. I think there is some badly written genre out there that drags down all the others, another assumption I have is that many who defend literary books shouldn’t even talk about genre as they openly say they don’t read it. So how can they possibly judge it?
    I see the two as complementary. there are few basic things I want from both. They should be ethical and well written.
    Kindness in the way we talk and write about others is unfortunately missing very often.

    • Caroline, I often think that – that the most ardent defenders of each camp tend to be ignorant of what actually goes on in the other! And I completely agree with you about seeing them as complemetary. I think all types of narrative have fascinating things to tell us about our imaginations and emotions and that once we get into an argument about what they are doing, we stop paying attention to what actually matters.

  2. I like the food analogy, too, but it can be extended a bit. Say the only way I like my potatoes is in the form of crisps. Say I have a Pepsi and a packet of crisps for breakfast every morning. Should this diet be criticized, or is it just a matter of equally valid preferences?

    Perhaps there is no cultural equivalent of this diet, no books or TV shows that are all right in moderation but unhealthy in larger portions. I suspect there is, though.

    How does this relate to genre? My guess is that some genres have a higher proportion of unhealthy junk food than others, that a randomly chosen example from the genre of “reality TV show” is typically much higher in salt, fat, and artificial sweeteners than one from the genre of “symphonic music.” So our generalizations are based on something.

    Still, no one consumes a genre, but rather specific works, and those are what really count. “It doesn’t matter what novels we read,” absolutely – if there are exceptions, they must be pretty rare and minor.

    For some reason I suddenly have a hankering for potato chips.

    • Tom, I really wish that I’d set up a Hall of Fame for the comments I’ve enjoyed most over the years of blogging. I think this one would certainly feature there. Mister Litlove enjoyed it greatly, too. And you are most certainly on to something. One of the worst meals I ever ate was one of the most expensive and ‘gourmet’. Between the main course and dessert, we were brought small glasses of froth that looked just like cuckoo spit, and probably tasted not dissimilar. It was certainly memorable, if not for the right reasons. Would I rather have the cuckoo spit or the pepsi and crisps? Tough call.

  3. You make so many good points here, Litlove. I agree wholeheartedly that there’s more to reading than likes and dislikes, but I do dislike the way some literary critics disenfranchise the ordinary reader.

    Glad you’re on the mend.

    • I’m really keen to hear more about what you mean by disenfranchise. I would love to get to the bottom of that – with a couple of days to go to your exams, you could perhaps consider it therapy? 🙂

      • I think I’ve lost the power of rational thought – not a good sign the day before my exam!

        I’ll come back to you on that one at the end of the week.

  4. I read this post and the previous post and enjoyed them very much. I don’t have much to add other than that I prefer literary fiction to historical fiction, but I do not judge others who are fans of historical fiction. The reason for this is that when I want to read something historical, I prefer to read a novel written during the past (I am a huge fan of Victorian literature) or a nonfiction work of history. That being said, like you, I think Sarah Waters is a brilliant writer of historical fiction. But I don’t know if I am prejudiced against her because she has her PhD and so I believe that she is going to do the necessary research to do a good job with her novels. In addition, I think Hilary Mantel is a smart writer of historical fiction. I know she is scrupulous about her research, and I also know that she is a huge reader of English history. I own many works of history by British writers, and Hilary Mantel provides reviews for several of these works.

    I am so glad you are on the mend! I know I missed you presence here!

    • Ali, I love Sarah Waters and have been meaning to read Wolf Hall since I bought the hardback (shortly after publication…..). I think it’s perfectly reasonable to demand a good level of research in a historical novel, particularly if you have some knowledge of history. I like your style – enjoying what you enjoy and letting others do the same seems exactly right to me.

      I’m hoping this week to ease myself back into some blogging – I do miss the book chat too! And I’ll be writing to you very soon.

  5. First, I am glad you are on the mend. Second, thanks for calling me adorable. I don’t think I have been called adorable for a very long time. Third, thanks to you and Tom, I now really, really want some salt and vinegar potato chips. Fourth, that we equate the kinds of books we read with personal self-worth is a horrible tendency that is too often encouraged by teachers and critics and worms its way into our psyches and forces us to either give in or always do battle with it.It would be really nice to slay that monster once and for all, but it’s a nasty hydra beast that refuses to die. You, however, Litlove, have done a nice job today of giving that beast a run for its money. And I have done marvelously at mixing metaphor and cliche 😉

    • Stefanie – I could probably make up a list of adjectives that you could pass onto the Bookman? 😉 Although I expect he has plenty of his own! The crisp thing is really tempting, isn’t it? Every time I read through these comments my mouth waters. I really feel that arguing about what we read is the most enormous waste of time and energy. If we put all of that into thinking about what we do read, we would benefit soooo much more.

  6. First of all, mashed potatoes are far superior to roasted potatoes. 🙂

    I think many people associate reading purely with intellectual exercise, which It can be, of course. However, it is also a form of entertainment, a hobby, a habit, a passion or all of the above. I am often guilty of the genre vs. literary fiction discrimination as well. I am slightly ashamed of having read say, Game of Thrones…which is silly, I know.

    Glad to hear you are feeling better!

    • Ha! I wondered how many votes for different kinds of potato I’d get! 🙂 I completely agree with you that reading does all sorts of different jobs and that we need them all. The shame of genre can crop up at all sorts of odd times. I once sat through a university reading group in which most of the members reminisced about childhoods reading The Odyssey and the Iliad. When I came home Mister Litlove reminded me that I knew WAY more than they ever would about Jilly Cooper, and that did make me laugh. The really silly thing is to make other people feel bad about what they’ve been reading. I know you’d never do that.

  7. I think you’ve put your finger on what underlies a lot of the argument between genre and literary. The genre-defenders feel like the literary-defenders despise them (which, often, they do a bit), and they get all defensive, and the literary people get defensive back, and it’s silly because all any of it is, is people trying to justify their own tastes.

    (I say from my vantage point of liking some literariness in my genre, and some genre stuff in my literature. I fence-sit!)

    • Joining you right there on the fence! Well, that’s because I happen to like both so I suppose it is in that sense easy to avoid the argument. But yes, I see it essentially as a battle of defences, and when people fight from their defences it is never pretty. Incredibly hard not to respond when someone kicks your defence, of course, but oh so noble not to! 🙂

  8. Ruthiella – I am shocked! Don’t you know that roast potatoes are superior to mashed in every respect? 😉

    I am so glad you’re feeling better litlove – and on form with another thought-provoking post. I’m feeling a bit too tired and under-read to write an interesting comment, but it does seem that fiction is having something of an interdisciplinary moment now and I think that’s exciting.

  9. I think something can be gained from every book we read–no matter what it is, but that said I far too often find myself being apologetic about admitting to reading a certain type of book (usually genre fiction or comfort reads) as if that’s a bad thing and I don’t want to be looked down upon–complete silliness of course. I think it doesn’t matter so much what we read but that people like and love to read! (And I like both mashed and roast potatoes by the way…I’m greedy that way–just as with books!) 🙂

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