Friday, January 29, 2010

A distinction without a difference ...

Tell us how you feel about genre vs. literary.

By Shane

I was sitting in a mall in Iowa, drinking stale coffee and hawking my first crime novel. A lady walked up and asked:

"Do you write literary fiction? Or genre?"

I replied:


She blinked confusion.

Then asked me where the bathrooms were.

I wasn't trying to confuse her, or make her want to tinkle. I was quite serious: genre is literary. Good writing is good writing, period. The rest is marketing, PR, fairy dust, and labels created to allow one group of writers to look down on another group of writers and thus feel better about itself. America doesn't have royals, so we insist on creating them ourselves.

It's a particularly silly distinction, anyway, literary vs. genre. Most real people can't tell the difference. Don't believe me? Then take my "Is It Is or Is It Ain't?" quiz and find out!

1. "This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air."

How about this:

2. “The house looked oddly like a skull, with its glassless windows gaping out at the snowscape. Pink fiberglass insulation was everywhere, sticking out of the house, blowing across the snow, hung up in the bare birch branches like obscene fleshy hair.”

Or this:

3. "The sky above us was the color of ever-changing violet, and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns."

Or this:

4. "It was cold, bleak, biting weather. He could hear the people in the court outside go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them."

Or, finally, this:

5. "He stood in front of a curtain of pine trees crusted with snow lumps, which steamed in the cold rain. His fur was a mottled brown, turning gray near the rump. White tufts spackled his ears, throat, and snout. His nose was the blue-black of engine oil; his antlers large and airy. Each branched into a chandelier of tips that twinkled amber in the vapor lamp standing lonely sentry over the exit."


1. Literary: F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.
2. Genre: John Sandford, Rules of Prey
3. Literary: James Joyce, Araby
4. Literary: Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
4. Genre: Hey, that's me, in Torn Apart

But it's all good writing! So the labels are meaningless and silly and we're all better off drinking Scotch and smoking cigarettes in ivory holders and talking about turns of phrase so goddamn brilliant they tingle your skin and catch your hair on fire.


Meredith Cole said...

Great point, Shane! I love your examples (and your own excerpt was terrific).

Jen Forbus said...

Bravo! Excellent examples, Shane. Love it. I often mark (ok go ahead and gasp, but at least I do it in pencil) passages that really affect me in the books I'm reading. Those same passages often end up in my reviews on the blog. I just put one up yesterday with Marcus Sakey's book...and Kelli has some stunners in CoD. Other folks who end up with a lot of marks from me in their books: Tim Hallinan, James Lee Burke, Craig Johnson, Louise Penny. All of them could be used in examples like this.

Just love it!

Sophie Littlefield said...

ooooh, i'm gonna steal that idea, when I have big knock down drag out fights with people over books - drag out the examples and make them guess where they come from - good job!

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

These are SO great. Aren't you the smart one for coming up with such wonderful examples?! And I love seeing your very own excellent excerpt here - Yay!!

Shane Gericke said...

Thanks, everyone. I was going to start with a passage from Proust, but couldn't find one that would seem both lit fic AND genre. No genre writer, let alone editor, would allow sentences that go on for two and a half pages.

Kaye, that sweet of you to say. I will modestly note that the deer is my best character yet. But that's cause I can't write people :-)

Meredith and Jen, it was such fun finding these examples. It let me read through some books I haven't read in ages, which brought back some fine memories. Though even in a short story like Araby, Joyce does take some effort to get through.

Shane Gericke said...

And Sophie, if we married Guess the Passage to a drinking contest, we could get stuffy guys like that TLS professor soused and make him read The Hardy Boys in iamic pentameter. Think of the YouTube possibilities!

Rebecca Cantrell said...

I want to watch THAT video, Shane! Loved the examples, and the deer.

Sorry your literary logic sends old women scuttling to the bathroom. That's just unfortunate.

Kelli Stanley said...

LOVE this, Shane!! Wonderful, wonderful examples (and I love that deer!!) :)

I think we ought to package all our blogs up this week and email 'em to Mr. Language-Man at TLS.

With a bottle of Everclear, of course, and a camcorder for the video.

Then we rewrite the Hardy Boys in epic meter (dactylic hexameter), make him read aloud, and slap his wrist with a ruler when he messes up the elision.

And btw--thanks, Jen!! :)


Rebecca Cantrell said...

Kelli, we have to send him all the comments too! Even though I have no aptitude, I offer to film it. ;)

Unknown said...

Okay, on the one hand, reducing my paragraphs of opinion to a simple sentence "good writing is good writing" is just the smackdown I deserve :)

Thank you sir, may I have another?

On the other hand, what separates literary fiction from other genres isn't always readily apparent at the sentence or paragraph level.

Here's a sentence/paragraph/ chapter whose literary fiction genre cannot be mistaken:

"But the special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, when the days are growing shorter and the multicolored lamps are lighted all at once at the doors of the food stalls and from a terrace a woman's voice cries ooh!, is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time."

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

I would humbly suggest that the intention of this work, the goal, the things Calvino expects from his readers, and what his readers expect from Calvino are different (but no better or worse) than the expectations for Nero Wolfe or Lord Peter Whimsey novels. Further, that a Sayers style would obscure Calvino's intent, and a Calvino style would kill a Sayers plot...

Different, but equal, that's my theory and I'm sticking to it :)

P.S. If you want to kill Emily Dickenson for someone, point out that every one of her poems can be sung to "The Yellow Rose of Texas." Then sing "Because I would not stop for death, death kindly stopped for meeeeeee" slightly out of tune. Who says words can't kill?

Shane Gericke said...

Smackdown? Mysti, that was the last thing on my mind. I love your opinions, and I learn a lot from your points of view.

I agree completely that Calvino's intention for his readers is different than, say, Lee Child's. But I find such long, multi-clause sentences tedious and Look, Ma, I'm Writing. I don't want to have to study a sentence three or four times to get its meaning. The writer is supposed to do the work, not the reader.

But that's why there's lots of bookshelves in the store, so everyone can read the kind of writing they like ...

Shane Gericke said...

I sang Emily the way you suggested, Mysti, and it worked! Tres cool! You can also sing it to Gilligan's Island ...

"Because I would not stop for death, death kindly stopped for meeeee, if not for the spirit of the fearless crew, the Minnow would be lost ..."

Shane Gericke said...

Finally, "different but equal" absolutely works for me, Mysti. Just because I hate Hydra-headed sentences doesn't make them bad or invalid. It just means I don't like them.

Joshua Corin said...

It *is* all good writing. I especially love your genius-fresh use of the verb "spackled." Really, really fantastic.

But don't slaughter the poor Belle of Amherst, Mysti! Hasn't she suffered enough already?

Shane Gericke said...

Thanks, Joshua, I appreciate that very much.