Thursday, January 28, 2010

Exclusively Yours

By Kelli

"Tell us how you feel about literary vs. genre."

Short answer? Not much. But I'm blogging, anyway.

Those who know me will tell you I have very little patience for labels. I have very little patience, period, so with boxes and labels and the tags, I run out pretty damn quick.

I know they're necessary for bureaucracy to keep running the world, necessary for bean counters and insurance companies, necessary for DMVs and census takers and every other entity that seeks to bag, tag and file away people into sortable categories ...

And I know they also have their positive uses. Part of me has always enjoyed cataloging stuff, reveling in the organization that labels and such provide. Arranging chaos into an attractive pattern, taking comfort in the order that order provides. I try to embrace the Yin and Yang of it, balancing chaos and category like symbiotic halves, necessary for both brain and soul.

No, what makes me crazy is when labels become more important than what they seek to identify. When labels supersede humanity, let alone books, when "computer says no" becomes a standard reply in so-called customer service.

With books--and other creative endeavors--it's the implicit value judgment that bothers me . The idea that one label--of books, films, art, music--is "better" than another. One is art, one is popular culture. One is worthy of transcending the ages; one is disposable "entertainment" ... as if entertainment is a dirty word. [For the record, it's not--I know them all.]

So where does this come from?

Exclusivity. The root of all snob appeal. If only a few can afford to eat at a restaurant, it must be good. If only the top fifty thousand people can get a new electronic gadget and are willing to wait in line to get it first -- hell, we all need one! And God forbid that someone else wore that Oscar dress.

The few vs. the many, patricians vs. plebians, aristocrats vs. peasants ... the list goes on. And anything that smacks of "popular"--even in 2010--will garner an upturned nose and a stuck-out pinky, and possibly a sniff of disdain. Review *that*? It's -- it's just a mystery. A thriller. A romance. A ... fill in the blank genre.

It's never been about literary vs. genre. It's been cult vs. popular, books that--according to the snobs of the world--supposedly only the intelligentsia are intelligent enough to appreciate versus those that ordinary people read for escape.

Pfah. I've read more than my share of academic nonsense, made up doctoral cant invented to impress each other and justify a too-expensive education, that at the end of the day says nothing and contributes nothing to our understanding of the subject matter or one another. Words designed to keep people out--not to let people in.

I've been published in that arena, presented internationally. And the literary vs. genre divide exists there, too, in what subjects people choose to study and what studies get funding. It exists everywhere, and as writers, we are affected by it.

But here's some news for the exclusive set ... Shakespeare wrote for the groundlings. Euripides, Sophocles? Popular playwrights. And you don't get much more "common" than Aristophanes.

ALL fiction--unless it's a completely narcissistic example of literary onanism--is meant to be shared and hungers to be popular. Some of it entertains, some of it enlightens, some of it makes you think and changes your life. And some of it does all of the above, and does so in high-heeled genre pumps, too.

So, yeah ... I'm a genre writer. And a literary writer. No versus required.

And on that note--next week is City of Dragons!! Thanks for reading!


Bobby Mangahas said...

First off, I CAN'T WAIT to read CoD. You know I've been waiting awhile :)

As far as the whole vs. thing, Kelli. I agree with you. There's just way too much compartmentalization (that's my big word for the day), and not just in literature. Just because something is considered popular, doesn't mean that it's a bad thing.

I remember hearing John Lennon's Imagine for the first time,and absolutely loved it. Some people thought he was promoting chaos with lyrics like "no countries" and "no religion." I think those individuals were missing Lennon's point. All he was saying was that there are so many "labels" that divide people.

Okay, that's probably way deeper than genre vs. literary fiction goes, but you get the idea :).

So, before I get off my soapbox this morning, I would like too quote perhaps one of the best lines from Mr. Lennon's song:

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

Sophie Littlefield said...

I once went to a show at the Chicago art institute called "High and Low" and it was all about highbrow and commercial art, juxtaposing them and seeking out common elements etc. etc. And what I loved most was wandering around the gallery watching those "art show mobs" (ladies who travel in a pack in suits and heels, god bless 'em) peering at the ads for junk food and so forth over the tops of their glasses...that, and the T-shirt. I had to buy the T-shirt for that one.

Jen Forbus said...

I love it! You guys are going to have to check out my interview with Craig McDonald next month. We talk about this subject, too.

One of my points is always to look, like Kel did, at what we consider great "literature." Shakespeare, Dickens, Fitzgerald, Lee...they'd all be genre writers if they were writing today. All have written crime fiction. All imitate the life and environment the writer was living in and tell us reading them today about that life and environment.

I've often described my disdain with James Joyce as being about HIS elitism. I read Ulysses, and he wrote that book with the intention of belittling the masses. Why? What's the point? It's simply to strut his peacock feathers and say, "I'm better than you." Says who?

Anyway...great post, Kel! So excited for your release, and I LOVE your guest post! Have gads of fun!

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks, RJ!! :)

And thanks for reminding us about Lennon -- surely a great example of popular and still meaningful--a great artist!! :)


Kelli Stanley said...

Soph, I wish I could have gone to that show ... my favorite has been the Art Deco exhibit at the Legion of Honor in SF a few years ago ... one of the pieces on display was a meat grinder, which I loved! ;)

Much contemporary art tends to fall into the Emperor's New Clothes syndrome. No one wants to admit that there's nothing really there ...


Kelli Stanley said...

Jen, thank you for saying that about Joyce!! While I like The Dubliners, I've always felt Ulysses to be one big exercise in ego ... and I prefer writers that have something to say to other people other than "look how clever I am." :)

Thanks, hon!!!


Mysti Lou said...

Too excited for words for CoD launch!!!!!

Lit fic (the genre, not the publishing label) doesn't prize *accessibility* as much as other genres; author$ of any genre de$ire *popularity* for obviou$ rea$son$:

Some works that I have found neither hungering for accessibility nor onanistic:

Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being

Mawer's Glass Room (though it's not as difficult as, say, Ulysses)

Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter This counts at lit fic because of the structural choices made to reflect the jazz milieu of the subject.

A friend of mine tried an experiment similar to this, about Highway 99 where each paragraph was 99 words long. He tossed it, but if he could have made it work...!

Jen -- all genres have at least one or two example of great literature in them, I think (I haven't read EVERY genre!)

So, does anyone disagree that some of the goals of lit fic are distinct from crime fiction? Just like some of the goals of scifi or fantasy or romantic fiction are different from crime fiction?

To dismiss Ulysses as mere egoism is to miss a great deal, IMHO (though I am automatically in favor of any work that endures an obscenity trial!)...of course, I never fought my way to the end of it, so I could be wrong :)

So I guess no one wants to talk structure & goals across genres? darn!

Kelli Stanley said...

Myst, you're a doll!! :) Thanks as always for the thoughtful comments -- and book recommendations!!

My years (and years and years) in academia confirmed me as a reactionary humanist. I not only encountered enough BS to power Cleveland, but more importantly, I grew very impatient with intellectual gamesmanship. And believe me--there is plenty of it Classics. :)

So I tend to get impatient with art that doesn't communicate, and while I understand the need to express information to a specialized audience -- i.e., journal articles, etc. -- fiction has an emotive power that can literally change lives. To me, that's what literature does. So if a writer is only interested in cleverness, it turns me off.

Sonnets are a great example of a subgenre that does both ... an intellectual challenge--but in the hands of a Shakespeare or Milton, an extraordinarily moving poem.

There are a zillion opportunities to prove intellectual ability ... not so many to touch the heart. :)

So says the ol' noir softie Romantic, anyway, lol! ;)


Joshua Corin said...

Kelli, I also work in academia and the double standards which abound regarding literature absolutely leave me breathless. Colleagues have not been quiet in their disdain for my "genre writing," as if it would be better to be unpublished than to publish a work of popular fiction. Ugh.

Shane Gericke said...

Great post, Kel!

Charles Dickens, who's high literary now, was a popular writer in his day. The masses loved his work, couldn't wait to read it. Tom Wolfe is a literary fictionist (hey, do ya like that title? I just made it up!) but wrote The Right Stuff, one of the most popular books of its time.

If the goal of lit fic is to be inaccessible, then it's a damn stupid goal because the point of communcation is to be understood.

Shane Gericke said...

"Lit fic (the genre, not the publishing label) doesn't prize *accessibility* as much as other genres; author$ of any genre de$ire *popularity* for obviou$ rea$son$:"

Mysti Lou, this just cracks me up. We're so glad you're here! And yes, I freely admit I like $ just as much as ; . and --

Kelli Stanley said...

I know, Josh. I despise people who use education as a whomping stick to elevate themselves above someone else.

Education and intelligence are far far FAR from the same thing.

Coincidentally, CMs, the Times Literary Supplement published a "review" discussing this very topic ... and if you don't think Becky's professor is alive and well, all you have to do is read it. AND the author slighted Robert B. Parker, which really pissed me off ...


Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks, sweet Shane!! :) I don't think the goal of honest literature is to be inaccessible ... but certainly, anything that smacks of "popular" is attacked in the academic arena. And in journalism, as witness the TLS article I just mentioned. In which, by the way, we are said to be "cousins" of literary writers ... because we write crime fiction.

The author of the piece was most interested in demonstrating how many archly clever ways he could prove his cleverness at the expense of poor genre writers who don't understand language.

Well, bucko (I says to him) I'm a philologist by training. I've even presented at the University of London on Sallust's diction in the Bellum Catilinae. I think my understanding of language is a hell of a lot deeper than yours. And I've got some choice language I'd like to share with you sometime ...



Rebecca Cantrell said...

Boy, this question sure got us all going!

Josh: ouch. And I'm sorry. That sucks.

Shane Gericke said...

Josh, your colleagues are out of their minds to look down their noses at you. They should be half as talented.

And Kel, I look forward to reading the article. I could use a good laugh.

Shane Gericke said...

Kel, I just finished that TLS article you mentioned. I would have been offended, but being a genre writer, I din know whut all them big words meant :-)