Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Literary vs. Genre?

by Rebecca Cantrell

“Tell us how you feel about genre vs. literary,” says a reassuring voice with a light Viennese accent.

The lights are dim. The Persian rug on the floor is red with an elaborate pattern of what look like flowers. The chaise is oxblood leather.

The patient shifts on the chaise. “I feel fine.”

“Does it make you feel denigrated when someone calls your work genre?” The doctor strokes his pointed beard.

“I’m just happy when someone calls it anything at all. It has genre elements. People die mysteriously. Their murders are investigated and solved. Justice, alas, is complicated.”

“But,” says the doctor. “It is more than that. What about the writing? The voice? The historical background? The themes you try to convey?”

“It has all that too,” the patient says. “Why wouldn’t it?”

“Because it’s genre!” The Viennese voice sounds a little annoyed now.

“Genre doesn’t have to be reductionist.”

“Of course it does!”

“Why?” The patient sits up and adjusts her socks.

“Aren’t you supposed to by lying down where I put you? Answering the questions that I ask you?”

The patient stands and starts doing jumping jacks.

“You must calm down.” The Viennese doctor stands too. He strides behind his desk and watches her nervously. He looks at his telephone, undecided.

“I am calm. I can be calm and do jumping jacks. I can write things that are literary and genre.”

“You can’t.”

“Read it and weep.”

So, the Viennese doctor puts down his notebooks and pen, adjusts his horn-rimmed glasses and begins to read. He reads through that session and the one after. He reads all afternoon, book after book.

Because, reading can be fun. And unexpected. And anything you want it to be.
So, calm down, do some jumping jacks. Read what you want, call it what you want. The books and the story will endure regardless. Or not.


Gary Corby said...

Couldn't agree more!

Jen Forbus said...

Yay! You're absolutely right, Rebecca. Many authors who are considered "genre" veer outside the "rules" of said genre, and it makes for great books, great diversity, and lots of fun.

Sometimes there are just folks who need reasons to look down their noses. Ironically I've found, most of the readers who insist that they MUST read only literary works often CAN'T get the depth and significance of great books. They read literary because they think it makes them look smart. Oh brother!

I guess I've learned to tune them out and exist in my own sphere now-a-days. I don't need to justify to anyone why I read what I do or why it is spectacular. I know it is; if they refuse to see it, that's their loss, not mine!

Happy Tuesday!!

P.S. - my word verification is "dedlyway" I LOVE IT!!

Dorte H said...

Oh, these neurotic crime fiction wom... eh writers! ;D

I hope you can take your awards and laugh at the voices that claim your books are not literary.

My word verification is ´holoon´ - tell them that!

Rebecca Cantrell said...


Ah, Jen, it's so true, isn't it? But if we stopped to worry what others thought about what we read, what we eat, and what we wear, we'd never leave the house. Not that I was overly peer pressured as a teen, but I think one of the best things about getting older is perspective. All that stuff doesn't really matter. I do what I do and like what I like. Basta.

Dorte: If you're going to have therapy, go to the source! I should have put a cigar in there...

Sophie Littlefield said...

Wow, you smacked 'em down without even having to be a b&^%h about it. you gotta teach me that trick some day!

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Hi Soph,

Just got lucky, I think. Am reading a nonfiction book (with lots of cussin') called BADASS by Ben Thompson and highly recommend it, especially when you're embroiled in weeks of contract negotiation. A couple a hundred years ago my lawn would be littered with spikes with heads on 'em.

So, maybe that's worked on my attitude. ;)

Mysti Lou said...

Is it too soon to shout "false dichotomy!" ?

I've got my MFA, and I studied a ton of "literary" fiction in and out of the literary fiction genre. Granted, USF is a rare MFA program that helps writers find *their* voices, not imitate their instructors. One instance where diversity is actually valued, not just paid lip service to.

No one there ever talked down about the genres other than lit fic, though those who wrote in the other genres often felt self-conscious about it, so obviously someone somewhere was saying *something*. The time-honored tradition of *popular, genre* fiction becoming viewed as literature was fully acknowledged.

I find it so mysterious that all I ever hear is this side of the argument. Is anyone really still making the other side? I've never heard a soul say that mystery/crime has less value, merit, or significance than literary fiction. Never ever once (see exception below).

Just as modern art is often art about art, modern literary fiction can be writing about writing or communication or knowing (starch-blocker prevents me from using the word semiotics, sorry!). It is as narrowly defined as any other genre, full of good and bad instances of same, full of timeless works of towering brilliance and annoying little blips that will be forgotten in under a decade. Just like every other genre.

Trust me, *all* the lit fic writers I know personally would trade their 250-copy tortured masterpieces for 70,000 units at WalMart alone if they could. They can't plot mysteries any better than I could reflect the current state of feminism in the story of a gerbil who hitchhikes to Venice. I just can't pay attention to the way iotas float in a beam of sunshine. I just can't. That doesn't make me less than the gals who can, just different, and those gals seem to understand that as well as I do. So again, I wonder, who is claiming crime writing is less than?

I do think there are challenges to the reader that exist in *good* literary fiction that tend not to exist in most mystery or suspense books. But it's a case of the challenges being different between genres, not less or more in one or the other.

So I have a question. Who has ever been told directly that their work has less value because it fits in a popular genre? Jen, it sounds like you know people who say that about someone's work, if not yours. Because I honestly believe this is an old idea echoing in people's heads more than it is a hard, rigid rule (outside the classrooms of dim-witted teachers) actively promoted by living humans.

The closest I've ever come is having a *screenwriter* (!) insist that Maltese Falcon, Thin Man, etc. weren't literature. And even he wasn't claiming it was "less than." And he was over 60. And intellectually dead, so I'm pretty sure he doesn't count.

Thanks for sparking my brain Becky!!!! Jumping jacks at the shrink's are the most adorable symbol for healthy denial I've ever seen. It wouldn't be such a ubiquitious tool if it didn't have good uses ;)

Graham said...

Love this post. The whole arrogance of Literary vs. Genre sooo reminds me of the Sneaches - remember the ones that had stars and the ones that didn't? Was Dr. Seuss considered genre? Serously?

Shane Gericke said...

Proving once again that Viennese doctors don't know jack. Rimshot!

Graham, great thought about the Sneaches. Dr. Seuss was a genius. I wish I could write a murder thriller a la Green Eggs and Ham ... yes I yes I yes I am, going to kill you, Sam I Am ...

Sophie Littlefield said...

ooooh! love it! we got mysti started, that's always a good thing!

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Hey, Mysti, tell us what you really think. :)

I have definitely heard crime fiction denigrated. When I was in college at Carnegie Mellon. When I go to bookstores that aren't just mystery bookstores. When was the last time a mystery/crime book got nominated for any serious literary award? Ever? It's out there. In fact, someone said to me, "SMOKE is so good, you could write real books." Yikes. You just gotta look at that woman and do jumping jacks.

Graham: Thanks for the Sneetches idea.

Shane: Now I'm going to hear Hannibal Lector saying "I'm going to kill you, Sam I am" over and over, so thanks for that.

Gary Corby said...

I rather liked the gerbil hitchhiking to Venice. I don't suppose you could write that one, Mysti?

Rebecca Cantrell said...

It can't be easy hitchhiking without a thumb...

Gary Corby said...

That's why it's a literary novel. The gerbil is full of angst about the lack of a thumb, and its various, only partially successful, attempts to get a lift form an existential metaphor within which we explore feminism as the cars whizz past.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

I think YOU have to write that novel, Gary. You clearly have a handle on the emotional subtext and existential themes

Gary Corby said...

The difficulty is, I don't understand a word of what I just said. Oh well, there goes my Booker Prize.

Mysti Lou said...

Don't worry Gary -- sometimes a thumb is really just a thumb :)

Mysti Lou said...

Ouch Becky! Would love to share with that person the reviews of Great Gatbsy when it first came out :)

Okay, will have to revise my theory from "all people who imagine literary fiction is something 'better' than any other genre are dead," to "....dead to me."

And Sophie, you know all it takes is a snobby turn of phrase (or a finger of evaporate-off-your-tongue scotch) to get me going!

You guys think a talking gerbil is easier to sell than a gay cowboy? Mongolian teenager in 12th century? Because I have this gift for unsellable screenplay ideas...

Rebecca Cantrell said...

I would not call them unsellable. Not yet sold. Different!

E. Annie Proulx did great with her gay cowboy. And, I know, yours was there first.

I still think St. John is brilliant, BTW, so don't give up on it!

Kelli Stanley said...

Love it, Becks!! And you can tell the good ol' doc where he can put his Van Dyke. ;)


Joshua Corin said...

"SMOKE is so good, you could write real books."

That is the best backhanded compliment I think I've ever read in my life.