Essays

Slinging Stones at the Genre Goliath

By posted at 3:31 am on June 18, 2009 40

Sonya Chung is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher who nourishes her split personality by living part-time in the S. Bronx and part-time in rural PA. She writes and grows vegetables in both places. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, BOMB Magazine, and Sonora Review, among others. Her first novel, Long for This World, is forthcoming from Scribner in March 2010. You can find her fiction and blog-chronicles (adventures in publishing a first novel) at sonyachung.com.

I.
coverWhen a friend admits to me – usually a bit sheepishly, knowing that I am a literary writer and reader – that she is reading a paperback romance novel, or, even “worse,” a series of them, I laugh it off and say, as sincerely as I can muster, Good for you, I’m sure you need the relaxation and escape, and we move on to the next topic.

In my fiction classes, I always ask students to fill out a brief survey on the first day of class so I can get a feel for their reading interests; invariably, a number of students list Dean Koontz or Dan Brown or Nora Roberts or (most recently and markedly) Stephenie Meyer as their touchstones. When I see these writers’ names or hear them mentioned in class, something goes thud in my stomach and a low-grade dread begins to buzz in my head.

II.
Am I just an insufferable snob? Possibly. If you think so, feel free to stop reading now; we may be at an impasse.

III.
A spiritual war rages between art and entertainment, elitism and populism, the difficult pleasure and the mindless escape, complex meaning and convention-driven predictability… literary fiction and genre fiction.

Or not. On the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, a new “Summer Thriller” series – featuring, this past Sunday, a story (or serial installment?) by Dean Koontz. The protagonist is a whipsmart hostage negotiator who faces off with a Hannibal Lecter/Buffalo Bill-esque psychopath (he “displays” his dead [raped] female victims after dipping them in polyurethane). In a zippy plot twist (SPOILER alert), the hostage (ah coincidence!) turns out to be the negotiator’s savvy wife; the revelation elicits a “gasp” from the psychopath.

In The New Yorker this week, a profile by staff writer Lauren Collins on prolific romance novelist Nora Roberts. I haven’t read the full profile, but it’s got Slate’s XX Factor blogger Willa Paskin (presumably not currently a romance reader) ready to pick up a Roberts novel – “Collins makes the case, without ever overselling, that Roberts’ books might not be totally devoid of artistic merit” – and eager to hang out with Roberts herself, who “comes across as a down-to-earth, foul-mouthed, self-deprecating, extremely grounded, extremely disciplined woman.”

IV.
What is going on here? Are we in the literary and genre camps laying down our arms and reaching across the proverbial aisle to hold hands and work together? More importantly, is “not totally devoid of artistic merit” some kind of newly-acceptable standard for reading selection? (Like how the standards for “organic” loosen to near-meaninglessness as big farming corps get into the business?)

To anyone feeling ready to click away from this post in a huff: I feel a little like Sherman Alexie, who said last week in a follow-up to his feather-ruffling comments about the Kindle being elitist that he felt like David being mistook for Goliath.

With its obligatory happy endings, strict conventions, formula elements, and, above all, comforting predictability, genre fiction will always garner a wider audience than literary fiction. Which is another way of saying that more people buy books and spend time with the words in them to evade the (messy, complicated) world as it is than to see it more truly – in all its mystery, pain, complexity, and beauty. Resistance – perhaps opposition is not too strong a word – to genre fiction for a writer and reader of literary fiction is, in my opinion, a literary ecosystem imperative.

V.
Why do The New Yorker and The New York Times want me to rethink my dividing lines? Are my soul or my artistic integrity at risk of atrophying if I don’t see the light and embrace a new political correctness that’s deemed formulaic genre writing and literary writing more alike than they are different?

Let me, for the sake of this essay and the ensuing discussion, take a (overstated, survival-driven) hardliner’s position: pure genre writing invites and indulges engagement and validation of our lesser, lazier, unthinking, hedonistic selves; well-wrought literary fiction affords, in the critic Harold Bloom’s words, a difficult pleasure and illuminates the truths of the human soul, for better or for worse, thus opening the engaged reader to the possibility of courage, intellectual and emotional honesty, wisdom. Popular genre writing and literary writing represent diametrically opposed visions of the value and necessity of reading books; they are as different as lust and love, band-aids and surgery. To imply otherwise is to cop to hysterical anti-intellectualism and give credence to the same sorts of “elitist!” cries that sought to make Barack and Michelle Obama appear out of touch and John McCain a man of the people.

There are real stakes here. What you read matters.

VI.
But enjoy your genre books, I say. Life is tough, we all seek ways to effectively distract and soothe ourselves. Consume your genre series with gusto and pleasure, like a drippy, juicy bacon burger; kick back and let them carry you away weightlessly, like an after-midnight Wii session. But do not imagine or attempt to argue that they play a vital role in augmenting the human experience. They allow for, are designed for, reader passivity and thus do not do what Joe Meno described eloquently in Edan Lepucki’s profile this week:

Books have a different place in our society than other media. Books are different from television or film because they ask you to finish the project. You have to be actively engaged to read a book. It’s more like a blueprint. What it really is, is an opportunity… A book is a place where you’re forced to use your imagination.

VII.
So with Roberts and Koontz now occupying prized real estate in the pages of The New Yorker and the New York Times, it’s fight or flight as far as I can tell. Recently, I’ve been developing a list of what I call “bait n switch” books – books that bring together the strengths of both the genre and literary forms: suspense, sexual tension, absorbing dialogue, compelling plots, characters you come to love like your favorite pets; and fresh and inventive language, complex characterization, settings you can taste touch and smell, consequential ideas, ambiguity and surprise and mystery. I’ve given these as gifts or recommended them to people who tend to read only genre fiction or little fiction at all; with good response. My ultimate mission: to convert the unbelieving to the (crucial, soul-shaping) fact that you needn’t ingest bad or “not that bad” writing in order to be entertained and/or absorbed by a book. For anyone who’d like to suit up for the battle:

  • Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (for erotic thriller lovers)
  • Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are My Weakness and Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help (for chic lit readers)
  • Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Pet Dog,” and really anything by Henry James (for romance readers)
  • E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair and Ragtime (for Harry Potter and other boy-adventure fans)
  • Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (for manly men who are into horror)
  • Poetry by Jane Kenyon and Rilke (for people “intimidated” by poetry)

The following two are a little riskier, but I’d like to try inflicting one or both of them on a poor unsuspecting soul one of these days:

  • Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees (a simple, universal story of love/breakup/love again)
  • Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth (pure storytelling, you hardly know what hit you)

And, if all else fails, well: there’s always “The Wire.”

[Image Credit: Randen Pederson]





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40 Responses to “Slinging Stones at the Genre Goliath”

  1. Kyle
    at 6:18 am on June 18, 2009

    Huzzah! This is an excellent post and I like the list. I think–nay, I know–people (men) who have made the jump from brute taco-stuffing-into-face-hood into "Hey, this Denis Johnson guy is kinda good…" So it's possible people. It's not snobbery. Don't sell yourself short. You're being humble, which is nice, but keep the passion. The books might not be more enjoyable, but they are deeper, i.e. more thought out and rich. Harry Potter is a good series, but it doesn't deal with death and life the way good 'ole Rilke does, you know? I mean, we can agree on this, right?

    PS: I'm not sure I understand the Doctorow suggestion, but seeing as I've not read those two books, I will take your word on it.

  2. scottporch
    at 7:34 am on June 18, 2009

    Yes, you're an insufferable snob, but I kept reading anyway. Let me preface this comment by saying I'm generally disposed to read literary fiction over genre fiction, and I have not read or have any other reason to defend the four genre writers you identify.

    That said, it's easy to win an argument when you get to choose the facts in support of both sides of it, and that's exactly what you've done here.

    One one side, it's Dean Koontz, Dan Brown, Nora Roberts and Stephanie Meyers, i.e., writers who makes something go "thud" in your stomach and give you a "low-grade dread," i.e., writers who you have either read and don't find useful or have not read and expect you won't find useful. (I say "find useful" instead of "like" or "enjoy" because nothing in your essay indicates that you read for pleasure.)

    On the other side, it's Edith Wharton, E.L. Doctorow, etc., i.e., serious literary writers.

    You characterize the strengths of genre fiction as "suspense, sexual tension, absorbing dialogue, compelling plots, characters you come to love like your favorite pets." You either don't like those things or have not read genre books that execute them well. Isn't "absorbing dialogue" a strength of ANY good fiction? Isn't "compelling plots"?

    You characterize the strengths of literary fiction as "fresh and inventive language, complex characterization, settings you can taste touch and smell, consequential ideas, ambiguity and surprise and mystery." Again, are "settings you can taste touch and smell" unique to literary fiction?

    You've laid out a great case for books you like vs. books you don't like, but you see that primarily as a distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction. You don't define genre fiction beyond those four authors — and you may be exactly right as far as those four are concerned — but don't make assumptions about a set by looking at a subset.

  3. evankerry
    at 7:56 am on June 18, 2009

    I think the essayist here is out of touch. A good book is a good book. Genreism vs. Literaryness? Who cares. I take the El into town everyday and it never fails to see someone read a Dean Koontz or whoever with a slick cover and probably some slick writing. Let me not get into the Stephen King debate. O' if only O. Henry were alive today.

  4. Sonya
    at 8:53 am on June 18, 2009

    Scott, you make good points, and I know that more and more literature is category-busting, which I think is great (Sarah Waters seems to me this sort of writer; Richard Price and Chuck Palahniuck are other examples). I am, really, talking about the writers who adhere to the formulas and conventions intentionally and faithfully.

    I think it's not that I haven't indicated that I read for pleasure; I think perhaps we all have different definitions of pleasure. Truth, mystery, complexity, beauty, and even pain–yes, these are all part of the deep pleasures of reading for me.

  5. Anonymous
    at 10:46 am on June 18, 2009

    Here are some thoughts from David Foster Wallace on this debate:

    "What's it like to be a young fiction writer today, in terms of getting started, building a career and so on?

    Personally, I think it's a really neat time. I've got friends who disagree. Literary fiction and poetry are real marginalized right now. There's a fallacy that some of my friends sometimes fall into, the ol' "The audience is stupid. The audience only wants to go this deep. Poor us, we're marginalized because of TV, the great hypnotic blah, blah." You can sit around and have these pity parties for yourself. Of course this is bullshit. If an art form is marginalized it's because it's not speaking to people. One possible reason is that the people it's speaking to have become too stupid to appreciate it. That seems a little easy to me.

    If you, the writer, succumb to the idea that the audience is too stupid, then there are two pitfalls. Number one is the avant-garde pitfall, where you have the idea that you're writing for other writers, so you don't worry about making yourself accessible or relevant. You worry about making it structurally and technically cutting edge: involuted in the right ways, making the appropriate intertextual references, making it look smart. Not really caring about whether you're communicating with a reader who cares something about that feeling in the stomach which is why we read. Then, the other end of it is very crass, cynical, commercial pieces of fiction that are done in a formulaic way — essentially television on the page — that manipulate the reader, that set out grotesquely simplified stuff in a childishly riveting way.

    What's weird is that I see these two sides fight with each other and really they both come out of the same thing, which is a contempt for the reader, an idea that literature's current marginalization is the reader's fault. The project that's worth trying is to do stuff that has some of the richness and challenge and emotional and intellectual difficulty of avant-garde literary stuff, stuff that makes the reader confront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in such a way that it's also pleasurable to read. The reader feels like someone is talking to him rather than striking a number of poses.

    Part of it has to do with living in an era when there's so much entertainment available, genuine entertainment, and figuring out how fiction is going to stake out its territory in that sort of era. You can try to confront what it is that makes fiction magical in a way that other kinds of art and entertainment aren't. And to figure out how fiction can engage a reader, much of whose sensibility has been formed by pop culture, without simply becoming more shit in the pop culture machine. It's unbelievably difficult and confusing and scary, but it's neat. There's so much mass commercial entertainment that's so good and so slick, this is something that I don't think any other generation has confronted. That's what it's like to be a writer now. I think it's the best time to be alive ever and it's probably the best time to be a writer. I'm not sure it's the easiest time."

    From here: http://www.salon.com/09/features/wallace2.html

  6. willsy
    at 5:20 pm on June 18, 2009

    Some people in the comments are already proving why it's not even worth trying to talk to genre literature people. I don't have to say anything, they do it all themselves.

  7. Anonymous
    at 5:30 pm on June 18, 2009

    I enjoyed this post.

    How apt that in the opposite column, Carl Wilsons', "Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste," sits at #6 in The Millions' Top 10. As a music critic, Wilson set out to try to understand the appeal of Celine Dion. His essay is essentially a meditation on aesthetics, in which he eventually concludes and argues, unironically, that even for an inveterate music snob like himself, Celine Dion's music can be evaluated, and, yes, even appreciated, on its own merits. I haven't attempted it yet myself. I'm taking his word for it. But I think it might be an interesting experiment to see his method applied to novels.

  8. Sonya
    at 6:02 pm on June 18, 2009

    Dear Anonymous 8:30pm: yes, yes. There is no good reason to critique or dismiss writing based on pure hearsay (this doesn't mean I am going to spend an awful lot of time reading formulaic genre books, however; there are simply too many good books to read, and too little time). I did a mini version of the Wilson approach with a class of students who were very passionate about the Twilight series at the start of the semester. At the end of the semester I asked the most vociferous devotee to bring in her favorite chapter so we could read and discuss it as writers. It was a good experience for all of us. You can read more about it here: http://sonyachung.com/2009/05/28/a-vampire-boyfriend-is-better-than-a-real-one/

    Thanks to Anonymous 1:46pm for sharing the DFW text. (That last sentence is a bit haunting, for obvious reasons). "Contempt for the reader" is indeed something to beware of; my perspective is that to give literary plaudits to poor writing is its own kind of contempt–dishonest, patronizing, verging on pusillanimous. There is good writing and there is bad writing; we can, and will, and absolutely should disagree on / passionately debate which works earn which assessment; as long as we can (please) still agree that both categories exist.

  9. Chris K.
    at 9:44 pm on June 18, 2009

    Wow- seems like red state/blue state “discussions” here! I understand Sonya’s hard stance on the G v. L thing. If you read her blogpost entitled “How to Become a Writer: A Memoir” you would see that it may be impossible to read ‘obvious’ genre titles with your “whole self”, a style of reading that is deep-delving and nontrivial such that you can share the character’s (or the situation’s) essence. Genre tends not to lend itself to that kind of reader-closeness

    On a dare, I read The DaVinci Code a few years back and it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined, -plus it only took me a few days to burn through it. Ok so, character’s: shallow, plot points: convenient, ending : happy, blah blah. However, in terms of pace and action… jeez! I could feel my pulse quicken during chase scenes and close-calls. Say what you will, but Brown can move people around quickly and stage a good pursuit. I’m an aspiring literary writer and I reach for Brown’s book whenever I need inspiration on how to get someone out of a room in a hurry. Brown is not my cup (or chalice) of tea, but he does instruct. (During this time, I was also reading the collected short stories of John Cheever. I needed something filling.)

    OK- LaVyrle Spencer v. Anaïs Nin. Michael Connelly v. Doctorow. It’s obvious what camp these writers belong in. How about Palahniuk? Lethem? Chabon? There are a number of new voices out there that fence-ride and collect acclaim for it. Being a fan of Palahniuk/Lethem/ Chabon, will that place me in front of someone’s firing squad? Am I guilty for not choosing a camp?

  10. Edan Lepucki
    at 11:58 pm on June 18, 2009

    Interesting post and comments. I don't know how strong your argument is, though, because you're using some very specific books, but you're using a very broad term–"genre"–to describe them. I think you could easily find books that are "literary" that are just as "bad" as a Dean Koontz book. And isn't literary fiction in some ways a genre as well? When we read a literary novel, we have certain expectations, in terms of form or content, that the book either subverts or reiterates, usually a combination of both.

    It doesn't seem fair to compare Nora Roberts to E.L. Doctorow, just like it wouldn't be fair to compare, say, William Gibson to [fill in the blank with some overrated literary author--I don't want name names because I don't want to get jumped next time I'm in Brooklyn.]

  11. Fawn Neun
    at 7:22 am on June 19, 2009

    Well, Sonya, if you're going to open with the four horsemen of the poplit apocalypse, there's really no arguing with you.

    There are good genre writers who will make you think, who add something to the body of documentation regarding the human experience and who create work of artistic merit – they are probably not the four you mentioned.

    I think perhaps the confusion is with the definition of "literary". You can create "writerly" science-fiction. (McCarthy is one example, Atwood is another.) You can create rich, thoughtful prose within romance. (Diane Galbadon comes to mind.) Humorous fantasy writer Terry Pratchett has been compared to Chaucer and I'd have to agree with that comparison.

    "Literary" needs to be defined as a quality measure of the work, rather than genre. Book sellers, publishers and literary agents all seem to be so concerned with shelving that they seem to be accepting rubbish simply to fill the right shelves. It's not that the reading public is too lazy or stupid to think themselves through a novel, it's that they're too insecure to visit more than one section of the bookstore.

    There is a great deal of insipid popular fiction out there. There is also a great deal of door-stop literary fiction. My personal opinion is that we concern ourselves much less with the shelving and start promoting GOOD fiction, whatever "genre". I believe the more ambiguous the line between popular fiction and literary fiction, the more likely we'll see higher quality fiction overall. We'll get vampire novels that challenge you to think about the ultimate destiny of mankind and you'll get literary fiction that actually entertains.

    People are too complicated to shove into the same size boxes and so is their art and so are their artifacts. I say we mix it up.

  12. Sonya
    at 10:45 am on June 19, 2009

    I've really enjoyed/appreciated all these insightful comments and everything I've learned from them. My "hard stance" is more complex than I've probably expressed, and I agree that the terminology and categories have limits. What I most want to continue arguing for is high standards for good fiction. Period. I am not a fan of the sliding scale, or lowered expectations; which is what I hear more and more of in defense of, in particular, poorly-written genre literature. Are there really no better books from which Chris can learn pacing and action? A long, impassioned response to my Twilight post essentially defended the series on the basis of it being "nowhere near as bad" as previous vampire literature.

    Thinking again about the DFW text above: it's not to say, "Reader, you are stupid," but "Reader, don't sell yourself short. There's more, and there's better. Both/and, not either/or."

  13. Timothy Hallinan
    at 1:58 pm on June 19, 2009

    "Both, not either." It took you long enough to get around to it. I read both "literary" fiction (could there be a more effete description?) and
    "genre" fiction (could there be a more dismissive description?) and find lots to like in both categories. And I don't like them all that differently, either. In either case, I want a good story, well-told, characters who engage my interest, a setting that I can feel and smell, a writer who realizes that pacing is something he/she owes to readers, and a few bracing ideas and emotions.

    And, yes, I think it's snobbism to insert a chasm between the two types of fiction. Some genre fiction deals with complex issues, using the mystery structure as an excuse to ask difficult questions. Some literary fiction is infufferable, over-precious, pretentious, and devoid of any evidence that the writer cares about the reader's enjoyment.

    All you have to do is look back at the serious fiction of thirty and forty years ago and see the names that have vanished without a trace. There are a few towering names — William Gaddis, for example — and a lot of people you've never heard of, and for good reason. The work didn't hold up. If "literary" fiction is so superior to "genre" fiction, wouldn't you think more of it would hold up over half a century or so?

    I think it's a bogus contrast and one that oversimplifies to the point of nonsense. When you say you are "really, talking about the writers who adhere to the formulas and conventions intentionally and faithfully," what you're saying is that you don't like BAD genre fiction. Lots of us don't. We read good genre fiction with pleasure, and we also read literary fiction. And without being continually aware of the difference.

  14. Sonya
    at 5:02 pm on June 19, 2009

    Timothy, who are your favorite writers, of either category (or non-category, I guess, since you reject the labels altogether)?

  15. Timothy Hallinan
    at 11:31 pm on June 19, 2009

    That's not easy because I read so much. My favorite novelist is Anthony Trollope (both for his work and his work ethic), whom I prefer to Dickens because Trollope could write women. My favorite (relatively) modern novelist is Gaddis, and "The Recognitions" is my top American novel of the 20th century. I love Margaret Atwood and Anthony Powell for very different reasons, and Raymond Chandler and Hammett are both way up there.

    Daniel Woodrell's rural noir kills me; Anchee Min, William Gibson, Alan Furst, Philip Kerr's later Berlin mysteries, Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Kem Nunn, Nina Revoir, Michael Gruber, William Boyd, Martin Cruz Smith, Neal Stephenson, plus lots of others get bought automatically and saved against a rainy day. And I'm leaving practically everybody out. Cheever, Marilynne Robinson, Maugham, Graham Greene, Laura Joh Rowland, Jason Goodwin, Edward Wright's John Ray Horn mysteries . . . oh, well.

    Thanks for asking, especially considering how snippy my tone was. The whole argument kind of puts my nose out of joint, as was probably apparent.

  16. Catherine M. Wilson
    at 7:28 pm on June 20, 2009

    I was going to comment here, but decided to blog about this conversation instead:
    http://www.catherinemwilson.com/blogger/lost-in-the-mist.html

    I'm glad to see so many of the comments supporting both/and, not either/or. In a sense, genre vs literary is a false dichotomy, and so many new writers are transcending genre and not letting a category define them.

    Catherine M. Wilson
    http://www.whenwomenwerewarriors.com/

  17. Anonymous
    at 8:22 pm on June 21, 2009

    When will people realize that the pretentious term "literary fiction" does not necessarily mean good writing? It is a catch-phrase for the insecure … much like the insecure people who need designer clothing labels in order to feel accepted. Relying on labels is just a crutch so that one does not need to think much about what one is choosing.

    Much of the so-called "lit fic" is just as formulaic as the genre fiction you put down. Poor pacing, undeveloped characters, and tired premises abound in both types of writing.

    Just as I do not like bad genre fiction, I also do not like bad lit fic. Poor writing is poor writing, no matter what umbrella it is under! It seems that this writer believes that lit fic, no matter how bad, is probably preferable to any other kind of fiction.

    I happen to believe that any kind of reading is better than no reading at all. Articles like this do nothing to encourage reading. Shame on you.

  18. Merrilee
    at 8:22 pm on June 21, 2009

    "With its obligatory happy endings, strict conventions, formula elements, and, above all, comforting predictability, genre fiction will always garner a wider audience than literary fiction."

    I don't know what you've been reading, but the genre fiction I read doesn't fall into this category. Maybe you should try some Neil Gaiman or Octavia Butler before you spout off elitist rubbish like this.

    90% of literary work is self-indulgent drivel, with about as much relevance as a right-wing conservative at a gay-pride parade.

    Oh, wait. You mean I'm not allowed to make a sweeping statement about literary fiction, even though you happily lump all genre fiction in the 'rubbish' category?

  19. Merrilee
    at 1:17 am on June 22, 2009

    Well said, Anonymous@11:22pm.

  20. Sonya
    at 8:46 am on June 22, 2009

    While it's not pleasant to be called names, I'm glad for the passionate exchange. I think there's actually a lot more agreement here than might be apparent based on our words–it's somehow challenging to find the right language to express a burning sense that good writing matters, and that bad writing (of any genre, which becomes popular) makes us feel demoralized and at times enraged. So I'm glad we all share this deep sense that "it matters," even while any simplistic labeling system is, admittedly, problematic.

    And coming to agreement on what is "good" is of course an impossible, and ultimately undesirable, project. My concern is that the standards for "good" among a significant swath of readers is in fact lowering, partially due to the phenomenon of not just reading, but gorging on certain (above-named) works and series. A non-provable point, but one I think worth considering. It's not always evident how a major trend is affecting the culture in the long-run; but Americans' mass consumption of high-fructose corn syrup is, for example, seeming to catch up with us in terms of our overall health (that consumption seemed harmless and attractively economical for a good long time).

    Timothy, thanks for your reading list. I'll check some of those out, especially the unfamiliar names. Rural noir sounds intriguing…

  21. Suzanne Arruda
    at 9:59 am on June 22, 2009

    Remember that the beloved beacon of literature: William Shakespeare, was a market writer who wrote genre plays (history, romance, comedy, etc.) and who frequently stooped to vulgar innuendos to reach a wider audience.

  22. Phil
    at 11:18 am on June 22, 2009

    It was an analytic (and strategic) error to imply that there are two genres, "literary" and, well, "genre"; what we call "literary" qualities can rather be found across all genres. And of course half the canonized authors of today were skillful manipulators of Victorian or Elizabethan formulae–Shakespeare being the ultimate example, but there's also Doyle or Stevenson or Dickens or Trollope or Jane Austen.

    Still, I very much appreciated this post, because it does seem to me as if a faux-populism based on contempt toward the public is a bigger danger right now than is any crippling respect for critical and intellectual standards. After all, contempt-based faux-populism helped put George W. Bush in the White House for two straight terms. I was gratified to see you make this connection.

  23. Anonymous
    at 1:40 pm on June 22, 2009

    Sonya, if you think there is agreement here, it is mostly between those who have commented more so than between you and those people.

    Either that, or you do not express yourself with much clarity…. not good for one touting her book as "literary fiction". You should never have applied labels….your first mistake in your piece.

    Joanie

  24. Terry Weyna
    at 8:55 pm on June 23, 2009

    The problem here is that there is no distinction made between *good* genre fiction and *bad* genre fiction. Dean Koontz gave up writing good stuff a long time ago, but his early books are pretty good horror novels. Now you might want to check out John Langan or Laird Barron for some literary (if you will) horror fiction that can truly terrify.

    Similarly, on the other end of things, it's hard for me to believe that it's better for one to read Jodi Picoult (generally regarded as a literary fiction writer) than to read China Mieville or Jeff VanderMeer or Steph Swainston or any number of other science fiction, fantasy and horror writers. To read one of these authors requires that one stretch one's imagination to the fullest, creating in one's head the cities, aliens and situations about which they write, so foreign to the world in which we live. This isn't easy reading, at least not if you're doing it with true attention. Frankly, at this point in my life, it would be much easier and take much less concentration to read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (my favorite book) for the umpteenth time than it would to read, say, Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta, the next fiction of the fantastic on my shelf.

    I recommend trying to read some of the really good genre fiction before tarring all genre writers — and readers — with the brush you're wielding with such disdain.

  25. MPW
    at 3:59 am on June 24, 2009

    As a bookseller I have often struggled with this 'divide' between literary fiction and genre. I have an English Lit degree but years of bookshop work have convinced me that a happy reader of genre fiction is every bit as fulfilled as a literary reader. Often genre readers just want a good story that gets them turning pages. This means that they're much more likely to read a literary novel than literature readers are to read genre…

    As for the Twilight debate, I can only say this… One of my old customers who read largely Goosebumps, Sweet Valley High and Point Horror as a child, moved on as a teenager to reading Terry Pratchett and Danielle Steele and Steven King. She now holds a classics degree and reads mainly prize-winning literature. Her love of books coming full circle and becoming a love of innovative new fiction.

    For my money the young reader of books for pleasure is far more likely to turn into a future avid reader, and in these times of multi-media competition for leisure time that is nothing but a good thing.

    Finally, if you're a happy literary reader who has no need of genre, ever, then that's fine too. Just keep recommending books to your genre reading friends and hope that they might put some of their valuable book-dollars into the pockets of publishers and writers who are best placed to pursue your interests.

  26. Anonymous
    at 7:02 am on June 24, 2009

    After reading James Patterson's SAIL (my wife's choice for our family summer bookclub), I tend to agree with Sonya.
    Why waste time with pretentious, predictable books, when there's so many books, so little time.

  27. Anonymous
    at 9:00 am on June 24, 2009

    literary fiction is a genre too. :-)

  28. Anonymous
    at 12:57 pm on June 24, 2009

    Ms. Chung, early in the essay you suggest that genre fiction will always outsell literary fiction because of a list of characteristics that essentially label all genre fiction as escapist (something that has already been discussed by other readers). I would, I think, like to submit that there is another reason, and a reason you yourself provided. The fact of the matter is that you felt you needed to provide a list that combined:

    "suspense, sexual tension, absorbing dialogue, compelling plots, characters you come to love like your favorite pets (of genre fiction); and fresh and inventive language, complex characterization, settings you can taste touch and smell, consequential ideas, ambiguity and surprise and mystery (of literary fiction)".

    The simple fact of the matter is that if literary fiction doesn't have at least some of the characteristics you mentioned as being characteristic of genre fiction, then why should it attract a broader audience?

    To me, at least, if a novel doesn't work as a story, then it doesn't work regardless of whatever other elements it might have. I am perfectly happy to engage the author with other literary qualities their work might have, but if I am not captured by the story, then why should I put the effort into it for the "fresh and inventive language"?

    Of course one of the irony's of all this is that many works regarded as genre fiction are really rather literary (Take Phillip K. Dick as an example) and some literary fiction definitely fits into genres (Vonnegut anyone?).

  29. JonJ
    at 4:42 pm on June 24, 2009

    "I read literary novels so I can learn something."

    "Then why don't you read non-fiction?"

    "Jeez, I don't want to learn _that_ much!"

    Behind the pretentions of the literati lies a simple fact: novels are for entertainment, and they ultimately stand or fall on whether they entertain enough readers. Everything else — genre, style, author's name — is irrelevant to those who read for themselves, rather than to impress others.

  30. justin
    at 8:26 pm on June 24, 2009

    This is not a matter of snobbery (though I'm quite sure you consider yourself a "snob" and find in the term a badge of honor) but of semantics. To start with, all fiction is genre fiction. To pick the hacks of any genre and hold them out to be the prime example (which is what you do above) is either ignorant, or glib. And let me add, the fact that you are a cog in the intellectual ponzi scheme that is a "creative writing program" I feel I should draw attention to one of you analogies – that of factory farming, vs. the organic.

    I would contend that the quality in writing has dropped (in America, at least) over the last 80 or some odd years do to the rise of the idea that "creative writing" can be taught. But that's another argument.

    So let's get to two things you never bother to define. What is genre fiction? There are entire arms of literary criticism devoted to this. But in the quote below you are describing a genre, not genre itself. That genre is Popular Fiction.

    "With its obligatory happy endings, strict conventions, formula elements, and, above all, comforting predictability, genre fiction will always garner a wider audience than literary fiction."

    OK, what genre are you describing here exactly? I can tell you, even for the most poorly written examples, you've just eliminated Horror, Crime, and SciFi. So, what… Miss Marple Mysteries and Romance novels then? And so what raises those works that are by definition genre – Brothers Karamazov is a murder mystery, and Lolita is a Crime novel.

    And in that vein, how does something fit into this genre (and genre it is) you keep referring to, Literary Fiction? I'm guessing we're talking suburban melodrama, ethnic stereotype melodrama, and what I will refer to as the gimmick novel, those sons of Joyce and Pynchon? What else?

    Pop fiction always been around and always will be. As time passes, the Nora Roberts will fall by the wayside, and the good stuff, for lack of a better definition, will carry on. I just think it's a sad fact that there's really not much good stuff being written anymore. But then maybe I'm just a bigger snob than you are.

    Trust me, I hate Dean Koontz far more than you. I'm willing to bet only one of us has ever called the man a hack to his face.

  31. Anonymous
    at 6:40 pm on June 25, 2009

    By no stretch of my imagination could I ever call Jodi Picoult a writer of literary fiction. The woman is a "condition of the year" formulaic hack, churning out her poorly researched books with ten similes per page whether she needs them or not.

  32. jb
    at 10:51 pm on June 26, 2009

    A premise that I think need exploring:

    Behind the pretentions of the literati lies a simple fact: novels are for entertainment" (see above)

    I'm amused that such a huge generalized assertion would ever be described as a "simple fact" – but I suspect our beliefs about the relative truth of this statement go a long way to explain how we feel about "genre" and "literary" fiction.

    How do I feel about it? I think saying that all reading is for "entertainment" is either false (if entertainment has anything like a precise meaning) or true only in the most trivial sense.

    What is "entertainment"? One of its original senses was that of simply occupying one's time. I suspect those who enjoy genre fiction to the exclusion of literary fiction have trouble understanding what *else* you might get from a book than simply having had one's time occupied for a few hours/days/whatever. Such supposed anti-elitists are tempted to reduce all sorts of divergent literary experiences to "entertainment."

    But why? You can learn something from fiction, and you can learn it in a way that non-fiction can never show you. There is nothing pretentious about that statement. Failure to appreciate it is just as dismissive as the worst sort of high-brow snobbery.

    Sure – a desire for "entertainment" is one legitimate purpose for reading. But it is not the only one. The idea that "learning something" could only happen in a non-fiction setting clearly relies on a totally bankrupt idea of what it might mean to "learn."

    I understand if you feel possessive about the simple pleasures of reading your genre books (I enjoy them too) but please don't act as though *nothing* exists beyond such simple pleasures. You just haven't found it yet. One way to overcome that possessiveness might be to get over the "snobbery" thing and, I don't know, READ a book outside of the genre section you enjoy the most. Push on even if its opening pages seem "boring" or "pointless." Trust the supposed "snobs" that they're on to something. Suspend judgment and *think* a little before retreating to the comfort of your normal patterns.

    It's like the difference between eating at a chain restaurant where you already know what's on the menu and eating at a restaurant which serves a cuisine you know little about. Sure, the former could turn out to be better than the latter, but you wouldn't say that the latter is obviously pointless, right?

  33. Daniel
    at 1:05 pm on December 13, 2009

    I am personally in favour of removing the labels of “genre” and “literary” fiction. I think any work of fiction belongs to some genre group, and can be written well or written poorly. I personally love SF and Fantasy, in particular the well-written stories in this genre that make me think. These qualities supposedly belong to “literary” fiction, and yet I find them in genres that would never be considered literary. Though not my favourite authors, don’t C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, the fathers of modern fantasy, have “fresh and inventive language, complex characterization, settings you can taste touch and smell, consequential ideas, ambiguity and surprise and mystery”?

    Because of my stance, I disagree with the majority of Sonya’s essay. Yet I agree with nearly all of her replies to the comments. She explains that the key is “good writing” v.s. “bad writing”, the very idea I support. And she can see that the chasm isn’t as big as it appears, that there is more agreement than disagreement among the comments. She remained ever respectful of everyone’s opinions, while the rest of us were quick to attack her, and to claim “we are nothing alike! Your opinion is horrendous!” And then we go on to claim that she is being elitist?

  34. J M McDermott
    at 7:19 pm on March 8, 2010

    In genre, this sort of posting is derided as “tribalism” wherein my tribe and your tribe square off in some kind of mighty duel.

    What’s both strange and disheartening, to me, is that the posting here suggests that there exists some world where people only read for one purpose, and only one kind of fiction delivers that one purpose. I would hope that part of being an intellectual is being smart enough to know the limits of one’s knowledge. Instead of deriding an entire tradition of literature, it might be valuable to ask an expert in that genre – for instance, John Clute, Paul DeFillipo, or Cheryl K. Morgan – for some insight into what is the best of the best.

    Brilliant SF author,and acolyte of James Joyce, Hal Duncan describes this this whole debate in detail over at his blog as a discourse between Mimetic and Maieutic fiction. (http://notesfromthegeekshow.blogspot.com/2009/07/on-mimetic-and-maieutic-fiction.html) What’s most interesting, to me, is how any SF authors and “Literary” authors gleefully move between numerous camps of influences.

    This notion that one could only get deep meaning from exactly one kind of writing is silly, to me. The skill of the reader is what makes something deep or shallow. If the reader has the skill to witness the depths of “Hyperion” by Dan Simmons, and the numerous literary influences, then that readers is rewarded. Failing that, the depth of the narrative is not the only pleasure present.

    Most of the time when someone posts some kind of anti-literary fiction post, they get raked over the coals since it reeks of tribalism, and a false one. Skilled readers exist in all genres, and the books that reward their effort are probably only known by folks who’ve taken the time to learn that genre.

    It’s very easy to be a hater, but it’s far more useful to look around and make sure one’s preconceived notions are actually correct, no matter what category contains their writing.

    This section of the original post is particularly offensive to readers:

    “But enjoy your genre books, I say. Life is tough, we all seek ways to effectively distract and soothe ourselves. Consume your genre series with gusto and pleasure, like a drippy, juicy bacon burger; kick back and let them carry you away weightlessly, like an after-midnight Wii session. But do not imagine or attempt to argue that they play a vital role in augmenting the human experience.”

    You know, the food analogy doesn’t hold water. The skill of the chef and the quality of the ingredients is the difference between fine cuisine and MacGreaseBurger. A skilled chef can turn even the cheesiest of burgers into an exquisite culinary experience.

    This mindset is just tribalism, wherein the false dissociation created by the bookstore shelvings have become internalized by the very writers who should bee wise enough to know better.

    After all, last time I went into a bookstore, Atwood and LeGuin were shelved in literature, while Spook Country by William Gibson and Gene Wolfe were shelved in genre. The separation is meaningless. Their audiences cross over at will, focused on quality writing, with no notion of this false dichotomy between “Genre” writing and “Literary” writing.

    In fact, I wish I could find a good link to Hal Duncan’s comparison of “Literary Fiction” with “Manliest Man”…

    Anyway, good luck in your travels, and best of luck with this dismissive attitude. I, for one, wouldn’t hold it against you if reviews of your latest book appeared in Asimov’s or Strange Horizons. After all, reviewers only owe us an honest response to what they read, and they do not owe us an allegiance to any particular false tribe.

  35. It’s All Literary « Words and Coffee
    at 10:49 am on March 19, 2010

    [...] of bandwidth have been devoted to exploring literary versus genre fiction (See here, here, and here for examples).  After reading many of these kinds of blog posts and articles, I am left [...]

  36. A Manifesto of Imaginative Literature by Justin Allen – Grasping for the Wind
    at 1:02 pm on March 22, 2010

    [...] As it turns out, those ‘literary’ knuckleheads have an opinion about us, too! Check this out: http://www.themillions.com/2009/06/slinging-stones-at-genre-goliath_18.html. Now, I don’t mind saying that everything about Sonya Chung’s understanding of writing, [...]

  37. Kate
    at 5:17 am on June 29, 2010

    This whole post reminds me of a poem I read over at Neil Gaiman’s blog.

    “SF’s no good!” They bellow till we’re deaf.
    “But this is good.” “Well, then it’s not SF.”

    Assuming that an entire genre is entirely without merit is a simply ridiculous position to have. What about Vonnegut? Bradbury? Tolkien? Lewis? That’s some heavy reading. And yes, those authors wrote genre fiction. If you’re going to draw lines, at least be accurate about it.

    And what on earth is wrong with reading with escapism in mind? A ship among the stars can be just as stimulating as anything that could happen on earth, if not more. If it’s well-written, then it doesn’t at all matter whether or not magic is involved. You must be reading only the worst of the worst genre fiction, if you think it is all formulaic, with happy endings, even. That is, if you’ve deigned to read any genre fiction at all.

    All writers, regardless of genre, want the same thing – readers to enjoy their work and writers to respect it. When writers of genre fiction stumble across essays like this one, which marginalize and pigeonhole and condescend, which call all genre writers commercialist hacks with no artistic vision or talent, it offends and hurts. What does that achieve? Writing is a tough business to begin with – shouldn’t we all be on the same side?

  38. hanif
    at 11:17 am on September 28, 2010

    I chanced upon your essay whilst trawling through links on Roberto Bolano.

    You horribly stack the decks against genre fiction and come across as insufferably pretentious.

    I am struggling to finish the first part of 2666 and cannot believe anything in the last 40 pages will tempt me to finish the whole of it. The gushing reviews are completely inexplicable to me. I could point to a scores of genre fiction that have more life and literary beauty than the pointless meandering I’ve just persevered through.

    I think I picked up this ‘masterpiece’ instead of going onto the next Gene Wolfe on my list.

    I’d like to ask of you’ve read anything by Wolfe, John Crowley, James Tiptree Jr or Le Guin – all of these writers disprove your easy dismissal.

    What genre fiction have you read? The two best murder mysteries I ever read were by a chap called Fyodor.

  39. [Guest Post] Part 1: A Manifesto of Imaginative Literature by Justin Allen - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog
    at 11:26 am on February 3, 2012

    [...] turns out, those ‘literary’ knuckleheads have an opinion about us, too! Check this out: http://www.themillions.com/2009/06/slinging-stones-at-genre-goliath_18.html. Now, I don’t mind saying that everything about Sonya Chung’s understanding of writing, [...]

  40. Lynna
    at 4:14 pm on December 11, 2012

    The problem with this article is that it assumes that genre fiction cannot be deep and that literary fiction is never shallow.

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