I'm a writer because I have stage fright.
Many have heard of the genre versus literary fiction debate. It’s old news — not even news. So why should we still be interested in it?
Consider some of the recent stories that have come out that breaks the mold of literary fiction by setting stories within a dystopian world. There’s Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, California by Edan Lepucki, and Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun to name a few. These authors come from prestigious literary backgrounds. Mandel has been featured in the Best American Mystery Stories 2013, won the 2014 Prix Mystere de la Critique in France, and is a National Book Award finalist. Lepucki graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and her short works have been published in Narrative Magazine, McSweeney’s and other places. Kenneth Calhoun is published in The Paris Review, Tin House, and the 2011 Pen/O. Henry Prize Collection, among others. So why did they choose to write a book that fits into a genre?
One explanation might be the market. With so many self-published novels flooding e-readers, there is more competition that wasn’t necessarily as present in the past. With the rise of the Young Adult novel, dystopian (and utopian) fiction has become exceedingly popular as well. Consider YA dystopian novels like Legend, The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Divergent, The Giver and so many others. Wouldn’t it make sense for writers in the industry to follow these trends?
But these books are far from the exciting worlds of YA dystopian literature. While YA writers focus on both human relationships and the pressures of a dangerous society/environment, Lepucki and Calhoun (notice I leave out Mandel, because I need to read her book still) focus on human relationships while their setting takes a back seat. There is not one method that is better than the other, but it brings up an interesting point. Is this genre fiction or literary fiction? Does it matter? Is it fair to elevate one above the other?
It is arguable that many young adult novels make important societal critiques and are well written. For example, The Hunger Games explored the emotions of combat soldiers in modern society, as well as what it takes to deal with trauma and, for some, PTSD. It also points out important differences between the privileged and the marginalized and those considered worthy of protection and those considered expendable. There are also critiques of patriotism, propaganda, and the Big Brother model for society. On top of all this, the world-building skills in Collins’ work was downright masterful.
Then take, for example, Edan Lepucki’s California. It is well written and her minor characters put a great deal of interesting pressure on the main characters. There are some nods to debates we’ve heard before. Does religion matter? Are we destroying the earth? Is violence a justifiable way to attain equality and lasting peace? Yet this novel rarely focuses on the dystopia aspect of the world, only occasionally mentioning the characters’ needs to find food, shelter, etc. What if we took away the dystopian aspects? Well, you still have a believable story and the characters could do what they did even in that dysfunctional environment. Frieda and Cal could still withdraw from society. Micah could still have a cult following for equality and become a terrorist. There could still be the elite societies and everyone else. There could even still be a band of feared murderers. So why even bother to use dystopia? It almost seems pointless—literary fiction badly disguised in a popular genre. That’s not to say it’s not good—but it definitely wasn’t The Hunger Games.
Then there is Black Moon, which focuses a bit more on the impact and pressures of the dystopian world. The insomniacs are a constant threat to those who are “sleepers.” This book seemed to fit the genre a lot better. However, I was somewhat confused on the point of it all. There was definitely an intricate thought process on the idea of “dreams” and people who have lost the ability to “dream” (or have aspirations and goals that are for themselves instead of adhering to societal standards). While the story was very enjoyable, the ideas are not new. We’ve had millions of stories that emphasize the need to stay true to ourselves and the consequences of ignoring that need. There is a lot of beautiful language and some tragic relationships, but what does it bring to the table that The Hunger Games does not?
Personally, I see the denial of YA fiction to be a type of discrimination associated with ageism. If someone says a novel cannot have impactful literary merit because it is YA fiction, then you are basing your bias on the age of the targeted audience. This isn’t fair, it’s exclusivity and harmful to artists and readers everywhere.
In that same respect, there is a certain discrimination against novels that fit into genres — like mystery, chick lit, religious fiction, magical realism, etc. But this classification in and of itself is flawed. Think of some of the classic literature that is considered “literary” today. For example, 1984 and Brave New World fit into science fiction. Pride and Prejudice could be considered a romance. Frankenstein and Dracula are horror. Yet these works are part of a continuous cannon that are labeled, instead, as classic literary fiction.
So what is the real difference between genre and literary fiction? It turns out that the line is blurred. Take for example, Elizabeth Edmondson’s view on the subject, which was expressed in The Guardian (for the full article click here):
Which brings me to the touchy subject of literary snobbery. Perhaps I should call it LitSnob. Lit fic: good. Popular, commercial, trash and pulp fiction: bad.
Remember that profundity has a dark twin called pretentiousness. Good fiction is good fiction, good writing is good writing and the old, old desire of the literati to cast readers with different tastes into pits labelled “middle-brow” and “low-brow” is judgmental and arrogant. It plays on the reader’s fear that we might not be thought clever enough.
Genre, served straight up, has its limitations, and there’s no reason to pretend otherwise. Indeed, it’s these very limitations that attract us. When we open a mystery, we expect certain themes to be addressed and we enjoy intelligent variations on these themes. But one of the things we don’t expect is excellence in writing, although if you believe, as Grossman does, that the opening of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is an example of “masterly” writing, then you and I are not splashing in the same shoals of language.
So is it snobbery or better writing?
Maybe the problem lies in the need to label everything?
Yet, even labeling can be beneficial. Think of a reader going into a bookstore that keeps all its books of all different types mixed together on the shelves. You’d have Toni Morrison next to James Patterson and All the Bright Places next to The Road. That’s incredibly confusing for readers who don’t want to waste their time browsing over subject matter they are not interested in. So in that respect, genre and literary classification can be somewhat beneficial.
For writers, it can be limiting. There are some writing industry professionals that won’t take you seriously if you write middle grade fiction. If your short works aren’t published in The Paris Review or Tin House can you really say you have excellent writing? Yet literary fiction isn’t overly popular with the masses and sometimes has difficulty selling. Is there a happy medium?
Maybe the happy medium lies between the writer and the reader, cutting out all the middlemen. If the writer writes the story that is true to them, revises carefully, edits well, and produces a polished book that is well received by readers, does it matter what anyone else says? It depends on how many books you want to sell. No matter what, an artist’s work will be labeled—genre or literary, badly written or well written, boring or innovative. For a writer, there is always has to be a healthy medium between listening to and dismissing criticism.
The genre versus literary debate does not have a clear cut answer just like the genre versus literary labeling has no clear cut guidelines. I would argue the importance doesn’t lie in the labels. What’s important is how we as readers feel once we read the last page and close the book.