And for one last shake of this ragged and bloody bone before moving on to different topics, let’s talk about literary fiction. Specifically those works held up as ‘literary’ by critics and readers, rather than ‘mainstream’, which basically means books you can buy in Kmart. And let’s talk about why they’re much less of an enemy to genre fiction than genre fiction’s fans are to themselves.
One thing I saw that saddened me while on the genre panel at Continuum was the attitude from a few audience members about how literary fiction was pretentious and boring and not as good/smart/fun/whatever as genre fiction. I had kind of hoped we were finally getting away from that kind of chip-on-the-shoulder defensive nonsense, but I’m not surprised that it’s as thick on the ground as it ever was.
Genre fandom, or even just genre appreciation, can become a form of tribalism, of personal identification, and part of tribalism is the defensive stance against things from other tribes. You sometimes see it within subgroups of a tribe, such as a comics fan who’ll read anything Marvel but never touches DC (or vice versa), but you see a lot more of it against the real invaders, the true tribal outsiders that dare to be popular and critically acclaimed despite not having any cyborgs or elven princesses in them.
I’ve heard genre readers say, in all seriousness, that people only read literary fiction because they want to look intelligent, or because they want to impress girls, or because they have no imagination. That literary fiction is all about middle-class women having affairs and worrying about the drapes, or about liberal white guilt, or just artwanky fucking about with postmodernism and footnotes. (Although they usually shut up about the footnotes when you mention Terry Pratchett.) Above all, they moan that literary fiction doesn’t have enough story, enough ideas, enough fun.
Even if this were true – and I defy anyone to come away from Wonder Boys or The Dumas Club or The Solitudes and complain about the lack of ideas/story/fun in those books, to name but a few – it’s a claim that relies on circular definitions. It presupposes that the point of a text is to deliver readily accessible things like ‘ideas’ and ‘story’, which are the things that genre texts (from all genres) focus on, so that a text that delivers less of those things (or just does so in a less immediate and explicit fashion) is thus a failure, as though those are the only reasons to read a book, or see a film. Identity politics and tribalism; if you’re not with us, you’re against us. If you like this, you have to hate that. If you don’t like this fun thing, you must hate all fun things, and you’re not the one who gets to define ‘fun’ because you’re not in the Fun Tribe. Fucking funoclast.
And then there’s the claim – at best silly, at worst wilfully pernicious – that ‘literary’ fiction is a genre. If that was the case, then we could draw lines of meaningful similarity within any two works in that genre cluster. So what’s the link between Middlesex and Trainspotting? Between The Corrections and The Shadow of the Wind? Between The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Love in the Time of Cholera? What are the common themes, common tropes, common conventions? Or is this just the drive to break up every group into tribes, to validate one’s own personal identification with a boundary to say ‘well, everyone else does it too’, to reduce everything to different colours of soccer jerseys rather than consider the possibility of different sports?
The most you can say about literary fiction (or genre-less fiction or whatever you want to call) it is that it tends (tends) to be work that focuses on underlying themes rather than overt plot or distinctive elements – that it’s about what things mean, rather than which things happen. But what those things are, and what they mean, and why that meaning matters, changes from writer to writer, book to book, even reader to reader. There’s no shared agenda or set of elements; just the desire to create this story, this way, this time. The same desire genre writers have. The same desire every writer has.
(You could also, if you’re feeling mean (and I often do), argue that it’s a field of writing where the bar of quality set a bit higher than in popular/genre fiction, where too often bad writing gets excused because the story has great ideas or a really cool vampire. Sure, there are shitty literary works – I can’t comprehend how Ian McEwan gets sales, let along awards – but fantasy can’t be snooty about good and bad when Cum-Drunk Sluts of Gor gets a bye ‘cos it has swords in it. But I’m not going to argue that. I’ll be good.)
Shit. All I’m doing is ranting now, I admit it (and for like 1000 words). I’m not saying anything useful because this kind of antagonism just fills me with antagonism in return. And it pisses me off, but more than that it makes me sad, because genre fiction can be smart and well-crafted and inspiring and, yes, fun, and I want to see its readers exalt those elements and revel in them, to proselytise (without being creepy) about how enjoyable their favourite book/show/movie/text is and draw other readers/viewers in to share that joy.
And every time they – we – descend into this let’s-you-and-him-fight tribalist bullshit we do ourselves, and those works we love, a disservice. Maybe if we knock off the identity politics, talk about what matters to us, and stop insulting those with the temerity to like something different, we could all start having a better time.
Well, everyone but me. I have blog posts to write, and I’m so good at being a sweary smartarse, after all.
On that note, I’m done talking about genre and its value for the moment. I may come back to the topic some day, but not for a while.
Next time – no more than 2-3 days, I promise – I’ll whack up some flash fiction, talk about some kind of regular schedule, maybe tinker with the theme some more and say ‘fuck’ a couple of times. Get excited.