Saturday, June 20, 2009

And now for something completely different: Genre vs Literature

How lovely to have something new to talk about.

Sonya Chung (a literary writer) has a post at The Millions, a site described as "offering coverage on books, arts, and culture," about genre vs literary fiction and how to persuade readers of genre to upgrade to something more literary.

Sonya characterizes literary fiction as "difficult pleasure" and "complex meaning" and genre as "mindless escape" and "convention-driven predictability." She states that her "ultimate mission" is "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."

I recently read somewhere (and now I can't think where--a blog post maybe) the statement that the current convention is for literary fiction to end unhappily, or at least messily, with no neat "tie it up with a bow" ending that people might find comforting. Because real life is messy and complicated, and hardly anything gets tied up with a bow.

And that's why I more often prefer genre fiction to literary fiction. I'm not a big fan of unhappy endings. I already know thousands of ways to screw things up. What I ask of fiction is: tell me how to do it right! Show me how to navigate this messy life with a little more success. Above all, leave me with a positive feeling.

Jennifer Crusie (a romance writer) wrote an essay called "Let Us Now Praise Scribbling Women," in which she says many insightful things about genre fiction. Among them, she states that fairy tales, and genre in general, promise a just universe. She says, "Mystery fiction promises a morally just universe, and speculative fiction promises an intellectually just universe, but romance trumps all of these because...it promises...an emotionally just universe."

I think most of us understand that the universe isn't all that just, and that even if we do everything "right" disaster can still ensue, but in books we may be able to experience life as it should be, and that may encourage us to try to achieve "life as it should be" in our own lives. And at the very least, it may offer us a moment of respite while we are experiencing "life as it shouldn't be."

I hate to come to the end of a book and think, Ah yes, just as I suspected, life is endlessly tragic and nothing ever works out well, and dismal, dismal, dismal, I might as well shoot myself.

A few "literary" novels I've read recently (I won't condemn them here) left me with that feeling. One of them redeemed itself a little bit by allowing me to enjoy a bit of vicarious revenge, not an emotion I really want to enjoy, and another just left me puzzled about what really happened, which I found out when I saw the movie.

That said, I agree with much of what Sonya Chung says in her post, but I have two mild disagreements with her basic assumptions. First, bad writing is not confined to genre fiction. Second, she implies that being "entertained" by a book somehow isn't enough.

Here's my take on "bad writing." I've read some genre fiction that was very badly written, usually self-published, with typos, grammatical mistakes, and many of the faults that are common with so-called amateur writers, and I managed to overlook those thing and enjoy the book because it told a good story. That's what it's all about for me. Tell me a good story!

I've read literary fiction that was so "literary" I didn't have any idea what was going on. Sometimes it worked, and I was left with an impression of what was going on. But mostly I find it annoying.

And now that bit about "entertainment" not being enough. I believe that each of us has a sense of what is good for us. We seek out things that bring us enjoyment and pleasure, and we avoid things that bring us pain, either physical or emotional. Perhaps some of us haven't been offered enough choices, and the better being the enemy of the best, we stick to what we know we will like and find rewarding. So I do agree with Sonya Chung that venturing out of one's comfort zone could be as good a thing in choosing a book as it often is in real life.

But I don't think we should be ashamed of liking what we like. I would rather experience pleasant emotions vicariously than unpleasant ones, and for me, the best books (genre or not) take me on an enjoyable emotional ride. A little bit of fear, sadness, and dread are fine, but if a book doesn't resolve those feelings with a satisfying ending, I don't want to go there.

And now a word about my own books. The first page of my publisher website, Shield Maiden Press, contains an interview with myself in which I try to convey that When Women Were Warriors doesn't really fit nicely into any genre. I've always hesitated to call it literary fiction, because its literary quality is not for me to judge, but it doesn't slot neatly into romance (although it contains romantic/sexual relationships), or fantasy (no glowing sword of specialness, as one reviewer noted), or speculative fiction (although it does speculate on one central question: if women were in power in the real world, what would that be like?). It does seem to appeal, however, to readers of all these genres, because the promise I make to my readers is this: Bad things may happen here, but it will all come right in the end, and the journey will be about how my characters achieved that ending.

I wonder if Sonya Chung has read much genre fiction...

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