December 21, 2011 7 Comments
The classics were commercial genre in their day. I’m imagining myself pretty out there with such a claim, but I’m hunting for the exception. For example, Melville was Van Gogh’s literature. He wrote about working stiffs, in a day when more institutionally respected writers wrote about God and king. There probably are exceptions to my observation, but I’m guessing those exceptions are modern anomalies.
This brings us to the form ordained for greatness, literary. One’s book cannot become a classic without being literary, can it? And yet, I repeat, I can’t think of many classics that weren’t pushing back the favorite literary forms of their day, and that thought goes all the way back to the bawdy houses of Shakespeare. My assertion that yesterday’s commercial genre is how the classics were made, seems to confront all the assumptions that literary is superior. I kind of like banging that drum, not because of what it says about pipe-smoking professors wearing cardigan sweaters, but because of what it says about the potential within genre literature; more on that later.
Let’s look at a common definition of this thing called literary: ‘Literary fiction is a term that came into common usage during the early 1960s. The term is principally used to distinguish “serious fiction” which is a work that claims to hold literary merit, compared to genre fiction and popular fiction. In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more upon style, psychological depth, and character. This is in contrast to mainstream commercial fiction (what I’m loosely calling genre in this post), which focuses more on narrative and plot. Literary fiction may also be characterized as lasting fiction (destined to be the source of future classics).’
Now, let’s just take a moment to look at all the assumptions in that definition. First, the definition starts off with circular reasoning. Literary is serious fiction and has merit. Why? Well, because the way it is written has more merit than any other way of working, and therefore is serious. This means genre fiction is not serious and has no merit, or at least by comparison. Those who are serious, and who have merit, claim it so from the bell towers.
We are also told that literary fiction can be identified as having style, psychological depth and focus on characters. Oh, and if it has significant plot, that’s a big no-no.
As a writer, this kind of pompous crap just blows me away because it has been a very long time since I’ve thought it optional to neglect the very basics of good story. You should have great style, internal depth and vivid characters in every story. It isn’t optional.
There are two silly positions born from this claptrap. One is the assertion that one writing form holds ownership over style, psychological depth and characterization. Some on the other side suggest that, as a genre writer, there’s a pass on these concerns if the external plot is interesting. The latter I hate even worse than the former because it dumbs down our work and gives the critics all the excuse they need to continue with the claims that literary is “serious fiction” worthy of “classic status,” someday, and by comparison, our work isn’t, in spite of the fact that nearly everything ever declared a classic was genre in its day.
I’m reminded of a very nice lady in one of my writers groups several years back. I told her, “You know, you need to decide what your story is about, given it is leaning several directions. I suggest a romance, considering the type of relationships you are spending all your time building in the first fifty pages.”
Her response was an aghast, “Oh no! I’m writing literary.”
This sort of assumed superiority of form leaves me feeling a little insulted, but we genre writers are used to that, and the lady didn’t have a mean bone in her body.
If you put a couple of romantic scenes in a book that obviously screams for them, you’ve somehow reduced yourself to the slag-heap of poor writers by writing a romance and joining half the bookstore’s inferior commercial offerings. In the minds of some, that’s unconscionable. But I ask: what about a couple of romantic scenes automatically make it trivial literature lacking in style, depth and characterization, even though everything else in the work is supposedly literary? God forbid I should have suggested making a main character a vampire. That would have doomed it, regardless of the style, depth and characterization. Give it a better plot, and off with her head. Let’s be real, a moment, here. Did Moby Dick have a plot? It did? Oh, never mind.