It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.
—Jack Kerouac, WD
I have been reading articles about this struggle in the literary world between genre and literary fiction. I think it a little hysterical to call it a “war” but as the distinctions between the two DO effect many people in a material way, it’s fair to call it a problem. While there are figures in the world of genre writing who have risen to the status of titan (Neil Gaiman and Stephen King come to mind) even they are sneered at by the literary community as hacks or “just genre writers.” They are certainly not artists as defined by snooty book reviewers and awards committees.
One article I’ve read recently is Arthur Krystal‘s rather snide contribution to The New Yorker (go figure). Steven Petite’s take on the subject is a bit less biased, but I would say still wrong-headed. In it, he says:
The main reason for a person to read Genre Fiction is for entertainment, for a riveting story, an escape from reality. Literary Fiction separates itself from Genre because it is not about escaping from reality, instead, it provides a means to better understand the world and delivers real emotional responses.
While this might be true of certain readers and certain works from both camps, I think it is dismissive to say the sole purpose of genre fiction is to escape reality or that literary fiction’s only function is to take you on an emotional odyssey. The truth is, there is no trademark on either goal and a good writer in literary or genre fiction SHOULD be able to accomplish both things with one piece of writing. Think I’m asking too much? That’s fine, but I think readers ask TOO LITTLE of a book when they forgive atrocious writing because a fantasy epic has a good plot. I think readers ask TOO LITTLE of a literary novel that employs gorgeous, poetic prose but basically rambles through a nonsensical plot like an old man with Alzheimer’s. The best writers of any type, stripe, or era have complete control of their craft, message, and characters. They are the gods of their little realms and exercise their power with authority and a view towards how their stories will ripple through the world.
Allow me to demonstrate my point with some examples of modern (20th century or later) authors/books who manage to tell a ripping yarn and still employ beautiful, emotional language. This is by no means an exhaustive list and reading tastes are subjective so you might disagree with my picks. If so, drop your own picks in the comments.
Fantasy is my home genre. I live and breathe there. I’ve read some truly bad fantasies and I have met some fantasy books/stories that were as everlastingly beautiful as anything a literary author can pen. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle leaps immediately to mind.
I have been mortal, and some part of me is mortal yet. I am full of tears and hunger and the fear of death, although I cannot weep, and I want nothing, and I cannot die. I am not like the others now, for no unicorn was ever born who could regret, but I do. I regret.
Poetic, ethereal but, at the end of day just a damn fine story, this modern fairytale deserved more accolades than it received.
Another stand-out in fantasy are the novels of Patricia A. McKillip, particularly Winter Rose.
Winds shook me apart piecemeal, flung a bone here, a bone there. My eyes became snow, my hair turned to ice; I heard it chime against my shoulders like wind-blown glass. If I spoke, words would fall from me like snow, pour out of me like black wind.
Well-drawn characters make this another example of how fantasy can be just as emotionally compelling as any literary novel.
I might as well do the polar opposite of my favorite genre and cover horror. Lately, I have tried to delve more into the horror genre because these authors know how to build suspense and keep you on the edge of your seat. Everyone attempting to write fiction should have at least a passing acquaintance with horror for the knowledge you can glean.
All that being said, horror is probably the most overlooked genre-fiction subcategory. I think because it often employs so many shock factors, people tend to dismiss it as “pure entertainment.” That stance is as wrong-headed as can be, though. During times of fear and extreme stress our true natures are revealed. So, you could say horror writers, the good ones, possess the keenest understanding of human nature and what emotion causes us to do.
The Exorcist by William Blatty is a quintessential horror novel in that it explores not only what we do in the midst of our fear, but what becomes of our most cherished beliefs when faced with the unimaginable.
Yet I think the demon’s target is not the possessed; it is us . . . the observers . . . every person in this house. And I think—I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity, Damien: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy.
If I do have experience in the horror genre, it is more on the ghost-story end. Some of the most frightening movies I have watched or books I’ve read had no blood, no gore but were haunted by my own imagination as it was manipulated by an author’s words. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson gets into you as any good book should and it wrings emotion from you in icy-cold drops.
I’m kind of a faux sci-fi fan. I can’t really get into the hard stuff, though I have delved into that arena for the betterment of my soul (namely Cyteen). It baffles me how much derision is hurled at science-fiction since it is one of the oldest literary traditions we have, next to fantasy. Utopia, The Blazing World, Frankenstein, Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1984, Fahrenheit 451 these are all books lauded as classics. They have influenced countless writers – generations of wordsmiths. Yet science-fiction suffers under a bastardly reputation in the literary community.
I suppose none of the snoots who look down their noses at science-fiction take into account that The Road by Cormac McCarthy is actually a science-fiction novel. It imagines a world after a mysterious apocalypse and examines what happens when people let go of their humanity – and what some are willing to sacrifice to hold on to it. Fantastic book that blows apart genres and stays with you YEARS after reading it, perhaps forever.
He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.
Another science-fiction work by a purportedly “literary” author is Under the Skin by Michel Faber. A haunting parable and a chilling reflection on what it means to label a group as “the other.” I haven’t seen the recent movie rendition of this phenomenal book, but from the trailers it is little to nothing like Faber’s original. Do yourself a favor and just read the book.
I do have to add a third book to the science-fiction a category. Electric Forest by Tanith Lee is a phenom, even in a realm where the fantastic is made believable. A psychological thriller as much as a science-fiction yarn, this book totally debunks the idea that science-fiction cannot compete with literary novels.
Reeling in frantically, two men jerked the gut up from the ocean, and the fish was dragged after to land violently on the apron. It was a double-tailed cody, the edible variety. Sea-bright, blue-silver, it flung itself along the concrete. White blood splattered from its mouth around the hook. The crowd on the apron laughed and shouted as they waited for it to die.
Another genre I am not as well-versed in as I should be. However, I tore through Lonesome Dove and was literally panting at the end. A mammoth book that gives Song of Ice and Fire a run for its money in regards to messy, complicated characters and bad, bad, BAD guys (yet has none of the fat of that bloated series. Oops! Was that out loud).
If you want one thing too much it’s likely to be a disappointment. The healthy way is to learn to like the everyday things, like soft beds and buttermilk—and feisty gentlemen.
And then there is True Grit by Charles Portis. Damn, but that is a good book! Bare as bone, cutting as broken glass.
But I had not the strength nor the inclination to bandy words with a drunkard. What have you done when you have bested a fool?
I know mysteries and thrillers are not the same genre. However, I don’t have enough experience in either to give you two solid books in each category so I am smooshing them together. Did I mention my home genre is fantasy?
Anyway, the mystery/thriller sub-category, much like horror has often been overlooked and dismissed as not serious writing. Pfft! One of the reasons I don’t read a lot of mystery is I feel I’m not smart enough! I can’t pick up the little tell-tale clues, follow the embedded leads. I am pretty much always surprised by the end.
Now, I concede that a great deal of the mysteries/thrillers being offered these days seem like pure junk. Poorly written and not so “thrilling.” That doesn’t mean NO ONE has/is putting out intelligent, thoughtful and emotionally devastating fiction in this sub-category.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier has the atmospheric dampness of a great ghost story with the shady characters of a mystery. A true touchstone of the mystery genre, in my opinion.
If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.
Despite the fact Stephen King is referred to as the master of horror, he has penned some amazing thrillers. One of them is not even a book but a short story found in his Full Dark, No Stars collection. “A Good Marriage” struck me with how deftly King constructed the story, kept my breath bated, and made his characters both real and larger-than-life. He is in the peak of his powers with this story and, even if he had never written anything else, “A Good Marriage” it would have forever branded him, in my mind, as a literary force to be reckoned with.
You could not turn off love- even the rather absent, sometimes taken for granted love- the way you’d turn off a faucet. Love ran from the heart and the heart had it’s own imperatives.
I’ve put this category off till last simply because I had difficulty coming up with two entries. Romance is the one fly in my manifesto’s ointment. While I’ve read a great deal of romance and love books that contain romance as a subplot, it is too often mishandled when romantic love serves as the center piece of the story.
However, I managed to pull a couple of examples out of my hat because, like it or not, genre fiction DOES trump all those silly ideas that it can’t be emotionally deep, poetic, and intellectually challenging.
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon genre bends at every turn. Time-travel, romance, adventure, historical. You name it and it’s probably made an appearance in Gabaldon’s groundbreaking series.
I continued staring at him, dumbstruck. Whatever I had been expecting, it wasn’t this. Seeing my openmouthed expression, he continued lightly. “When I asked my da how ye knew which was the right woman, he told me when the time came, I’d have no doubt. And I didn’t. When I woke in the dark under that tree on the road to Leoch, with you sitting on my chest, cursing me for bleeding to death, I said to myself, ‘Jamie Fraser, for all ye canna see what she looks like, and for all she weighs as much as a good draft horse, this is the woman.’
The many books of Maeve Binchy are renowned for their sweet romances. But, I think it telling that the author herself once said, “I don’t have ugly ducklings turning into swans in my stories. I have ugly ducklings turning into confident ducks.” That one word “confident” lifts Binchy’s work from mere romance into a higher realm of human exploration. Circle of Friends, in particular, upped the ante for Maeve Binchy fans, in that it did not have a typical happily-ever-after ending. It’s ending is happy, but not in the way romance novel formulas would have us believe it SHOULD have ended.
Who knows what light housework means? One nun’s light could be another nun’s penal servitude.
Now that I’ve gone through the different MAIN sub-categories (there are dozens if not hundreds of sub-sub-categories one could explore) of the genre-fiction umbrella, let’s look at some literary novels that defy the belief that literary novels have to be opaque and difficult to read to be good. Despite what some novelists and literary critics would have us believe and some readers willingly swallow, reading a novel should not give you a headache. Challenge you, yes. But when you have read the same page twenty times and STILL cannot make out what it means, that’s a problem. And not a problem of the reader’s mental capabilities. It breaks my heart when I read a review of a book where a reader condemns him/herself as “not smart enough” to comprehend an author’s work. What the hell is the point of your book if people can’t get it? What are you writing for if you can’t reach and relate to readers? That whole idea that novels need to baffle, confuse, and belittle readers infuriates me. No one says you have to write on a middle school level, or lower to have people understand your work. You don’t have to dumb down your writing. Just make sure you’re not writing poetic fluff that obscures your story, distorts your characters, or muffles the power of your dialogue.
I won’t take quite as long on these books since most people acknowledge their value, but these are some literary novels I enjoyed for their lucid storytelling, poetic language, amazing characters, and all-around brilliance:
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
They call this war a cloud over the land. But they made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say ‘Shit, it’s raining!’
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
It’s a disease. Nobody thinks or feels or cares any more; nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little God damn mediocrity.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my brothers. I had to fight my cousins and my uncles. A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men. But I never thought I’d have to fight in my own house. She let out her breath. I loves Harpo, she say. God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me.
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
It wasn’t that I forgot Hanna. But at a certain point the memory of her stopped accompanying me wherever I went. She stayed behind, the way a city stays behind as a train pulls out of the station. It’s there, somewhere behind you, and you could go back and make sure of it. But why should you?
The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
Accidents ambush the unsuspecting, often violently, just like love.
We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver
In a country that doesn’t discriminate between fame and infamy, the latter presents itself as plainly more achievable.
The House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
The truth is life is full of joy and full of great sorrow, but you can’t have one without the other.
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
My Tom died as babies do, gently and without complaint. Because they have been such a little time with us, they seem to hold to life but weakly. I used to wonder if it was so because the memory of Heaven still lived within them, so that in leaving here they do not fear death as we do, who no longer know with certainty where it is our spirits go. This, I thought, must be the kindness that God does for them and for us, since He gives so many infants such a little while to bide with us.
And that, my friends, is my take on this whole “war” between literary fiction and genre fiction.