Read a very interesting article today about the distinction between, and perceived hierarchy of, literary fiction and genre fiction. I wasn’t too sure about this myself. ‘Literary fiction’ seems like a label you should never give your own writing (seems a bit conceited). It’s the kind of thing you say about novels that you think are superior to what your siblings/spouse are reading. Genre fiction can be used as a bit of an insult, a way of distinguishing entertainment from high art.
I don’t know which of these two ball parks I was aiming for with my first novel – a modernised version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. My second novel was carefully constructed within the conventions of the Romance genre. This third one is definitely an attempt at something like literary fiction… though I’m relieved to find out there’s a big fuzzy grey space between and I’m allowed to fit in it.
Genre fiction, also known as Popular Fiction, gets a bad rap. One of the reasons is that it follows certain, successful conventions, especially around plot. The genre novel has a certain predictability, I guess, if you stand back far enough. The detective’s first suspicions about who-dunnit will not be correct. The man the girl hates at the start will be her significant other at the end. The problems presented in first couple of chapters will be solved by the time you finish the book. These books are often very satisfying. Readers enjoy resolution, especially if, just pages earlier, they thought it might be impossible. But critics are often harsh on genre novels just because they follow these conventions.
The article I just read answered this beautifully:
“… conventions aren’t the iron cage they’re made out to be. Sonnets are bound by conventions too, but that doesn’t stop them from being great, and infinitely various. Conventions are more like the rules of chess: a small set of constraints that produces near-infinite complexity. They’re not restrictive, they’re generative.”
This was certainly my experience in writing a genre novel. Going in, I shamelessly followed the formula for romance. I plotted the whole thing out so as to match the rhythms of the vast majority of romance novels on the market. But once I started writing I soon found it hard to stick with the other conventions. The plot, I persisted with, but the genre’s most typical (and perhaps commercially successful) writing style, ie. the use of certain types of language, was just not my style. Meanwhile, within the confines of most of the conventions I found myself both liberated and empowered. I felt free to be creative and I suspect the finished product is actually a much better book than my first. It is certainly more cohesive. And even with all those lingering looks and brush-of-his-hand… I suspect the writing is better. Who’d have thought?
The thing is, Popular Fiction is popular for a reason. Readers aren’t all idiots. Some fiction is bad, sure, but some Literary Fiction is bad too. Where lieth the boundary between good and bad fiction? Well that’s a whole other question. I suspect, like the literary/genre line in the sand, it’s a bit blurry. The surfers keep dragging their boards through it.
Another great bit from the article (which is really quite long – I warned you):
“Somewhere in its history, reading novels has gotten all tangled up with questions of social status, and accepting the kinds of pleasure that genre novels offer us has become — how perverse are we? — a source of shame. What is it, exactly, that those pleasures are guilty of? Novels aren’t status symbols, or they shouldn’t be. Maybe it’s the last vestiges of our Puritan heritage: if it’s not hard work, it’s sinful. Maybe it’s just that we’re self-loathing capitalists, and anything associated with commerce, as genre fiction is, is automatically tainted and disqualified from having any aesthetic value. Either way our attitude toward genre fiction smacks of mass cultural neurosis.”
So I think I need to get over it, along with everybody else. I will march on and not worry about whether or not my novel is too ‘genre’ or too ‘literary’. And i’ll try to save worrying about whether or not it’s any good till the editing phase.
If I’m going to get the first draft done before this baby comes I don’t have time to worry. Or read full length articles about genre.
It’s a lovely hot spring day here in Paris. I had low expectations – due to having very little sleep last night and a grumpy baby to deal with first thing in the morning – but the day has picked up. I did get a nap this morning, and then ticked a few more things off the to-do list – which always makes me happy.
It helps that that baby went to sleep this afternoon – finally – and I didn’t get torn away from writing before I was ready. I celebrated with one of my favourite hot-day treats…
The iced-mochaccino float.
- cold, leftover coffee from breakfast
- hot chocolate powder
- cold milk
- ice cream
Further instruction is probably unnecessary, but here you go:
Mix the first three in proportions you prefer. If the hot chocolate powder won’t dissolve in cold liquid then heat a small amount of milk in the microwave and dissolve the powder in that. Add this small warm portion to all the other cold ingredients and you should still have a cold drink. Ice cream goes in last – a big scoop of sweet deliciousness which hopefully doesn’t overflow your glass. Leave the spoon in there so that you can eat the ice cream before it melts.
Tonight I’m going out. That’s right: very rare occasion. Even rarer, I’m going by myself! It’s a girls night book swap. Unfortunately I have no books to swap, but I’ve been assured there will be plenty and I will just have to come up with another way to pitch in.
Also have a doctor’s appointment this evening – just routine stuff, but there’s always the hope that some bright ideas re: skin and sleep might come out of it. Better get on and make dinner or I’ll be in a mad rush later.