Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Literary/Genre Question(s)

I saw this as an interview over on Jason Sanford's blog and thought I'd post my own responses to the questions.

1. Do you think it is possible for a work of fiction to be literary and genre at the same time?

All works of written fiction are both literary and genre at the same time. They are written and hence literary. They are of a type and hence (of a) genre.

2. Why do you think there is a line between literary and genre, and what can writers and readers do to overcome it?

For some reason, some genres of fiction were segregated out during the 20th century and classed together as having a genre, as being "genre," in contradistinction to other genres of fiction which were thus defined as absent the qualities that marked out all such "genre fiction." This is rather like some tones of skin were segregated out during the 20th century and classed together as having a colour, as being "coloured," in contradistinction to other tones of skin which were thus defined as absent the qualities that marked out all such "coloured people." Actually "for some reason" is disingenuous; the reason for this is fairly clearly a matter of privileging one set of genres over the other, of redefining literature such that the abjected genres were denied legitimacy. The essential qualities that served as markers by which one set of genres was identified as deserving of abjection were "sensationalism" and the mass appeal / mass production that went with it.

The best way to overcome this is, I think, to call the bullshit for what it is.

3. To you, what qualifies a work of fiction as literary, genre, or both/neither?

The fact that it's written. And in a genre.

4. What do you like about literary fiction, and what do you like about genre fiction?

Everything that's great about fiction.

5. What do you like about writing literary fiction, and what do you like about writing genre fiction?

Everything that's great about writing fiction.

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Anonymous tsc said...

I find it interesting that genre writers all insist on being considered literary writers, but few literary writers would have it the other way around.

12:46 pm  
Anonymous J. Holder said...

Of course they wouldn't. What they write is the epitome, the top of the pyramid, of fiction writing. Why would they want to abject themselves willingly? It's a load of bull, but unlikely to change soon.

1:35 pm  
Blogger C. Nickolas Carlson said...

It's probably disingenuous to imply that writers and critics of literary fiction are primarily responsible for the segregation of genre. From what I understand of the history, genre fiction self-selected itself as being disparate from "literary" fiction with the creation of genre magazines and such that produced and published only material from that genre. Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Bram Stoker, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Oscar Wilde, etc. did not rely on genre magazines to produce their fictions. People liked them so much that magazines then sprang up to specifically publish "weird tales" and "astounding stories," which cemented the genres into their roles. Later writers have felt ghettoized by these delineations, but it's rarely pointed out that the segregation was not some msterplot of the literary establishment to demonize genre and glorify literary writing, but was conceived of as a good thing by the writers and readers of the early pulps. The problem, I think, is that soon writers of genre fiction forgot that the original appeal of their stories was their other-ness and they started writing to formula rather than writing more soulful work, which then earned the genre magazines, and thus genre fiction in general, the nigh-uniform derision of those literary writers who think of writing as art rather than as a paycheck (which is a lot of what genre writing became in the 30s, 40s, and 50s). All of that being said, genre fiction is and will remain much more popular than literary fiction, so who cares if the so-called literary establishment views genre works as lesser works (an argument which is becoming harder and harder to maintain after the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Jay Lake, Michael Chabon, etc.).

1:43 pm  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:50 pm  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Hal, much agreed with your answers.

In response to TSC and J. Holder, though, I would say that you are wrong, many literary writers want to be classified in genres these days, because there are readers reading genre literature, and the possibility of actually having a career in writing books comes out of that. Many literary writers have very small readerships and this is where both genre snobbery and genre envy is bred in literary writers (or so-called "literary" writers, because, like Hal, I don't really see a distinction in what is literary, or good writing, which is what that word is a placeholder for, and what is genre. To me, literary is a term that can be applied to any kind of fiction, not just realism. Hal's books are literary, in the placeholder definition of "good writing" that that word has taken on.)

I've actually seen more and more "literary" writers trying to find their way into the genre scene these days, precisely because what we call commercial category fiction generally has a higher possibility for readership than so-called literary work. This isn't just the scifi-fantasy genre they are attempting to enter, though, so understand that if you're only looking at scifi/fantasy/horror as "genre" books, you're forgetting romance, thrillers, mysteries, historicals, and now, YA has become a genre unto itself, with expectations and rules and conventions of its own.

In all of these various genres you will find writers who are labeled as literary writers working within them, or around the borders of the genres, in some way.

8:51 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

tsc: I could say this: "I find it interesting that literary fans all reveal prejudice in their comments on this subject, while few genre fans would apply the same prejudice in reverse."

But that would be a type of ad hominem argument, deliberately exploiting gross generalisations of types of reader and impugning the character of one type, to undermine their position, rather than addressing the substance of the argument. It would be nonsense, of course. As is the ad hominem coded into your comment.

Which is to say, your comment hinges on a gross generalisation, a stereotype of "genre" writers, "all" of whom, you assert, make this claim -- "insist" on it, indeed. It's not an objective observation, see, but an emphatic protestation, expressed with emotion. All "genre" writers -- all of them -- are insistent in their claim.

That subjective claim is cast as dubious by contrasting it with the majority opinion of "literary" writers -- who generally see no validity to the logical corollary which would posit them as "genre" writers. Note that these "literary" writers are afforded a range of opinions; that some "few" would have it the other way around only goes to show that this is a consensus of individuals each making their own mind up rather than exhibiting a groupthink born of their essential nature.

This, of course, establishes a typification of the "literary" writer as thinking flexibly. They might decide one way; they might decide the other. The essential nature of the "literary" writer does not bind them to think in a certain way.

In the "I find it interesting," we are, of course, invited to make an inference as to what this disparity of opinions signifies. That inference is obvious in the coding of "genre" writers as "all" thinking according to type, all making emphatic protestations, and in the contrast of this groupthink with a consensus of freethinking "literary" writers. To wit, the logical inference is that "all" those "genre" writers are making unsound judgements born of desire, that this is what "genre" writers do, and that the folly of this is revealed in the consensus of the generally rational "literary" writers. The logical inference is that "genre" writers have an irrational drive to claim unwarranted acceptance, that they reveal their unworthiness in this very folly of insisting they deserve the status afforded "literary" writers.

Which is to say, this is abjection justified by abjection. The very act of asserting an inequity, a privilege, is rendered grounds for dismissing such assertions as simply the (stereo)typical behaviour of "that sort." A prejudicial projection of essential unreasonableness paints all claims of equality as evidence of inequality. Neat.

10:46 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

An addendum to my close reading of that comment:

The inferences are of course left to the reader, maintaining plausible deniability -- that this is not what was meant, that anyone making those inferences is "reading too much into it." By not explicitly saying why one finds this "interesting," by letting the generalisation of "all" and the connotations of emotional impetus in "insist" do the work, the commentor shields themself from any criticism that they are engaging in abjection, conscious or unconscious, and in fact creates an opportunity for validating the stereotype if such criticism is subsequently leveled. Such criticism is, of course, further evidence of the unreason of "that sort." A textual analysis such as this, albeit grounded in straightforward observation of how generalisations and connotations serve to characterise a class of people, will be read as itself a subjective interpretation born of the irrational desire to claim unwarranted acceptance.

But of course, as a writer I'm well aware of the possibility of inadvertently constructing an articulation at odds with one's intent. It is entirely possible that the coding is unintentional -- that no sweeping generalisation was really meant, that "insist" was not supposed to imply over-emphasis, that the viewpoint of "literary" writers is not being cast as sensible consensus in contrast, that we are not, in short, supposed to infer a dismissal of "genre" writers as essentially weak-minded fools seeking a status they couldn't possibly deserve. It's quite possible that the comment was made with no such purpose in mind. So, I'll simply offer this as an analysis of the substance of the comment, with no assumption of what is meant by it.

It is not hard to project an abjecting purpose into that articulation, but I'm not about to insist on it.

10:50 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A tangent, but a related tangent, just because having to bridge that artificial divide took so much effort in doing this series...


11:48 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

C. Nikolas Carlson: Actually, I'm one of the first to point to the commercial pressures toward formulation within category fiction as factors in the stigma associated with certain labels. And, indeed, to criticise the ghetto mentality where it refuses to acknowledge the "No shit, Sherlock" realities of public perception -- the fact that category fiction's roots in the early pulps is invariably going to lead those who don't read category fiction to be deeply skeptical of its value.

However, that pressure toward "more of the same" (and the counteracting pressure toward "something different" -- i.e. a novel twist on the idiom) is why the line between literary and genre has readers on both sides sniping so dismissively at each other, but it's not, I think, why the line exists in the first place. We have to ask why formulaic is considered bad in the first place, when formal structures like the sonnet or rondel are not considered less "literary" because they adhere to conventions.

Ultimately, by the time we hit the pulp boom, the abjection of sensation novels and Gothic Romance on the grounds of sensationalism is rooted in the discourse. There is a disdain that binds closely to Victorian misogyny and notions of hysteria. Similarly the sensationalism of penny dreadfuls and dime novels has classist aspects, I'd say. We can contrast the total acceptability of scandalous gossip-mongering sensationalist fiction among the upper classes during the formative period of the novel as an idiom.

It's only as "literature" begins to be defined in opposition to populist features like the plot-dynamics of Romance (in the 18th century sense, not the Harlequin sense,) and the melodrama of "women's fiction" (i.e. sensation novels,) the line of propriety is drawn. Sensationalism is quite acceptable in Dickens and Romance dynamics is quite acceptable in the sort of writers you name, the sort associated with The Strand, say, at the turn of the century, as I understand it, but the division is into "literature" and "popular fiction" is already established by the time the pulps come along (whereupon the division becomes "literature" versus "pulp" and then, as the categories form "literary" versus "genre".)

The point is that "literary" magazines and imprints also self-selected genre identities -- it's just that the particular genre(s) of fiction they offered was(/were) largely contemporary realist. I agree that we're not talking about a machiavellian masterplot on the part of the literary establishment, and that those working in the pulps were happily exploiting the cheap mass-production, keen to target those juicy niche markets and inclined to formulae as conventional as the three-act structure of a Hollywood movie. But I do think the term "genre fiction" is born out of the impulse to disassociate one set of genres privileged in the discourse from another set marked out as vulgar. And that the disdain for sensation novels indicates this sense of propriety coming into play before the actual formation of categories. Those categories just set up the situation where the term "genre" could be co-opted as a signifier of the qualities that were to be excluded as illegitimate artistry.

12:33 am  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...

Much the same thing goes on in the visual arts. When I was getting my art degree I frequently got obnoxious comments from professors about science fiction/fantasy subjects. A landscape could be praised....but an extraterrestrial landscape was "mere" illustration.

As if illustration were something other than art.

11:37 pm  
Anonymous mcr said...

I don't think you can just lump everything together under the "literary" banner. You could say that it is all literature, but not necessarily literary. If you use your definition, then there is no real difference between Twilight and Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis or even Broch's Sleepwalkers. There is a very real difference in both quality of writing and what the authors are trying to say.

I do agree that genre fiction grew out of pulp magazines, and for the most part, genre writers aren't trying to make some statement about society, the world in which we live, or the characters psychological musings. They are simply trying to write a good story. On the other hand, literary writers can use a wide variety of settings as a carcass upon which they build their stories. Take Borges, for instance, one of the best fantasy writers to step foot on this planet, but if you think that all he was trying to do was simply tell a good story, I think you are mistaken.

And that takes us to the difference in readers of genre and literary fiction. The former readers are simply looking for a good time, whereas the latter dig through the surface of the words on the page to get to the deeper meanings hidden below. This does not mean that a person who generally reads standard fiction will not enjoy reading Eco's Baudolino, but the literary reader will simply plumb the depths to wring everything he can out of the images Eco uses.

Just as in everything, there are people who are beginners, intermediate and advanced. If I met someone who had never heard rock-n-roll before, I would not start them off with the Flaming Lips or King Crimson, but instead give them the Beatles, something simple and accessible but without really much substance. Likewise, as for reading, I would not throw them in the deep end with Musil's Man without Qualities.

7:18 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

You could say that it is all literature, but not necessarily literary.

You could. My argument is that on one level this is like saying that all men are men, but not necessarily male -- palpably ludicrous, a contradiction of a tautology. All artworks in that written medium of letters are, by definition, literature. And if they're narrative, that means they are "literary," as opposed to "cinematic," say.

Unless, of course, one wants to make it a case of privileging one type of fiction over another, asserting that a particular set of standards are legitimate while others aren't. There it becomes like saying that all men are men, but not necessarily "manly," not necessarily "masculine." Which is really to say that there are certain qualities -- over and above gender identity -- required for a man to be a "proper" man. Features the absence of which will render a man "unmanly," "not masculine," maybe even "girly" or "effeminate." In other words, the only real meaning in such a distinction is an artifice of socially constructed standards of "masculinity" by which men are judged to be "real men"... or not, as the case may be. The term "masculine" really exists to assert that certain qualities are essentially "of men," to assert a heteronorative framework of evaluating men, a framework which privileges men with one set of behaviours as "manly" over those who don't fit the template. This is what we're doing when we apply the term "literary" this way; we are asserting a framework of standards in which certain approaches to writing fiction are privileged over others.

9:27 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

The very real differences between works of different genres are precisely why the term is problematic. What the authors are trying to say, what they are aiming to achieve is in part dependent on the genre the work sits in, whether it's a pulpy plot-driven narrative or a ponderous character-driven narrative. And like a sonnet and a rondel, narratives in different genres -- associated with categories or not -- should be judged by the relevant standards.

And different standards are equally legitimate, I say. Indeed, I regard the privileging of one particular set of standards for what is "literary" with the same suspicion I regard the privileging of one particular set of standards for what is "manly." In both cases, I call shenanigans. Bullshit and bollocks, I say. This is just about casting one set of behaviours as legitimate and another as illegitimate. Liking musicals more than sports doesn't make someone any less of a man. Liking strange fiction more than contemporary realism doesn't make someone any less of a writer.

The constant conflation of "quality of writing" with particular qualities reveals the assertion of privilege. Plot-driven narrative is "simply" telling a story. Character- or theme-driven narrative is for the superior ("advanced") reader. Right? Petit bourgeois poppycock, I say. Tosh and balderdash.

Narrative is a craft of articulation constructed to have any number of dynamic effects upon the reader -- some formal, some visceral, some cerebral. For sure, there are readers who see that narrative largely as a means to an end, seeking only the pleasures of the plot-dynamics they construct from it in their imagination. If I were going to dismiss this approach as "philistine" though, I'd have to apply the same scorn to those taking the complementary "philosopher" approach, seeking only the pleasures of the theme-dynamics they construct from the narrative in their imagination, which is still essentially treating that narrative as a means to an end.

Substance? Words are the only substance. They're not carriers for nuggets of insight; narrative isn't a vessel for content. I mean, you can read Yeats for the imagery, but not giving a damn about the rhythm and rhyme is a paucity of appreciation. And plot-dynamics is like the rhythm and rhyme of narrative, as I see it -- a sort of formal, visceral pleasure that's quite valid in its own right. Comparable to composition in abstract art even.

10:33 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I just don't buy an aesthetic that says narrative is essentially about the chin-strokes any more than I'd accept an aesthetic in which it's all about the eyeball-kicks. And that's what "literary" is implicitly asserting -- that what really matters is titillating the intellect with nuggets of insight. That's literature's equivalent of "masculinity." That's what literature has to do to prove that it's "real" literature.

The point is, it's different strokes for different folks, of course. Different formal, visceral or cerebral payoffs -- pick yer poison. But "quality of writing" is a matter of whether it delivers what it promises, not whether it eschews one set of payoffs in favour of another. And the "literary" aesthetic is, I think, as much about eschewing certain qualities as it is about favouring others. That rejection of romance plot-dynamics, "sensationalism," the formal and visceral pleasures of pulp... hell, I don't even have a problem with that in and of itself. It's just that I think the application of "literary" as a marker for the fiction that abjures such features is... like using the term "poetic verse" as regards free verse, while dismissing sonnets, rondels and whatnot as "genre verse."

11:17 pm  
Anonymous mcr said...

This is in response to Mr Duncan's first response to my own post (I can see some sort of Pythonesque language growing out of this).

I look upon the term literary as another term of classification, not of privilege (more on this later). Just as there is a difference between horror and fantasy, when both "genres" have fantastical elements in them, there is a difference in science fiction and literary fiction. I will admit that Genre Fiction is but a broad category under which resides detective, science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, romance, horror, westerns, war novels, spy novels, &c (this list in no way implies one genre is "better" than another).

While it is true that literary fiction swims in deeper waters than other genres, I think that literary is a genre all its own (see this post Literary Fiction). It is up to the reader and no one else to decide which is best. Critics, what few remain, are generally the product of the commercial MFA in Creative Writing industry, the products of which produce mostly shite(I believe that is the correct vernacular [see Anis Shivani's post on the Huffinton site]).

It is the readers who rule, and they say that Romance is Queen as this type outsells all other fiction. Literary, as another type of fiction, is at the bottom of the heap. In my own family, my older brother, with degrees in physics and engineering, reads only science fiction, my little brother sticks mostly to westerns and dabbles in fantasy, my sister deals mainly with historical fiction (add this genre to the list above, otherwise she will get mad at me) and my mom reads only detective stories.

As a writer, and by your blog, I can see you are, I am worried that you would put such stock in the opinions of others. Screw them! Who are they to tell you what belongs where? If you have something to say, and I mean SOMETHING TO SAY, then say it and who cares what anybody thinks! Use any setting you want to get your point across. Certainly writers want readers but write what is within you and let the chips fall where they may.

I will get to your other responses (do you get paid by the word?) before the end of the week, but Bartok is waiting on me to join him and he is very impatient.

2:27 am  

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