Thursday, November 01, 2007

With Prejudice

Discussions here and elsewhere recently have ultimately broached the age-old debate about literature versus genre. From the outset, I want to stress something. At the end of the day, all that matters to me is that people read. Reading is a skill. There is no special learning required to watch television, though I won’t digress with a rant against the medium as a whole. I watch TV. I admit I watch it when I’m tired, burnt out, usually just after finishing a manuscript. I watch it when I need what I call mindless activity. And I watch it when The Wire is on, because that’s quality and you do have to use your brain to follow it, but that’s another tangent.

I’m actually a big believer in letting people find their thing and enjoy it. It might not always seem that way, because I have strong opinions about what I like and why. However, that’s just a matter of personal taste. For anyone who was following my blog last week, you might have a good idea why I tend to shift into a rigorous defense when someone tries to sell me on something I don’t want: I spent far too many years of my life being pressured to do what others expected, to listen to what they thought was acceptable, even to read what met with their approval. And that’s not as simple as Christian vs non-Christian. I remember vicious arguments about Frank Peretti’s books being “unscriptural” and “heretical”.

I learned to defend my choices. And it actually goes back earlier, because we weren’t allowed to listen to rock music in our house, and if you wanted to see me in an argument, you should have seen me argue over music as a teenager. You haven’t got a clue how I can fight, compared to that.

Sure, I probably have a natural disposition toward debate. I’ve been involved in public forum debates. But as long as we’re addressing things that aren’t a matter of law or morality, I don’t really care what others do, as long as they aren’t trying to change what I do. Now, on a regular basis, I get review requests and interview requests and other requests… people wanting me to do something for them, involving their career. Probably easily a hundred requests a year. Obviously, I can’t earn a living doing any of it, so I follow through with a very small percentage of the requests received.

The first ones to go are ones that fall outside my area of expertise or interest. If you’ve written an intellectual discussion about the abuse of Aboriginal peoples worldwide over the last four hundred years, more power to you. Probably some fascinating stuff in there, actually. The topic interests me, but am I the right person to review such a work? Hell no. And is Spinetingler the right venue for such a review? No. It’s not your target audience.

Some might consider me saying no to such a work to be prejudicial, and I suppose it’s their right to conclude that, but I think most of us understand that if you’ve written a paranormal romance, the good lad at Crime Scene Scotland isn’t likely the one best suited to review it. Romantic Times would be a better choice.

Now, how does this tie in with the genre versus literature debate? To be honest, the more that I think about the allegations of snobbery and discrimination against genre, the more I see that this is a wider issue that goes to how we’re taught to classify things from the time we’re young. I’m speaking generally. It’s about the impressions we’re given, based on experience.

For example, the Oscars. I don’t actively follow the awards, but I’m aware of the talk about the rarity of animated movies being nominated for Best Picture. Comedies seldom make that list either. They make no apology for traditionally limiting the top prize to weightier dramas, and even the directorial nod tends to fall in line with that thinking.

If one were to look at music, I think they’d see much the same. There are fine lines that distinguish between music that’s given respect and music that may sell well but isn’t really considered art. How many people consider Bruce Springsteen to be in the same category as Britney Spears? This isn’t about sales power. Britney may make millions, but is her music memorable? I think you could almost consider the term ‘pop’ as the musical equivalent of ‘genre’ in that pop music is often not widely respected. Boy bands and girl bands, manufactured celebrities. You look at the likes of Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and what you see are legends. Who are the modern legends that will be worthy of their place of note for redefining music in the years to come? A whole other discussion, to be sure, but my point is that artists like Springsteen and the bands mentioned pushed the envelope. I can speak more clearly to the bickering within the country music scene, for in the days of Billy Ray Cyrus’s Achy Breaky Heart came waves of criticism from those who thought selling albums by way of butt wiggles marked a new low point for country music in general. He was actually musically typecast and had a difficult time with his career as a result, which was a shame, because he actually was capable of more.

For all our whining over the distinctions within the scope of the book world, the categorization is hardly unique to us.

There is a certain amount of work that we can call “pop” - popular movies, music, books. To me, it’s stuff like what Britney produces. I even look back on what was popular during the 80s when I was a teenager, and can’t bear to listen to Wham, Duran Duran or any of that now. Could I ever have actually thought it was good? And maybe it’s not fair to say that it isn’t, but we tend to say our tastes have matured with age… not that our interests are limited because we’re more narrow-minded.

However, that’s often how people look at it. Older people are ‘set in their ways’. I don’t consider myself as set as some. It is only a few years, really, since I was converted to crime fiction (having actually been put off the genre initially by a few authors I would lump under the ‘pop’ category of books – they get end caps and sell well but I found the work overly formulaic, predictable and it didn’t engage me) and it’s been even shorter since I first ventured outside my police procedural realm to begin to indulge in hardboiled, noir, thrillers and books that defy easy categorization. Four years ago, I just wouldn’t have read Allan Guthrie, and I doubt I would have gotten past chapter one of Ken Bruen’s American Skin - one of my favourites of his. My tastes have really evolved as I’ve explored more. (And as an aside, that’s why I found the whole torture porn criticisms leveled at both Al and Ken bemusing. If anyone is going to slam gratuitous violence, it will be me. I cover my eyes or look away at grisly scenes on TV. I still remember my first Val McDermid, The Wire in the Blood and I had a very difficult time with that book. It made me examine the use of violence and detail within the story and consider what was warranted and what was sensationalized. I became a huge McDermid fan as a result, and that single book probably had more to do with me exploring darker fiction as a result, but there’s no carte blanche acceptance of violence for the sake of violence. I squirmed reading WITB and I squirmed reading Hard Man and if I thought for a second that a work was just an indulgence in violence for the sake of violence I would abandon it in a heartbeat. I have – I just rarely name those authors.)

In Canada, in the chain bookstores, there is a very clear distinction between mystery and fiction/literature and I usually complain about the books that don’t get shelved in mystery. However, there are some books that get shelved in both sections, and I find those examples most telling of the perception of the work. Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos are but two who are getting shelved in both sections in some chain stores here. What that says to me is that there is a recognition that they typically work within genre fiction, and their work will appeal to mystery readers, but that their work has a wider scope and will be of interest to a wider readership. I consider that the best place for an author to be. Honestly, since I rarely wander outside mystery, and only occasionally force myself to stroll through fiction and literature (it’s such a big, generic section and so much that’s there isn’t what I’m looking for) it does irritate me when people clearly writing crime fiction get shelved only in fiction and literature. Rick Mofina, Lee Child, PJ Parrish… Part of the contribution to my late discovery of their work, because they aren’t with the mystery books. I’ll likely be shelved in fiction and literature myself, by nature of publisher, but I’ve learned to live with it. It most certainly isn’t because of any snobbery on my part – I wanted to see my books in the same section with the works of Rankin, McDermid, Bruen. I’m proud to write crime fiction.

I think the most telling example of snobbery, or discrimination, I’ve ever seen in the scope of the book world centered on a Canadian author, who’s a friend of mine. I went to one of this author’s signings and couldn’t find their book before the event. I’d combed mystery, and then looked through fiction and literature. I looked for a special display because of the signing. No such luck. I finally asked. I mean, the author was coming to read and sign books – they had to have it, right?

Shelved under gay/lesbian exclusively.

This really bothered me. Now, I suppose an argument can be made that perhaps I shouldn’t have been so narrow-minded and considered the fact that, since the protagonist is gay, the book might be shelved there. But the gay/lesbian section was a very small portion of a row of shelves in the very back corner of the building, and if I hadn’t asked, I doubt I ever would have found the book. Plus, on the back of the book the category label printed on it is ‘mystery’. I mean, can anyone imagine shelving Val McDermid’s Lindsay Gordon books being exclusively shelved with gay/lesbian? And what does it say if we see books that have gay/lesbian protagonists exclusively shelved elsewhere? Does it suggest that those books can only appeal to gay and lesbian readers? Does compartmentalizing these books contribute to divisions in society, or does it reflect the prejudices that exist? I’m not ashamed at all to walk over and buy a book from the gay/lesbian section. But I am troubled by the implications that fictional works with gay protagonists are categorized exclusively as such (if ever there was an argument to be made for shelving works in two sections!) when we don’t put the works of Rankin, MacBride, Guthrie in sections labeled ‘straight’.

It’s easier, I think, to point out some subtleties with movies. I’ve watched comedies that have cracked me up. But the second time, not so much. And the third, fourth time? Why waste the time? Unless a lot of years have passed, the jokes are now old.

On the other hand, I’ve watched dramas again and again and they’ve still had the ability to reduce me to tears or fully engage me. I’ve probably seen The Lord of the Rings series five times, and in the right mood, I’d watch it again. Or more specifically, The Two Towers, which is my favourite. But some movies are classics, and more often than not, they’re dramas. Perhaps it is based on some outdated philosophy, that what is considered thought-provoking is weightier and therefore more important and therefore enduring. I don’t know. But I can look back on five years of high school, Shakespeare every year, and the works we read were Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Richard III, and Hamlet. Okay, how many comedies versus how many tragedies? In grade 13 we read Hamlet and the other book was Ernest Buckler’s The Mountain and the Valley. I still remember a classmate asking why everything we read had to be so depressing…

Whether intended or not, the result of exposure, the result of the respect we see afforded to certain types of works, has an impact on how much importance we often give them. Beyond the labels of ‘literary’ and ‘classic’ what I see from my own education was a pattern of reading serious work, about issues. We studied the allegory of Animal Farm and the works I wrote papers on were works such as Anthem and The Chrysalids and Fahrenheit 451.

I can talk out of both sides of my mouth. I’m completely proud of writing crime fiction. I’m proud I’ll have two police procedurals out next year. And if I was writing books about Tootsie the Talking Toothbrush, who solves crimes and conveys the solution to her owner by vibrations when she’s brushing her teeth, I’d be proud too… but that would be what I’d put down as a book all in good fun, pure entertainment. I wouldn’t expect someone to nominate it for the Dagger or Edgar, no matter how well written.

And that’s where the subtleties come in. How we evaluate books is about more than the merit of the writing. Comedy is actually one of the hardest things to write and do well, and those who can do it make it look effortless but it takes a real skill. However, even with crime fiction there are arguments that arise, about why cozies don’t get nominated for certain awards, and anyone who’s been on DorothyL for five minutes has probably seen one of those arguments. I won’t rehash the history here.

Here’s the real question, for those who would say the sole purpose is to entertain, or that touching on realistic issues doesn’t matter. Someone’s read your work. They say:

a) Great book, couldn’t put it down. I really liked the characters and couldn’t stop thinking about it after I finished,

Or

b) Great read. I remember I really enjoyed it at the time, but don’t really remember what it was about.

Which would you prefer? Is there anything in what you’re writing you hope will linger on the brain for more than five seconds after a person’s finished reading?


For most people, the reason something is memorable is because it speaks to them in some way. Luke Skywalker was a hero at a time people needed to believe in heroes again. Reacher rights wrongs, and the part of people that craves the justice we’re often denied in life (from the simplest to the most complex issues, because life just isn’t fair) connects with that. There has to be something that resonates with people. I doubt many people who read cat mysteries hate cats.

My main objective is to tell a damn good story, one that entertains. But I also want it to be more than just ticking off boxes and completing a checklist, “Here are the required ingredients and no more.” A story has to be about something, and for me, what interests me are issues. What Burns Within is a police procedural. It’s also a true thriller, because lives are at stake, it’s action-packed, intensely paced and there’s a ticking clock. But there is a thread that’s woven throughout, that goes beyond the adrenaline rush and the entertainment. I’m not embarrassed by that at all. I’m pleased that people who read it got it.

There are books I want to write that aren’t issues-oriented, that are more pure entertainment, I guess you’d say. I have no shame in that. A book should be measured on what it’s intended to be, more than just what it isn’t. It’s not fair to criticize a romance because it isn’t fantasy… unless it’s been marketed as a fantasy.

And that’s where all the genre labels become tricky. Some who want to be shelved in fiction and literature, in my opinion, shouldn’t be. Some who are shelved in fiction and literature, in my opinion, shouldn’t be, primarily because I think they’re missing their target audience. In this era of cell phones and fast food dinners and eating on the go, people rarely have time to browse at length anywhere, bookstores included. And that’s my main worry with the long, rambling fiction and literature section – I routinely start at the beginning of mystery and work my way through, looking for what’s new, because I can stay on top of that section. With fiction and literature? I’ve given up by C…

Ultimately, the works that stay with me long-term are the ones that made me think, or that I connected to on some level. And now I’ll shock you all, by naming one of my most treasured books:



The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

And yes, it’s a romance.
But it made me laugh out loud and it made me cry and it made me think about living my life to meet other people’s expectations, or doing what would make me happy. It was about so much more than just falling in love… it was a journey, how one person discovers herself. In fact, it has all the elements of a classic quest.

You can agree, or disagree with my two cents. They’re just my two cents. I do think that there are many* works within the scope of genre fiction that should be regarded as literature. But at the end of the day, for me, all that matters is that I’ve written the book I set out to write, had it embraced by a publisher, and the early reader reports have been exactly what I hoped to hear. I’m going to measure me against my own goals, not the arbitrary labels and measurements others use, because that will drive a person mental.

But am I prepared to stand up and say that there’s something important about the book? Yes. I imagine a lot of people will read it and be completely entertained and possibly not even think about some of the issues. Others have already proven they saw even more in it than I consciously intended.

Truly, the best of both worlds. Something for everyone. First and foremost, a damn good story. Everything else flows from there, no matter what the label.

The only thing I'm ready to sign petitions over? Categorization by discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender, race or religion. I hope to hell we aren’t going to reach a day where any mysteries with Muslim protagonists are shelved exclusively with books on Islam. That pisses me off, far far more than the genre versus “literature” debate.



* To clarify, perhaps I should have said that I don't think the majority of works within the scope of genre fiction (and I'm using that term to encompass all genres in the above statement) should be regarded as literature. I don't mean to suggest there are only a couple authors who "transcend the genre". It may be only 51% (I haven't done a count, and who could?) but I think the majority of genre works are best classified within the genre.

15 comments:

Graham Powell said...

Part of the whole "genre" question is just a matter of quality. Raymond Chandler's work lies squarely in the private eye genre - in fact, he did more than anyone else to define it - but I would argue that his best work rises to the level of literature.

Another issue: these days, "literary" is not just a label that denotes a book worth remembering, it's become a style of writing. You can write a book that's ponderous and self-important and have it sold as "literature" even if it's emotionally empty.

I also think that it's a misperception that literature has to take on the issues of the day. Great books may take on issues, but I would argue that it's the focus on the specific characters that gives them their impact. I mean, the main characters in All Quiet On The Western Front or A Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch can stand for all the soldiers who died in World War I or the men who spent useless years imprisoned in the Gulag. But it's the specific story of specific people that makes them memorable.

And incidentally, even if you're just writing fluff (as I unashamedly do), that doesn't mean you're necessarily writing crap - no, Sandra, you didn't say or even imply this but it's a common misconception and I wanted to get it out of the way. Character, for example, is just as important to light fiction, and probably more important in humor, where you don't have the tools of physical comedy.

You wrote: "Does it suggest that those books can only appeal to gay and lesbian readers?"

It seems that's the view of that bookstore, and I think it's mistaken. I've read Joseph Hansen's work for many years, and while I admire his stories more than I like them (they move slooooowly), they are clearly mysteries and should be shelved in that section.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I like your pov Graham. I think I made a mistake in not clarifying what you've astutely observed - issues are only important in how they impact people's lives. In the works of fiction, that means the characters.

Of course, that's why we see overused themes around the personal stake in the case... obviously not every case can have a personal connection to a protagonist, but there are other ways to draw the impact. In WBW, I'd leave it on the domino effect. What someone does, and how they abuse, impacts so many lives, so while you can't see that relationship page 1, it's there in the end. Frailty is more directly personal, which is why you get to know the characters better in that book (whole other rant that if you're doing series characters, you should always learn more about them every new work, imho...)

You're absolutely correct about the fact that 'literary' is becoming a style of writing, and also that "fluff" does not equal bad writing. I completely agree about humour.

I sincerely think that when Christa Faust's Money Shot comes out next year, it will be very easy for me to hold up a book that is, on the one hand, pure entertainment, pacey, well-written page-turner, but has all these subtle touches with themes and issues and things to make you think. I can't wait to see the discussions on it.

Brian said...

I watch TV (loudly I might add) to drown out certain noises :o

You can justify it however you want but I still think its shitty that you wouldnt accept my article on the pervading themes of underwater basket weaving in the histrorical works of Thomas Jefferson, but I've gotten over it.

As someone who has a foot in both the mystery/crime fiction and SF/F communities I'll say this. I think any type of snobbery towards genre is far more prevelant in SF/F then Mys/Crm. Mystery/Crime fiction has always had a much better relationship with the "mainstream". From the number of film adaptations to the amount of print coverage. Not that those two are the sole indicators but I think that they are a good (unofficial) guage.

I also think that it's a misperception that literature has to take on the issues of the day.

See I always understood it to be that literature took on the timeless issues. So whats that tell you about how screwed up definitions are. I mean shit isnt that what half of rara-avis is dedicated to.

But you then go into something else that I believe Graham and that is that the best, works use the microcosm to examine the macrocosm. The personal story becomes extended to encompass the whole.

Also in regards to TV, there are only a small handful of shows that I can watch over and over. You know what, only one of them is a comedy.

Just for the record I'm not too sure if I have a point in any of this but I did want to chime in.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Good thoughts as well Brian.

And I agree about the microcosm/macrocosm thing as well. I think the trouble is, once you dip your toe in the water with any of these discussions, you end up finding the topic lines shifting. I mean, this all started because I was mulling over the appropriateness of drawing off real cases. Now it's snowballed to essays and such, and gone back over to genre vs literature and all of that - another subject that's been done to death.

Of course, you have to go over to for another opinion on the topic, going in yet another slightly different direction.

Graham Powell said...

I guess my main point is, I want to write what I like, not what I "should" write. But I also don't want to be told that what I write is disqualified from being "literature" because it's in the mystery genre.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I basically agree. My only slight wiggle on it is that I think there's almost too much of a stink over the literature label, following the perception some seem to have that genre is a lower form of writing. It isn't. Some 'genre' writing kicks the ass of so-called literature.

I do find it interesting that works I would consider to be worthy of the 'transcending the genre' branding often are shelved exclusively in mystery. I mean, Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor series in particular. Why Lee Child should be shelved fiction and literature here and not Ken, particularly with that series, will continue to baffle me. And there are others, where I'd consider the work more... enduring, and it's in genre, while other stuff that's less memorable is in fiction and literature.

I'm the first one who gets their back up when someone tells me I can't. But when it comes to books, I'm just not ashamed of what I write. Shelve me in mystery and I will be proud. I suppose I'm in the minority here, because I won't be shelved in mystery (at least in chain stores here) and I find that a bit disappointing.

PJ Parrish said...

Thanks for the mention, Sandra. Been following yours and the other discussions on this topic with great interest.

Some practical observations:

The nub of the "fiction" vs "mystery" debate comes down to the publisher's wishes in the end. They are the ones who decide where a book will be shelved at the big chain stores. I have asked several editors why we are under "general fiction" but have never gotten a clear answer.

I've tried to analyze whether this shelving conundrum means anything to readers and I don't think it really does. I've watched them as they browse in Barnes and Nobles and other chain stores, even been so bold as to ask them about their habits. Most readers who end up in "fiction" or "mystery" are destination-driven already (they know the author they are looking for). I don't think many folks in the chains are pure "browsers" -- ie, on the hunt for something that catches their eye -- because the sheer number of titles today creates shoppers' fatigue.

It's different in a smaller indie store, airports or such where the number of titles are limited. That's where you see engaged browsers. Who, not incidently, are influenced by staff handselling.

So does what shelf you end up on matter? For the chains, I don't think so. The "trick" is to not end up on any shelf at all. What IS important to your success (and survival) is getting some kind of co-op placement. Even the most insignificant front-store display can markedly affect your sales, even if just for a day or two. And there are countless ways a publisher can spend co-op money (end caps, "bestseller" tables, stepladders, cash-register slots, even the length of time in these prime places can be bought.)

Of course, once your co-op window is gone, your book does go back to the shelf if you're lucky (or remainder bin, if you're not). If you do make it back to the shelf, it's because your books have legs (the best position to be in). By this point in your book's life, being on the shelf means you've managed to wrestle some real estate away from James Patterson and Nora Roberts for your backlist. (And building a healthy backlist is not to be discounted).

So I don't care which shelf I am on. And if my publisher ever wants to send me on another book tour, I will politely suggest that they spend the money on co-op instead. Because given the choice between readers seeing ME or my books when they walk in the door of a bookstore, I'd rather it be the latter.

I would tell any debut author the same: a tour is nice for the ego, but it won't really sell books or build your audience. Getting good placement in the chains, however, gives you a true toehold on which you can build a career.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yes, I may be a bit of a fussy shopper when it comes to it, because I am one of those unfortunates without a mystery specialty store or indie close at hand. I'm therefore pretty dependent on the chains, and it is rather frustrating when you can't find authors. I tend to have a going list of authors I'm interested in checking out, and when I'm at the store next time, start looking. I'll pull off books, see what catches my fancy.

I, ahem, was so baffled by the fact that Tess Gerritsen didn't have a Canadian publisher... (This was before I learned the ins and outs of the industry, so I really was "just" a reader at the time.) Even a few years ago, when I was searching for a John Rickards book, the store computer listed they had copies, but we couldn't find them. That was when I first learned that 'thrillers' are shelved under fiction and literature here. In John's case, this was unfortunate, as his paperbacks were dwarfed by Mordecai Richler's work.

I believe it took, all told, just over an hour to find that one paperback. And the average shopper probably would have given up. I mean, then it was for an author new to me, I'd never read, so I had no idea if I'd even like the work.

Probably, on the whole, it doesn't matter much. I'm not exactly an average reader, so I'm not a fair comparison.

PJ Parrish said...

Sandra,

Not to be flip, but this reminds me of that great scene in "Sophies Choice" where the befuddled Sophie goes into a library trying to get help finding a boook by the "great American poet" Emile Dickens. And the librarian tells her there's no such person, of course.

Sandra Ruttan said...

LOL. That's funny.

And remarkably similar to my experiences trying to get help from chain store staff sometimes. No, Fleshmarket Close is not a book about fashion...

Gabriel Hanaud said...

How many people consider Bruce Springsteen to be in the same category as Britney Spears?

I do. They're both singers. Any further judgement is a matter of taste - nothing more, nothing less.

This isn’t about sales power. Britney may make millions, but is her music memorable?

Why should it be? Who said so?

It’s easier, I think, to point out some subtleties with movies. I’ve watched comedies that have cracked me up. But the second time, not so much. And the third, fourth time? Why waste the time? Unless a lot of years have passed, the jokes are now old.

Same goes for dramas. I've seen some that left me devasted on the first viewing, a little less moved on the second and almost indifferent on the third. What does it prove? Films are as much about form as content; the former may still work for you long after the latter has waned.

But some movies are classics, and more often than not, they’re dramas. Perhaps it is based on some outdated philosophy, that what is considered thought-provoking is weightier and therefore more important and therefore enduring. I don’t know. But I can look back on five years of high school, Shakespeare every year, and the works we read were Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Richard III, and Hamlet. Okay, how many comedies versus how many tragedies?

So what? That teachers chose to hammer their unfortunate pupils with tragedies, or that most so-called film classics are dramas is no evidence that drama is better than comedy. It just proves that some people think so and have the power to enforce their personal tastes. Canons and criterias can and should be enforced; so sad you seem to take them at face value.

And if I was writing books about Tootsie the Talking Toothbrush, who solves crimes and conveys the solution to her owner by vibrations when she’s brushing her teeth, I’d be proud too… but that would be what I’d put down as a book all in good fun, pure entertainment. I wouldn’t expect someone to nominate it for the Dagger or Edgar, no matter how well written.

So excellency is a matter of intention, not achievement? Being serious make you inherently better, and thus more deserving of an Edgar than any lighthearted work, no matter how well-crafted, interesting and "memorable"?

Here’s the real question, for those who would say the sole purpose is to entertain, or that touching on realistic issues doesn’t matter. Someone’s read your work. They say:

a) Great book, couldn’t put it down. I really liked the characters and couldn’t stop thinking about it after I finished,

Or

b) Great read. I remember I really enjoyed it at the time, but don’t really remember what it was about.


The alternative is flawed as the premises are wrong. A book may be memorable for many other reasons than just characters or the story. And remembering a book as a great read, even if that's all you can remember about it, is STILL remembering it. Genuinely forgottable, disposable books are usually forgotten and disposed of altogether; no memory's left of them.

A story has to be about something

A story is always about something or it wouldn't be a story. But it doesn't have to be "meaningful" or not in an obvious way.

I do think that there are many* works within the scope of genre fiction that should be regarded as literature.

So do I, but then I regard the whole 'literature' thing as an empty concept with no obective meaning so I don't really care. It's all about personal taste and the ability to enforce it. In the end you and you only are the sole qualified to judge.

Jack Ruttan said...

Since I've been on the internet, a lot of my correspondents and people I read can be called "genre" writers.

While I was in university, most of the writers I talked to, and read, were "literary."

I can write for pages and pages about this, and still not sort it out.

My take on whether a story is genre or not is whether it has certain elements: a mystery solved, or a happy ending. A literary story can often wander around simply being about characters, or the mystery is never solved a la "The Magus" by John Fowles. Or, everyone is miserable and alone at the end, like a lot of French and European stories.

These kinds of endings (and possibly a lack of plot, with rising action and resolution) will cheese a certain kind of reader off. Others, not so much, as long as the experience of reading was worthwhile.

I guess I'll say: a literary read is more about the experience, rather than a reward.

I enjoy "Polar" (that's French for crime and mystery stories, and I like the word) books, and Fantasy and Science fiction, but see them often falling into a formula, and they take less interpretation than literary books I read.

Had a friend who wrote a mystery book, but the elements seemed shoehorned into a story where she seemed much more interested in character. The protag is a detective who doesn't do much detecting (people show up and tell her things), and at one point she says "I must find out who killed him," and you're wondering "why?"

I like a certain amount of plot in my own stories, and want readers to have an emotional response, and keep turning pages. Still haven't perfected this, yet.

pattinase (abbott) said...

A woman in my bookgroup went into a Borders recently to ask for On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan and the clerk checked and told her it was in beach reads and so it was. So much for the wisdom of bookstores.

stevemosby said...

Gabriel -

"...but then I regard the whole 'literature' thing as an empty concept with no obective meaning so I don't really care. It's all about personal taste and the ability to enforce it. In the end you and you only are the sole qualified to judge."

I think you're wrong. Literature is a full concept with a very objective meaning. While we value particular works for their entertainment value, or their ability to manipulate emotions and so on (which are perfectly valid reasons; life is short), other works are regarded as 'higher' because they make artistic statements about the human condition. The entertainment value of a piece might be subjective; the fact that it contains genuine insight isn't.

If we only judged fiction on the subjective basis you mentioned, you'd be quite right. And anyone is free to prefer works according to their own criteria. You might like to read Barbara Cartland and dislike George Orwell. Perfectly valid. But if you really think that means the label of 'literature' is somehow 'up for grabs', then I'm not quite sure what to say.

Eileen said...

As always-you bring a great discussion. The terms genre and literature are so banded about that it is hard to know what is meant anymore. As Graham said (far better than I) what one person might be called genre, such as some of Chandler, can be called lit etc.