Genre vs Literary fiction….

Genre versus Literary.

This is often a silly argument. It’s Hendrix vs. Clapton, it’s Gibson vs. Fender. It’s a false dichotomy. And I’ll tell you what else it is.

A fallacy. That’s right and here’s why.

(so this is how you write a column…)

Its Beatles vs. Stones. (get on with it…. Ed.)

There is a certain kind of person who delights in this argument. The black – white position. You’re either For or Against. Pro or Anti. And you see it a lot in newspapers. It’s tiresome. But a lot of weary people like to read it.

I mean, in a column, with the columnistas tongue firmly in cheek, then it’s ok. It’s a bit of fun. (But Christ so many people miss that.) But in opinion pieces or anywhere really it’s important to realise that this is not a good way to think. Most barriers are artificial.

(get back to the point!…. Ed.)

The truth is always a blend. And that’s not dull. It’s not a compromise. Do you know how hard it is to finesse a good synthesis? (Very?…. yup.)

So, Genre versus Literary….. Oh, Genre’s all plot and no character. It’s formulaic. It’s dull. Well Literary Fiction has no plot. Back and forth it goes. Who was it who said, by the way, when asked to describe what Literary fiction is ‘Man says something, woman says something, describe the sky.’

I do like that.

Yes, sometimes literary fiction is a good writer doing an exercise in writing – over the length of a (fairly short book). There’s not enough plot, it’s all weeping’s leaves and wistful gazes into the distance and those chapter endings that feel like someone stirring your soul. I love them – but it’s all a bit empty, no?

And yes sometimes Genre is formulaic – but a bit like those people who read the Daily Mail – their readers want crap – they want their awful reactionary opinions and prejudice propped up by some vile money grabbing column fomentation generator. Straying off the point there again into Daily Mail baiting. But I’ll bet there is a strong correlation between those who read only (crap) Genre books (Action/thriller nonsense for the boys and ‘Romantic Fiction’ for the gals) and Daily Mail readership. Mark my words…….)

And it’s awful but there you go.

But the bombshell is coming. Good Literary Fiction has bags of plot and engaging genre novels have well rounded characters.

(Is that it? Wait the controversy is coming up.)

How hard must it be to write good genre fiction (A Police procedural. An historical novel. A humorous novel. Christ that’s hard. Or even Sci-Fi. *

To set yourself those limitations and achieve around them, something that’s engaging and (in some way) original. Now that’s clever. I love Henning Mankell and Ian Fleming and others. How do they do it? It’s a lot like genre music.

People who know a little about early rock n roll or blues say – how hard can it be – the musical form is so simple, there are so few chords. That’s exactly the point, to play a blues song well… takes a little bit of genius. That indefinable edge that glints off the strings and hides in the voice; and in the blend of the two.

I do read genre but I’ll reach for Fitzgerald and Waugh and Ian Mc Ewan time and time again when I want to be moved deeply. To be stirred. To learn something about the plight that we all share.

But here’s the thing that would cause controversy most likely if there was a big audience for this. Good Lit Fiction is more common than Good Genre Fiction. Pound for Pound that is. There I said it.

When the Lit Author sits down they are aware of these issues and are more often than not trying their best to place their characters in a twist of a plot as well as writing the beautiful sentences.

The Genre writer, often also aware of the issues discussed here, but also not (and that’s the really bad stuff), s/he just writes the same book over and over again, with a few wee alternations. And he hates himself a little, but takes the money. I know they don’t all do it. But I think pound for pound, this goes on more in the genre world.

Look, we are all basically remaking cakes that have been made before. Who’d form a band after the Beatles….. well lots of people did – but the ones we remember pushed and pushed and made something new out of it. It gets harder and harder though.

And the best of it all lies in the place where all the aspects of fiction meet. It’s a hard hard long road to walk. But it’s worth it when you get there. Or I imagine it will be.  

  • Footnote, how exciting. Every decent sci-fi novel is ‘literary fiction’. What’s good about them is nearly always that thing that we can use to define Lit fiction – they are books examining the human condition.

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