Occasioned by the Gaiman/Sarrantonio Stories anthology, David Barnett has written a blog post for the Guardian on ‘literary’ versus ‘genre’ fiction. I can’t help thinking that it’s based on a false opposition. He writes:
The ongoing, endless war between “literary” fiction and “genre” fiction has well-defined lines in the sand. Genre’s foot soldiers think that literary fiction is a collection of meaningless but prettily drawn pictures of the human condition. The literary guard consider genre fiction to be crass, commercial, whizz-bang potboilers. Or so it goes.
Well… Maybe some people do hold views like these, but I struggle to accept it as a generalisation. From my point of view, the kinds of distinctions to which Barnett refers are simply artificial. I’d agree with Aliya Whiteley that all the plot in the world is no guarantee of a good read, not if you don’t care about it; and that that both fast- and slower-paced novels can be worthwhile. I also think that Sam Jordison has it right in his comment on Barnett’s post when he points out that plenty of ‘literary’ fiction tells a good story. And I would disagree with the implication that a page-turner must be plot-driven. We turn the page because we want to know what’s written on the next one; I don’t see that it makes much difference whether what’s written there is a plot point, or a character observation, or whatever.
I define the focus of this blog as ‘literary fiction’, but I deliberately take a broad view of what that term means; some of it would be considered genre, some perhaps not. As far as I’m concerned, no matter what I’m reading, my basic approach doesn’t change: what I want is for a book or story to be the best it can, whatever it’s doing – and I hope that attitude comes through in what I write.
The divide between literary and genre can vanish with a tweak of perception. Consider this post by Larry Nolen, in which he responds to another blog post that identified lack of sf/fantasy authors in the New Yorker’s recent list of 20 American writers aged under 40, and contrasted that with the Daily Telegraph’s similar list of British writers.
(I will pause briefly to wonder what definition of ‘British’ led to the inclusion of Paul Murray in the Telegraph’s list, then move on.)
Larry points out, quite rightly, that the New Yorker list does include some authors of fantastic literature; it’s just that their work tends not to appear on the science fiction and fantasy shelves. However, we could go further, and note that China Miéville is the only writer on the Telegraph list who is published as a genre author. All the others on that list who could be considered to have written science fiction or fantasy, from Rana Dasgupta to Scarlett Thomas, are published as mainstream – just like the writers Larry mentions.
If there are lines between literary and genre fiction, I would suggest that they’re not so much drawn in the sand, as drawn in the air – and can be stepped over just as easily.