Chain Mail is a telephone tag by email round-robin interview session with authors from the Book View Cafe writers collective. Images are links, connecting to biographical information about an author or more information on their current work. Additional information can be found on the contributors page.
Amazing Stories: Is there a real divide between literary fiction and genre fiction beyond marketing category divisions? If you think there is: Should genre fiction (as represented by SF) seek to merge with literary, supplant it or strengthen the ghetto walls??
I find this a hard question because in my mind we’re talking marketing, not a true difference in concept. Labeling SF literary, or suspense, or paranormal romance, is just a shortcut way of saying one of two things. Either the publisher does not want to go to the trouble of crafting a well-written back cover, promo material and cover choice to reflect the multiple facets of a work, or current wisdom says that “X” is selling better than SF. So Dean Koontz, for example, is a suspense writer, not an SF writer — when most of his works are clearly SF.
To an extent, SF readers have made this easier, because they will generally find a work that has fantastic concepts in it. The publisher doesn’t have to tell us about such a novel — word of mouth will eventually reach a huge percentage of SF readers. Give it five years and I’ll bet that the vast majority of fans will find a work marketed under another label. Romance fans are also good at this — they found Carole Nelson Douglas’s Probe despite its heavy SF leaning, because of the romantic sub-theme. Carole wisely helped this by running an ad in a popular romance flyer.
If I wanted to point at the “difference” between literary and genre fiction, I think the difference would be this — ripples in the fabric of reality. Most literary SF Writers tend to focus on one “What If?” and then try to run a marathon with that concept. Everything in their alternate world, or new world, is a variation on the idea that first seized their attention. A genre writer, on the other hand, takes their one idea, and thinks “Okay, I have bees as a hive mind that is the true first computer. How would that impact humans? How would it impact other animals? We know some ants use other ant species as slaves — would the bees enslave others to do certain work for them? Do humans plant and change their diet for what bees want to harvest? Is the current die-off a war against bees? If so, who figured out their sentience and is threatened by them?”
A literary writer might brush against these questions, but their book is about the strange and frightening glory that is discovering the hive mind of the bees. Good literary SF writers are the David Bowies of the writing world. They create the concept. Then, when everyone else starts expanding, adding to and exploring the concept, they, like Bowie, move on to the next thing that catches their attention.
Bad literary SF writers are like bad genre SF writers — mostly forgotten unless they manage to redefine “ghastly.” The good ones, all these writers, genre and literary, will be remembered by someone. Their expression of the idea(s) lives.
This is a hard topic usually taken into far corners and conducted in whispers. Both genre writers and literary writers consider the other beneath them. I’ve heard literary writers describe genre fiction as pot boilers that don’t mean anything. Genre writers will say that literary fiction is more concerned with HOW you say something rather than WHAT you say. Those are the polite responses.
The best description I’ve heard of the difference is that literary fiction looks at a piece of the human condition and inspires the reader to react to the tragedy by going out and changing the world. Genre fiction depicts heroic characters reacting to the that same slice of the human condition and zre inspired by their actions to go out and change the world.
There is power in metaphor. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness comes to mind as SF that crosses the literary boundary to the point of being required reading in many schools. I remember when it was new in the ’70s and feminism was starting to stand upright (sometimes with raised fists). For the first time I could remember people talked about gender differences, actually talked rationally rather than sweeping it under the rug like so much filth. By talking about the book we could talk about sexism in our society as a whole. Men saw women as something more than traditional roles and women saw how being militant closed more minds than it opened. The discussion is still going on and that book is still opening eyes. And yet it is set on a planet far, far, away and far, far in our future so it is SF.
Both camps claim it, vehemently.
So I fall back on the idea that we all have prejudices, even the most liberal person has prejudice against ardent conservatives. Our view of life ends at that brick wall of prejudices. By setting a story long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, or we populate the story world with fairies and elves and dragons, we can peek around that wall to gain a new perspective. Mainstream literature can do it with good writing. That is the purpose of literature from earliest quest stories with a moral told around a fire circle in a cave to the latest e-book thriller.
Literary and genre fiction are just different approaches to the same end. Some succeed, some don’t.
In my opinion? No. As Katharine noted, some people and most marketers like categories. They like them even better if those categories can be spun into “better” and “worse,” “high” and “low,” “real literature” and “that cheap stuff Those People read.”
As a writer, I try to write the best possible book that I can write. I don’t really care if it’s Literature. I just want it to come within yelling distance of the picture in my head, and for readers to enjoy and appreciate the result.
As a reader, I tend to find that genre work labeled “Literature” has more pretensions and (sometimes) prettier prose. And/or an author who Does Not Want the genre label. And/or a publisher looking to increase sales by selling to a larger and more diverse reading public.
Having has that last done for me for a decade and a bit, I can say that yes, taking “Fantasy” or “Science Fiction” off the spine and replacing it with “Fiction” can, indeed, increase the readership and (in my case) actually get the genre to realize that hey, this stuff ain’t bad, let’s nominate it for an award.
That’s marketing. And perception: readers and reviewers who won’t touch genre but will touch “real literature.” Give them a well-written, well-constructed genre work and you can make them surprisingly happy.
Literature is a genre, too, just like the rest of them. It has certain rules, and readers expect them to be followed. For literature, that’s a certain type or style of prose, and a certain level of concentration on character over plot and worldbuilding. Genre SF will tolerate bare-bones prose and characters as long as the worldbuilding is solid and the plotline is clear and moves along at an appropriate speed for the subgenre. But it’s all the same thing in the end. Fiction that looks beyond the world we know. Everything else is packaging.
What Judith said. Literary fiction is simply another genre. What the question refers to as genre fiction might be called commercial fiction, as its primary goal is to entertain, while the literary genre has a somewhat different focus. There’s no reason for genre fiction to supplant literary fiction, which is a much smaller genre with a much smaller market.
When I hear the term “literary fiction” I reach for my gun. Spray-gun, that is: “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” What’s being triggered is memories from my middle and high school years of books with boring covers being handed out as assignments when my room and every surface in the house was loaded with brightly-colored paperbacks with spaceships and BEMS on the covers. Later on, of course, I discovered that some of those fusty stories were pretty special—I’m sorry it took so long to rediscover Jane Austen. (Thanks, Sherwood!) And I find I’m still angry at my 11th-grade English teacher—the one who kept vodka in her “water bottle” and for whom constructing a guillotine during the semester assigned to A Tale of Two Cities meant an automatic A (what a collection she had!)—that science fiction was “garbage.”
My personal experience of modern literary fiction is limited because, as Evil said in Time Bandits, “If I were creating the world I wouldn’t mess about with butterflies and daffodils. I would have started with lasers, eight o’clock, Day One!” I want that Big Idea, the What If, the OMG What a Cool Idea, not the excruciating autopsy of “the human condition” that practically every review in sources like the New York Review of Books and such seems to promise.
Yeah, I know I’m missing out on some gems. I’ve encountered modern literary fiction that I enjoyed. Maybe it’s time for me to purge that image of pinch-faced literary arbiters reading books with their pinkies extended. But, damn, I keep discovering new authors and new books in genre that feed the teenage boy for whom science fiction was the breath of life—and there’s all that juicy non-fiction out there too that feeds the grown up science fiction writer. So many books, so little time.
The big difference between “literary” fiction and any genre fiction is that literary writers experiment with the language and style, while genre writers experiment with the tropes of that genre. A genre writer can be literary and vice versa. The great writers in either category push their respective boundaries and are ultimately remembered for breaking the rules. Which side claims them is pretty much up to the editors and publishers who buy their work. If you are writing ground breaking science fiction that is also experimenting with language you’ll probably see publication in Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. If you write straight ahead science fiction with little to no language experimentation, you’ll probably get published by Analog or Asimov’s. If your writing is subtle with a slow plot that’s a touch weird, maybe you’ll see publication in McSweeney’s or other open-minded literary magazine.
I’ll be the contrarian here and say: absolutely, yes, there is a real divide between literary and most genre fiction—which is not to say the sets don’t intersect. Of course they do. Then again, I think there’s wide disagreement on what qualifies as literary. For me, literary books are those with not only “prettier prose” as Judith said above, but with depth, with subtle things going on—books that make an intellectual demand on the reader. Some literary books are incredibly boring to me, some are incredibly wonderful, and of course I can say the same thing about some genre books that I don’t think of as literary.
Regarding the second part of the question: many genre books are literary, and many literary books are genre. The sets overlap and I have no interest in building sturdier walls between them, because a good book is a good book. Why would you want to fence them out? Oh. Because of marketing. To me, this is where the marketing issue comes into play. Not too long ago on twitter someone remarked that his wife had insisted the movie Avatar couldn’t be science fiction because she liked the movie. With attitudes like that lurking about, it’s easy to see why the publisher of a great, literary novel like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle would never mention in their advertising that the book is arguably a fantasy. The thing is, we don’t get to make the rules that define “genre” and “literary.” All we can do as readers and writers is to promote the books we love, and to ignore the “slings and arrows” launched from either side of the debate.
I have no patience with this debate. The people who like to argue the most about it are pretending very hard that it’s not about money: where the book is shelved in the store, and what kind of cover goes on it so that the right reader picks it up and enjoys it and the wrong reader passes it by, quite reasonably, as “not my cup of tea.” To argue whether my taste is intrinsically better than yours would be impolite and fruitless. Not that it isn’t. Better, I mean.
I’m kind of with Jen on this. I think it’s an imaginary debate. Toni Morrison writes a type of fantasy some call magical realism; so does Louis Borges, Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco and Isabel Allende. But you’ll never find their books in the genre sections. I write the same kind of fantasy, but you’ll never find my stuff in the “mainstream” literary sections. The difference, according to some literary critics, is that real literary fiction isn’t popular fiction, because the unwashed masses wouldn’t grok it. It has nothing to do with the quality of writing, but only to do with appeal.
That’s the critics. Bookstores, I notice, have a different slant on this. In bookstores all over the country (possibly the world) someone makes a command decision about where to shelve a book. I’ve noticed lately in Barnes and Noble, that when an author reaches a certain level of appeal, they are removed from the genre racks and moved to “fiction and literature”. As a result you find Jennifer Ashley and even Sue Grafton shelved where you’d least expect. Ditto David Baldacci and John Grisham.
I read widely in a variety of genres. It’s the way a writer handles a subject that engages me, not the “genre” he or she writes. I suspect many readers would find that to be true if they were given half a chance to step out of whatever ghetto they’re most comfy in. I think one of the things that online stores such as Amazon have done is break down the genre shelves and allow readers to see books in a different way.
There’s one writer that I respect a great deal because he’s resisted his publisher’s obvious desire to position him as a “literary” writer and that’s Michael Chabon, who writes a type of fantasy/magical realism that I adore. When he released his last book, I found it in a standalone display rack sandwiched in between literary fiction and SF&F. I genuflected.
I am an omnivorous reader, and personally pay no attention to these distinctions whatever. The complaints break down into:
Marketing: bookstore placement, mostly. This, along with book cover art, is mainly designed to guide readers to books they might enjoy.
Reviews: Genre work, unless it’s hugely best-seller, doesn’t get the major reviews. This problem has been largely obviated by web reviews and sites like Goodreads; book review sections in the newspapers are a dying breed, alas, and for good or ill their power is ebbing.
And, last and best, legacy: Whether a work makes the jump from best-seller or popular schlock into Respected Literature. This is very hit-and-miss; works (MOBY DICK is an example) can languish in limbo for a generation or three and then suddenly be Discovered again as a major work. And who reads Theodore Dreiser now? He was a very popular writer in his day and showed all the signs of making the leap to the immortals, but no.
I am not sure we can or should do anything about it. Except write the most thrilling books we can, of course.
I’m going to sound like a gangster and respond, “Who’s asking?” If the reader is asking, what they really want to know is how to find good (or great!) books. The genre distinctions offer the illusion of making that search easier, but what happens is that large numbers of books that the reader would adore then become invisible. True, some readers want only one particular kind of reading experience (Big Ideas! Slice-of-Life! Happily-Ever-After!), and they want some way of sorting out their preferred genre from all the others out there. Hence, the separation of genres on bookstore shelves.
If who’s asking is an author, then the implied question is how can a book be positioned or marketed for maximum success? In this age of 25-words-or-less blurbs and elevator pitches, how can I reach the readers who will love my book? Easy labels, snappy slogans, and pigeonholes “R Us.”
If the question comes from a librarian – pause for a moment while said librarian tears out her or his hair – it’s a bit more complicated because afore-mentioned nearly-bald librarian must simultaneously play match-maker between reader and book, and discern the proper placement of the book within the larger body of works-of-words. Please note that the Library of Congress does not distinguish between science fiction and literary fiction. It’s all fiction. Such a boon this is to those of us who read widely across genres – we can actually find all the works by a given fiction author in the same place, under the same call number. (Not so most public libraries, which shelve science fiction or mysteries separately, although I once found Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni books under “Historical Fiction.”) Then, of course, we authors get pressured into using different names for different genres, with the result that unless some astute librarian realizes we are really the same people, our work ends up scattered-by-pseudonym, rather than scattered-by-genre.
Vonda N. McIntyre and Chris Dolley chose to pass on this question
Thus concludes our latest. Next: