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When will People Realize that Genre Fiction can be Just as Great as Literary Fiction?

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The argument about the relative merits of literary and genre fiction just keeps running and running. There'll be periods of decorous silence, and then it will break out again, usually in the form of some egregious statement in a broadsheet or magazine, and it will be like it never left.

One thing you tend to notice after a while, though: it's almost never writers of genre fiction who are picking the fight. To be fair, it's often not "literary" writers either -- it's academics taking up the cudgels on their behalf; considerately telling us which stories are worth serious consideration and which aren't. And I guess we appreciate the help, right? Because it's a bewildering fictional landscape out there and an innocent young seeker after truth could easily go astray.

The most recent iteration appeared in the Guardian a few weeks back, which came (to me, at least) as something of a blow -- the Guardian has an excellent record of reviewing genre novels and movies without shunting them into a "here's something you might consume for light relief between masterpieces" ghetto.

But here was Oliver Burkeman telling us -- I'm assuming with a straight face -- that one way to "be a smarter reader" and "get more from what you read" is to stick to literary fiction. Why? Because a "well-designed study" at a U.S. social research think tank (it's Kidd & Castano if you want to look it up) found that literary fiction produces more powerful emotional identification with its more fully rounded characters and has a lasting effect on your ability to empathize with others.

The relevant section of Burkeman's little how-to guide is called "Keep it Literary" -- building on the most tendentious of Kidd & Castano's five linked experiments, in which subjects read selected passages from either literary or genre fiction and then performed a range of tests designed to measure their empathy. The smoking gun here is "selected passages." The experimenters hand-picked texts which they felt exemplified the differences between the two kinds of text, which is a little like marking the deck before you do a random shuffle. Six passages in all, by the way -- three from genre fiction and three from the world's canonically great literature -- so this generalization about ALL literary fiction and ALL genre fiction is based on about a millionth of a percent of each. And despite being able to skew their sample in this bespoke way, Kidd & Castano reported differences between test and control groups that were barely larger than the margin of error. Mark Liberman dissected these procedural inadequacies very thoroughly in the Annals of Overgeneralization on Language Log, and he was far from the only one.

So a spurious claim is being worked up out of a flawed study that seriously over-sold the significance of its findings. You can't help but feel that there's an agenda here, or at least a presumption -- that literature has merit and that what has merit is by that same circular definition literature.

Other writers have been less coy about saying exactly this. Here's Arthur Krystal, writing in the New Yorker in 2012:

"Genre" is not a bad word, although perhaps the better word for novels that taxonomically register as genre is simply "commercial." Born to sell, these novels stick to the trite-and-true, relying on stock characters whose thoughts spool out in Lifetime platitudes. There will be exceptions, as there are in every field, but, for the most part, the standard genre or commercial novel isn't going to break the sea frozen inside us. If this sounds condescending, so be it.

No, it doesn't sound condescending. It just sounds laughably off the mark and self-parodically pompous. Lyrical though "the sea frozen inside us" may be, resorting to it in the middle of an argument is an admission that you don't have any facts to call on. "Hey, this may be a fine book, but my permafrost is still intact so it ain't literature, man."

I do like "born to sell", though, because it's very revealing. Genre writers do it for the money. They're like... prostitutes! If you want true love, stick to respectable auteurs who'll lie back and think of posterity.

I hate to rake up ancient history, but here's another example from a little further back -- dredged up because in this case it is a writer of literary novels (Edward Docx, in the Guardian in 2010) who's saying this, so the agenda is maybe a little more naked.

Even good genre... is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material. That's the way writing works and lots of people who don't write novels don't seem to get this: if you need a detective, if you need your hero to shoot the badass CIA chief, if you need faux-feminist shopping jokes, then great; but the correlative of these decisions is a curtailment in other areas. If you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise. Lots of decisions are already made.

Considering that Docx rails against "a fundamental dishonesty" in the way this subject is usually discussed, I'm going to pick my words with care.

Yes, of course there are constraints when you write genre fiction. There are also constraints when you write literary fiction. Totally unconstrained writing would be (to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut) gibberish interspersed with exclamation marks. When you write -- when you write anything at all -- you write on the end of a tether. But it's a flexible tether, and it's all about the dance you perform on the end of that thing and how you work with it or strain against it or in some cases tie it into knots that were never seen before.

In the case of The Girl With All the Gifts, my latest novel, there was more than one set of constraints. The novel began its life as a short story, which already imposes some limits on length and -- more subtly -- on structure. And the story was written for a themed anthology, a collection of stories with dark fantasy or horror elements on the topic of "school days." So genre, settings, and themes were partially specified too.

What that meant for me, as a writer, was this: I went into the story on a different vector and it came together in a different way. Specifically, it accreted around the character of Melanie -- a 10-year-old girl trapped in a monstrously inhumane institutional setting and unintentionally revealing (to us, the audience) the bleak truth about herself and her world as she interacts with the adults around her.

If Docx's thesis is right, the fact that I was working in a space that had been partially defined for me should have robbed whatever I produced of all or most of its potential value. I think the opposite was the case: being coaxed out of my comfort zone made me take creative pathways I'd never noticed or thought about before, and the results were unexpected and exciting. I realized almost as soon as I'd sent the story in that I couldn't part company with Melanie so soon. I'd inadvertently written the first few scenes of a much larger narrative. There were events that hadn't eventuated, other characters waiting in the wings, and a box (Pandora's) that had finally to be opened.

The constraints were liberating, and believe me when I say that I speak as someone who has no interest in bondage.

But special pleading aside, look at the works of Ursula LeGuin, China Miéville, Lord Dunsany, Angela Carter, Ray Bradbury, Connie Willis, Mervyn Peake, Ted Chiang, Raymond Chandler and Don Winslow (just for starters) and see whether writing in genre made their work less resonant, less profound, less valid and affecting, than the work of any canonically approved genius you care to mention.

And while you're at it, there's fun to be had in trying to think up reasons why Hamlet and Macbeth aren't genre fiction. Because they're old, maybe? Because there's an R in the month? One's a ghost story, the other one has witches in it, and both were written (whatever else was in Shakespeare's mind) in a sincere bid to break the record for "most groundlings in a theatre the size of a pocket handkerchief."

If I'm honest, I tend to see the entire "literature versus genre" debate as a dead horse so cruelly and relentlessly flogged that it isn't even vaguely horse-shaped any more. It lies in a neglected corner of the academic meadow close to the intentional fallacy and the vast midden of post-modernism. But since Mr. Burkeman has tried to put a saddle on it, I felt it was probably worth offering an opinion ("It is an ex-horse. It has ceased to be..."). And on top of that, to slip in a reference to one of my favorite writers and her eloquent rebuttal of this whole daft non-argument. I'm referring to Ursula LeGuin, who in the introduction to The Left Hand Of Darkness laments the tendency of people who don't like or get science fiction to pronounce (ham-fistedly) on what science fiction is and does. Along the way, she has this to say about the relevance and importance of her chosen genre:

All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great
dominants of our contemporary life -- science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.

A metaphor for what?

If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words.

I like this formulation very much. I seldom write pure sci-fi, but LeGuin's words apply just as well to horror and dark fantasy and probably to serious-minded works in any genre. I also like T.S.Eliot's famous dictum about everything you write being "a raid on the inarticulate". A genre is a tool you pack and carry along when you go on one of these raids. It takes it place -- its honorable, earned place -- among the other tools of the writer's trade.

The position espoused by Krystal and Docx could loosely be paraphrased as "my grapnel is better than your carabiniere." Which suggests that they may not have got the hang of this writing malarkey at all.