Can Genre Fiction Be “Art”?

by Jami Gold on April 17, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Piet Mondrian's

My last post about our preferences for genre vs. literary fiction sparked a fantastic conversation. Discussions continued in the post’s comments, Twitter, Facebook, and private messages, and everyone brought great insights to the issue.

One thing that quickly became apparent is that we have a hard time defining literary fiction. In that post, I shared Mary Buckham‘s thoughts from a workshop I attended, but others disagreed—often pointing to society’s assumptions on the relative value of genre vs. literary fiction.

I don’t disagree that society holds these attitudes, so this isn’t meant to pick on anyone for expressing those ideas. However, those assumptions miss the point I was trying to make, which is that assigning value judgments to the labels “literary” and “genre” doesn’t make sense because preferences are subjective opinions and there’s no “better” or “worse.”

So let’s take those ideas from society and see what it says about our perspectives, and more importantly, what we can learn from them to improve our stories. *smile*

Assumption #1: The “Classics” Are Literary Fiction

Many books we consider “classics,” from Shakespeare to Fahrenheit 451, are often lumped together with literary fiction. After all, schools include them in their curriculum, so they must be “important.” Also, the language of some of these stories—which reflects the time when they were written—often feels like it must be literary.

However, when they were released, many of the classics were considered genre fiction. They’re classics because they’ve stood the test of time, and passing that test “earns” a genre story the respect of literary fiction.

That test doesn’t change the story itself though. Many of the classics are solidly genre in their subject matter, characters, setting, and story structure. Why, it’s almost as though these stories were granted a “literary fiction” crown to avoid giving any respect to genre fiction. That brings us to…

Assumption #2: If It’s Good, It Must Be Literary Fiction

Classics aren’t the only stories that can “earn” a literary fiction label. New genre stories that reach a certain level of respect are often embraced into the literary fold.

This creates a “guilty until proven innocent” problem for genre fiction. Genre fiction is assumed to be shallow, meaningless, and without value, and then as soon as a genre story proves itself otherwise, its genre label is nearly erased.

Why can’t genre fiction be seen to have a full range of story quality, from bad to good? Why does being recognized as a good story not erase this assumption that genre stories can’t be of good quality?

The re-labeling of good quality genre stories perpetuates the assumption that literary is the only place good quality fiction can be found. That brings us to the corollary…

Assumption #3: If It’s Literary Fiction, It Must Be Good

Literary fiction, on the other hand, enjoys an “innocent until proven guilty” position. No, worse. If a story has a literary fiction label, it’s often assumed that it must be good.

In fact, if a reader thinks a literary fiction story isn’t of good quality, they’re sometimes looked down upon for not “getting it.” Maybe they didn’t think it through deep enough or aren’t educated enough to appreciate the language.

In other words, when a genre fiction story proves assumption #2 false, the label must be wrong. When a literary fiction story proves assumption #3 false, the reader must be at fault. Neither of these attitudes help society avoid stereotyping (or disrespecting readers).

Assumption #4: Literary Fiction Is “Art,” and Genre Fiction Is “Entertainment”

In many ways, this is the base assumption behind all of the others. It’s the assumption that genre fiction is merely entertainment that causes the re-labeling of good quality genre stories. After all, if they do more than entertain, they must be art and therefore literary.

However, art—as anyone in the art world would admit—is subjective. Some look at modern/contemporary art, with its color blocks like the Mondrian print at the top of this post, and sniff: “I could do that. That’s not art.”

The same is said of genre fiction all the time. People stick up their nose and say, “I could do that. That’s not art.”

(I say, “Go ahead and try.” *smile* The best genre novels sneak in the same deep characters, emotions, and messages as literary novels and entertain at the same time, tricking readers into internalizing insights they might reject without the entertainment aspect. That’s talent.)

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a fan of modern art in general, but one of my favorite artworks of all time is You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies by Yayoi Kusama. I could spend hours with this exhibit while I ponder the meaning of life and my place in the universe.

I’m not the only one. People have come away from “Fireflies” near tears, and it’s the most popular exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum. Yet no one would think to strip it of the “modern art” label, simply because it succeeds at connecting deeply with visitors.

Value Judgments Are Limiting to Both Sides

Art and entertainment are both valid goals, despite another societal assumption that art is more important than entertainment. (Look within other art forms, like music or movies, to see this value judgment play out over and over.) Art is seen as high brow and cultured—and most divisively, important–and entertainment is seen as…less so.

Furthermore, those “literary is art and genre is entertainment” attitudes make assumptions on the intentions of the author. As a genre author, I can tell you my intentions:

  • The number of times I think about writing an entertaining story? Zero.
  • The number of times I think about writing a story with deep emotions and characters who have deep things to say about life and what makes it worthwhile? 123,456,789 times per book (approximately). *smile*

Obviously, I hope my stories are entertaining as well, but that’s not something I consciously plan when I write. I figure the entertainment will come out of the story itself, so I don’t worry about specifically adding in that aspect.

In contrast, I do think about my themes, characters, emotions, etc.—constantly. I strive to add depth in every way possible.

Now, I don’t claim my stories are literary-ish. They’re solidly genre with a happily-ever-after romance. But that doesn’t mean they can’t also offer more to readers.

And that’s my point. Labels like “art” or “entertainment” don’t help when applied exclusively to one style or another. They bring along the baggage of inherent value judgments, assumptions about the author’s intentions, and ignore the fact that some stories—literary or genre fiction—succeed at being both art and entertainment.

If, as one of my commenters stated last time, art is that which moves us, guess what? Art is subjective.

What moves me, makes me think, or connects me to the meaning of life is going to be very different from what works for you or anyone else. For me, what meets that definition of art is good quality genre fiction.

At the same time, literary fiction can also be entertainment. That “being sucked in by a good story” feeling is escape from our everyday lives. It is entertainment.

The Problem with All Those Assumptions

Fiction of either type is a rich and varied world. Some will fit the “worst of” stereotypes (like a navel-gazing literary story or a shallow genre story), but other authors strive to write better than any limitations.

Some literary novels suck readers in with the story, capturing them with compelling twists and tension-filled emotions. Some genre novels speak to readers’ souls with insights about human nature, how we decide what to value, or the meaning of life.

The vast majority of comments across all of the conversations about my last post shared a desire to read good stories, with complex characters who struggle against obstacles and come out changed on the other side, just as we’re changed by the experience of reading along with them. We want to feel as though reading the book was time well spent. I can’t think of many readers who would disagree with that goal.

We don’t care about the label of that story. Literary? Genre? *pfft* If it’s good, it’s good.

Or I should say: If it’s good for us, it’s good.

Because again, “good” is a subjective term. The characters I find engaging, the obstacles I find worthy of struggle, the growth and changes I want to root for, the messages inherent in the story that resonate with me (as well as how “on the nose” I want those messages to be)—all of that can be very different for someone else.

The  stories that are going to keep us engaged and speak to us or feel relevant to us will be unique to us. We are all different in our worldviews, preferences, and what resonates with us. And that subjectivity is exactly why we should avoid value-judgment words like “art vs. entertainment” or any of those other assumptions about what literary or genre is capable of.

Instead, as authors, we should strive to write the best story we can in whichever style we think will work best. Then we can take the lessons from the other style to add more. Genre authors can work on deep characters and emotions, and literary authors can work on compelling events and adding tension.

However we approach our story, our choices will work for some and not for others. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with our choices. If we made different choices, our story would work for others and not for some. *grin*

Similarly, our choices about whether we choose to write genre or literary say nothing about the quality of the story we can tell. Both literary and genre can produce good and bad quality stories. And our goal can simply be to do everything we can to write the good ones in whichever form we choose. *smile*

P.S. Thank you to everyone who contributed to this discussion over the past couple of days. I could have filled this whole post with quotes from your insightful comments. *hugs for everyone*

What makes you consider something “art”? Do you think genre fiction can qualify as art? Do you think literary fiction can qualify as entertainment? Can the best stories can take lessons from genre and literary and meet both goals? When you write, do you aim for both art and entertainment, just one, or for another goal?

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Image Credit to Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red Blue Yellow

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42 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

deb April 17, 2014 at 6:38 am

As a first time novelist (with a slitted eye on the marketing aspect of being a writer) can one avoid having any kind of label at all?
It seems like both ends of the stick have stirred sh*t.

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Jami Gold April 17, 2014 at 8:27 am

Hi Deb,

Unfortunately, whether we’re traditionally published or self-published, our books will be put onto shelves or categories. The very first category choice is literary vs genre, and then subcategories and subgenres follow from there.

That said, I understand the desire to avoid the s*** others have stirred up. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee April 17, 2014 at 8:25 am

Do you think genre fiction can qualify as art? Do you think literary fiction can qualify as entertainment?

Yes.

What makes you consider something “art”?

Depends on context. Art can have a message, can be enjoyable, or can make you think.

But it needn’t—and shouldn’t—always do all three.

For instance, I’ll sometimes want to read something merely for entertainment, sometimes not want to be entertained at all, and sometimes prefer a blend. I’m in an emotionally rough patch, right now. I find it useful to find examples of things comparable or worse to what I’m going through, as a reminder that I’m not alone or unique in this.

Even if a friend offering me help puts me in a full-blown panic attack.

Can the best stories can take lessons from genre and literary and meet both goals?

Not necessarily. Depends on the story and the author’s purpose for it.

When you write, do you aim for both art and entertainment, just one, or for another goal?

Depends on the story and situation.

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Jami Gold April 17, 2014 at 9:42 am

Hi Carradee,

I agree that our work doesn’t need to meet these multiple goals. There’s nothing wrong with pure entertainment. Finding enjoyment in our life is important too. :)

I think of these goals as layers that add more for those readers who want more, but don’t change the essence of the story for those readers who want the single goal. For example, if our genre story aims for both art and entertainment, readers could come for the entertainment alone and receive that without the art “getting in the way.” But if readers come for the entertainment and they’re open to experiencing the story on a deeper level, they’ll be able to find that too. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Anne R. Allen April 17, 2014 at 12:16 pm

I think ‘literary’, ‘commercial’ and ‘genre’ are false categories, and they set up conflict where there doesn’t have to be one. Lots of women’s fiction is literary, and there are literary mysteries and even literary chick lit (Jane Austen anyone?) Your point #1 is such a good one: most classics were written to be commercial fiction. In Jane Austen’s day, all novels were considered rather frivolous.

But in in a world where everything has to be categorized in order to be comprehensible to robots and algorithms, we need to put stuff in categories. But for me it means it’s harder to find books I really like–that is quality fiction that’s also entertaining. I’m a reader of “literary fiction”, but I especially like women’s literary authors like Margaret Atwood. I don’t think Marian Keyes is very far from Margaret Atwood in quality of writing or depth of character, and they both have humor in their writing. But Keyes is considered an author of “trashy chick lit” and Margaret Atwood is invited to speak at college commencements. To me, this does not make sense.

I remember when Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire was reviewed in the New Yorker and treated as “literary fiction”. But it seems her publisher found it easier to market her as a genre horror writer instead of a literary writer. But the book remains the same. So it’s a false dichotomy, IMO.

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Jami Gold April 17, 2014 at 12:25 pm

Hi Anne,

I agree on all points. :) It’s a shame we have to categorize because in many ways those labels are limiting, yet at the same time, I understand why we have to. And as you said, the labels often create a false dichotomy. Thanks for the comment!

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Linda Maye Adams April 17, 2014 at 2:44 pm

I don’t think art has anything to do with it. It’s just the reader preferences. Literary is more focused on style than characters or plot, and style-focused will look more artistic. But being like a painting or sculpture? No.

Also, I should note, despite the discussions this always gets into when this topic comes up, literary is very small genre that tends not to sell well. There are some elements that it has like not always a happy ending that makes it difficult for an average reader to want to read.

Nor does it pay well on the short story side. Most literary magazines don’t pay at all, and there’s only a few that pay pro-rate. I’ve debated doing a literary story for the practice on emphasis on style, but the lack of pro-rate magazines to submit to is huge turnoff. Somehow writing “artistic” is supposed to translate out as writing for free, and I think that cheapens the writer because they’re not getting paid for the effort.

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Jami Gold April 17, 2014 at 4:48 pm

Hi Linda,

I agree that it’s all just reader preferences. However, some comments on the previous post brought up the literary/art vs. genre/entertainment dichotomy, and as it’s a common assumption, I wanted to explore the idea further, and maybe help show why these labels don’t hold. :)

Yes, the pay situation for literary is often difficult. As literary authors are expected to fall even further onto the “artist” side of things, the attitude seems to be that they shouldn’t care about money. *sigh* But as you said, that attitude just devalues the writing. Thanks for the comment!

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Linda Maye Adams April 18, 2014 at 3:55 am

I’ve seen a lot of fights on forums erupt over this topic and people going to their corners to take sides. I’ve actually never understand that, or why they want to assign labels. Maybe it makes people feel better to sneer at someone who reads a thriller or a fantasy. But it also makes me wonder if the people doing the sneering actually read much. A voracious reader in literary would probably have to go to genre because they’d run out of books. I’m not sure the the genre is big enough to satisfy someone who reads 2 or 3 or more books a week, not with personal preferences in picking different books added in.

But here’s a point to pose for you since this happened yesterday. A coworker came over to my cube and told me about a book another coworker had recommended to him. He went out and got it, read it, then had to tell me about it because he thought I would enjoy the story. I wrote down the title, and I’m going to check it out later. I think it’s an action novel from his description. I read a literary book set in historical China about the women’s lives. It was a pretty good book, though a little depressing (foot binding). So I was talking to a friend who had Chinese ancestry and suggested it to her because I thought she might want to see the stories of the women from her ancestors. She did read the book. In all the debate about entertainment and art, would someone read a book recommended as, “You have to read this book. It’s so artistic!”

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Jami Gold April 18, 2014 at 10:15 am

Hi Linda,

Great points! Yes, a voracious reader would probably have to read genre some time or run out of books, unless they just reread their favorites. :)

In a way, if they’re not voracious readers, that might help explain some of the attitude in other ways. Like if they don’t read very often, maybe they hold reading up as a “special occasion” sort of activity, rather than an everyday activity. So they might wonder why others would ruin a special occasion by going to a chain restaurant. LOL!

Ooo, great point too about how when we recommend books to others, we focus on the story. Literary vs. genre is simply choosing a vehicle for that story. And as we mentioned in the last post, the same story could go either way. So a preference doesn’t say anything about the quality of the story, but more about the vehicle we like for receiving the story. :) Thanks for the great comment!

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Taurean Watkins April 18, 2014 at 9:05 am

Linda, I get what you’re saying, but this isn’t SOLELY about money…

Sometimes, as a writer, you MUST pursue something regardless of the profit potential, and I feel it’s important to distinguish that for new writers who are most vulnerable to letting this kind of discussion overly dictate their own process.

I write animal fantasy stories that are NOT limited to clan-based warfare (Redwall and Warriors) nor are they always super cartoony in the vein of “Tom and Jerry” even if they’re not ultra-realistic like “March of the Penguins” or “Marley and Me.” (The original memoir, not to be confused to the kidlit spin-off stuff)

They are HARD to write well, and even harder to sell BEYOND picture book land in part because too many people assume once we’re no longer 5, we no longer like them, and sure that’s true for some. I wasn’t one of them, and I’m far from alone, and I persevere…

But I write them because I LOVE reading the best of them, I even started my own site DEDICATED to this topic (linked in my name in my comments here) in part for this reason!

Yes, I see my writing as a career, and I do want to make some money, but sometimes there are projects we HAVE to do no matter what, and I just don’t want us to forget that while not forsaking any need we have to build a business as a writer. Okay?!
(Waves White Flag Again…)

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Jami Gold April 18, 2014 at 11:04 am

Hi Taurean,

Absolutely! On some level, we often write what we want to read, the market be damned. :)

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Linda Maye Adams April 18, 2014 at 2:23 pm

Taurean, I used to think the same thing. But 1) I got really tired of seeing magazine after magazine charging for subscribers and expecting writers to contribute for “exposure and 2) I got burned several times — and that was with research and screening them. The editors of those projects weren’t paying any of the writers, so they didn’t have an investment in how things came out. The first time I thought it was a fluke, but when I hit the third time, that was it. Writers get taken advantage far too much, and there’s way too many expectations that we should be doing this for free.

Now I only submit to pro-rate. Nothing else.

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Jami Gold April 18, 2014 at 2:33 pm

Hi Linda,

Good point that if a magazine/publisher doesn’t have any skin in the game, they might not care about quality as much. I don’t blame you. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Taurean Watkins April 21, 2014 at 1:59 am

Linda, I don’t sub to magazines, because I’m not great at writing short stories, but regardless of any one magazine’s (and/or its editor) agenda, that doesn’t change the fact that as writers we HAVE to please ourselves first.

Especially because so much is on our shoulders professionally, empowering as that can be, it’s TOUGH to deal with sometimes, no matter how disciplined we may be.

If you can’t explore what you need to explore in your writing it’s not being fair to YOU.

Or the readers you hope to have/have already.

I’m working with a great editor on my debut novel, and I went with her (even changed publishers to be with this editor) because she “Gets” the book and saw what other writers (who I shared the book with in process BEFORE it sold) and what I personally knew was there.

As collaborative as writing can be (once we’ve drafted and revised to the best of our ability) our name will be on the finished project, and if you can’t get behind it personally, you can’t be “Your own best advocate” that we’re required to be on a whole new level.

It’s HARD to be that and still be reasonably productive.

Some of us are better at long form writing, and I can understand not wanting to be taken advantage of.

No one wants to be taken advantage of, no matter what we do, but don’t confuse that with being flexible.

Linda, there’s a BIG difference between what you rightly struggle with and being flexible creatively. It took NINE YEARS to sell my debut children’s book. A novel in the “Animal Fantasy” realm I mentioned in a previous reply to your comments here.

I couldn’t write classic “Contemporary” fiction, and despite what some writers believe, not everyone can or is able to write about romance, however gentile or explicit.

That said, I do read it, but sometimes we can read what we personally aren’t able to write.

(Despite the fact the “YA” years aren’t “Forever and a day ago for me)

I can’t let the market rule what I want to write.

Yes, it informs me, and plays a part in the process, but once I start getting paranoid about the market, I don’t do my best work, and I’ve let fear stop me from creating ANYTHING!

That said, those of us who mostly write book-length stories, it’s not always as straightforward, not to put away your unique challenges, Linda.

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Jami Gold April 21, 2014 at 9:41 am

Hi Taurean,

Good point! In long-form writing, we have to love the stories we write, as novels take so long to complete, we don’t want to spend that much time on something we won’t be 100% able to get behind later. And if we have to do most (or all) of our own marketing, it’s important that we are able to get behind a book. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Linda Maye Adams April 22, 2014 at 4:46 pm

Honestly, I am pleasing myself with what I want to write first and I’m also exploring what I want to explore. I do both novels and short stories because they do different things for me. Short stories allow me to go in more unusual areas and even try different genres or different skills. But I’m not sure why scratching that itch and getting paid for the writing can’t go together.

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Jami Gold April 22, 2014 at 5:24 pm

Hi Linda,

Good point about short stories! They definitely take less work, so we might be open to taking more risks with them–either in format, structure, focus, or payment expectations. :) Thanks for the comment!

Taurean Watkins April 24, 2014 at 3:53 am

I never said it can’t be both, Linda, I was just saying that for ME personally, since I ‘m not good at writing short stories, I need to be really invested in my novels creatively if I’m going to persevere the submission/marketing stage.

I agree short stories give you more range (IF you can do them), but since I can’t (And I’ve tried, BTW) I have to really get behind my book-length projects, so I sadly do have more to consider, because what I can/want to write is limited market-wise due to the format I work best in.

I’m still struggling to accept that.

I know so many writers who are so versatile, they can go from short story, to novel, to graphic novel, etc. I read other forms, but I’ve never felt adept or free in the shorter forms I’ve tried to work within, and particularly with short stories, I felt the most inept, I just have too much to explore than 500 words or less allows, and that doesn’t mean I want to be bloated.

Sometimes, I feel the long form gets little respect because with all short form writing every word has to count.

Yes, in short stories that’s certainly true, but here’s the thing, words HAVE TO COUNT in novels, too, the margin I just feel is more forgiving.

Given the mixed messages for my query letters of my books versus the ACTUAL BOOKS, I feel that discrepancy is no less real, no one who reads my WIP book has the same issues of clarity or general engagement they do with my query letter of the book, so that’s where I’m coming from in my stance, okay?

Is that not a fair point to make, Jami and Linda?

It also might depend on how you define a short story. For me, A short story is ANYTHING under 20,000 words, but most magazines want stories WAY under 1,000, and I’m not good at telling complete stories in that small a space.

Alina K. Field April 17, 2014 at 6:17 pm

This is an interesting discussion, Jami. The best of all worlds in my opinion is a genre story told very well, but it takes time for that genre story to receive literary laurels. A hundred years from now, the works of SEP and Loretta Chase will be studied as literary fiction.

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Jami Gold April 17, 2014 at 6:42 pm

Hi Alina,

Yes, as was mentioned in the comments last time, Harry Potter is well on its way to being seen as a “classic.” And I’m right there with you on the preference for genre stories told very well. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung April 17, 2014 at 10:30 pm

As I already mentioned, I think the problem is that the society believes that entertainment is “shallow”. Why, if I am not entertained, there is no chance that I would be inspired. If I was inspired, then I most definitely must have been entertained, lol. Or at least for me, I don’t think it’s possible to inspire me if I didn’t find the story entertaining and enjoyable in the first place. :D Otherwise it’d just be a textbook: “this is the message you need to memorize. We don’t care that you didn’t enjoy it at all or didn’t find it fun. You just need to memorize this message.” Well, not exactly like that, but you get the picture, lol.

On the other hand, I believe that MOST stories, whether INTENDED to be purely for entertainment or not, will at least INADVERTENTLY be inspiring, to the right audience. I do think that unless the author wasn’t really serious about their work in the first place (they just wanted to do “whatever”), then I find it hard to believe that there won’t be ANYTHING inspiring and meaningful in the story at all.

Therefore, I think any story written with a decent amount of seriousness, and with a decent amount of skill, WILL be inspiring (at least to a specific audience). So, since I think inspiration is only possible when the story is entertaining, and that all stories written seriously have the potential to be inspiring, I think all entertaining and seriously written (i.e. not just something out of arbitrary effort) stories are automatically inspiring.

So I think that all stories written with decent effort and care, with enough skill, have the POTENTIAL to be inspiring. Yet the potential can only be UNLOCKED to the reader if the reader finds it entertaining—and is the right target audience. In other words, inspiration is inside a treasure chest, and entertainment is the key to unlock this chest. So to me, inspiration and entertainment are inseparable, and the society really should not diss entertainment like that. =)

Haha! It’s quite interesting that you aim to write inspiring stories, but let the entertainment come out by itself; whereas for me, I aim to write entertaining stories, but let the deep and meaningful themes and characterization come out by themselves. XD Different approaches but same result! (Or at least I hopefully get the same result too, haha.)
Yes. I’m absolutely shameless about admitting that I like to write expressly for entertainment/ enjoyment, whatever you want to call it. ;) Maybe a way to make “entertainment/ enjoyment stories” sound more socially respected, is to say that you aim to “make people happy.” Note that this isn’t the people-pleasing, catering to others and effacing, betraying yourself kind of thing. Rather, it’s about bringing JOY to other people, whether literally from feeling happy for the protagonists and how the plot turned out, from feeling inspired, or from feeling understood and not so alone anymore, etc. So doesn’t that sound like a nobler ambition? :D To bring joy (and sometimes laughter, or at least healthy tears) to others?

So this leads to my big belief that entertainment IS an art in itself. Some people dismiss “entertaining” stuff as if ANYONE can write entertaining stuff without trying. Even circus acts, which are primarily for entertainment, require tons of training and refining of many, many details, and tons of thought and care, to become entertaining to the audience. It’s no different for fiction, where you need to constantly worry (at least during the editing phase) whether there will be boring parts (our greatest fear is the bored reader, lol!), and if there are, how can we make it engaging instead, or at least will the reader bear with the boring bit for long enough to keep reading? Does our book have enough tension and hooks to compel the reader to read on? (I care extremely about the page-turner-inness of a book.) Will our readers feel that this is romantic and exciting or that it’s cheesy? Will this shock and thrill or scare the readers enough, or will they find it “meh”, or will it freak them out so much that they’ll stop reading our book or hate it and we’ll have a guilty conscience for making someone feel disturbed (in a bad way)?

So anyway, I’m just saying that entertaining people is HARD, and has no set-rules; it definitely is an art to me, and people who think entertainment is easy are quite mistaken. :D (I think this was similar to a point you made already in this post.) So since the art of entertainment is challenging and requires a lot of skill, experience, and heart and soul, I think people should be more respectful when they speak of “entertainers” and “entertaining novels”. =) This is my opinion.

But if we’re speaking of art not as in a “very challenging skill” kind of art, and instead think of art as in what moves people and inspires them to become wiser, stronger, kinder, etc., then I would go back to my first points that, at least for me, inspiration cannot happen without entertainment, and for stories written with enough seriousness, no entertainment can happen without unwittingly igniting inspiration. So it doesn’t make sense to me to separate art from entertainment even in this definition of art, so to me here, art and entertainment are one. =)

Again, these are all just my own beliefs and opinions. Feel free to disagree, haha.

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Gry Ranfelt April 18, 2014 at 2:49 am

Quintin Tarantino is abhored to be a great artist by many, yet he often claims he only meant to entertain.
To me, though, his movies are much more than just entertainment.

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Jami Gold April 18, 2014 at 9:59 am

Hi Serena,

Yes, I mentioned the relative value of art vs. entertainment in this post because your insight last time was spot on. :) And great addition to that idea too: that entertainment (or we could call it engagement) is important–maybe even a prerequisite–to inspiration. As you said, without that engagement, it’s just like memorizing a textbook for a lesson.

In the reverse, I’m trying to think of the most shallow, professionally published genre story possible to test your idea. ;) The one I have in mind was so shallow, so fluffy, that while it did have “something to say,” that message was also very shallow and cliche. The story didn’t explore the theme in a unique way. On the other hand, I also found it so shallow that it was barely entertaining. LOL!

So for me at least, they do seem to go hand in hand. But others might get more entertainment out of shallower stories than I do, so I’m not sure if that’s always the case. However, as every story has some theme, intentional or not, I think you’re right that every story would have something to say.

“I think that all stories … have the POTENTIAL to be inspiring. Yet the potential can only be UNLOCKED to the reader if the reader finds it entertaining—and is the right target audience. In other words, inspiration is inside a treasure chest, and entertainment is the key to unlock this chest.”

LOVE this idea! I don’t know if it’s true for everyone or not, but seriously, I love this idea, and it definitely applies to me. :)

As far as the idea that I don’t worry about the entertainment factor when I write… A huge part of that is because the story idea has to be entertaining to me before I even think about writing it. LOL! So I’ve already weeded away the non-entertaining story ideas before I start writing.

Then again, as you mentioned, trying to ensure our pacing is good and that we’ve left out the boring parts is making sure that a story is entertaining–and not boring. I definitely do all that, but I’ve always thought about those elements more as just making sure the story is as strong as it can be. But it’s the same difference either way. I do pay attention to what will make my story “not boring”–which is thinking about entertainment. I stand corrected. :D

Also, I completely agree with your idea that entertainment is hard work. I often wonder if the fact that the best stories make it look so easy contributes to the dismissive attitude. :-/ Catch-22, right? Thanks for the great comment!

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Serena Yung April 19, 2014 at 10:08 am

Glad you love the treasure chest and key ideas too. :D Haha it could also be that different people have different ideas of what “shallow” means. Some people might think that a story with a lot of kissing/ sex scenes is very shallow and cheap, whilst other people might think that is perfectly appropriate for a romance novel.

Yeah unintentional themes! And even if there is just ONE line in the entire story that inspires you, that is already an inspiring story! At least to me. I can think of a story with many such one-liners that I found inspiring. One was, “We don’t know where we’re going, but isn’t it fun to go?” Another was, “The prison into which we doom ourselves, no prison is”–referring to falling in love and marrying that person and thus ‘losing one’s freedom’.

I do agree with your point about the cliched themes and not having anything unique to say about themes. But it depends on the situation for me. Sometimes it could be something perfectly ordinary to most people, but very touching to me. I could read a story where there is a happy couple and I’d feel moved by how much the couple love each other. I feel especially affected by loving couples because I have read TOO many stories where spouses either hate each other, or hate each other AND cheat on each other. -_- So depressing…So it’s really lovely to see FAITHFUL and happy couples in stories. :)

“Then again, as you mentioned, trying to ensure our pacing is good and that we’ve left out the boring parts is making sure that a story is entertaining–and not boring. I definitely do all that, but I’ve always thought about those elements more as just making sure the story is as strong as it can be. ”

Hmmm, yes, making the story “as strong as it can be” is another, perhaps better, way to put it. :)

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Jami Gold April 19, 2014 at 10:12 am

Hi Serena,

Exactly! What touches/inspires/triggers an epiphany for one could be cliche to another because we all have different backgrounds and whatnot. Yet another reason why reading is so subjective. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Gry Ranfelt April 18, 2014 at 12:40 am

As you say: You write genre fiction with happy-ever-after romance endings. But that’s “just” a skeleton, a form, the platter on which you serve the dinner. The potato mash MUST have potatoes and some sort of grease. But the seasoning?
Jane Austen wrote Romance with a happy-ever-after yet Pride And Prejudice is so much more. It’s a critique of the family unit, of marrying someone you cannot respect (and a story of just how important respect in a marriage is for anyone to be happy), it’s about the foolish crushes of young people and the bad influence we can exert over each other. It’s about group think and gossipping and how one second we can be shallow and the next we are deep.

And those things could have been put unto another skeleton.
But Jane Austen preferred to write romance, so she used that platter, and the people who prefer that form are the audience, even if the themes are as human and universal as it gets.

Even pure entertainment has a place.
As you say, we can compare to the music genres.
We all know and love some GOOD music. For me that’s Beethoven, Vivaldi, Bach, Rachmaninoff, Loreena McKennetth, Enya, Rolling Stones, Elvis, Abba, Lady Gaga –
As you will notice, those last two will probably raise a few eyebrows. Do they categorize as “good music”? Or are they merely entertainment.
The pop music genre is a clear proof that we need light entertainment and that we need something new of it all the time. The new pop song? Love it. In two months? hate it, give me something new.
Memes are an even better example of this.
So why are Abba and Lady Gaga good music?
Their music is complex and hard to mimic. It changed the music at their times.
(Granted, right now a lot of pop music is Lady Gaga’ish, but when she first appeared she was the only one doing that stuff.)

Anyway, I love this post!

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Jami Gold April 18, 2014 at 10:08 am

Hi Gry,

Exactly! A story can have a genre skeleton and yet contain so much more. And as you said, themes are SO universal, we’ll find them everywhere, in every genre, in every form. Our choice of style to read often just depends on what form we prefer to receive that universal message. :)

And great comparison to music! I can think of movies along those same lines–where everyone is doing it now, but at the time, it was groundbreaking, so they belong on a different level. (I’m thinking Matrix for its choreography and filming techniques, and others like that.) Some genre movies change the style of movies for those that follow, and I’d definitely put them on the level of art for that reason. Thanks for the great comment!

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Taurean Watkins April 18, 2014 at 8:51 am

I have such mixed emotions about this, Jami.

Remember when we discussed subtext-

http://jamigold.com/2012/07/how-the-amazing-spider-man-rocks-subtext/

Some of my stories will contain a love story, but they don’t have the “Demands” of traditional romance, yet they don’t all end in sadness either. Nor do the end in death, abuse, or rape either! So I’m left to wonder how to describe these nuances for the purposes of blurbing…

I think what we forget when discussions like this come us is that we HAVE to describe our stories somehow when we go from writing in seclusion to selling our writing.

That said, I don’t feel “Literary” is code for (Insert Depressing read here) anymore than people who think romance is all (Playboy-esque escapades) and I say that in your defense, okay?! (Waves White Flag)

Of course, there ARE genre stories well written and get the “prestige” of being called “Literary” but HP and LOTOR aside, I do think part of that’s simply a desire to be taken seriously, if not by readers, by those we have to get through to reach them (agents, editors, etc)…

Self-publishing (100% funded by the author) isn’t an option for everyone, or for every book, so there’s that marketing we as authors have to face either way, and that’s BEFORE we get to the lay readers in the first place!

Of course this is subjective, but we also can’t say in our queries/cover letters “I don’t know, YOU figure it out!” so while as a reader I get what you’re saying, writers just have to face some of this, Jami, and it’s HARD!

As I’ve said before, I read (or rather listened to) and LOVED “The Whole World Over” by Julia Glass, which is considered to be “Literary” but it’s
Not just because it had “Pretty Prose” but because it was about characters, some you like, some not so much, but were real and compelling.

Yes, it did have some sad stuff in it, but I do feel it ended on SOME HOPE, it wasn’t “Old Yeller” sad okay! At least not to me. There was still a plot, it just wasn’t as “By the Numbers” direct the way an episode of “Mad Men” or a book like “The Hunger Games” is.

Jami, I don’t think all non-genre stories are depressing navel-gazers, and I know you’re not saying that, but I’m saying it for my own reasons. If we want to have some element of surprise for readers, then readers also need to be more open to less linear ways of storytelling, the bond between a writer’s work and a reader’s a two-way street, after all.

Also, don’t forget authors like Roz Morris, she’s been on your blog before, and she self-published in part because she didn’t FIT in any one area, but that had its challenges, too, so not being fixed to any one category (Literary or not) doesn’t reflect on the overall quality of the book itself, fair enough?

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Jami Gold April 18, 2014 at 11:02 am

Hi Taurean,

I understand the mixed emotions. On one level, we just want to write and read good stories, but on another level, we have to be able to describe our stories to others, and that often entails categorizing of some sort.

You’re also right that writers on the traditional publishing side of things have to get some measure of respect from the gatekeepers before they can even make it to the readers, and those gatekeepers expect categorization even more than readers. There’s no doubt that this is hard for many–if not most.

Oh, thanks for bringing up Roz! Yes, she’s someone who went indie partly because her stories defied easy categorization. Yet as you said, that difficulty doesn’t reflect the quality of her books. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Carolyn Paul Branch April 18, 2014 at 1:50 pm

I’ve been following this fascinating discussion, lurking because as a writer there was little I could add. But as a librarian – the bit about others deciding where your book will be shelved in the bookstore hit a nerve with me.
In my library system, we divide books by genre: romance, science fiction & fantasy, mystery, westerns. Everything that doesn’t fit in one of those genres is shelved together. It is a constant battle for our patrons to find favorite authors. Sometimes books even in the same series will end up in two different places. Why? Because assigning the genre is SUBJECTIVE. Genres are assigned by the librarian who fills out the order card and different librarians have different views.
There’s a fine line between mysteries and thrillers, for instance. Thrillers are supposed to go on the main shelves – not with the mysteries. But our poor patrons have to check both places when they are browsing.
Patrons ask for the horror section (or for the Vampire section). We don’t give horror a special section, you have to know your authors browse the regular shelves.
When anyone complains about this, all we can do is direct them to the catalog and show them how the location code works.
To me, browsing along a shelf, pulling out random titles, happily discovering new authors is an important and necessary element of a reader’s experience.

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Jami Gold April 18, 2014 at 2:07 pm

Hi Carolyn,

Interesting! Thank you so much for sharing! I had no idea that the librarians could decide on shelving themselves, rather than going by the publishers’ designation. That really emphasizes just how subjective this whole categorization issue is. Thanks for the awesome comment! :)

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Carolyn Paul Branch April 18, 2014 at 1:56 pm

I forgot to mention – and it was the whole point of my comments – in the thirty years I’ve worked here, not one person, NOT ONE, has asked for the LITERARY section.

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Jami Gold April 18, 2014 at 2:08 pm

Hi Carolyn,

LOL! Good to know. :) Thanks again!

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Tahlia Newland April 21, 2014 at 2:51 am

For me the answer is yes, a skilled writer can make genre fiction art, but few do, and when it happens it will probably be labelled literary fiction. The best books for me are those that combine the best of literary and genre fiction. They tell a good story, but they aren’t shallow, they are thought provoking and moving but they aren’t self-indulgent or boring.

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Jami Gold April 21, 2014 at 8:51 am

Hi Tahlia,

Thanks for chiming in and sharing your thought on that line! However, I know my stories won’t ever be labeled literary, no matter how “good” people might think they are. There’s too much of a stigma against romance (much less paranormal romance) to judge it by unbiased means.

My stories are very much the romance “formula,” with a happily ever after. But that doesn’t mean the craft can’t be good, the characters can’t be rich and three-dimensional, the story can’t be thought-provoking and moving, and the message can’t be valuable and uniquely presented. Even if my stories met all those goals, I guarantee they still won’t be called literary. ;) (And I’m okay with that–LOL!)

However, if a genre story meets all those goals and still fulfills the expectations of the genre formula, should they be judged as “less than” art? Literary often expects to go against any formulas (which can become its own formula), so true genre stories wouldn’t be called literary. But that term shouldn’t be exclusionary with art, IMHO. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Matthew Brown May 2, 2014 at 7:39 am

It’s already been commented on here, but there should be no division between literary and genre fiction. I don’t know many people who avoid genre fiction, but it’s an idea that seems pretentious to me. A person’s intellect is not defined by what they DON’T read. Personally, I’m not above reading any kind of story. The problem is that Genre is seen as something limiting. I believe that genre should be used to describe a book, not classify it. That would allow a story to be more than its genre.

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Jami Gold May 2, 2014 at 8:11 am

Hi Matthew,

“A person’s intellect is not defined by what they DON’T read.”

Well stated! As has been mentioned before, anyone who reads a lot is likely to read genre just because of the numbers of literary books released. And good point too about how genre could be used to describe the style of the story rather than a classification of the quality of the book. Thanks for sharing your insights!

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Jami Gold April 24, 2014 at 8:37 am

Hi Taurean,

Yes, that absolutely makes sense. Me agreeing with the points Linda makes doesn’t mean I don’t agree with your points too. :) Everyone has to make the choices that are right for them.

And you make a fantastic point about word length. While I have successfully written stories under 20K, as you said, the literary magazines usually want very short, closer to flash fiction. And that I don’t have a talent for either, so I very much understand where you’re coming from. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Taurean Watkins April 26, 2014 at 11:14 am

Thanks for replying, Jami,

I certainly understand where Linda’s coming from, I have writer friends (well published and building their careers) who feel the same as her regarding not wanting to jerked around and wanting just pro-level compensation from her work.

That said, many of them can write short stories and nonfiction, neither of which are my strong suits, so your goals have to line up with your skillset. Since I work best in long form writing (i.e. novels or perhaps novellas) I take a long view approach to my goals, especially since I draft slower than I’d like.

I just wanted to be clear that my goals were different, as I have a habit of getting so emotional I sound like I’m insensitive to differing goals of others, and I don’t mean to come off that way. I hope I didn’t make you feel that way, Linda, and if so I’m sorry.

For some of us, especially if we can’t write particularly economical (which doesn’t mean we don’t value the time our readers put in, mind you!) we have to take a slower approach to things.

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Jami Gold April 26, 2014 at 1:11 pm

Hi Taurean,

“your goals have to line up with your skillset.”

Very true! And that’s yet another reason why our goals are all unique. :)

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