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?
Image Credit to Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red Blue YellowPin It