April 17, 2014

Can Genre Fiction Be “Art”?

Piet Mondrian's "Composition with Red Blue Yellow" with text: Can Genre Fiction Be "Art"?

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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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.


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


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.

Anne R. Allen

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.

Linda Maye Adams

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.

Alina K. Field

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.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

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. 😀 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…  — Read More »

Gry Ranfelt

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.

Gry Ranfelt

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…  — Read More »

Taurean Watkins

I have such mixed emotions about this, Jami. Remember when we discussed 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…  — Read More »

Carolyn Paul Branch

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.

Carolyn Paul Branch

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.

Tahlia Newland

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.

Matthew Brown

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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