Thursday, November 08, 2012

Aristocritics: Genre Fiction vs. Literary Fiction

From time to time, some nouveau-jazz listening, ivy-league-educated, black turtle-neck-wearing literary aristocritic will deign to look at the current offerings of genre.  He'll spider fingers over titles; sample plot with trained tongue; gaze calculatingly at style.  And will sniff and call all offerings less than adequate repast for discriminating palates.

"It is not literature," says the aristocritic.  Inevitably, every syllable of "literature" is pronounced. 

From time to time, genre writers will shuffle out of their bedrooms, pajama-clad still, and read the aristocritic's words.  A defense will conjure upon their fingers.  Wordsmiths in grand defense of their chosen medium will summon not just their own prowess, but the screaming hordes of genre-fans to take up arms and strike!  For Bradbury, for LeGuin, for Chabon! 

Well.  I'm not much for war any more.  When I was a young writer-- the internet was still a New Thing-- you can bet I was there on the front lines, defending genre.  "Genre can too be literature! Yes-huh, it can!" 

The older I got, the more I realized-- They're Just Not That Into Me.  And the more I realized that there's very little I can do to change that-- trust me, TPing their homes does not work-- the more that genre's insistence that it IS TOO LITERATURE seem like the demands of a petulant teenager demanding attention from an ex. ("If you give me another chance, I know you'll love me this time...")

I think that this is a hard lesson for writers to learn.  I crave acceptance and validation, and I think that's true for a lot of us.  Part of the reason I write is so that people can see some little piece of me on the page there (distorted, twisted, or made gloriously bright) and say, "Oh!  Oh, yes.  That's just how I feel, too!" And literary fiction has gravitas and authority-- that's why they have big universities, and libraries, and smoking jackets.  So acceptance and validation from one of them is soul-currency.  It means a writer has transcended...something.

But transcendentalism is schlock.  I learned that by getting older, too.  I don't want to transcend: I want to engulf.  I want to entwine.  I want to enfold. 

So, here, genre: have some advice.  Stop panting after literary fiction's approbation.  If critical acclaim from literary fiction comes, excellent.  If it doesn't, forcing the issue won't make either literary mode better. 

You, as a literary mode, are not entitled to acceptance or love. 

But remember that you ARE loved by those who matter most: readers.

In the end that's what it comes down to: from a certain sense, base populism.  The greatness of a story, I believe, is in how broad its audience is, and how deeply the tale pierces their souls.  Concentrate on that-- casting wide nets of evocative story-telling-- and let the aristocritics get back to their tea. 
--Scott M. Roberts
Asst. Ed

P.S.: Wm Henry Morris makes similar comments (but with more panache) here:

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