Genre Vs. Literary
Column by Stephen Graham Jones
Scratch the surface of most any discussion about fiction, and what you find seething under there is that old tension between the literary and the genre. Or maybe it’s a dynamo, an engine—two magnets spinning around each other, making energy, spinning out stories, or maybe it’s some yin-yang thing, and we’re supposed to understand that you can’t recognize the good if you don’t have some bad around to compare it to.
I’m being charitable here, too. At least for the moment. Never mind that genre fiction always get the short end of the measuring stick, that it’s built into the language, even: literary writers go ‘slumming,’ they step in the ‘gutter,’ they take a tour through the ‘ghetto’—this is insulting more than just writers—or, conversely, they ‘elevate’ genre just by trafficking in its conventions, by showing these scrubby, cash-grubbing writers how a real story’s told.
So, already I’m losing my charitable disposition here. And no, I don’t want to try on that old argument that genre’s where it all started—Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein, and on and on, deeper and deeper. Not because those aren’t solid works, but because it allows ‘serious’ writers and critics to suggest that those were all the comic books the culture was reading in its indiscriminate youth. But we found the right librarian (a Flaubert fan, no doubt), and graduated to the good stuff, the gritty, realistic stuff. And I wish I were talking Ed Brubaker, here—is there anybody who writes more gritty, more ‘realistic?’—but no. I’m talking all the kitchen-sink dramas dressed up in their various ways, which are considered ‘quality’ because they so accurately depict or reflect our own lives. But you can’t allow that defense; the conventions of our waking world and of the dream world of fiction, they’re completely different. If you ever allow yourself to say that it’s that way on the page because that’s the way it happened, then you’re not giving fiction enough credit. Why not shoot a documentary feature instead, then not edit it down? Just give us the raw footage. And from all angles at once.
No, fiction’s better than that. It can be. It has to be.
Also, that title fight everybody’s always feeling like they’re watching, and have to take sides about, ‘Literary vs. Genre’—I trust that the audience is sophisticated enough to see that there will never be any punches thrown. Simply because the terms themselves shouldn’t be in the same ring. Or, really, because one can be used to modify the other.
‘Literary,’ what it’s come to refer to in the marketplace is That Which Subscribes to No Conventions. Yes? If I could water it down more, I would. And of course that’s pretty much just another way to say ‘Not Genre.’ So, ‘Literary,’ it’s ‘Not Genre,’ and ‘Genre,’ it’s then defined pretty much as being ‘Not Literary.’ And terms which define each other by referring to themselves are of course useless in any hopefully-productive discussion.
And, I suppose the literary enthusiasts—not a charitable term there, sorry—might offer a definition along the lines of ‘fiction which doesn’t break any physical laws,’ ‘fiction which is believable because it could actually happen, or be happening right now, next door,’ ‘fiction which subscribes to realism,’ or, I don’t know, they might even just go ahead and call it ‘serious fiction’ (very problematic, that), or simply ‘fiction of sufficient depth that it can be returned to again and again.’