There's been a lot of talk lately about the difference between high and low fiction, between commercial and literary fiction, or literary and genre. I figured it was about time to weigh into the debate.
I don't read a lot of Literary fiction. Regulars to this blog may have noticed a rather sceptical attitude to what I like to call 'High/low bullshit'. This isn't because I don't think there's a difference in the way genre and literary writers tend to write, or structure their work. It's because I believe this difference is no more significant than the differences between the way (for example) horror writers and SF writers structure their work. It may be more pronounced, but it is not more important. Fact is, any genre has its own way of doing things and, to my mind, the fun comes when writers decide to trample those boundaries in every plausible direction. For writers, genres should be a shrug, should be a Captain Barbossa, "They're more like guidelines, anyway." If they aren't, they very quickly become a straight-jacket, a noose.
No, genres are not for writers. Genres are for readers. Genres establish a certain set of expectations. As well as setting and plot cues (space operas, HEAs, quests) they give you some idea as to the kind of mood you'll be in when you've finished reading. And that's all great. Honestly, it's really helpful. If I want feel life-affirming stuff with desirable main characters and bit of wittiness between fiesty people and brooding ones, I check out chick-lit, romance and Georgette Heyer. If I'm more in the mood to be kept awake all night by a sense of squirming terror and being unwilling to go downstairs to get a glass of water, then lead me to the horror section. Genres are signposts. Even the terminally lost like myself appreciate their utility.
But the signpost of Lit fic is rather more difficult to define than that of - say - urban fantasy. The expectations I get from the designation of Lit fic relate more to theme, tone and diction rather than plot and action. From Lit fic, I would expect stories that do not tie together too neatly, novels that have an epiphany and just sort of stop rather than an 'ending' per se. I expect questions unanswered, trailing threads that will haunt me, images that will ring in my mind for months.
And actually, when I put it like that, I read tons of Lit fic. It just tends to be the kind you find in the SF, fantasy and horror sections of your libraries. And here comes the problem. If we define the difference between genres as qualitative, but not hierarchical, we cannot justify the automatic privilege that Lit fic receives. If it is just a way of pointing readers in the direction of what they are looking for, why then does describing a work as literary (with or without that capital 'L') make it automatically more serious, more worthy, more valid?
If literary were used merely as a moderator, as a way of further classifying within a genre, this would be less problematic, and this is how some use the term. But, to many, Literary fiction tends to imply a work that is founded in, or is a reaction against, the life-as-it-is novel. Magical realism can be literary but magic cannot. Romance is fine, provided it has a capital 'r'. It's an exclusive club, and anything 'genre', anything 'commercial' is going to have to work a lot harder to get in.
And speaking of hard work, we are prepared to work harder for Literary fiction. Our cultural expectations tell us that, by definition, Lit fic it is better, it is more profound, more formally challenging. When we read a book marked with those signposts, our expectations guide us and there is the danger we will see insight where there is only pretension, genius where there is self-indulgence, and inventiveness in what is an unstructured mess.
Yet, some books are harder than others, some require more work from us. I stopped exactly halfway through Wilson Harris' incredible Carnival trilogy - actually halfway through The Infinite Rehearsal, a book that was moving and astounding me with every sentence - because I have kids and I was getting interrupted so much I couldn't follow the grace of the prose. Much as I admire her, if I read too much Doris Lessing I start getting a headache. Umberto Eco is easier, but still, I need to be on the ball. The tag of Lit fic is useful, it can give one a head's up: clear your diary before reading this.
What's more, it can guide us, because without the understanding that a book is trying to challenge, trying to unsettle and bend what is familiar to us, we run the risk of inverting those assessments, dismissing beautiful, intelligent stuff as "too much like hard work" and, "trying to be too clever."
Yet the assumption that harder books are necessarily Lit fic, and Lit fic is by definition 'harder' is no unsatisfactory. Something being difficult to read is not necessarily and endorsement, challenging =/= quality. Besides, other things that merit the capital 'L' can be read in the bath in one sitting: Angela Carter, George Orwell, Gabriel García Márquez... These books aren't any less clever, don't remain with you any less, don't change your world to a smaller extent simply because the very act of reading them is not a hammer applied to your grey cells. They are no less formally inventive, narratively challenging, verbally brilliant - they are just easier to read.
On a similar note, genre novels aren't necessarily 'easy'. The number of times I've had to put down Banks' SF novels and massage my temples for a couple of moments while my brain cooled down are beyond counting, the number of friends who have returned Mythago Wood half-read depressing. Doing 'the clever stuff' is not the preserve of conventional, realist Lit fic, nor, for that matter, is Literariness.
There is a double standard at work here. Lit fic - however middle brow, however simplistic - is given a legitimacy denied to other genres. Genre work is automatically 'not as accomplished', not permitted to make you work as hard. So, again, my copy of Little, Big comes back with an, "Honestly? I think he's trying to be too clever."
So, to get around this, we employ the strangest distinctions. We have the hundred times I hear the squirming self-justification of, "Yes, it's a comic book, but it's not a comic book-comic book". Because, of course, if a work of genre fiction gives the lie to the assumptions about that genre, that's because it's no longer really a work of genre fiction. No, it is elevated by dishonest little terms like 'Speculative Fiction', or 'graphic novel', it is given a half accepted place that does not quite have literary's cachet, that must always by preceded by excuses.
Yet to do this is to make life more complicated, make it harder to find a good book. In terms of book-shop organisation, it is literally to move the signposts. It is to reinforce the idea that anything, 'in genre' is, by default, incapable of being literary. It is to negate the worth of labels that have served us well, have guided us. It is to break down the links between books, the 'if you enjoyed x, then you might like..." If Shikasta is not SF, what of First and Last Men? If we let Stapleton across, then what of the works they inspire that do not quite meet the standard? As a reader, where do I go if I want dream-visiony, spiritual SF?
Terms like 'graphic novel', like 'genre slumming' are loaded with the implication that things which 'aren't' encompassed by those privileged works are even worse. Indeed, they serve to negate even those privileged works themselves. If we are put of by the 'graphic', we are reassured that this is a novel. The textual element, the 'acceptable' part, are receives plaudits, the visual element is overlooked. We ignore the fact that a comic is not simply a 'novel with graphic elements', it is an interaction between the two that should work to the enhancement of both. If we are alarmed by the 'genre', we are reassured by the 'slumming'. Yet why should we be reassured by the fact that the writer neither respects nor understands the genre in which xie is working?
I like good books. In my experience, good books are made by good craftspeople and to be a good craftsperson, one needs to respect, to understand one's tools. Good books are made by good artists, who have a passion, a vision, a drive. To set up false distinctions, to over privilege one mode of doing something, does not encourage craft in those less privileged places. It pays into the belief that certain readers are undiscerning, that certain types of fiction are, and can be, 'off the peg'. It encourages bad writing, it cultivates niches that do not wish to interact with the wider world of readers and experiences. And to someone who just likes to be nice about excellent books, this is very sad thing indeed.