Friday, September 30, 2011

"Genre" is not a Synonym for "Formulaic": a rant

[I]f you haven't had a life, and therefore have nothing to write about, don't worry unduly; this guarantees your dreary novels will be reviewed positively in all the posh papers, because posh papers are staffed exclusively by graduates who haven't had a life and therefore don't realise you're writing about nothing, or if they do realise it, rather approve of it. (This is called 'non-genre fiction', and, contrary to popular belief, it is much more profitable than popular fiction, because it is subsidised by taxes stolen from the working classes.) ~Mat Coward, in Success... and How to Avoid It.

The Globe and Mail from Saturday, Sept. 10 has an article in its Books section called Why Fiction is Good For You. Psychologist and fiction writer Keith Oatley claims that reading fiction makes you more empathetic. Sounds interesting, right? And to an extent, it is, although Oatley’s oftentimes bizarre ways of expressing himself don't improve the reading experience (at one point he says, "It is not that one puts bread into a toaster and makes toast."). For me, the article was spoiled, as is many a promising work of fiction, by the ending. The third paragraph from the bottom reads: "For his part, Oatley is convinced that the better the writer, the more powerful the simulation, and he makes a distinction between literary and genre fiction."

Instant raising of the hackles. Mind you, I have no way of knowing whether Oatley himself chose to use the words "genre" and "literary" or whether he spoke more intelligently. That is not revealed in the direct quotes which follow:

"You can have a good read, but it is sort of like going on a roller coaster. […] You get off, your heart is beating a bit, but you are still the same person."

"Chekhov was a great artist: The effect is different – the extent to which [the reader] can really inhabit another mind."

And that’s all fair enough, as long as one doesn’t pointlessly slam genre. Writer Kate Taylor continues to make an ass of herself by ending the article as follows:

The roller coaster may be fun, but the flight simulator … now that’s art.


I have often thought of doing a series of blog posts that would be collectively called Dumb Things I Read in the Saturday Globe and Mail. I can usually rely on reading at least one stupid thing in every issue. The only thing that’s stopped me is, it takes me a week or two to get through an entire Saturday Globe and Mail, which would result in the posts being embarrassingly out of date. However, genre-bashing never goes out of style among the snobigensia, and apparently, neither do bad metaphors. So although this post has a different title, it could also be considered number 0 in my possible new series: Dumb Things I Read in the Globe and Mail.

It has already been pointed out ample times, mostly by fans, that genre fiction does not have to be superficial and formulaic, that it can in fact contain character development and whatever else you might expect to find in quality fiction. No matter how many times it’s said, it won’t penetrate the heads of those who don’t want to hear it. This selfsame article sings the praises of Jane Austen, a blatant genre writer who never wrote anything that wasn’t a romance. Snobs don’t want to think of Austen as a genre writer, though she clearly was, as it would interfere with their negative perception of genre fiction. So reality must be ignored.

This post is not yet another genre fiction apology. Rather, I want to make the opposite point: not that genre fiction doesn't have to be formulaic, but that literary fiction often is.

While the term "literary fiction" is generally understood to simply mean good-quality fiction, when one has read enough literary magazines and novels, it becomes clear that literary fiction, is, in fact, itself a genre. After all, it has clearly-defined rules. One of those rules is that it not be what is traditionally known as genre (ironic, isn’t it?). Other rules of the literary fiction genre include:

  • It needn't have any sort of satisfying ending.
  • The writing style should be "lyrical," that is, poetic.
  • A shovelful of symbolism is always good.
  • Also good is a recurring image, shoehorned in to create a feeling of "resonance." The image may be symbolic, though it doesn’t have to be. (For a particularly obnoxious example, read The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy.)
  • If the story lacks both symbolism and recurring, resonant images, it can still be considered literary if it adheres to the other rules and is a slice-of-life vignette of the sort that gives reviewers the opportunity to use adjectives like "stark" and "gritty."

What is formulaic fiction? It is fiction that adheres too strictly to the rules of its genre. These rules or guidelines do have their uses. Without genres or categories, the sales people at publishing houses wouldn't know how to sell a book, and book store workers wouldn't know where to shelve it. But an important part of art is breaking the rules, and to the degree that the author fails to do that, art is compromised. Just as a writer working on a thriller may say to himself at a certain point, "It's been a while since that last car chase; I'd better stick in another one," the literary writer may worry that there aren't enough deeply meaningful symbols in his lyrical story and he'd better work in some more.

This strict adherence to rules is why a lot of literary fiction sucks, and when literary fiction sucks, it sucks worse than most traditional genre fiction possibly can. Why? Because whatever else it may be lacking, genre fiction has to be at least entertaining. The market demands it. By contrast, literary fiction need not be; indeed, if you are enough of a snob, entertainment value may actually be a drawback because it detracts from the "seriousness" of the piece. (Snobs like to refer to short stories and poetry as "pieces." If you would like to make it in certain literary circles, be sure to refer often to your "piece." But make sure you are in the right circle or people may think you have a gun.)

I fear this discussion has become a little confusing, and not just because of the gun remark. After all, "genre" normally refers to certain specific genres that are considered genre (romance, science fiction, mystery and so on), while I am claiming that something normally thought to be outside genre (literary fiction) is actually a genre as well. I’m trying to make the distinction clear by referring to what is normally thought of as genre (romance, science fiction, mystery and so on) as traditional genre (meaning what is traditionally considered genre), while referring to fiction that follows the rules outlined above as the genre of literary fiction. So, having defined my terminology, I will sum up by saying that while some traditional genre fiction may be formulaic at times, it is also the case that the genre known as literary fiction is often, in its own way, formulaic as well, and boring to boot.

Clear as mud?

Mind you, I’m not saying that all literary fiction sucks. Just that too much of it does. And while I’ll read good-quality literary fiction, when I can find it, which is not often, I prefer good quality science fiction, fantasy fiction, mystery or horror (would any brave snob like to step forward and claim that Edgar Allen Poe is formulaic and low-quality?). But not western. Even though western is a genre and I identify as a genre fan, I don’t generally care for westerns (although the movie High Noon was quite good). Also not romance, except Jane Austen, who, romance writer though she was, is in a class of her own.

Perhaps we need a better vocabulary to discuss these things. That is to say, less misleading, less freighted with prejudice, and more accurate. What do you think? I think throwing out the meaningless expression "genre fiction" would be a good start.


Susan said...

You can't throw out the term "genre fiction"! How else am I supposed to know that I'll enjoy it. The more genres a "piece" has, the more I know I'll enjoy it. I love my Christian Suspense Romance novels. Or my Science Fiction Steampunk Epic Fantasy. (Ok, I made up that last one.)

I look forward to the next article in this series.


Vivian said...

There is that. But instead of calling it "genre fiction" we could call it "fun fiction." Or "non-boring fiction." (Describing writing by what it's not is a time-honoured tradition--think "non-fiction.")

We probably can't throw out the term "genre fiction." It's too well-established. One of my favorite blogs is called Genreville. Pity we can't though.

Science Fiction Steampunk Epic Fantasy doesn't sound that implausible. :)

Unfortunately, I didn't manage to cop a free Globe and Mail this weekend, so I don't know when the next in the series will come out.

Susan said...

Did you know that it is hard to come up with a genre mash up that hasn't already been done?


Vivian said...

I'm sure it is, because pretty much everything has been done. And are you sure that Science Fiction Steampunk Epic Fantasy hasn't been done?

First you'd have to work out what it would consist of. OK, science fiction, strictly speaking, must involve science somehow. So all you'd have to do is include steam-driven or clockwork machines that have a scientific basis. Then put them in a setting that also involves magic and have lots of characters (optionally of different races, like hobbits) involved in an epic fight against evil. There you go. That wasn't so hard.

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