“genre vs literary” in the days of the Technorenaissance

1

I was hanging out in a writer’s forum and came across the age-old question of how do you define genre and literary? which always turns into genre vs literary: genre types bash the literati for lacking plot (which is absurd), while the literati bash the genre-ati for lacking everything else (equally absurd).

One person said you could recognize a genre novel by its “shallow theme and simple characters”. He wasn’t trashing genre novels; he considered himself a ‘genre’ writer writing a ‘genre’ novel. He had given himself an ‘out’ when it came to considering things like theme or characterization.

I thought, Wow. There’s someone who will never ever be published.

Personally, I think rather than defining ‘genre’ or ‘mainstream’ novels by their artlessness — as this person did here — literary novels, by far the smaller group of the two, should be defined by their ‘literariness’.

Literary is not a genre so much as a sensibility. It’s a feel for language, a complexity of theme and character, a general overarching intelligence that informs the novel. It can apply to any and all of the genres.

If you say that genre/mainstream novels are characterized by artlessness, you’re also saying that most readers want an ‘artless’ experience — and that, as an aspiring writer, you can get away with writing an ‘artless’ novel. But in today’s “brutal” marketplace, where an agent will complain about”passing on really good novels because currently I believe that really good might not be good enough in today’s market“, how successful is a writer likely to be if she thinks it’s acceptable to be ‘artless’?

This is the part where someone says, But there’s so much crap on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. There’s so much crap on the bestseller lists.

Those books managed the difficult feat of publication because enough people loved them to spend time and money developing them and putting them into the marketplace.

And just like the public didn’t understand why Julia Roberts married that quirky-looking country dude, you don’t need to understand why some people love Dan Brown or James Patterson…only that they do.

Which doesn’t mean they’ll also love you.

2

What writers tend to forget is that ‘genre’ is a marketing term as much as anything else.

Booksellers want to know where to put the books so that the people most likely to buy them can find them. The people who want to read about space aliens can go to one section and the people who want to read about forensic investigators tracking serial killers can go to another section and the people who want to read about young women coming of age in the city while wearing fabulous shoes can go to yet another section.

No one decides, “I’m looking for an Artless story. Where’s the Artless section?”

In fact, many of the ‘genre’ writers who rise to the bestseller lists bring a literary quality to their novels, like Dennis Lehane, who started out writing experimental short fiction in an MFA program. He established himself with a series of critically acclaimed mystery novels, then broke onto the bestseller lists with a novel called MYSTIC RIVER that was so bleak and ‘literary’ people had predicted it would end his career.

Martin Scorsese is now making a movie based on Lehane’s novel SHUTTER ISLAND. Starring Leonardo Dicaprio. Maybe you’ve heard of them.

Many ‘literary’ writers write books that have a strong and riveting sense of story (I challenge you to put down Ian McEwan’s much-praised ATONEMENT once you get past the first 50 pages).

In his introduction to Poe’s Children, Peter Straub acknowledges this kind of crossover when he mentions “literary” writers such as Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem “who have no problem embracing their inner Poe.” He also lists the wave of fantasy/horror/SF writers (Kelly Link, Elizabeth Hand, Graham Joyce) who are “literary and genre writers at the same time”.

I like that: literary and genre writer at the same time.

As a reader, that’s what I look for. That would be a perfect world. Some books would be better than others, no question, and art would still range from ‘high’ to ‘low’. But writers, with the exception of those so experimental in nature they resist any categorization except ‘literary’, would be literary and genre at the same time. Novels wouldn’t respect such a clear cut division between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’. That division would cease to exist.

3

Publishing is changing. We’re witnessing a revolution and entering the digital age, where writers will still write and readers will still find them but the middleman might just get eliminated. This is the age of tribes, personal brands, author platforms and “1000 True Fans”.

Dean Koontz once remarked — way back in the 80s, when a Kindle was a thing in science fiction movies — on his publishers’ insistence that he write his different genre novels under different pen names in order “not to confuse the reader”.

What Koontz discovered, he went on, was that his publishers were wrong. Readers who really like your stuff “will follow you anywhere”.

Ultimately we love our favorite writers not for the type of stories they write but their voice, their worldview, the way they bring their characters into existence so that we may develop relationships with them and, through them, touch the writer’s mind.

I’m reminded of a fan of Poppy Z Brite’s who said, when she found out that Brite had a blog, “now I can have Poppy every day!” She didn’t care that Brite’s blog doesn’t chronicle vampires (from her early work) or chefs running a New Orleans restaurant (her later work). She craves Poppy’s voice, that mash-up of style and thought and personality that defines Poppy’s work and marks it apart from everybody else’s.

In the digital age, as writers are forced to grapple with blogs and Facebook and Twitter, and develop an author platform alongside their body of work, our ‘voice’ will define us more than ever before. Our ‘voice’ becomes our ‘brand’, and readers connect with it — and us — directly.

According to the theory by Kevin Kelly, in order to survive, artists only need 1000 True Fans who will buy anything he or she does (because if each fan spends $100 a year…).

True Fans are the ones “who will follow us anywhere.”

And with that kind of access to us and our work, do we have to adhere to such rigid genre categories?

In fact, might it be kind of dangerous to do so? In a world as cluttered and chaotic as the Web — where anyone can upload a manuscript and set up a blog and call themselves a novelist without having to deal with the age-old filters of agent, editor and publisher — how can any writer develop enough ‘pull’ so that readers will single him or her out from the competition?

I think Seth Godin had it right: in this age of overabundance and oversupply, where the reader’s time and attention are at a premium, the way to survive is to be remarkable.

To use your voice to tell your stories your way, in the best way you know how.

And in a world where readers increasingly flock to author-brands online — and build tribes around them — maybe the emphasis will no longer be on what genre you belong in but the genres you bring together to form what Koontz (who did it himself, with great success, before the Internet was even born) a “cross-genre novel” that isn’t like anything else in the marketplace.

4

Copyblogger compares the Internet to the Renaissance, creating what this blogger calls a Technorenaissance:

The Renaissance was one of the most innovative eras in human history, and many credit the Medici family as the catalyst that made it possible. By attracting talented souls from so many different fields and cultures, the Medicis caused these varied artists and scientists to come in contact with one another, trade ideas, and discover the intersections that allowed for giant leaps in creativity and innovation.

…allowing people to seek and find the connections between different disciplines and cultures led to an explosion of exceptional ideas. This intersection of ideas produced huge advances in literature, philosophy, art, politics and science from the 14th through the 17th century, starting in Italy and spreading throughout Europe and the rest of the world.

The Internet isn’t about neat little boxes and tidy definitions. The Internet has become, like Florence in the era of the Medicis, a place of access, opportunity and creative convergence. The Internet is a crossroads where ideas from different worlds can meet and synthesize. It’s where you smash old boundaries and let the new stuff in; read and write across the disciplines; be both literary and genre at the same time.

I like to play with the idea of what the first ‘true’ bestselling 21st century writer will look like, a writer who rises from the online world as well as traditional print publishing. I don’t think they’ll rise from some box marked ‘mystery’ or ‘thriller’ or ‘science fiction’ but, instead, those places where the genres intersect. They will give us what we hunger for: something accessible and engaging, yet innovative and new.

The emphasis won’t be on what genre.

The emphasis will be on great storytelling.

Justine Musk

11 comments to “genre vs literary” in the days of the Technorenaissance

  • This was truly great insight into the field of publishing today. I’m losing hope, but this gives it a little shimmer. Thanks Justine.

  • David Niall Wilson

    I’d have sworn I already commented on this.

    You’ve struck a chord that I’ve plucked many times in the past. I like your sort of twist on it though, explaining to those who specifically set out to write formulaic genre crap in an artless fashion that they are wasting their time.

    It’s fiction – in point of fact, it’s all fantasy. Some is good, and some is not. Some is art, and some is crap. Some is literary, and if literature isn’t literary – um – it’s not literature, right?

    I would go a step further with this, though, because nothing irritates me more than artsy, poseuriffic litfic. If you set out to write something “literary” and that is what you have in mind, if you are consciously shooting for that literary fiction niche (whatever the hell it actually is) you are in the same boat as the guy trying to write a zombie novel without worrying over quality or craft.

    You should write what needs writing – what feels important. You should write it in the manner / fashion it feels best leaving the tips of your fingers. You should – in fact – just write, if you are a writer and quit worrying so much about what KIND of writer the world will perceive you to be. The world, in general, isn’t all that perceptive anyway.

    DNW

  • “Must read” and “Musk read” are becoming synonymous for me. A lot of us are tackling these issues/perspectives and echoing the same things in our columns, but this is very affirming and cohesive, boarding house reach notwithstanding.

    — Sully

  • Lou

    Great post. It’s the storytelling, stupid. ;-)

  • You’re right that these distinctions take hold primarily at the marketing level. You’re also right that writing genre fiction doesn’t give you an out in terms of complexity or literary quality. John Le Carre writes spy novels, but they’re also damn literary — maybe even MORE literary than some of the stuff sitting on the literary shelves.

    So what does ‘literary’ mean? At the far end of the spectrum it means ‘beholden to no one’. Literary fiction, unlike genre fiction, is allowed to aspire to art: to be a work defined by itself as opposed to market demands or consumer expectations. As an author you have the right to go as far out on that plank as you want — even to the point of writing a work that only a handful of people may ever understand.

    But…you’re not obligated to. You can pull back a bit, sink your teeth into a plot, and STILL flex every literary muscle you’ve got.

    Or you can pull back even more and write in a genre. Raymond Chandler wrote detective novels, yet it’s really hard to keep him out of the literary conversation.

    So there’s a continuum here, and there’s an overlapping of the terms, and it gets very sticky when you try to nail it down or sort it out.

    Which is why I gave up trying to categorize and just give thanks that there are so many options.

  • “Those books managed the difficult feat of publication because enough people loved them to spend time and money developing them and putting them into the marketplace.”

    Sorry, but I pretty much stopped reading this piece after that line.

    Marketing and sales of books has nothing (or virtually nothing) whatsoever to do with ‘love of the book’ and everything (or almost everything) to do with the money and the market. Publishers are so squeezed these days that the only things they are putting on the shelves are sure-sellers – which is absolutely not any kind of guarantee of quality, genre-ness or literariness, regardless of how you define either of those terms.

    What makes it to the shelves (and the big screen and the little screen) these days are works that, for the most part, will appeal to the LEAST common denominator. In other words – trash and garbage that is chosen because it is comprehensible to those with the equivalent of a 4th grade reading and comprehension level.

  • David Niall Wilson

    Steve, I’ve mentioned this on other posts, but it never hurts to do it again.

    Sorry, but I’ve read a LOT of good books over the last few years and many of them were by new authors. They didn’t all suck, and they weren’t all written for third graders. In point of fact, Justine herself is fairly new to the scene, has a sophisticated style and writes to adults – both publishers and marketers got her books on the shelves.

    The fact that the biggest marketing pushes go to the Da Vinci Codes and Twilights isn’t any different now from other time periods, as far as I can see (and I’ve seen a bunch of them). The crunch, obviously isn’t helping the cause of the writer, but to say that because of it only low-brow dreck hits the the shelves just isn’t accurate.

  • Jeff P.

    That “quirky country dude”, as you call him, is Lyle Lovett. The fact that you only know of him in relation to his brief marriage to Ms. Roberts is sad. You could have at least googled him and found his name.

  • David Niall Wilson

    Jeff,

    I’d be willing to bet Lyle wouldn’t mind, and also that those who know him well might have a hard time keeping track of everyone in other pop culture lime lights. Nice catch on details, but sort of off on relevance to the topic.

  • Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Storytellers: New post: the happy death of “genre vs literary” in the days of the Technorenaissance (http://cli.gs/NsEPs) http://cli.gs/NsEPs

  • Great post, and thanks for the attribution and link! It’s an exciting time to be a writer, no?

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