Literary Genre Fiction: It’s Ain’t New, So Please Shut Up


One of things that annoyed me about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was the way it was received by critics.  Specifically, critics from outside of the genre.  A handful of them praised McCarthy for writing original post-apocalyptic fiction while ignoring altogether the rich history of such fiction in the SF community.  While I enjoyed The Road, it was not a piece of solid genre fiction.  Rather, the novel suggests that McCarthy is very much the outsider, despite his apparent excellence in other forms of genre.  To praise The Road for doing something original would be akin to a genre writer being praised for writing the first realist novel…in 2011.  This issue is one which continues to plague genre fiction writers, critics, and fans, even as we further solidify our strength as a community and dominate sales.  Like the colonizer masking their involvement in human rights violations by appropriating indigenous history, so too do critics (many outside of the genre) appropriate ours.

Alexandra Alter’s Wall Street Journal post is a superb example of this activity at work.  She makes several absurd blunders, most of which are fabrications from the ancient literary vs. genre war some of us have decided to leave behind (the war is over; all that is left are people who can’t let go or don’t realize that the literary side lost — academics especially).  One such mistake reads:

Something strange is happening to mainstream fiction. This summer, novels featuring robots, witches, zombies, werewolves and ghosts are blurring the lines between literary fiction and genres like science fiction and fantasy, overturning long-held assumptions in the literary world about what constitutes high and low art.

None of this is new.  In fact, it has been happening for decades, and it is only by clever manipulations of language that some people are able to ignore the intersection of genre and literary fiction.  Authors who didn’t want the label (Margaret Atwood, for example) claimed that they didn’t write SF; academics reclassified many works of fantasy as magical realism (Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Amos Tutuola) or “real literature” (Shakespeare) simply because it was unacceptable to give credit to a field of literature which included both great works of art and “trashy pulp novels.”  And, in fact, what is strange about all of this isn’t that “mainstream fiction” is suddenly accepting ancient tropes of SF/F, but rather that people are suddenly noticing that all this is going on…now.  A year ago, it was happen.  Five years ago, it was happening.  Ten years ago, it was happening.  The truth is that the intersection has been there since the dawn of literature.  But where was Alter a few years ago?  Where were the critics and the like who were talking about the long history of the intersection?  I might have missed these discussions.

But it’s not simply that Alter is channeling old arguments; her argument re-articulates the hypocrisies of the literary community which helped establish the artificial divides between literary and genre.  Never mind that what is “mainstream” today is not actually literary fiction (it would be more accurate to say that the new mainstream is genre fiction in some shape or form, whereas what is referred to as “literary fiction” has been floundering desperately in obscurity for quite some time).  Much of what we call “literary fiction” is actually not “literary fiction” at all.  Few bookstores have “literary fiction” sections; instead, they have “general fiction,” which is just as likely to include the latest “literary” novel as it is to include something that is so blatantly of the genre seed that its placement in “general fiction” only shows how much some people still stick their noses out at us (reminding us of a hilarious argument which goes something like:  “this is good literature and can’t possibly be genre fiction”).  But it also reminds us of something else:  that genre is in an endless game of bleeding and cross-pollination.

And so when Alter channels these hypocrisies, she aligns herself perfectly with the imaginary history of the very people who now pretend to be doing “original genre work” by including zombies and robots and other genre tropes into their work:

The explosion of fantasy titles from mainstream authors is eroding decades-old divisions in the publishing industry. “Genre” fiction…exists in a sort of parallel publishing universe, with separate imprints, bookstore shelves and dedicated fan websites.

Those “decades-old divisions” have never been firm.  Rather, the divisions were artificially selected, but never held to the standards established by critics, etc.  Genre titles “slipped through.”  Except they didn’t.  They were brought in.  They were loved.  They were declared “pure,” despite their strangeness and disconnection with the realists and other literary purists.  But they were loved just the same, because they were works which did something no genre writer could do:  write real fiction.  The hypocrisies piled up, and here we are, over a century since the modern forms began, talking about the same imaginary divides, ignoring the hypocrisies and “pardons” and snubs, and pretending that by some magic stroke of genius, these folks saw the light.

Words like Alter’s are why people like Iain M. Banks must write posts like this one (in which he argues that science fiction is not for dabblers).  His arguments are amusing; I’d love to post several paragraphs here, but I’ve talked long enough and need to end this post.  But I will discuss one quote:

Science fiction has its own history, its own legacy of what’s been done, what’s been superseded, what’s so much part of the furniture it’s practically part of the fabric now, what’s become no more than a joke . . . and so on. It’s just plain foolish, as well as comically arrogant, to ignore all this, to fail to do the most basic research.

This applies to all genre fiction, and it’s a problem we’re likely going to have to face as authors from outside the genre use our tropes and concepts without so much as bringing themselves up to speed on where those tropes are in the genre.  That will be the greatest barrier for crossover work coming from the opposite end of the line, and it’s nothing short of an annoyance.  Because these are people who will get respect for their work.  These are the people who critics will praise for originality and doing something no genre writer ever could.  But they won’t be writing original work.  They’ll be writing work that is, at the very least, decades old.  They’ll start with the pulps and try to play catchup.  Most genre fans won’t be particularly amused.  Many will wonder why anyone gives these works credit.

But the worst thing is that these crossover works, which engage in nothing short of literary theft and play into the long history of genre suppression, will engage readers who may never come to genre fiction and realize just how far the literary elite have fallen from their fictitious glory.  And those that do come to genre fiction will be just as ignorant of our history as the crossover “artists” and may wonder why genre writers are stealing from their betters, or why genre fiction is ever so cliche!  But I suppose we shouldn’t expect anything better from an “organization” which has spent so much time and effort suppressing genre history and imagining that we don’t write real literature.  This is just another weapon in the machine.

In all honesty, the barriers need to come down.  You can write genre fiction and literary fiction.  It’s done quite often.  The imaginary divides are just that:  imaginary.  But pissing on the history of genre or literary fiction when you’re planning to take from those “traditions” is grossly offensive.

That is all.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

7 thoughts on “Literary Genre Fiction: It’s Ain’t New, So Please Shut Up

  1. you are part of an interesting phenomenon that's ever going on since the artificial division between high and low art/lifestyle.

    subcultures, or here genre-fiction, always establish the same canonisation and elitist motives in their subculture that they fight against in High culture/art/literature.

    you demand respect for the same canonisation of art that is going on in genre-fiction that at the same time is critized in the genre-fictions "other".

    i understand your concern for your protegé literature, and i know where you're coming from when you are angry that media and critics are overlooking authors in this process. but the opening up of high/low divisions is a slow process where people should be cautious not to establish elitist models as means of protection or coping with this evolution.

  2. It's elitist to expect fair treatment in literary production and criticism? That's sort of like calling the Civil Rights movement an elitist movement. There were certainly elitists who were for civil rights, but the movement itself was only ever about fairness. If it's expected that a genre writer know something of what literary fiction entails (it's history, etc,.) in order to write something acceptable to the community that reads and writers such things, then it's only fair to expect that non-genre people who want to write genre should at least know something of the history.

    This isn't so much about protection as it is about getting pissed on by people who are appropriating genre tropes for a quick buck rather than encompassing its history. This is why I brought up the colonial narrative in relation to indigenous history. It's very much the same process in the works…

  3. for me, it feels so akward when you talk about "genre people" and "non genre people" and about rules for authors..

    and for easy bucks… isn't genre writing getting a big piece of the pie already?
    so you are essentially mad that other authors will get money using "genre tropes" (tropes are not owned, here's what i think is elitist thinking).

    in the end, nothing much will change, and there is so such thing as "genre book" from a so called "non genre writer". he's after all what he writes.

    if something is not acceptable by the community, they won't read it, if nobody reads it, it won't be published. so no problem. should however, someone read a book, then it seems to be it is acceptable by people.

  4. It's Ain't New, what is that supposed to mean?

    if that an example of how pissed-on genre writers write, it's a good rationale for getting pissed on. The reason the critics don't review genre writing is that they have enough to do sorting out the best of the literary writing. Why would they want to take time away from what they consider interesting to explore the derivative, formulaic, and pedestrian world of genre.

    Whatever praise McCarthy got for The Road, it was undeserved. It was one of his pot boilers and a genre writer might have done it better, gotten the characters in real trouble and given them a much harder time getting out of it. Nor would a genre writer have used a deus ex machina. But, silly as the plotting was, it was McCarthy's prose that kept me reading, whereas genre, for me, is a put down at paragraph one.

  5. Yona: Yes, it is getting a big piece of the pie, but that's the point. People who inject genre elements into their writing aren't doing it, by and large, because they love genre. They're doing it because genre sells. It's marketable.

    We don't own the tropes, but there is a history behind those tropes which critics and non-genre people are using for their own gain without giving a modicum of respect for those who developed them, etc. That's the issue here. People will read these books, and I'm not saying they shouldn't read books from non-genre authors. In fact, for the most part, I think genre people would accept non-genre writers into the genre. But when they're taking things and getting respect for doing what has been done more effectively by genre writers before, that is a huge problem.

  6. amboy: "It Ain't New" would be a bit of slang, which is used by many people around the world and was here used as an amusing rhetorical strategy. Don't take it so seriously.

    I'm not complaining about critics not reviewing genre. I really don't care. I have a problem with critics who review what is clearly genre work because the author is a "literary author," but then ignoring or being completely ignorant of the history of genre fiction. Such people are terrible critics.

    Everything McCarthy did in The Road has been done more effectively by genre writers before. Post-apocalypse? Check. Cannibals? Check. Focus on one or two survivors in a desolate world? Check. Religious themes? Check.

    Not all genre fiction is about simplistic, weak prose. That's another myth perpetuated by the literary elite. Plenty of genre writers are excellent prose stylists.

  7. still not happy with enforcing divisions between "genre-writer" and "literary-writer". there is just writer. fiction or non-fiction. simple as that.

    also i think "the road" was not praised for being post-apocalyptic or having cannibals…
    though everyone can have his own opinion, i do not see any sense in saying that "a genre writer could have done "the road" better"…

    and you are right: critics that claim something as new and inventive that was there before are naturally bad critics.

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