Literary Fiction or Genre Fiction: who decides?

Literary vs Genre FictionI’m not the first to write about this subject and I won’t be the last, but watching Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro debate genre fiction piqued my interest in genre boundaries. They both noted during the interview that they felt that genre boundaries are disappearing and are outdated.

Only the other day, an author on Twitter or Facebook (I forget which as they have almost merged into one for me) publicly critiqued the prose of another author. In their critique they mentioned literary fiction and some of the subsequent comments mentioned good writing and implied that because this author’s prose was not ‘literary’ it must be genre fiction. Apart from the fact that negatively critiquing someone’s art in public is cruel and smacks of power dynamics, it made me wonder if this author was referring to the quality of the writing, and confusing this with genre. It also made me wonder why this person felt that they could decide which genre this fiction is, or, for that matter, the quality of the writing?

Who decides?

Clearly, someone or something does decide genre. One look at bookshop shelves and Amazon categories leave us in no doubt that books are categorized by markets. Once art enters the commercial domain and becomes a financial commodity, then it is categorized and ‘valued’. In the publishing industry, there is a whole value hierarchy based on how well different kinds of books sell.  This cascades down to agents, editors, bookshops platforms such as Amazon and anyone else who makes a living out of publishing. So is it the publishing industry that decides?

Or is it the reader? Based on the economic theory of supply and demand, the reader’s preferences should at least influence the market. But if agents and editors choose the kind of books that will be published from a massive slush pile submitted to those representing certain genres, then are readers are choosing only from those books, and helping the genres remain stable? More recently this model has become a little less stable with the author’s ability to self-publish and agent’s ability to see how popular a book is with readers before they take it on.

Or is it creative writing courses? Many established authors also teach creative writing and are able to pass on genre boundaries to their students. There is an investment in teaching not only good writing, but  ‘good writing that will sell’, as students are investing in their writing careers by taking a course, and students are required to pay for courses – does this underpin the publishing industry categorization of genre fiction? Is this where ‘good writing’ is associated with literary fiction (and therefore inferior writing with genre fiction) and is this accurate based on sales figures? If not, what are the other ‘values’ involved?

Book Snobbery or Open Minds?

So Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro (from the perspectives of successful published genre fiction authors) feel that the genre boundaries might be disappearing and that they are outdated? I disagree. ‘Book snobbery’ is alive and well on social networking. Readers (and authors) have every right to express their preference in the types of books they like to read. But this is different from attacking other types of writing and genres.

It reminds me of throwaway critique of another kind of art. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard modern and installation art dismissed with “My four year old could have done that”. These type of comments most likely arise out of two things: The first is preference. People are entitled to like what they like, and if modern art does not appeal to them, so be it (but I maintain that it is cruel to negatively critique the artist publicly). The second is the lack of understanding of abstraction. In the book “Sparks of Genius” the author gives the example of Picasso sketching his colleague Marie Therese Walter while she was knitting. The resulting sketch was not of Marie or the needles, but of the movement of the needles. Unless you understand the possibilities of abstraction with an open mind, the sketch could look like a scribble.

To me, all art is abstraction. An author’s ideas are filtered through their own experiences and knowledge and put on the page in the shape of a story. So while there is a general recognizable shape container, the content is as unique as the writer. The story is then filtered through the publishing industry and a monetary value is placed upon it and it is marketed in a category the genre. Then readers make decisions to buy based on these categories and ‘hearsay’ in the form of reviews.  It is the reader’s investment in the genre boundaries that is sought by those who need to make their living out of selling books, and this is where the subjective opinions merge with the objective financial markets.

So Why Write Genre Fiction?

But genre boundaries are clearly not just financial. Somehow, literary fiction has become better regarded that genre fiction through some value that is not based on how many copies are sold or how much money is earned by the publishing industry. Gaiman hints at this by explaining that what people say they read publicly may be different from the books on their bedside tables. I asked a friend what she thought the differences are and she told me that literary novels win prizes and sell long term, genre novels become short-lived commercial bestsellers. But, according to the author who was critiquing prose, if genre fiction is associated with inferior writing, how come it sells so well? No one could accuse Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro, self confessed genre fiction writers, of inferior writing.

Any author who has entered the publishing industry and tried to sell their work knows which genre their writing falls into. So, if literary fiction is perceived as ‘better’ than genre fiction, why do so many authors still write genre fiction? I would contend that, on the outset of the artistic process we don’t choose; it is what it is, and we take our chances, hoping that all art is equal and that our worst fears, that some unkind bully will single our eight year old self out in front of our classmates and point and shout that our poem is stupid and rubbish, or that on reading an excerpt of your fantasy novel at a writing group, the silence falls upon the literary gathering and no one will ever make eye contact with you again, will never be realized.

Perhaps people who negatively criticize other other artists on the basis if genre really mean that they think that the writing is not yet up to (their subjective) standard, which is different to genre snobbery but still public shaming? Or perhaps they really are invested in the financially constructed values of literary fiction and genre fiction, and money has won over art to the extent that they have to be unkind to gain the advantage? Or maybe they are just power crazy bullies?

Joshua Rothman gives a historical view of genre boundaries here,  using the novel Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel as a convincing example of the literary fiction vs genre fiction debate and the Gaiman and Ishiguro excerpt is here.

So Who Decides?

It’s clear that the market partially decides the genre, and although there are small breakthroughs that may change that, for example self-publishing and the relatively new YA genre, the genre boundaries are stable. The non-financial genre boundary values are a subject for another blog, but in the meantime the well worn phrase “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” springs to mind.

For the record, I write speculative fiction and crime fiction, both under the category of genre fiction and I’m proud of it. I read both ‘literary fiction’ and ‘genre fiction’ and enjoy ‘all fiction’.