Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

Genre Fiction as Literature

with 15 comments

What is literature?

Yes, the dentists’ brochures on flossing, the neon green flyer tucked under your windshield, and the weight-loss ad cleverly disguised as an article in your magazine are all technically literature as written materials.

But I’m talking about the definition of literature as a creative work of excellent quality and lasting artistic value. Think Hamlet and A Tale of Two Cities. Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dante’s Inferno and Goethe’s Faust.

These are the pieces literati will hold up as paragons of literature.

But few people give credence to genre fiction as serious literature.

To paraphrase Wikipedia’s definition, genre fiction is work written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre in order to appeal to readers and fans already familiar with that genre.

Think romance, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, western, horror. You know … the types with their own sections at the bookstore. These are all considered genre fiction, as opposed to literary fiction.

The thing is, critics and “serious” writers will often sneer at genre fiction. No true scribe would profane the nobility of literature by writing that science fiction or hard-boiled detective schlock, they argue.

But I disagree. Genre fiction can be serious literature. It can give insight into the human condition, make us think, make us feel and stick in our minds for decades to come.

Our literary canon is full of genre fiction.

Sure, to be technical, every single book can be categorized into one or more genres. You can’t have a book without a genre any more than you can speak without an accent.

But since we’re talking about the common understanding of genre fiction, let’s look at some classics:

  • George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was published nearly forty years before the title year and based on a dystopian future. Clearly science fiction.
  • The author ventures into Hell, guided by a long-dead poet, encountering demons and Lucifer himself in Dante’s Inferno. File this one under fantasy.
  • A magical portrait carries the weight of its owner’s sins, leaving Dorian Gray’s physical body unscathed and immortal – sounds like it could’ve been an adult-themed Harry Potter.

Some more examples of classics? You got it:

  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (horror)
  • Pride and Prejudice (romance)
  • Frankenstein (science fiction/thriller)
  • Grimms’ Fairy Tales (fantasy)
  • The Odyssey (adventure/fantasy)

Even recent genre fiction can be literary.

Have you read Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union? Maybe check out The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Both have been critically hailed as emotionally and intellectually insightful, and both easily tagged in separate genres: detective and science fiction (and possibly others, depending on your definitions).

Some colleges and universities are picking up on the idea that even popular novels written in the 20th century can have lasting value. I’ve seen courses offered where the reading includes titles like Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Lord of the Rings.

Great literature makes us think and feel. And if it uses time travel, urban vampires, dragons or hard-nosed detectives to do it, who cares? Stories with a plot certainly can have emotional depth.

So, readers. I know you’ve got your own genre favorites, and I hope you’ll share with the rest of us. What genre stories have moved you? What books do you recommend to those who aren’t yet sold on your favorite genre?

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Written by Nathanael Green

June 11, 2009 at 9:04 pm

15 Responses

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  1. Holy hell–don’t get me started on this subject. I actually can’t stand the denigration of anything based on its genre. So much that can be categorized as genre will last long after the self-styled ‘literary’ has been left in the dust. And don’t think I’m a reverse snob–I’m going to a pub twice a month to read Finnegans Wake twice a month so I’m not a pure genre apologist either. (Okay, it’s a pub and I drink a Guinness every time I go so there are secondary motivations too).

    What gripes me is that writers like Chabon are lauded for ‘accessing’ a genre, and the people who’ve done the blood sweat and tears are held in low esteem.

    In my, okay, not so humble opinion, genre is where real imagination has currently been relegated. Let’s be honest–if you had something really big to say, something new, something you yourself could barely keep under control, would it ever pass through all the gates that the current, scared, play it safe publishing scene would put in front of you? No. Best pass it off as genre, where it would be discounted and then sometimes, actually read.

    Seana

    June 11, 2009 at 11:02 pm

  2. Seana,

    Not surprisingly, I’m so with you here. One could make the case that literary fiction is itself a genre, and thereby should fall under the now all-encompassing term “genre fiction.”

    While we’re at it, we could also coin the phrase “MFA fiction.” If your hero/heroine is a professor/student at a University and goes through some psychologically-trying personal ordeal, then you’ve written MFA fiction. Even if your protagonist isn’t a professor or student, your book can still qualify as MFA fiction if the protagonist is well-read and disarmingly eloquent.

    Brian O'Rourke

    June 12, 2009 at 1:08 pm

  3. Well, a lot of my best friends have MFAs, so…

    No, I totally agree with you. I am not anti-MFA, so much as extremely leery of what it actually does to anyone’s writing. (I actually just wrote ‘writing process’, which is exactly the kind of language I’m afraid of adopting.)

    I do think ‘literary fiction’ is a genre. My only problem with it is that it gives itself airs. I’ve noticed a couple of times lately that ‘literary’ writers seem to think that they are the only ones concerned with language. In my nastier moments, I think, “No, you are the only ones who are only concerned about language.” Just today, I was reading David Almond’s “Skellig”, a kid’s book (Genre! Genre! Genre!) and marveling at what he can get across in seemingly simple language. I think that sometimes we think that genre equals formula, and sometimes it is, but often, very often, this is far from the case.

    Seana

    June 13, 2009 at 12:28 am

    • I’ve read a lot of writers who are leery of MFAs. And that may well be warranted because I’ve heard (only heard, mind you), that some programs want to produce certain types of literary writers. My experience as an MFA student at Rosemont, though, has been exceptional. The faculty and students have all been really encouraging, yet demanding of everyone’s styles and genres – in workshops we’ve discussed YA, fantasy, science-fiction, memoir as well as the more literary things.

      And to be perfectly fair, I don’t want to bash literary fiction as a genre, either. There are certainly a number of excellent books in that genre (I certainly agree that it’s its own genre). I just think that they’re not inherently better than the excellent non-literary books.

      I think it’s just that some people equate plots with triviality. If something actually happens, it can’t be emotionally significant and introspective. Of course, I think that’s a load of crap. But the opposite is true, too: Some genre readers scoff at the pompous, high-brow mindsets of literary fiction and put down the whole genre, which I think is just as bad as the reverse.

      Didn’t Brian once say that good books are just good books?

      Nathanael Green

      June 13, 2009 at 9:42 am

  4. Also, I think that there’s an unfair prejudice against entertainment. It’s as if reading purely for enjoyment isn’t worth while.

    This may be part of the reason genre fiction is looked down upon. But fiction for entertainment is definitely valuable. (Follow up blog post on this next week ;-)

    If a writer can make me forget about a bad day or carry me into the crazy world of his hero, that’s a feat. And telling a great story, regardless of its impact on generations to come, is a feat. And I respect the hell out of that.

    For instance – The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie is one of my favorite recent reads. It’s a fantasy novel that seems to not take itself too seriously. And I think because of that, the characters all feel alive and vibrant, and I was SUCKED in to their troubles and emotions the whole way through.

    I’ve never read Skellig, so I’ll have to look for that one.

    What others do you guys recommend?

    Nathanael Green

    June 13, 2009 at 10:03 am

  5. Sorry, I got kind of stumped by the other recommendations at first and then got distracted.

    I just recently read a galley for the July release Ravens by George Dawes Green that I thought was very good. It’s your kind of classic ‘bad guys take family hostage’ kind of story with some twists, and great realizations of the inner life of some of the key characters.

    For some reason, the book I keep thinking about in relation to Skellig is Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. Not sure if it even qualifies for our discussion, since it’s a ‘classic’, and therefore elevated, but if it wasn’t a classic, it would definitely be pure genre–adventure tale or YA, maybe. The language, apart from the occasional Scottish dialect, is very simple, but Stevenson manages to convey a whole kind of lived, visceral experience with it. I have no idea how he does it, but it works.

    Adrian McKinty turned me on to rereading this one lately, and he would be another good illustration of why not to scorn genre, in this case crime fiction. Not sure if Brian’s pitched this writer to you or not, but if he hasn’t, he should. His latest book, Fifty Grand is very pared down in tone, and can be read as the pure adrenalin rush kind of crime fiction, but it’s literary, all right, for all the plainness of the surface.

    Brian?

    Seana

    June 15, 2009 at 1:11 am

  6. Seana,

    Yeah, Adrian’s got that gift – he’s somehow able to write a story that all kinds of readers will enjoy. And that really is rare. I’m amazed at what he can do with a story.

    And Kidnapped really holds a special place in my heart too. What a great story. A classic adventure tale that’s so much fun to read.

    And Nate –

    I’m just having a little fun with my “MFA fiction” comment. From what you’ve and others have told me, Rosemont’s program sounds like it would be right up my alley.

    And you’re right. Somewhere along the way, “entertainment” became such a dirty word. I feel like it’s a writer’s obligation to entertain readers. After all, a reader is spending money and time on a writer’s book, so they have every right to expect to be entertained and pleasantly diverted, especially after going nine to five at a job they might not particularly enjoy.

    Brian O'Rourke

    June 15, 2009 at 12:46 pm

  7. I must admit that I’ve never read Kidnapped. I know, I know! It’s on my list, OK? It’s right after Fifty Grand.

    Speaking of good genre fiction, someone recently lent me a Jim Butcher audio book – Storm Front. I’m not usually an audio book guy, but the morning talk show during my commute was getting dull, so I gave it a shot.

    It’s first-person from the main character’s point of view, Harry Dresden. And Butcher does such a great job of establishing his character and narrative voice that you can’t help but love every minute of it.

    By the way, Brian … yes, I think Rosemont would be right up your alley. And hey, it’s not that far away, either. ;-)

    Nathanael Green

    June 18, 2009 at 8:17 am

    • Brian may give you a hard time, but I have so many gaps in my own reading that I would never fault anyone for what they haven’t read yet.

      Butcher has built up quite a following, but I haven’t tried him. Seems like the kind of thing I’d like, though.

      Seana

      June 18, 2009 at 10:55 am

  8. […] my previous post, I talked about my belief that genre fiction can also be literary, and emotionally and […]

  9. After the war, Kurt Vonnegut found himself in public relations at General Electric in Schenectady, NY. With all that real-life science fiction buzzing and whirring all around him, it’s no wonder his writing has somewhat of a sci-fi flavor. But he hated the designation because it was so stigmatized. He complained that critics filed him in the science fiction drawer, which they “often mistake for a urinal.”

    Kevin Dickinson

    November 3, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    • Kevin,

      I love that Vonnegut quote about the urinal!

      It seems to be an ongoing problem that’s not unique to fiction (think about personal labels, ethnicity, etc). I think people in general tend to look for categories to define and organize their world, but so often things don’t fit into specific boxes with no overlap into other areas. And Vonnegut seems to be one of those writers whose work crosses a number of genre lines, and does it well.

      Nathanael Green

      November 8, 2009 at 4:32 pm

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