I read this article (This one here). It was written in an English newspaper, by a guy I’d never heard of, 2 years ago during the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo craze. And yes, probably that makes it dated, passe, lame, stupid and irrelevant, but I want to talk about it anyway.
It’s about literary fiction vs genre fiction, which is a subject I’ve become obsessed with lately. (Go ahead and read the article, if you want, for context).
Our culture conditions us to rank things. Coke is better than Pepsi. The Beatles are better than Elvis. Babe Ruth is better than Barry Bonds. Literary fiction is better than genre fiction. Often these claims are based on some sort of logic, which is generally the product of a standardized system for ranking things (i.e. baseball has quantitative statistics and so if Barry Bonds hit more career home runs, therefore, presumably he’s the better hitter). Typically, though, the a > b claims are made based on an entire-population-scale projection of one’s personal taste (I like John Irving so if people don’t like him, they have no taste). Either way, these claims are basically all debatable and debated heavily. And with any heavily debated topic there are so many ancillary factors that get brought into the debate (rich vs poor, level of education, intelligence, etc) and tend to confuse the issue.
The debate about literary fiction vs genre fiction is one of those heavily debated ones. For these purposes, assume genre fiction is sort of an all-encompassing swath of detective fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, historical fiction, historical romance etc. And literary fiction is the kinds of important fiction that’s found on the NYTimes book review: Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, Ishiguro, David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, etc. And for these purposes we’ll simplify the debate as something like this: Is Jonathan Franzen better than, say, Elmore Leonard simply because Jonathan Franzen is a literary writer, and therefore starts from a higher place (The assumption being that literary fiction is 1) more challenging to write, 2) more important)? Or is Jonathan Franzen just an overrated puffed up clown who writes boring books that only serve to show how smart he is, therefore making Elmore Leonard, the genre man, better, because he writes sharp, easy to read, somewhat relatable, enjoyable books?
Frankly, this is an impossible issue to argue. As I said there are too many factors in play. There is not a all encompassing objective system in place to say with any certainty.
And in order to demonstrate how difficult this debate is, I’ll summarize the article’s main point and use it as an example. The article, in a roundabout kind of way makes the claim that literary fiction is all things considered better, though it doesn’t wholly diminish genre fiction (as, if you read the comments section afterward, the commenters would have you believe) make concessions that good genre fiction can be better than bad literary fiction. The author makes a food analogy, which I think works quite well. Genre fiction is bound by convention, and as you go further and further into sub genres, the conventions get more and more rigid. So, in essence, the article claims, genre fiction is like a burger joint. The individual burger joint can spice things up however it pleases, adding cheeses, or whatever else. And literary fiction is the michelin star restaurant, serving all manner of combinations of food ― if you’ve seen Top Chef, think bacon foam and beet puree ice cream. The main conventional constraint in these restaurants is that the chef use fresh, high-quality ingredients.
So the point of all of this, is to say that because of perception, there’s a higher margin of error for genre writers. People reading genre fiction know that it’s not supposed to be high art, they know that they are going to get certain things (mainly an entertaining plot that gets resolved at the end). People don’t expect greatness out of McDonalds or Burger King, etc. On the other hand, when people go to a high falutin establishment that serves braised duck wings with starfruit marmalade and goose liver-quince soup, they are expecting something special. So, back to the analogy: when someone reads literary fiction they are expecting a level of greatness and perfection and specialness, and so if it’s faulty, even in the slightest, the reader is disappointed.
And I think this is a solid point (though I think the analogy might be a bit off, because comparing things to McDonalds creates all sorts of negative connotations right off the bat, but whatever). Take crime fiction for instance. By convention, there’s a murder, or a con, or some other sort of crime going on that sparks the reader’s interest right away. Furthermore, the story is going to keep the reader interested because there question of Who did it, or how did/will they pull it off, never goes away. Literary fiction has no such conventions, and therefore, getting the reader to read 3,4, 500 pages of stuff that isn’t necessary as compelling (and may very well be pretentious and artsy notions of what humanity is) is a commendable feat. Therefore, it would seem that, based on that logic, good literary fiction is better than good genre fiction.
But I’m not so sure it’s as easy as that. Because there’s a counter point. Genre writers are working within these rigid conventions that have been there since the beginning of whatever genre they’re working in. How many murder mystery plots can there be? How many alcoholic loner detectives can there be? Therefore, maybe the genre writer who can take these conventions and make them all seem fresh and new is better than the literary writer who is not bound by these conventions.
So in order to debate this topic, as I’ve said, we need to establish some sort of system that we can use to compare and rank. And even that is impossible to do. Here’s why. Take what may be the most commonly used heuristic for ranking literature: Reading for entertainment vs reading for fulfillment and beauty of language. The assumption being that reading for entertainment is somehow less valuable than reading for artistic purposes. But the whole construct depends on the definition of entertainment. For some people reading beautifully nuanced, flowery passages is entertainment. Is entertainment taken to mean escapism? And what’s escapism? Say for instance someone lives in deep in a high-crime area of Detroit. They work in the morgue, always dealing with dead bodies, often times brutally murdered bodies. Couldn’t that person make the argument too that reading beautiful arty prose is an escape from their day-to-day? It is possible.
Here’s another heuristic, which is, in a way a counterpoint to the previous one: it sells or is popular vs it’s unenjoyable but important. The assumption being that if a bunch of people like it, then it must be good. It’s a tempting argument. We use plurality to vote for the leaders of our countries, so why can’t we use it for our literature. But if we use popularity and sales as our measure, then Dan Brown and Tom Clancy are the greatest writers in history, which isn’t true.
(Unfortunately, the popularity heuristic is also quite sticky and troublesome because it seeps too easily into people’s decision making processes. Sociologically, anthropologically, because we’re tribal animals, we’re very conscious of what our peers think, and we’re susceptible to group think. So, how can a person be sure they really like something or if they’re just responding to something’s popularity. I.E. do they love it to fit in, or do they hate it, so they can stand out. This is a whole other debate, probably a big thick book).
The point is ― if there is a point ― that it is impossible to compare books across genres. Absolutely impossible and pointless, then, to rank literary forms. Comparing cliched apples to cliched oranges comes to mind. So what then? It seems like it would be too easy to say that it’s all a matter of personal taste. If you like Ian Rankin better than David Foster Wallace, go ahead and read all the Ian Rankin you want. Conversely, if you prefer Pynchon to Kate Atkinson, then by all means, read Gravity’s Rainbow until the binding falls apart (or you get carpel tunnel syndrome from lugging it around from coffee shop to coffee shop). The solution is more complex than that. To say on should judge each author and each individual work on its own basis, disregarding genre, popularity, etc. comes closer, but doesn’t quite nail it. At the risk of sounding like an after school special, and to maybe state the obvious, it is best to read each book and appreciate it for what it is.
The problem is: where’s the fun in that?