My literary tastes are better than yours!

Forgive the headline. I don’t really think that. In fact, when it comes to your reading habits, I can only say that you should buy my books when the time comes, because you’ll like them. Yes, you. And your friends.

Anyway, literary tastes — or lack thereof — was the subject of a recent pair of articles that  were brought to my attention by my wife, herself a professional writer and avid blogger. Is so-called “literary fiction” better than “genre fiction?” The latter is, of course, everything from thrillers to horror to fantasy to romance — everything not, apparently, “literary.”

The two articles in question are too long to quote in detail, so let me sum up, likely with extreme bias: New Yorker critic Arthur Krystal maintains that literary fiction is indeed superior because it challenges the intellectual and artistic natures of the reader. Literary works are lovingly crafted, sentence by sentence, in order to use the language itself to transcend and transport. Literary fiction makes demands upon the reader, too, whereas genre fiction is, in Krystal’s eyes, merely for escapism.

Now, Krystal does give genre fiction a rather backhanded compliment, in that many genre authors do a great job of those silly plot-and-story things that, while not strictly “literary,” are very entertaining. Krystal’s words reminded me of the indulgent parent looking down at a four-year-old who just said something clever or funny. Nice job, pat on the head, go back to making mud pies.

This led Lev Grossman of TIME Magazine, himself a notable and noteworthy genre author, to respond to Krystal’s article with a graceful, humorous and well-considered piece of his own. Grossman agrees that there’s a distinction between literary and genre works, but argues that genre works are not inherently inferior. The thought that genre is escapist is flawed, and there I have to agree. I mean, The Hunger Games is about governments mandating that teenagers kill other teenagers for entertainment. If that sounds like a fun escape for you, dear reader, seek help immediately.

Grossman also points out that there are some great writers out there doing genre, another point upon which I agree. I mean, have you read the first few pages of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station? Dense, challenging and ultimately beautiful prose that I believe is the equal to any so-called literary work. And there are plenty of literary darlings slumming it in the genre part of town, such as Michael Chabon’s alternate-history noir thriller The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. (Excellent, by the way).

Basically, Krystal says that only truly amazing prose that moves the spirit can be considered “literary,” whereas Grossman says truly amazing stories can do the same thing, with the prose being simply a very good vehicle for said stories.

Me? I think the distinction is bunk. It’s ALL literature, and it’s ALL entertainment.

See, Krystal and other advocates of literary fiction believe it to be superior because of the technical mastery and precision that goes into each jewel of a sentence, how each element of the book is wrought like fine, golden thread through the tapestry of the novel. They say that a book that doesn’t challenge them through wordsmithing isn’t really literature.

But what they don’t realize is that they are, in their way, reading for fun. It’s entertainment. They enjoy being challenged by the nuanced density of well-crafted prose. They escape into it, putting aside the cares of their individual lives to enjoy this art. That is the exact same impulse that grabs fans of genre fiction. They enjoy the challenge of a great whodunnit, or a fantastic epic fantasy. Genre fans escape into their worlds just as literary fans escape into their honeyed prose.

Any book that can transport a reader is one that has merit. A book like that can feed the soul.

I believe the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction helps bookstores figure out where to place books on shelves, and helps fans figure out where to buy them. But beyond that, the distinction is a false one. We all read for pleasure, and it’s simply different pleasures for different readers. If a book gives enough people pleasure, it may one day be considered true, lasting literature — no matter where it started on the bookshelf. After all, Philip K. Dick and H.P. Lovecraft started out as pulp writers, and today they are luminaries. Who knew?

Of course, I have my own preferences and biases. I’m crashing a late 18th century Royal Navy frigate into the planet Mars in my first book. The second may or may not include space-seeded alchemical zombies. If you don’t judge me for that, I won’t judge you about your densely worded novel about real people going through sad things based on their own poor decision-making. Deal? Deal.

Seriously, though…I’m just happy there’s enough people reading, and reading good stuff, that we can have this argument. Let’s just agree to disagree, and feel good about what feeds our imaginations.

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Writing

5 responses to “My literary tastes are better than yours!

  1. I agree. Let everyone read whatever they want to read.

  2. I love this reminder that reading is for pleasure, no matter where the book is shelved. Your comment about “your densely worded novel about real people going through sad things based on their own poor decision-making” was hilarious. It really describes a lot of literary plots–and I’m saying that as someone who loves and writes literary fiction.

  3. If I read a book and it doesn’t provide an escape, then I won’t be reading it very long. The whole point is to become engrossed in a story, whether or not the reader needs a dictionary to understand the big words. 🙂

  4. Great post, and it reminds me of that piece that made the rounds awhile ago, titled something like “An Open Letter from Genre to Literary Fiction.” My general response to the false dichotomy is the same as yours: literary IS a genre.
    One thing I’d like to know, though, is: where did the trend of tacking on the words “A Novel” after a literary novel’s title come from? Are publishers afraid reader won’t know what it is? Or are they trying to say all other long-form prose works generally conforming to what readers understand novels to be are not, in fact, REALLY novels?

  5. I think it would be eye-opening for fans of literary fiction to learn how many of their favorite books were written with the simple purpose of creating entertainment, and were then marketed in such a way as to appeal to their heightened sensibilities.

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