Literary fiction vs. genre fiction, the debate that raises a lot of controversies and emotions among the readers and the academics.The former named snobbish, arrogant and boring, the latter insulted as banal, cliche and unsophisticated. There is more misunderstanding of the discourse than substantive dialogue. Is modern literature doomed to be only an easy read? Is it high time to stop writing difficult novels? Where does it lead us? The debate raises more questions than answers.
T he distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction might be confusing to many readers. What is literary fiction? And why does it separate itself from the genre? If fiction is literary, then what is genre fiction? Or maybe is it about the snobs wanting to place themselves higher in the hierarchy? One could argue that fiction is fiction, and therefore, there is no sense in or basis for opening this kind of debate. Is it indeed that simple? How could one compare, for instance, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games or, most recently, Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter? Obviously, all of them are fiction. But does that make them anything alike? There are more differences and more distinctive attributes among the pairs than similarities. Thus, just maybe, serious discourse is indeed required.
The way I see it, it is not a question of whether there should be any debate. Neither is it a question of the legitimacy of the discourse. In my opinion, it is a much broader picture. The “war between literary fiction and genre,” as some call it, results from the history of literature and discredits old schematics and cliches. Yet, at the same time, it is an inevitable attempt to grasp the present and the future of fiction, as well as genres, in general.
The question I would rather ask is, “In what kind of debate do you want to participate”? Although I find this topic essential, there is not much substantive dialogue in the public domain, except, certainly, by academics and critics. However, there is a significant number of people who have quite an influence on the awareness of the readers; and to be clear on that, I am not saying that all the readers should be literary experts. Still, I would expect “armchair internet experts” to either do the research, or not to spread banalities, cliches, and utterly worthless and demagogic views. It brings more misunderstanding and actually misleads readers, in their attempt to understand it.
Hence, what can an average reader understand? My recent research showed how shallow their understanding is. First of all, it is common knowledge that there are two participants in this conflict: those that are on the literary fiction side (literati or dudes) and those on genre fiction side. It is quite a common view that the former are snobbish, arrogant, and full of cliches, understanding little of the contemporary needs of the readers and assuming their superiority over the genre. The latter, on the other hand, are seen as being unsophisticated, lazy, and preliterate, and are focused only on money, not on art. Basically, their views are also rendered in substantive discourse.
The spokespersons of both the literary and genre have engaged in a very significant debate, with Lev Grossman representing the genre, and Arthur Krystal from The New Yorker, on the other side.
Sophistication vs. simplicity
Mr. Grossman in his article “Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard” (published in The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 29, 2009) comes to quite a bewildering conclusion, namely, that it may be high time to stop writing difficult novels. He says “We’ve had plenty of bad news of our own. (…) Should we still be writing difficult novels? Isn’t it time we made our peace with plot?” Later, in 2012, in “Literary Revolution in the Supermarket Aisle: Genre Fiction Is Disruptive Technology” he says: “It’s commonly thought that ease and clarity disqualify a novel from literary greatness, but – and I realize I’m an outliner on this issue – I don’t think that should be the case at all.” He also blames Modernists for training readers to associate simplicity and ease with cheap, worthless thrillers. Does that mean that, as a result of difficult times that we are living in, we should exclusively go with an easy read? Isn’t that escapism that Mr. Grossman forcefully argues is not a correct description of what genre fiction is? Should we; therefore, stop thinking and give up all attempts to better understand reality?
On the other hand, Mr. Krystal, in his article for The New Yorker, “Easy Writers,” argues that unsophisticated language, and also, matters that fiction is devoted to, undoubtedly disqualify it from, as he puts it, art. For Mr. Krystal, the genre is pure escapism whereas literary is a work of art. Literary fiction, as he says, “allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties, even at the risk of losing its way” while “the typical genre writer keeps rhetorical flourishes to a minimum.”
It is my belief that on whatever side you’d place yourself, it’s almost impossible to deny that literary fiction is indeed more sophisticated. Albeit Mr. Grossman points out that what Krystal talks about is only a part of the genre, the “shitty” one, as he puts it, and that there is a great number of literary novels concerning language literacy that are much worse than those from the genre. But, what is the point of discussing the “shitty ones”?
The question of superiority
It is commonly believed that literary fiction is superior to the genre. I must admit, I have quite ambivalent feelings toward this argument. I can neither fully agree nor disagree with it completely since it’s hard to oppose the fact that literary fiction is more complicated and sophisticated, as Mr. Grossman would say, “boring.” If that’s his belief, I simply can’t agree. That would have to mean that Toni Morrison’s novels are boring just because they’re complicated and well written. He argues that genre shouldn’t be denied being a work of art because of its simplicity. In my opinion, yes, it can. Mr. Grossman also points, in his article from 2009, the difference (quite huge and impressive, to be honest) in sales between literary fiction and genre, showing the superiority of the latter. Well, I agree, but should we follow Mr. Grossman’s view and stop writing novels that are “boring” and instead focus on those that sell well? He asks questions concerning the readers of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series: “What are those readers looking for? You’ll find critics who say they have bad taste or they’re lazy and can’t hack it in the big leagues.” With regard to the first part, his view is that it does not bore people. As for the second part, I do not agree with those critics: the readers are not lazy. The world we are living is lazy! Mr. Grossman also says that Modernists “have trained us, Pavlovlianly, to associate a crisp, dynamic, exciting plot with supermarket fiction, and cheap thrillers, and embarrassment.” Isn’t it the same what’s happening right now, but the other way round? Aren’t readers nowadays in a perfectly choreographed way trained what is boring? There is quite a numerous group of readers who have never taken a book of literary fiction, not because they could not understand it or appreciate it, but because they were trained, programmed that literary fiction is boring.
Further, I am also not quite sure whether both Mr. Grossman and the critics are right, and whether your choice of either the literary or genre, is only a matter of taste. Contemporary tastes are not completely our own. They are mostly created; they are influenced in the very beginning by our parents, schools, media, advertisements, publishers, etc. We’re rarely aware of how much our taste is programmed. I would argue that it is more a case of the readers’ needs, capabilities, and of course, in part their taste. Again, I would not say that one reader is better than the other. No. They are simply different, and there is nothing to judge. What we can, however, judge is the quality of the novel and whether it is a work of art, or not. You cannot pretend that something is different from what it really is. It is as though one is trying to argue that a circle is a square. Mr. Grossman argues that genre fiction is not escapism, since the reader, while escaping his reality, may be entering the reality of the character and encountering his problems and his life. What he doesn’t mention, and I find it quite significant, is that genre writers take readers on an adventure in a different world that this or the other way is supposed to entertain them. Literary fiction; however, takes readers on a journey; an intense one that forces them to confront their emotions, mindsets, and lives. Mr. Krystal, in “It’s Genre. Not That There’s Anything Wrong With It!“ writes: “quality comes in different forms: there is Cole Porter and there is Prokofiev; the Beatles and Bach; Savion Glover and Mikhail Baryshnikov – the difference between them is not one of talent or proficiency, but of sensibility.” Hence, from their definitions, literary and genre are different as they attempt to achieve different aims.
Meaningful or easy ride?
Steve Petite, in the HuffPost publication, “Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction” argues that “literary fiction separates itself from Genre because it is not about escaping from reality, instead, it provides a means to understand the world better and delivers real emotional responses.” Then, he adds, “there is a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment from finishing a “serious” book.” I think it’s hard to disagree on that. Most of the genre fiction novels try, with rather a poor result, to balance between significant meaning and banality, originality, and cliche. Yet, Mr. Grossman seems not to recognize it; he prefers to provide some examples of literary authors switching to fiction or fiction writers who try to combine both literary and genre fiction. Further, he continues on the issue of unnecessary realism, which, in his view, describes literary fiction. From my perspective, that is far from the truth. It’s not about realism. Literary fiction, yes, mimics reality, but it exaggerates it, recreates circumstances, emotions, fears, difficulties, though it doesn’t have to be a copy of reality. I doubt whether the fact of setting the story in a realistic copy of the world or an entirely fictional one is that important. What is significant is what the world is filled with regarding values, emotions, and experiences and whether it serves only to entertain the reader or let him understand issues that matter.
Cliches and new order
The two parties insult each other by saying that the other is a product of cliches, the genre fiction by using them, and the literary fiction by being protected by a cliche and old-fashioned approach to literature, based on Modernists’ definitions. Mr. Grossman believes literature is transforming, and in opposition to Mr. Krystal, he argues that this “revolution” comes from below, changing the spectrum and hierarchy of the literary world. If the only measures that should be taken into account are incomes and popularity, well then he’s probably right. The history knows numerous examples of the pop-culture phenomenon that as the time passed are recalled, if ever, only by the numbers; and some of the literary fiction that not only are remembered but to this day are esteemed as pieces of art. Thus, I’d argue that income value does not define something as a work of art. From a sophistication and significance perspective, the hierarchy will not change for a long time. One can agitate for as loud and long as one wishes, but still, in the end, you can’t name a circle a square. Nonetheless, what is important is that “literature does continue to be thought about, and not only by people formally assigned the job of thinking about it” (Rivka Galchen in “Where Do You Draw the Line Between Commercial and Literary Fiction“). The literature is our common treasure, and whether this or other novel passes as a contemporary phenomenon of pop-culture or lasts for ages as a work of art, it is in our general interest to protect it.