Genre fiction vs. Literary fiction – Can’t we all get along?

literary vs genreI’m pissed right now. Really really pissed.

If you read what I just read, you’re be pissed too. See for yourself:

How does [the writer] seemingly climb into our heads—and not even “our heads” but “my head,” because it feels so personal, so specific—without actually knowing us or our circumstances, and from that vantage point proceed to unfold a narrative that we are certain was written only with us, only with me in mind? I don’t know how it is done. It isn’t taught in any school, not even in the schools of writing. But here’s my guess: the writer takes us into her confidence, but does it without appearing to do so. This invitation into the writer’s thoughts is there in all works that really get under the reader’s skin….

Now, if you are reading a romance novel or a thriller, all of this is irrelevant. There are certain plot points that are followed, the language is kept moving and, if you like reading such genre works, your adrenalin carries you through to the finish. Afterwards, you feel like you have experienced a good love story or an action film. You won’t necessarily feel that the characters or situations in the book brought you to a more profound understanding of the human condition. This is because genre writing usually deals in stereotypes: the banker, the spy, the beautiful widow, the handsome new cattle rancher, characters who are of interest only insofar as they contribute to the plot.

There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with any of this, but it is writing that skims the surface, entertains you, and is gone from your life. In serious writing, the writer goes one extra step, and by taking the gamble of including “you in particular” must perforce exclude other, perhaps more casual, readers.

That was taken from Teju Cole’s Eight Letters to a Young Writer. It’s a testament to my growing level of temperance that I didn’t stop reading, close the PDF and truncate the file’s destiny in the recycle bin. I’m glad I didn’t though because the remaining letters were quite enjoyable, interesting and insightful.

 

I still find it troubling that Mr. Cole would say such a thing.

What pissed me off the most (and is still pissing me off) is:

“There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with [genre fiction], but [genre fiction] is writing that SKIMS the surface, entertains you, and is gone from your life. In SERIOUS WRITING,… ”

angerMe I wan yarn fire. Cos I dey vex.

This goes out to Mr. Cole and every other “serious” writer and all their pundits, I have just one question for you. Please, what constitutes “serious” writing? What makes a piece of writing “serious”?

Is it the author’s level of professionalism? Or the amount of awards, fame or money that the writing has accrued for its author? Perhaps it’s the artistic merit of the writing, the use of words, de-contextualizing, creating, inventing etc?

If these are the criteria used to determine serious writing (and tagging it literary), then I have some news for “serious” readers and writers – you’re missing out on a larger bank of serious writing because genre writers are some of the most professional workers in the world, they make bucket loads of cash, are world famous, and have some highly coveted awards.

Mr. Cole alludes to the ability of serious writing to capture and attempt to expose the human condition. Well, most of the genre fiction I’ve read, have not only captured and exposed it but they’ve also tried to explain why people act the way they do. Of course, there’s no straight textbook answer to this – people act rationally (and irrationally) for numerous reasons simultaneously. But the beauty of writing is in the journey, the attempt to understand something so elusive and encrypted.

And genre writers (and in turn, genre fiction) is quite beautiful when it embarks on this journey.

There are countless genre titles I could point to that act as a thesis of the human condition. Stephen King’s 11/22/63 come to mind as a recent example. Or perhaps Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I may not be in a sociopathic marriage, but I found within the pages of the book, those thin lines that separate bliss and soul crushing frustration that salt every marriage. Patrick Rothfuss and Dennis Lehane are two wordsmiths who have demonstrated that nothing “plot propelling” has to occur to enjoy reading. These two men could be writing about the travails of preparing moin moin on a budget and you’d still enjoy the yarn as their dexterity with prose is envy inducing.

John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War may have done for science fiction what Ernest Hemmingway did for the short, short story form. I could go on and on.

I’m thinking. Is serious writing anything that is real? Grounded in real life? I’m trying to mimic the thought patterns of a “serious” writer, guesstimating what he/she considers serious. “Serious fiction is any fiction that is external thereby making it easily relatable. War, famine, family, depression and coming of age stories are some prevailing tropes in “serious” fiction.”

Awesome! What do you think science fiction is about? Tap dancing drag queens? I beg you to read Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City. I’ve never been to South Africa and I’ve not met anyone quite like Zinzi December. But I know Zinzi December. I am Zinzi December (despite being a guy). I see traces of her in myself, in my girlfriend, in my sister, sometimes, even in my boss.

Or have you not read Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death? The book’s themes included rape, tribal cleansing, love, revenge. That’s serious fiction right there. It was raw and different, despite that nibbling feeling of familiarity because those are things I read about in the national dailies.

Just because genre authors choose to put their stories in a different container from regular, vanilla fiction, does that make the writing any less serious?

And just for the sake of argument, who determines what’s real and what isn’t? For someone like me, Canada, the EU or USA is as foreign to me as a colony on a planet light-years away. When an author tell me about these places, he/she shows me their people, their culture, their habits and I the reader experience them based on how different or similar they are to me. That’s the soul of all good writing, be it genre or literary.

I’m an evangelist of good fiction. And good fiction, serious fiction, can come in any package, form and variety. Period.

On my bookshelf, you’ll find  Sefi Atta, Ben Fountain, Chimamanda Adiche, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o right beside Nnedi Okorafor, Brandon Sanderson, Robert Whitlow, John Scalzi, Greg Bear, Orson Scott Card to mention just some.

This stereotyping has gotten out of hand as was evident when African Writing was being featured in the news on CNN and New York Times and notable genre fiction authors were excluded from the list. I’m going to stop that train of thought right now because I don dey vex again.

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Let’s stop with all the snobbish and elitist statements like “Literary fiction is serious fiction for serious, non casual readers” and every other variation of that statement. It hurts the industry, especially in Nigeria where the reading culture, particularly for fiction is still in its infancy. I still struggle to get my Sunday school students to read Frank Peretti or Ted Dekker.

Speaking of the human condition, it is quite easy to deride “the other”; the other being anyone who isn’t like us, morally, ethnically, even professionally. I believe it’s the foundation of all stereotypes. But the best way to damage a stereotype is to experience it first hand and with an open heart.

So this is an invitation to all serious writers and readers. Please, come check out our buffet of “genre stereotypes”. I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly disappointed.

P.S. I still dey vex but I don talk finish. Abeg Mr Cole, and every other serious writer out there, no talk that tin again o.

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15 thoughts on “Genre fiction vs. Literary fiction – Can’t we all get along?

  1. I think it is just a Nigerian thing that once someone attains a particular height in a chosen field, they start to misyarn. I have read the article by Teju Cole and sincerely I didn’t finish it because it was really annoying. Whether you write children’s story book or you write an award winning piece in a journal, as long as your audience can connect with your writing, it is serious. By the way, not every piece of writing is for everyone.

    • Hello Bro,
      I like this – “Whether you write children’s story book or you write an award winning piece in a journal, as long as your audience can connect with your writing, it is serious.”
      Now I’m wishing you were the one who wrote the article. Hmmm, on second thoughts, maybe it’s a good thing you didn’t cos it’d probably carry more rage.

      • Lol.. Nah, it is usually wise to write with controlled emotions. You want to come off as critical of a work not attacking the person behind the work.

  2. Reblogged this on Christine Plouvier, Novelist and commented:
    There is so much about my writing that is genre, and so much about it that is literary, that it is impossible for me to “market” it, because so many people have bought into the notion that all writing needs to be labeled, when the truth is that the labels were invented, and their inventors are trying to get all writing to be made in the image of those labels, which in and of themselves are meaningless.

    Life is not lived in one dimension: it is a continual mix of sagacity and silliness, of profundity and pettiness, of rousing dreams and daunting realities; so why should the Art that possesses the most power to express Life be any different? And yet, Authors as Artists are bound and gagged by the expectation that they will censor their communication, in conformance with discrete categories. Other forms of Artistic self-expression do not submit to obiter dicta that polarize and isolate them and their works in this manner.

    And so, in order to cope with this conundrum, I have had to come up with an appropriate label on my own: Fusion Fiction. I do not call it a label “of” my own, for I am not the only writer who has endured this dilemma, and I do not want it to be “my” label, but for it to be adopted by the multitude of writers whose voices are not heard because their unique works are hidden by the system.

  3. I can do nothing but agree with a thousand yes’s. Well said!

  4. Well said! I hate snobbery and elitism in any field, but in the arts it’s far more prevalent and completely unjustified. If a book in its genre is good, it will be widely read, and to me, literary fiction is just another genre.

    Incidentally, I know some writers of literary fiction, and they are just as down to earth as the rest of us, so we must beware of stereotyping them, otherwise we are just as guilty.

    Labelling, stereotyping, pigeonholing, call it what you will, it usually ends up as a negative thing.

  5. I think a lot of the formulaic, stereotypical writing we see in genre work is imposed upon the writers by their publishers, who once a niche for the writer’s work is identified, want to make as much profit from it as they can. Making a change to the formula is risky, and most publishers, and some writers, will be unwilling to do it.

    I took a literature class with a professor who was a literary critic. She expressed the same elitist view of serious vs. genre writing, but her writing, which was considered serious enough to deserve multiple awards and recognitions, was nothing more than critiques of the work of other writers. From her elitist throne, she pontificated on the weaknesses of the work of these popular writers, but produced nothing of her own, except some poems almost no one read. Her recognitions accrued to nothing more than academic pat-in-the-backs.

    If published, I’d prefer my accolades to come from readers, not from the academia, because while the latter can bring you a smile when you feel superior to popular writers, the former gets you a smile when you walk to the bank.

    • Nef, even if the formulaic writing is imposed, it shouldn’t still be tagged unserious writing. Afterall, some folks still make a living off of that.
      I agree with you though. Criticism is easier to pull off than creating.

  6. Haha, well said, Nef.

  7. Pingback: Genre as Literature: The Big Debate – conqueror wyrm

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