Friday, January 9, 2015

Literary vs Genre: The Smackdown


Posted by: Fern  On channel: WhatGifs.com  At: Sun, 12 Aug 2012 23:20:27 +0000  Originally posted by at Reading Is Educational


The other day an author I'm friends with on Facebook went on a multi-status rant about Gone Girl, the novel by Gillian Flynn. Let me say right up front that I have not read this book, because early on a couple people told me the ending pissed them off, and there are too many books in the world for me to read one that plays games. I followed my author friend's statuses, and she went from OMG this is a wonderful book. The prose is so gorgeous (my paraphrase) to I'm half way through and the character WHAT?! No WAY.

My author friend then upped the rant factor, saying people who read literary fiction must hate themselves if they enjoy being treated like crap by books like Gone Girl .

Or something.

She went on to say she'd stick with genre fiction, where people behave like people. And my comment on her thread was a big ol' AMEN.

Here's the thing. While I'm squarely in the genre fiction camp, like most people who read - and write - genre, especially romance, I'm an eensy bit apologetic about it. I mean, if anyone took a serious look at the titles on my kindle, I'd blush.

Just a little.
Okay, more than a little.

Why is that? Why does genre get treated like the shabby stepsister? For this - my first Relentless Writers post - I thought I'd take a look at three of the most obvious differences between genre and literary fiction, to see if I can stir up some debate. It's not hard to find good discussions of the differences - Jami Gold did a fine one a few months ago - but because the ideas have been bugging me this week, I thought I'd write about it. The three things I'm going to play with are prose, plot, and philosophy.

Prose

It's common knowledge that literary fiction is the place to go for beautiful language. I jumped over to the Oprah's Book Club website to grab this quote from Gone Girl, because I think it's cool...

"I feel myself trying to be charming, and then I realize I'm obviously trying to be charming, and then I try to be even more charming to make up for the fake charm, and then I've basically turned into Liza Minella: I'm dancing in tights and sequins, begging you to love me."

I love the rhythm created by the repeats of charming, and I love the humor injected by the mention of Liza Minelli, tights, and sequins. It's such a great visual. I don't know where this comes in the context of the story, but I can see it's a fantastic illustration of character. Margie Lawson would LOVE this language.

I find the use of fancy language can be off-putting, however. My last serious attempt at reading literary fiction might have been the book C by Tom McCarthy. Publisher's Weekly gave it a starred review, and it got some press when it first came out in 2010. The premise, "WWI..radio operator...prison camp...mission to Cairo...Egyptian tomb", sounded interesting, so I gave it a try.

If I had read this review from the New York Times, I might not have. McCarthy, author of the ingenious 2006 novel “Remainder,” withstands the temptations of emotional plotting and holds out instead for something bigger, deeper, more universal and elemental. “C” is a rigorous inquiry into the meaning of meaning: our need to find it in the world around us and communicate it to one another; our methods for doing so; the hubs and networks and skeins of interaction that result. Gone is the minimalist restraint he employed in “Remainder”; here, he fuses a Pynchonesque revelry in signs and codes with the lush psychedelics of William Burroughs to create an intellectually provocative novel.

All that intellectual provocation was just too much for me. The author's language was denser than the review, and I couldn't find anything to connect with on an emotional level, so  I gave up.

The thing is, I find lyrical writing in genre fiction, too. Authors like Alexis Hall, Tiffany Reisz, and Devon Monk write gorgeous stuff. They take me out of my own little head and make me think about the world around me. And they do it in the context of a plot I can comprehend.

Plot

It's easy to summarize the differences between genre and literary when it comes to plot. In literary, plot takes second place to process, but in genre, plot IS the story. As Jami Gold says regarding literary fiction,
The point of the story is for the character(s) to understand themselves better. This is achieved through episodic events that force understanding. However, characters aren't forced to internally change or to change their situations.

In genre fiction, the whole point of the exercise it for the characters to face external challenges that require them to grow and change to overcome them. They need to find the skills in themselves to solve the murder or slay the dragon or bring that badass biker dude to heel. Genre fiction generally follows a relatively predictable three-act structure, while in literary, they can meander along from episode to episode until the story is over. There's no expectation that the character has anything to overcome, because really, there's nothing to overcome, because that's how life is.

Philosophy

And that, Virginia, is my real bitch with literary fiction. I cannot deal with a story that tries to sell me on life sucks and then you die. If I want real world, pointless heartache, I'll go to work or watch the evening news. Maybe I'm a sucker at heart, but I firmly believe that people can overcome the challenges they face, and that they can change and grow.

That's me. The little engine that could.
I think I can. I think I can. I think...

My real life cup may not be half full, but my characters' damn well better be. Things aren't absolute, however. I've found pessimistic genre fiction, books I had to stack on the DNF file. Charlie Huston's Joe Pitt vampire novels are dark and violent, and I loved the first couple books in the series, but the later books got so grim I finally I had to give up. Maybe Joe eventually redeems himself, but I didn't hang around long enough to see it.

I've also read books that are considered literary fiction that were filled with joyful optimism. Mink River by Brian Doyle is a wonderful book, fun and beautiful and full of real life. The plot meanders a bit, but the language more than makes up for it. Finding just one quote from the novel to share with you here was tough, but this one's a favorite...

Rained gently last night, just enough to wash the town clean, and then today a clean crisp fat spring day, the air redolent, the kind of green minty succulent air you'd bottle if you could and snort greedily on bleak, wet January evenings when the streetlights hzzzt on at four in the afternoon and all existence seems hopeless and sad.

While there is some crossover, I think the difference is readers don't assume literary fiction will be optimistic, while a positive world view is built into most genre fic. You can find examples that cross over the philosophical divide, just like you can find beautiful language in novel from both camps. It seems to me the only differences have to do with expectations for prose, plot, and philosophy, so why do I feel second class for preferring my prose clean, my plot strong, and my philosophy optimistic?

Maybe I don't hate myself enough to read literary.
*winky face*

Thanks for reading along,
Liv

So what about you? Do you prefer genre or literary, or are you a swinger?
Also...I'll throw in a $5 gift card (Amazon, B&N, ARe, whichever) to one lucky winner if you follow this blog by 1/16/15 and leave me a comment to tell me you did.
;)

24 comments:

  1. Liv,

    Superb post! There's nothing left to add but "thank you."

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  2. Thanks Julie. I appreciate you checking out my post!

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  3. I swing both ways, but that's a fairly recent development. I grew up with parents who love reading and who encouraged their children to read - and I inherited a lot of their book likes as well. My dad, for instance, enjoys mysteries and thrillers, and for a long, long time it was my go-to for genre fiction. I didn't start reading romance and urban fantasy until about ten years go.

    I read literary fiction for two reasons - the language and the shock value. I've found that when it comes to traditionally published books, you're more likely to find a lit fiction author writing books that push the envelope (A.M. Homes The End of Alice is my favorite example) than you will in genre fiction (indie genre authors seem to get away with a ton more than someone who's got a publisher). Literary novels are the ones that tend to stick with me the most, make me think, make me curse that I can't write as well as they can. The depth of the characters in these books sometimes is absolutely astounding.

    But it also aggravates me to no end. Sometimes I feel like because they're looked upon as "legitimate" by the snooty book prizes and reviews, they can get away with writing utter shite. I take comfort in the fact they're probably earning pennies on the dollar for their book.

    Genre fiction is an escape. It's a way to turn off my brain for a while, and sometimes I find a series that becomes a comfort read, where the characters are old friends and I get to spend a few hours catching up with them. That's harder to find in literary fiction. And I have, on rare occasion, found a genre novel that has that same astounding depth of character and emotion that I get out of literary fiction.

    I think reading literary fiction makes me a better writer, but that's just my opinion. And for the record, I loved Gone Girl - that twisted mess of a marriage warms the cockles of my heart :)

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    1. I gotta wonder if your "astounding depth of character and emotion" is my "they got shit on without respite". I really, really don't like getting played, and if I can't trust an author to bring something hopeful out of the mess they create, I'm outa there. I read a book recently - can't remember what it was - where I didn't have that trust, and spent the whole time waiting for Something Really Awful to happen. That's not fun for me. Again with the real life reference, if I want to experience random awful, I'll head to the hospital and work a few shifts. I commend you for your commitment to your craft (and your intestinal fortitude). Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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    2. Yeah...I work in a call center. And my childhood was relatively normal and happy, so reading about all the crap these people go through fascinates me. Yet when I read about it in romance, I want to smack them...

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    3. Darn those romances that try to act like real life...
      ;)

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  4. I'm trying to recall a literary work that didn't make me squirm while I read it. Life is too short to read something that doesn't fit your personality. That's why we have different genres, different styles, different approaches.

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    1. Bingo! There's something for everybody out there, and what makes one soul sing might make another want to throw their kindle across the room.
      (says the voice of experience)
      ;)

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  5. I want to be uplifted. I want to laugh. I want to root for a character and see their efforts realized in a satisfying ending. I tend to find my fix in the pages of a genre novel. That's not to say those qualities don't exist in other types of writing, as you were quick to point out, but with my limited time, and my desire to be transported to a fulfilling time and place ... I'm a genre girl all the way. xo

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    1. You n' me n' Stephanie Plum...or Sookie Stackhouse...or maybe kick-ass Katniss...
      ;)

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  6. Great to hear a perspective from someone who loves genre fiction.

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    1. You must swing the other way, Mary, but that's okay. If you had a recommendation for an essentially-optimistic literary story, I'd love to hear it!

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    2. Actually I'm squarely in the middle. I love genre fiction, but I think often times writers use it as an excuse to be lazy with their prose. On the other hand I think literary fiction often gets too snooty and elitist for its own good, so that it receives undue praise. I believe most Paulo Coehlo stuff is a quick and easy example of "feel good" lit fiction. Or you could go comedic like Cosmic Banditos or Don Quixote. Literary fiction is unfairly branded as unhappy ending fiction because many authors believe that's what they have to write in order to be gritty or real.

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    3. Agreed that a lot of genre fiction could have tighter and more interesting language, and it's the threat of an unhappy ending that scares me away from most literary fiction. I've never actually read Don Quixote. Maybe that'd be the place to start. Thanks!

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  7. Great post Liv! I love all the words. When reading literary works, I gasp in amazement at the beautiful sentences and wish I could string mine together with such skill. But sometimes, I feel as if I've gorged on chocolate so rich I can't look at anymore more purple prose.
    I always genre fiction, smart series with large casts to follow, and characters that grow and change.
    For the record, I did read GONE GIRL. I loved it, but I also, hated the ending.

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    1. If you love words, Charlotte, pick up "Prosperity" by Alexis Hall, or his other book "Glitterland". So many gorgeous, gorgeous strings of words.

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    2. Yay! You'll have to tell me what you think. They're very different, but both wonderful.
      ;)

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  8. With you 100% Liv! I was an English major and had to read a lot of literary fiction. The general rule is no happy endings. Most of it is so depressing and tragic. I read because I want triumph, hope and happiness. And the snappy, quippy, funny dialogue you find in a lot of genre fiction :)

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    1. I could never have survived as an English major, Katie! Never in a million years. My husband studied English in college - he also thinks Cormac McCarthy's The Road was a fun read.
      Different strokes...

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  9. Amen! Of course there's some great literary fiction out there that's worth reading for various reasons. I realize though, that my own writing is far more on the "happy ending" side of things. Sometimes I feel ashamed about that and wonder if it's realistic enough. Thanks for setting me straight!

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    1. I have no problem with happy endings, Diana. If I could, I'd run around sharing them all day every day. Since that's not how life works, I'll make damned sure I find them in my reading & create them in my writing.
      Thanks!

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  10. I sort of agree, Liv. I've read novels that I elevate onto the literary pedestal because thier language is so beautiful I can almost taste it on my tongue AND whose plot is so engrossing, I cannot put them down. Several come to mind: The Great Gatsby (a literary masterpiece with an amazing plot), A Pale View of Hill (supberb story and prose), Last Night in Montreal (just wow), and who could forget Frankenstein :)

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    1. And now you've added to my TBR pile, Aneta.
      ;)

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