A Tragicomical, Unsophisticated Blog about the Weird, the Absurd, and the Banal

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Genre Wars, Part I

A few days ago I read "Why Isn't Literary Fiction Getting More Attention," a guest-post on Jane Friedman's blog by writer and teacher April Line. The gist of it is self explanatory. Normally I'm irked by people trashing my aesthetic, but this one just confused me.

Line draws a pretty obvious initial line in the sand between the people who prefer "... Amy Hempel or John McNally or Joan Didion than Stephanie Meyer or Nora Roberts or John Grisham." The former three, I suppose, are "literary authors" and the latter are "genre."

Okay, fine, I'll walk with you. I take exception to her straw-manning the concept of genre by not naming authors who carry the same critical baggage as her "literary" short list (like Madeleine L'Engle; or ... I've got nothing for romance, but that's because I'm not well read there; or Jonathan Lethem), but whatever.

However, next she sites a little-known book, Ron Currie Jr.'s God is Dead, as a good example of fine literary writing. This is where she lost me. I have never read God Is Dead, but the reviews say that it is a collection of short stories begins with "the death of God, who, disguised as a Sudanese woman, dies in Darfur." Bookslut and Line herself use the phrase "post-apocalyptic" to describe it.

But, in fact, that is a genre. My friends and I all it "post-apocalyptic fiction."

I'm honestly not sure if April Line would place God Is Dead in the same genus as The Day of the Triffids or The Road or The Stand, but I would. I have no idea if I would place God Is Dead in the same category as Amy Hempel, since I have not read the former. But I tend to think of Joan Didion as an apocalyptic writer. That's just my opinion.

That's where we all get stuck: personal opinion. Personally, I think the only place the word "genre" belongs is in academia - where, if we didn't have such fine words to argue about we'd have nothing to do - and secret, underground, publishers' marketing rooms where the purpose is to figure out how to get the most people to actually buy their books (or, in a less cynical view, get the books to the people who like them).

Basically, I don't think that Line is angry that "genre books" are selling better than "literature." She's upset that not enough people are reading her favorite books.

There's no reason to fault anyone for that, though. We don't choose what we love. I just don't take kindly to the attitude, It's not that what I like is bad, it's that you aren't sophisticated enough appreciate it. The real difference between genre and literature is the speaker's ego. And, yes, I realize the irony in my making a fuss about it.


  1. You are making the librarian's argument. And most people in publishing and libraries would argue that it's the state of the economy that pushes genre lit to the forefront. People are looking for an escapist read.
    Also, libraries use genres because the larger ones have too many books for people to browse, so dividing up by genre not only helps genre readers, it helps non-genre readers by giving them a more manageable number of books to browse.

    1. Which is the librarian's argument?

      And I'm not arguing with the utility of genres, I just don't like it when readers equate genre with relative value.