…either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral…
– From Hamlet, II, ii
We’ve always had genres. Even Homer, I imagine, knew that The Iliad and The Odyssey belonged to different genres. Over time, genres appear and disappear, sub-genres develop: there’s nothing particularly new about any of this. But one genre appears to have emerged over the last few years that I find a bit puzzling: the “literary genre”. A few years ago, the W. H. Smith chain of shops in the UK displayed their books under the various genre labels – “science fiction”, “romance”, “crime”, etc. – and then lumped everything else under “literary fiction”. They don’t do this anymore, but the idea of a “literary genre” appears to have caught on. And I am very confused. For, surely, a genre is defined by content: to judge whether a novel is a Western, say, or a whodunit, or science fiction (with its various sub-genres), or erotica, or whatever, one must examine the content. And, as far as I understand it, the adjective “literary” is applied to works that exhibit what we may judge to be “literary quality”, just as the adjective “artistic” is applied to works judged to have artistic quality. Of course, I accept it is not possible to define in so many words precisely what we mean by “literary quality”: that is what literary criticism is for, and that is why those of us who care about such matters engage in endless discussion. But however we define quality, whatever it may mean, it is this, the quality, the perceived quality if you will, and not the nature of the content that determines whether or not a work is “literary”. That, at least, is how I understand it. And if the definition of the word is changing – as definitions of words do tend to change over time – we must consider whether this particular change is in any way helpful. As far as I can see, it isn’t.
For instance, I see that science fiction author Stephen Hunt “has declared war on the idea that the only good book is a ‘literary’ one”, and has a formidable array of writers backing his cause. Obviously, Mr Hunt does not define “literary” in the way that I do, for if he did, he would not be declaring war on what is not merely a self-evident truth, but a tautology: a good book is “literary” by my definition, and a “literary” book is a good book – a rose is a rose is a rose. But if Mr Hunt does not subscribe to this definition of a “literary book” – i.e. a book that exhibits literary qualities, however we may define these qualities – then what exactly is his definition of “literary”? For all his indignation, he does not appear particularly forthcoming on that matter.
Meanwhile, on the actual BBC programme to which Mr Hunt was objecting, entitled “Books We Really Read” (as opposed, presumably, to books we only pretend to read) thriller writer Lee Child told us that genre writers could easily write literary books if they wanted to, but literary writers couldn’t write genre books. How strange! If Mr Child really could, if he wanted to, write a book exhibiting literary qualities (an unlikely hypothesis, admittedly, given the very flat prose I encountered when browsing some of Mr Child’s works recently in a bookshop) then the obvious question to be asked is “Why the hell doesn’t he?” But, to be fair, I doubt Mr Child was defining “literary fiction” as “fiction exhibiting literary qualities”: the idea that there exist writers who could write well if they wanted to, but who just don’t want to, is too absurd even to be contemplated. But once again, what exactly Mr Child meant by “literary fiction” is anyone’s guess, for he certainly did not define it.
All this is a somewhat typical state of affairs: an awful lot of rage and spluttering indignation over terms that no-one even attempts to define. I’d guess – and this is only a guess, since my internet searches so far have not shed much light on this matter – that the term “literary fiction” is applied merely to define any fiction that does not obviously fit into any of the currently established genres. And I really can’t see that this is at all useful.
In the first place, most books labelled “literary” in this manner will not exhibit too many qualities one may recognise as “literary”: mediocrity is, after all, the norm in any field of human activity, and the mere fact of not belonging to any established genre is hardly in itself an indicator of superior quality. But if this is, indeed, what the likes of Mr Hunt and Mr Child are referring to as “literary fiction” – fiction that cannot be categorised in terms of the currently existing genres, the leftovers – then it’s hard to see what useful function such a definition could serve. Unless, of course, we are to see literary criticism as an act merely of taxonomy.
The whole thing seems to me to reach the height of absurdity (unless, of course, anyone can point out absurdities of even greater heights) in this piece written by science fiction writer Daniel Abrahams. Mr Abrahams’ conceit (if I may be forgiven for using so literary a term) is that of Genre Fiction writing to Literature, the implicit assumption being, presumably, that fiction written within a particular genre cannot be termed Literature. A trifle snobbish and elitist, if you ask me, but let us move on. What does this somewhat dubious assumption lead to? A mere protracted and rather pathetic whinge, as far as I can see. It is hardly worth rebutting, especially as so much of it is well answered in many of the below-the-line comments. But one particular whinge of Mr Abraham’s did, I must admit, make me smile:
You take the best of me, my most glorious moments – Ursula LeGuin and Dashiell Hammet (sic), Mary Shelly (sic) and Philip Dick – and you claim them for your own. You say that they “transcend genre”. There are no more heartless words than those. You disarm me. You know, I think, that if we were to compare our projects honestly — my best to yours, my mediocrities to yours, our failures lumped together — this division between us would vanish, and so you skim away my cream and mock me for being only milk.
Aw, there, there … who’s been mocking you? I have, over the years, looked around and even contributed to various book blogs around the net, and while I have seen much mockery of books that require intellectual effort, mockery of – or even well-argued criticism of – anything that is popular is effectively to pull down a ton of bricks upon oneself. But leaving that aside, is Mr Abrahams really objecting to writers such as Ursula le Guin and Philip K. Dick being regarded as “literary” – i.e. regarded as “good writers”? Shouldn’t he be pleased that the genre he practises, and which he obviously loves, is regarded as capable of producing works of quality? Mr Abrahams thinks it “heartless” to speak of works “transcending the genre”, and I am at a loss to understand why: all it means is that these works are of interest even to readers who do not normally care for the genre. Is that not a good thing? Is it not a good thing that writing of literary quality within his favoured genre is recognised even by those who are not aficionados of the genre?
Now, as I have explained in a previous blog post, it has been established by exhaustive clinical tests that I am incapable of enjoying science fiction. I admit that the shortcoming is all on my part, that the loss is all mine, etc. etc. Indeed, I will admit to anything rather than have to read one of those damned books ever again. But why any admirer of science fiction should object to certain works of their beloved genre being enjoyed by many who don’t normally read the genre is beyond me. I am, myself, an aficionado of the genres of Gothic horror, and of supernatural stories, and I find it thrilling that the stories of the likes of M. R. James or Algernon Blackwood, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, are considered literary classics; I am delighted that people who don’t normally read ghost stories nonetheless read and enjoy The Turn of the Screw. So what is it exactly that Mr Abrahams is complaining about here? Doesn’t he want people who don’t normally read science fiction to enjoy nonetheless the works of Ursula le Guin or of Philip K. Dick?
This, I fear, is the sort of absurdity that I find myself encountering all too frequently these days, and it seems to me a direct consequence of banishing from literary discourse considerations of literary quality. To parcel off writing into various identifiable genres, and then to parcel off all that remains into another genre called “literary”, is to diminish our ability to discourse on literature; and it diminishes our ability precisely because reducing discourse merely to this dubious taxonomy sidelines the vital issue of literary quality. Instead of considering literary quality of any book, all we end up considering is whether or not the book is serving its purpose, whether or not it is meeting the expectations of its target market. And this cannot be healthy. Nowadays, bookshop shelves are groaning with books that are frequently atrociously written, but any criticism to that effect, even when backed up by detailed argument, is met with the riposte “You are not the intended readership”. As if it mattered. As if pisspoor writing could be any less pisspoor because its intended readership doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care even if it does notice. We have always had genres, yes, but I don’t think we’ve ever had the kind of ghetto-isation we are seeing now. It is conspiring, with various other forces, in helping lower the standard of literary discourse.