Here goes, then.
Genre fiction is just lesser literary fiction, okay? There are numerous pretentious opinions out there on what these terms mean and how they differ and which is better if either. The two dominant theories are: ‘literature is whatever doesn’t fit into a genre’, and ‘genre is escapism, while literature examines reality.’
I take a different approach: there’s genre fiction, and then there’s really good genre fiction which is literary fiction. (And also there’s ‘whatever doesn’t fit into a genre’ which can be good or bad literary fiction, depending on whether it’s good or bad.) My point is, if you think the publishing gods discount your books because they’re genre, you’re probably wrong. The problem isn’t the misogyny or ethnic bias or elitism or greed rampant in the industry, although misogyny and ethnic bias and elitism and greed are rampant in the industry.
The problem is you need to write better.
Or not exactly, since pulp magazines can and often do feature highly skilled writers. Technique – ability – is one thing, but talent is another. What we’re really talking about here is degree of talent.
Also, books with great ideas can be written by pretty miserable wordsmiths, but those aren’t often published so you rarely encounter them, which now I think about it is kind of a shame and maybe now there’s self-publishing this particular faction will come into its own. But I digress.
Back to genre: take, for example, the Western. Much of it is respectable in a Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour kind of way. And then there’s Larry McMurtry. There’s Charles Portis. Okay? Do you want to talk mystery novel? Can you really not tell the difference between the recent two zillion variations on Murder in a Cozy Village and anything whatsoever by Agatha Christie? Or science fiction? That one’s almost too easy, given Jules Verne. Given H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, Robert H. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, never mind Kurt Vonnegut, and Mary Shelley, and William Gibson, and Isaac Asimov. Romance: Harlequin or Jane Austen? Women’s issues? Well-written, opportunistic soap opera presuming to be pertinent or, oh, I don’t know: Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary?
Here’s my definition: literature makes the specific universal.
And while I’m more or less on the subject, we need to stop assuming every tedious tome detailing the meaningless existence of entitled bicoastals is necessarily literature, because it isn’t and it’s boring. Also every merely adequate volume about the immigrant or trans experience or any other trending and genuinely worthy topic is not de facto brilliant, although it might well be. If you can’t differentiate between an average book on an “important” topic and an excellent book that’s not, please find a new career. Fiction curated by perceived social relevance claims the high moral ground while shamelessly pandering to the market, meanwhile insuring a closed value system with no tolerance for anything better, strange, controversial, or contradictory – you know – art. Beauty is immoral and purposive, and you need to get out of its way.
Anyway, like I said, simple. There’s some person’s story, and there’s everyone’s story: every cowboy’s, every woman’s. Yours, not just theirs.
We all got that? It’s the holidays. Go buy someone a good book. I’ll be taking next week off, then posting wrap-ups of my year’s movies and novels. Boy, I can’t wait.
(NOTE regarding Worthy of This Great City: before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Or else don’t blame me.)
Photo credits: Eric Golub, Anna Karenina (CC BY 2.0) / Ellen Forsyth, Fiction, genre sign Burton Barr Central Library, Phoenix Public Library (CC BY-SA 2.0)