By the time this is posted I’ll be in Estonia, about as far away from home as I can get. Preparations for the trip were disrupted by a new arrival – an old, blind dog who needed to be gently eased into my existing menagerie. Life is full of surprises.
Part two of Therese’s interview with Michael Gruber, author of The Forgery of Venus, brought up the old issue of genre writing versus ‘literature’. I’m past being upset by prejudices against genre writing, but I found this statement from Mr Gruber provocative:
True genre fiction can’t exceed expectation or it is not, by definition, genre. Genre is based on expectation … Gene Wolfe and Ursula Le Guin are two of the best writers in America, but no one gives their work serious attention because they’re both in the SF genre ghetto.
There’s an implication there that as Wolfe and Le Guin are in the SF genre ghetto, their work conforms to expectation. According to Mr Gruber’s definition, either it does so or it isn’t SF. Of course, both writers are SF luminaries, and neither is conformist. So why aren’t their books put in the same basket as, say, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake or Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell? Is it a case of ‘once tainted by the genre title, forever beyond the literary pale’?
Ursula Le Guin used her storytelling skills to comment on the genre issue after reading a review of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a literary novel that won a Nebula award. Read her very funny contribution here.
I once attended a cross-genre critique group in which a literary writer announced at the start that she couldn’t critique the fantasy writers’ pieces because ‘I don’t understand the conventions.’ My response was that good writing is good writing, whatever the genre. When I write, there’s only one fantasy convention that I follow – the world of the book must be internally consistent. That’s common sense. I try to shape my work around effective storytelling, not some set of pre-existing guidelines. I don’t think of myself as writing fantasy. I just tell stories. I don’t believe the essential difference between genre writing and literary writing is to do with meeting expectation. I think it’s more that in genre writing, the primary purpose of the writer is storytelling. That storytelling can be done with more or less skill, originality and literary technique. Mr Gruber tells us that real literature (his term) is by its nature challenging, and that it confronts the reader with life. Isn’t that true of all the best novels, including many found on the genre shelves?
It’s true that a lot of genre writing is conventional. Fantasy novels with a naive young hero, a quest, a wise mentor and so on can still be found, and they have a keen (mostly youngish) readership. The same applies in the romance genre, where the monthly offerings from a publisher like Harlequin still conform to tight guidelines in terms of plot and characters. It’s worth considering the historical roots of both fantasy and romance (they have a shared past) before leaping to any conclusions about recurring themes and tropes.
In the interview, Michael Gruber said of commercial fiction that
risks are limited because most readers of commercial fiction want the familiar. That’s why they call it commercial. In genre, moreover, not only do they want the familiar, they want the same.
To generalize in that way is to insult readers of genre fiction. In the case of fantasy, there is still a market for sword and sorcery epics, but alongside those we have original, inventive and stylish writers like China Miéville, Iain M Banks, Susanna Clarke and relative newbie Joe Abercrombie, all of them capable of surprising the reader at every turn. Iain M Banks (under the ‘pseudonym’ Iain Banks) is an award-winning writer of mainstream literary novels. China Miéville is viewed in the UK as a literary writer. However, both are recognized as working in speculative fiction genres.
Is there any point in making distinctions between genre fiction and literature, or are such distinctions only useful to booksellers? Do genre readers really want the same or are some of them intelligent enough to enjoy being surprised or even (gulp) confronted with deep truths about the human condition? Do you have a favourite novel that breaks genre conventions?