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Genre v Literary: Here We Go Again

Originally published at Cheryl's Mewsings. Please leave any comments there.

The Genre v Literary “discussion” has spilled over today into The Guardian’s book blog. The post derives from a new item a few days ago in which Scottish Booker-winning author, James Kelman, speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival, lambasted his fellow Scots for writing “crap” about detectives and middle-class teenage magicians. Much local angst has followed, and today Alan Bissett takes up his sword (or perhaps claymore) on Kelman’s behalf.

Much of what Bissett has to say runs contrary to what Lev Grossman has to say in the WSJ. While Grossman felt that authors ought to write what people want to read, Bissett holds out against crass materialism and bemoans the focus of publishers on the profit motive to the exclusion of literary merit. It is an argument where I tend to come down on the side of literary merit most of the time but recognize that everyone has to earn a living. Much of what I do these days is intended to help people whose writing has literary merit earn a living. No one, however, is ever going to “win” an argument of that type. It is probably as old as Homer.

Where I take issue with Bissett (and for that matter Kelman), however, is one small sentence:

But genre fiction is, by definition, generic.

If that were true we’d have a lot less confusion.

Let’s step back a little. From the commercial point of view, the idea of “genre” is very simple. There are many readers out there who prefer to read simple, predictable books with happy endings. They want a particular style, a particular setting, a particular form to the story. So, for example, there are people who love to read books about clever detectives who solve mysterious deaths; there are people who love to read about young farm boys who discover, over 10 adventure-filled volumes, that they are long-lost princes; there are people who love to read about lonely girls from dull towns who go on holiday to an exotic country and end up marrying tall, dark handsome and very rich strangers. Much of of the book trade is geared towards fulfilling this sort of market. Often these books are very formulaic and are written by lazy writers making money from lazy readers.

But when people talk about “genre” they don’t talk about “a book with X type of formulaic plot”, they talk about “mystery” or “epic fantasy” or “romance” or, perhaps most confusing of all, “science fiction”.

Why is it so confusing to describe science fiction as a “genre”. Well, can you tell me what the stereotypical plot of a “science fiction” novel is?

No, when people talk about genre they often don’t recognize it by its plots, they recognize its by its tropes. So any book that has elves or dragons in it is “fantasy”, any book with a detective is “mystery” and any book set in the future or featuring talking squid in space is “science fiction”; and therefore, by Alan Bissett’s definition, is genre and has a lazy, formulaic plot and bad writing.

Except if the book happens to be written in 1948 but set in 1984; or if it contains talking pigs; in which case Mr. Bissett and his ilk will look at it with amazement and say, “that’s not science fiction!”

So by all means, Mr. Bissett and Mr. Kelman, complain about poor writing, encourage your fellow Scots (and the rest of the world) to write better. After all, I was unimpressed with Ms. Rowling myself. But when you do so, base your complaints on the quality of the book in question, not on the subject matter, or the label that the publisher might have given it, or its popularity.