True Literature or Not True Literature, That is the Wrong Question

Human beings enjoy a good story. Most people like some variety in the types of stories they engage with, and some people will read or watch pretty much anything. You would think that publishers would recognize this, but in book publishing, there is a long-standing and seemingly impenetrable divide between literary fiction and so-called genre (“popular”) fiction in general, and speculative fiction in particular. But is this distinction useful?

I would certainly argue that it is not and never really was, but it persists nonetheless. However, its relevance has been fading over the last few decades, and with good reason. Let’s start by taking a look at some of the reasons why that might be.

Tectonic Shift

Publishing is a weird beast, and by the time I entered the industry full-time, major publishers had already started mass-ejecting their risky and mid-selling authors in favour of their bestsellers. As the result of increasingly gruff gatekeepers and a growing online community of writers, more authors had turned to self-publishing and the industry to support them had taken off. But one feature of the industry that has remained the same—and may even have become more prominent—is that big publishers like to stick with what works.

As I’ve said many times before, publishing is an expensive and risky proposition, and making money is the entire point of running a business. It can easily be a several years and several thousand dollars from the time an author writes that opening sentence until the day the book finally appears on bookshelves and online vendor sites, so the ability to retain bestselling authors and target specific audiences is publishing gold. If a larger publisher wants to take on a new genre, it is likely to create an imprint, a subsidiary that specializes in that genre, so the original brand remains untouched. Additionally, many genres were very rigidly defined, so stepping too far outside the accepted genre boundaries could be risky for a publisher. Without many options, authors had to oblige.

In the 1980s and ’90s when the internet ceased to be the domain of academics and became a publicly accessible service, writers discovered they had a new, faster way to share their work.  The original purpose of these online communities was about getting feedback, but authors who were tired of being rejected or who were simply ready to reject the traditional publishing model started to realize that they had a whole new way of reaching readers. One of the side effects of the new self-publishing sub-industry was an increasing number of cross-genre stories. Authors were taking the risks of publishing on themselves, so they could publish whatever they wanted whether or not it fit neatly into predefined notions of any given genre. Thus, readers and authors both gained a little more freedom.

With increasing competition from self-publishing authors and small publishers, large publishing houses started cutting more and more corners, with unfortunate effects on the quality of their products—a trend that is finally starting to reverse. What has not changed significantly is their squeamishness about genre-fluid manuscripts. Publishers who work with literary fiction are still reluctant to handle manuscripts with fantastical or science fictional elements and vice versa. However, in the context of modern fiction publishing this divide seems absurd and, frankly, rather insulting.

The Genre Fault Line

Here’s the thing that troubles me the most: by distinguishing literary fiction from “genre” fiction, the implication is that literature is somehow genre-less. But what does that even mean? To say a story is genre fiction is to say that it fits into some genre or other, and a genre is, effectively, just a category designed to convey to prospective readers what kind of story they’re getting. Hence, it’s a marketing tool. To create a hard divide between genre fiction and literary fiction appears to be a way of saying not that literature is in a class of its own, but that it cannot be classified at all, that its essence is ineffable, incapable of being capture by mere words.

Of course, if anyone actually tried to convince of that position or a similar one, I would be sure to ask how they can hold their nose so high in the air while keeping their head so far up their arse. Fortunately, I don’t think anyone actually holds that view. Instead, it seems that proponents of this divide consider literature to be a class of stories with certain features and that literature a genre unto itself. But then, that should make it genre fiction.

Personally, I have no problem considering literature to be a genre, largely because I don’t see anything lowly or disgraceful about genre fiction. Hell, I write genre fiction, primarily mythology-based fantasy and science fiction, and I see a lot of really amazing work that comes out of the speculative fiction meta-genre as a whole. Furthermore crossing genre lines has led to some fun sub-genres, like urban fantasy. Frankly, I think this should be encouraged.

In my previous series on genre, I realized that the desire to rigidly define any given genre in a way that captured all and only certain types of stories with no overlap and no controversy is simply a waste of effort. Genres are not sealed glass boxes that let you look inside without letting anything escape; rather, they are like permeable membranes that let some stuff come and go while keeping the core features contained. Few genres have singular features that are so distinctive you can identify the genre based on that one feature alone. You really have to consider a story as a whole to identify what genre a story encapsulates; where multiple genres are present, you ought to consider the relative prominence of these genres if you’re going to whittle it down to the top one or two for marketing purposes.

And again with the marketing. Why? Because if you’re just writing a story, it doesn’t matter what the genre is supposed to be, you just do what you need to do to make the story interesting, internally consistent, and cleanly written. Genre may well be the last thought on your mind until you are actually getting close to pitching your book to agents, publishers, or readers. It has little if anything to do with the storytelling process itself, and a too-heavy emphasis on squeezing your work into a specific category can stifle creativity. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to meet the expectations of a certain audience (it may be good for sales), an author should not fear stepping outside the reader’s comfort zone. That shadowy grey area is where truly unique and enduring stories come from.

Crossing the Chasm

Indeed, snobbery seems to be the deepest root of this divide. Not only do writers and purveyors of literary works regularly look down on genre fiction as being trite, escapist fluff, but there are also genre fiction readers who dismiss literary fiction as boring, high-minded drivel. Personal preferences aside, neither of these positions fairly represents either sub-division.

Granted, reading traditional literature can sometimes be a slog. I abandoned Anna Karenina partway through because it seemed like such a dry read, and I just couldn’t relate to either the excesses of the rich or the squalor of the poor. A shame, too, given that I had enjoyed the mini-series I watched several years before. But my failure to latch on to the characters does not reflect the quality of the writing or the narrative.

What we typically call literary fiction generally lacks fantastical scenes or magical creatures, nor does it take place in faraway future worlds. There is a whole lot of ordinariness in these books that is subtly crafted and framed to show the extraordinariness that underlies our work-a-day world, not only its cruelties and injustices, but also its hidden beauty and wonders. Literature gives us access to the world as we may never have seen it before and to minds and lives we might not have understood otherwise. Literature shows us who we are, whether we like it or not.

On the other hand, it is true that a lot of popular fiction is focused on action and entertainment rather than the search for meaning or analysis of human nature. Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a beloved work of humorous science fiction, and while it has some satirical elements, the protagonist’s search for the meaning of everything that is hidden in the number forty-two is not meant to provide a life-changing revelation, although it will certainly make your day.

However, the charge that all popular fiction lacks depth cannot be made by anyone who has read widely through speculative fiction and particularly science fiction, where Douglas Adams is something of an exception. Science fiction takes the ordinary reader outside of the world they know and dares them to ask what they would do under extraordinary circumstances—an alien invasion, the unintended effects of a new technology on society, the ethical and physical consequences of genetically modifying living creatures. Jurassic Park wasn’t just a thriller with dinosaurs, but an examination of the unpredictable consequences of scientific advances and the underlying hubris that causes us to believe that we can control the forces of life. Likewise, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was not about killer androids but the humanity of those who created and used them for physical and sexual labour. Empathy, the very foundation of human connection, had become a commodity to show off to the neighbours.

Science fiction, fantasy, and many other popular genres, can force us to face ourselves by stretching our notions of humanity until they’re ready to snap. By showing us what is extraordinary, it gives us a new lens through which to view the ordinary and new ways to think about the nature and the future of our species.

Closing the Gap

So what does all this mean? That depends on your goal.

If you’re a reader, read whatever you want but keep an open mind. If you like books about that vague and unsettling thing we call the human condition, you can read Alice Munro and Haruki Murakami or you can read Frank Herbert and Nnedi Okorafor. I assure you, you’ll get the same kind of thing, but through a different lens and in a different style.

If you’re a writer, write whatever you want but don’t make genre and audience your only concerns. You can never please everyone in your intended audience, and you should never curb your creativity by confining your work within arbitrary boundaries. This may make it harder to find a publisher or a readership, but those things were never easy, and a unique story may fill a niche that readers may not have even known they missed.

If you’re a publisher, keep putting in all your hard work, but show that you have a little vision. I know that’s easier said than done when you are gambling your future on the skill of your authors, editors, and marketers and the shifting desires of your readership, but a wisely undertaken risk can earn you new readers and launch the career of artists who will sustain your business. Not every risk works out, but how many acquisitions editors are kicking themselves for turning down Harry Potter?

There are billions of people alive today and billions of ways of viewing life, the world, and ourselves—far more than any one genre can contain—and each story has more than one dimension. Do not seek to flatten the worlds of others for it will diminish your horizons as well.

About quillsandqueries

My editing experience includes a wide variety of books, articles, and commentary in both fiction and non-fiction. I work with authors of novels and short stories, students preparing for their dissertations, and corporate clients who publish in the financial and education sectors.
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