Across the Great Divide

I’m talking about the barrier between “literary” and “genre” fiction — and the quotes are deliberate, because I consider the distinction, and the barrier, to be an essentially artificial one.

The way it works, published fiction in the English-speaking world (and maybe elsewhere, for all I know, but it’s not a subject upon which I have the authority to speak) divides itself roughly into three parts.  First, you have literary fiction — the books that are reviewed in the literary supplements of national newspapers, that win the major literary prizes, that garner their authors speaking engagements and writer-in-residence posts at big-name universities.  Most of this is mimetic realism, which is to say it is set in and depicts the world as we have agreed to believe it is; occasionally it detours into things like magical realism or surrealism, but mostly it leaves that sort of thing to writers who — while they may write in English — aren’t themselves English or American.  The literary fiction that makes the news and wins the prizes is usually quite good (one of the most useful things I learned on the way to a Ph.D. in English was how to recognize a well-written example of something I didn’t particularly like); I’m not sure what the literary establishment does with the ninety percent that isn’t.  Maybe it’s taken out behind the library and quietly buried in a shallow grave?

Then you have popular commercial fiction, the stuff that’s never going to win its author any big serious awards, but can sometimes earn huge pots of money.  Most of this is also set in present-day consensus reality, only with the dial turned up to eleven.  These are the books that get reviewed in job lots under the header “summer beach reading” or the like; they’re the ones that turn up on the paperback shelves in airport bookstores.  On the high end, they aspire to crossing over into the literary division, but — like social climbers hoping to get invited to the better parties — this seldom works.  The writers of popular commercial fiction are supposed to be content with their money and know their place.

On the low end, popular commercial fiction starts peeling off into the beginnings of genre — chick lit, technothrillers, suspense, and so forth.  But what most readers and writers consider to be genre lit are the things that have their own publishing houses, or their own lines at major publishers:  mystery, romance, fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction.  Westerns used to be a genre, but over the past few decades they’ve retreated back into historical fiction, and from there a few have even moved over into literary.  (Historical fiction has always had an easier time crossing the border than some of the other genres; I’m not sure why.)  Nurse novels are for all intents and purposes extinct.  And so forth.  Genre lit doesn’t make the kind of big money that popular commercial fiction can; and it sure as heck doesn’t get the respect that literary fiction commands.

Why on earth, then, does anybody write genre fiction?  For love, in some cases; for fun, in others.  And because the most exciting place to work, in the landscape of literary creation, is outside the walls of literary respectability, because that’s always been where the excitement starts.

4 thoughts on “Across the Great Divide

  1. Nice post! It seems to me, genre tags used to be applied by readers who prefer higher-brow fare as a way to denigrate what they considered low-brow. So Huxley’s Brave New World gets pegged as literature rather than Sci-Fi.

    1. The same thing works in reverse — books that fans of literary fiction read in spite of their science-fictional or fantastic content get rebranded as “not really science fiction” even when they’re giving off all the standard science-fiction recognition signals. (The Handmaid’s Tale, I’m looking right at you.)

    1. If it’s social satire, then there’s no obligation on the reader to pretend, for the duration of the reading experience, that what’s going on in the story is actually real. (Those shambling zombies aren’t actual real-and-present zombies, they’re just a personification of the consumer zeitgeist or something like that . . . no need to keep one ear cocked for the sound of moans and dragging footsteps out in the yard, just in case . . . .)

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