The Good, The Bad, The Indifferent

“When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.” © The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, 1966

I’ve discovered a potentially fatal flaw in my personality. I mean, outside the more obvious ones (no need to point them out in the comments section, folks). Put simply, I like genre and I like literary. In musical terms, I like teen pop and modern classical, Spears and Stockhausen, Avril and Arvo. But this post is neither a demonstration of my “amazing” pop cultural eclecticism nor a reflection of my mental health anxieties; we like what we like, after all. No, this post is an attempt to reconcile two apparently opposing impulses in the world of writing; the aforementioned (alleged) impasse between genre and literary fiction.

For anyone who has attended a university-level creative writing course, even a single workshop, this dichotomy might already have raised its slightly distorted head. I majored in English literature and I’ve also attended a one-year certificate course in creative writing at a local university, and I don’t regret either of them. My purpose here is certainly not to trash the rarefied air of academia. Far from it. Because I genuinely learned a great deal about writing—about what works and what doesn’t work, about the inner alchemy and the outer pragmatism of this eccentric world—from those two experiences. Not to mention the confidence boost of sharing your work among motivated and engaged peers as deeply in love with the written word as you, alongside the equally essential practice of reading in front of an audience so you don’t forget that word’s spoken nature either.

But. There’s a prevailing wisdom within such circles that genre is inferior to literary fiction. It’s either implied or stated overtly. That one is entertainment and one is art. One is frivolous and disposable, the other profound and eternal. (Interestingly, we hear the same, equally dodgy “received wisdoms” in music criticism. A received wisdom is usually an unexamined one, after all.)

I’ve thought about this long and hard. Which isn’t especially easy for me. So bear with me. I write in many forms. I’ve written music reviews, poetry, many styles of fiction, nonfiction, journalism, articles and essays. Although I’ve been told my own writing style is “literary”, and believe there is plenty to admire in that category, I don’t ever intentionally set out to write “literary” fiction. I love the writing of Ian McEwan, which is considered predominantly literary by those who define such things, but I also read Stephen King’s predominantly genre material every bit as avidly.

I sometimes wonder whether we’re overly restricting ourselves.

Let’s, for the sake of argument, deny that a firm delineation between the two even exists. Why would one contain more “art” than the other? Fiction itself is a genre, alongside its siblings and cousins poetry, lyric prose, creative nonfiction, journalism, etc. Likewise, writing itself is a kind of genre, alongside music, dance, theatre, film and the visual arts in general.

See where I’m going with this? I hope so, because I don’t.

But seriously, why would we arbitrarily assign less significance to any one particular level or manifestation of “genre”? We don’t tend to ascribe a deeper resonance to writing over, say, dance. Or sculpture over theatre. Nor do we elevate detective fiction above, say, science fiction, other than for admittedly subjective reasons of personal taste. Then why this line drawn between “literary” and “genre”? What does it mean, and what does it say a) about us, and b) about the works we assign to each category.

My experience has been that between the extreme caricatures of navel-fixated ivory towers on the one hand and outright penny-dreadful hackery on the other, most fiction writers fall into some great amorphous blob somewhere in the middle. Who is to say whether Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is genre (horror, western, adventure, western horror adventure) fiction or literary fiction? And in a very real sense, who (aside from literary critic Harold Bloom) the hell cares? We either love it or hate it in the end, which is great, and perhaps the only failure, ultimately, is the work that leaves us indifferent. Similarly, we can take an acknowledged genre writer like Dennis Lehane, and ask why his works would necessarily lack any more of the beauty (or truth, or mythology) of art than those of [insert currently celebrated literary darling here]… And, like I say, I’m not even all that sure we can use “art” as a legitimate criterion or signpost here, anyway.

Indeed, there have been times in the history of English literature when the distinction was as plainly meaningless as I’m arguing here. Stories and storytelling were not politely revered in some airless grand hall, but were populist mass entertainment, gaudy and messy as medieval marketplaces, and this is nothing to be ashamed of. Without such street theatre, the single greatest practitioner of the written and spoken language, William Shakespeare, would probably not have emerged from his decidedly average education and lower middle class roots. Similarly, without the Bardic tradition of songs, poetry may not have evolved. Why would we wish to unravel all that—the music, the words, the rhythms, the art, the entertainment, the colourful cultural detritus both good and bad—so we can score meaningless points over something that ought not be a contest in the first place?

Perhaps language itself is the problem here. As in, we’re using it wrongly. For the sake of argument, let’s take science fiction as an example. There is hack science fiction and there is good science fiction. No one would argue this. Perhaps, therefore, we should be merging our terms and speaking of literary science fiction. In other words, if something is written well, its subject matter and even genre conventions become less important. Good, bad, indifferent. These are the only distinctions that matter. And quite honestly, I reserve more opprobrium for the latter than I do for the first two. I prefer full-on bad to bland and safe. But that’s just me.

Anyway, apologies for getting all philosophical this week—I certainly don’t claim to have had the last word on this and may indeed revisit it in future posts, and welcome further thoughts, or even mass ridicule. Although, be gentle with me, I’m far more fragile than I look. But hey, in the interest of fairness, let’s just say there’s a hint of truth lurking within the distinction. In which case, we may give the last word to Stephen King (whose work has fallen into either category over the course of a long career), who memorably and respectfully summarized the difference between the two in a way that avoids any declaration of war:

“I have no quarrel with literary fiction which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested in ordinary people in extraordinary situations.” [From the Afterword, Full Dark, No Stars, 2010]

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David Antrobus is a contributing writer for Indies Unlimited and author of the nonfiction book Dissolute Kinship: A 9/11 Road Trip. For more information, please visit the IU Bio page, and his website: The Migrant Type. He also occasionally adds his stuff to the website BlergPop.

Author: David Antrobus

Born in Manchester, England, author David Antrobus currently lives in British Columbia. David also edits and writes in many styles and genres, from nonfiction to dark fantasy. He worked for twenty years with abused teens. You can also find David at his blog and at his Amazon author page.

37 thoughts on “The Good, The Bad, The Indifferent”

  1. I too have been educated and biased by writing programs. Lately, I feel this way (which is pretty much what you lead us wisely to). Genre is genre. Literary is the quality of writing and use of language and it can appear in any genre.

    Pretentious assholes may disagree, but sometimes you want filet mignon and sometimes you want a burger. Sometimes I want to read Barth and sometimes I want to read L'Amour. Only one of them would qualify as "literary" in my book though.

  2. David, as a newbie writer, I ponder these things quite frequently. I believe that good genre fiction writers take on an added challenge in their writing, of making fantastic worlds understandable. It's not a challenge I choose to tackle because I have a difficult enough time making the ordinary world understandable.

    Loved the quote from Stephen King too.

    1. Yeah, it was a worthy quote to finish on… although I suspect the topic isn't exhausted and I'll return to it at some point.

      Another thought: one firm genre label can unfairly pigeonhole a new writer (King himself complained of this early in his career), so is it perhaps advisable to write across many styles and genres when starting out?

      1. A new challenge besides just putting fingers to keyboard and writing? Yikes… yet, I think you're right. If you are seen as having the ability to move around in your writing, yet keep your point of view or voice steady, you have much more flexibility down the line.

        I guess I'm off to do some research for a stab at crime noir (pun intended).

        🙂

  3. Wait a sec. Love the steak-versus-burger argument. And David, I could read you all day. But where did the "mainstream" novel go? Writers like Tom Perrota, John Irving, Anne Tyler, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon…and on and on…?

    1. I think… hmmm… I'm probably too tired to attempt this, but there are good and bad mainstream novels as there are good and bad genre novels. It's like the word "literary" is causing us too many problems, the axes are all wrong. Does that make any sense?

      You get someone like Jonathan Lethem who many would consider mainstream yet I would argue attempts to write genre with perhaps a mainstream sensibility (Motherless Brooklyn is a kind of crime novel, Fortress of Solitude is magic realism, etc). Chabon is similar in that way. What ultimately matters, however, are those three things in the title of my post: good, bad, indifferent. Of course, the line between those three can *also* be pretty blurry and we can argue our corners forever in that regard, too, but at least we avoid the kind of arbitrary snob thing that underlies the literary vs genre debate.

      Ha, I am *way* too tired to be articulate enough for this right now. Help! What did I start? 😉

  4. For me (also sadly over-educated into uselessness), I think (totally opinion) that it has a lot to do with the writer's intent in any given piece. If they want to write something "genre" that adheres to all the sort of uniform proclivities of said genre, not introduce anything more "challenging" or "deep" or "pretentious" or however you want to phrase it, they can. Or, they can write the same Western or Fantasy or Thriller story with a bit more…panache, and maybe then they thereby transcend the definitons of "genre." If they actually manage to pull it off. 😉

    good thought-provoking piece, D.A.

  5. I also have an English Literature degree and it was amazing to me the pretentiousness of academia. My best friend writes romances and I write fantasy and supernatural.

    Glad the attitude didn't stick. 😉

    Cyn

  6. I didn't get serious about writing fiction until after college; I took my advertising degree and ran. Maybe that's good for me and maybe it isn't. But you don't have to be "educated" to write well in whatever genre is your passion. And "literary fiction" is a genre in itself.

  7. Is it bad that I never understood the difference between "literature" and "fiction"? I still don't get why something is labelled as literature while something else (arguably just as good) is stuck under a genre shelf. Is there something I'm missing?

    What, exactly, is "literary fiction" and more importantly, why?

    1. As Laurie points out, literary fiction is itself a genre, but one perhaps artificially created by academia. It's kind of top-down instead of bottom-up. I think what happens is that some mainstream novels that are clearly not genre fiction (ordinary things happening to extraordinary people, to use King's definition) become elevated when they hit a kind of critical mass, appearing and becoming reviewed more in academic settings than in journalistic ones. I'm not sure how this process works, to be honest.

      1. Interesting. So, really, authors like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and the like we're genre writers (or would have been considering they really defined genre) until they got a large enough following that there works were dissected by academia for deeper meaning?

        Seems sort of passé, really. Who gets to decide if "literary" is better than "genre" anyway?

  8. Or we can write genre at the 'literary' level – which is what i think good writers do. I could not agree more with you. Personally I'm on King's side. But I resent the attitude that entertaining is necessary sub-quality. So I try to add some panache to my genre. OK, I'm rambling, but you get it, right?

    1. That's an aspect that really bothers me, too: that entertainment is something "less". I think entertainment is a perfectly honest and worthy goal. It's when writers (or any creative people) set out to create "art" and art only that they usually fall on their faces. As writers, whether what we write can be termed art is not our call in the end.

      And Yvonne, if you're rambling, what on earth am I doing, lol?

  9. I find all the labels to be amusing. It's a personal style we are really talking about. And while I suppose a writer could adopt various styles based on genre, there is really one true voice we all have and then we try to mash it to make it fit somewhere.

    Personally, I have a liberal arts education that heavily emphasized writing in every department–including my own degree in biology. All students were required to take many courses in literature and the classics, so while I may not have a solid literary background, there is enough of a smattering to know of what you speak.

    Sometimes I think the best possible workshop for an author is not to take all these stuffy, pretentious classes, though–but simply to read. To immerse oneself in what you love and treat that as an education. I'm not keen to have someone tell me that my every instinct is wrong when I can see for myself what works for me on the page. It's easy to lose oneself in the act of reading, but maintaining a critical third eye, an observer, will do wonders for your writing, I find.

    But I'm meandering and for that I apologize. Thoughtful post, as always.

    1. That's a very good point and one that can't be over-emphasized. We simply won't be good writers unless we read, and it doesn't necessarily require a nuts-and-bolts dissection of what works in our reading material; we can sometimes glean it intuitively and bring what we learn to our own writing, and make it work there, whatever the genre or context.

        1. Same Yvonne. I studied languages and philosophy and read the old classics for fun before discovering SF. I like to think that I tell stories the way I'd like to read them. I stick to the rules when I agree with them. If not then bye bye 🙂

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