Literary vs Genre Fiction

Literary vs Genre Fiction

On his Facebook page, David Gerrold recently posted a link to an article on how mainstream readers won’t read genre fiction as closely as they read mainstream or literary fiction.

The reaction to the article seems to be mostly misguided, thinking it accuses science fiction as a genre of being stupid.

That is a misreading:  
The article describes an experiment in which non-genre readers (the genre being sci-fi in this instance) are given two virtually identical passages to read, both about coming into a room to have a meal with someone, only one was set in the contemporary world while the other was set in a sci-fi world -- at least insofar as non-essential details, such as swapping “airlock” for “door”, etc.

For the most part, the readers stopped paying close attention once they encountered genre jargon.

As well they should.

What is being described is not a reflection of sci-fi as a genre, but of genre fiction as a whole.

If one is reading a non-genre story (and we’ll get into what marks the difference in a moment), one pays close attention because one does not know when and where information important to the story will come in.

And I’m not just talking raw info dump, either.  The very manner in which two characters interact over a meal, the way others around them behave, indeed, the very setting can supply a vital but understated insight into their relationship and how they will react to the story as it unfolds.

To use an electrical engineering term, it’s signal, not noise.

But in the example cited, it’s exactly the opposite:  “Airlock” and other sci-fi terms are noise blocking the signal.

Now, this is not to say there can’t be examples of genre fiction where having a meal isn’t vital to the plot:  How do you poison someone in a crowded restaurant?  How to you feed the crew of a starship on a year long voyage?  For that matter, how do you feed a bunkhouse full of cowboys?

But in all those cases, what the genre reader is looking for is quite different from what the mainstream or literary reader is looking for.

True, every story can be shoehorned into some genre or another.  A perfect example is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; it is very much a whodunit:  “Who killed the brothers’ father and why?”

Standard murder mystery plot, no?  Dead father, and 3.5 brothers (read the book) who, individually and collectively, had means, motive, and opportunity to kill him.

Here we enter spoiler territory: 
One of the brothers is eventually convicted of the crime.  Again, standard murder mystery plot.

But the twist is there is ample evidence that one of the other brothers committed the crime.

Once more, standard murder mystery plot.  Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe had more than one case unravel after the fact, revealing the pat answer he thought he had was actually based on false assumptions.

To that degree, Chandler -- much more so than most of his contemporaries -- actually wrote stories that can unabashedly be counted as literary fiction, escaping the confines of genre.

The Long Goodbye is my favorite Chandler book, and it ends on a sad, disheartening note as Marlowe realizes he has been used and abandoned by a man whom he once considered a friend, and for whom the detective was willing to go to great lengths and suffer much to clear his honor.

The movie ends with a much more concrete -- yet still excellent -- resolution than the book, but the film’s ending can be inferred from Chandler’s prose.

But here comes the crucial point: 
The twist in The Long Goodbye comes after the crime has been “solved”.  Until the twist is revealed, the reader assumes along with Marlowe that the mystery has been solved correctly.

The genre aspect -- the mystery, the whodunit -- remains intact.  Even with a twist, the crime is not truly solved until the end of the story.

That’s what readers in the mystery genre expect.

But with The Brothers Karamazov, the information that there is an entirely plausible culprit other than the one on trial is presented and allowed to pass with no action taken.  The reader is given a chance to resolve the mystery in their own judgment and not rely on the plot to explain it to them.

The murder mystery, at that point, has become superfluous; it is entirely unimportant which of the 3.5 brothers actually committed the crime.  The new conundrum is:  “Why would the accused murderer accept the blame for a crime that even he is not completely convinced he committed?”

The answer, of course, is what makes The Brothers Karamazov so fascinating:  The long, complicated, complex, and contradictory relationship of Fyodor Pavlovich  Karamazov with his 3.5 sons; the characters of those sons; and why one of them would seek to explicate their sins through a conviction for a crime for which they may not be truly guilty.

There is a major weakness with genre story telling:  
True, there are rousing yarns to be told, and a good writer can produce stirring pose than transcends the story it serves, but at its core, genre fiction thrives on reassuring readers, by feeding them pat answers to complex problems.  Genre fiction is populated almost entirely by battalions of Mary Sues, and while some of them can be unique and fascinating in their own right, ultimately all of them are wish fulfillments of readers’ inner fantasies.  James Bond, Modesty Blaise, John Shaft, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Philip Marlowe, these are all idealized fantasies for readers and media audiences no matter how well executed those stories or films may be.

While we may recognize aspects of ourselves in the various brothers Karamazov, none of us actually want to be them.

That is the line of demarcation between literature and genre fiction.  We approach genre fiction with a set of expectations we want fulfilled; literature presents us with a set of paradoxes we’re invited to resolve.

Nothing stops genre fiction from being good writing, nothing prevents literature from using themes and ideas found in genre fiction (MacBeth is the greatest sword and sorcery story ever penned).

There’s no judgment call here; I am as fond of my favorite genres as the next person.

Point of fact, the shelves behind me are right now are crammed with 1950s & 60s sci-fi novels, James Bond books, and a complete run of Lone Wolf And Cub.

But at my elbow are collections of Harlan Ellison’s stories and essays.  And downstairs there’s an entire shelf devoted to the works of Charles Bukowski.

The collected poems of Emily Dickinson, Allen Ginsberg, and Bertolt Brecht share shelf space with Robert Service and Shel Silverstein.

Raintree County sits next to Gone With The Wind.

Good writing makes you hungry for more.

Good genre fiction is like a tour guide who takes you to all the famous places you’ve heard about and want to visit.

Good literary fiction invites you into uncharted territory.


© Buzz Dixon

movie poster by Jack Davis
for The Long Goodbye (1973) 

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