Is Genre fiction art? Pt 1: Why do so many of us want to write? (Article)


More than ever before, if a person wants to write a book, they can. The changes to publishing brought about by the digital age are something we are constantly discussing. We have seen these changes affect film and music before writing, but one of the differences between the previous artistic mediums and writing is:

1. Everyone thinks they can write

2. Everyone writes

The advent of the digital age and internet communication has done reading and writing a great service. (Perhaps). Unlike film and music, the primary form of internet communication is still writing and reading. More and more we are writing our histories as we live them, with all the artistic licence fiction allows. That persona you so wonderfully project on Facebook, is only a version of you. A fiction version of you – that may be a little harsh. Lets call it a “true-fiction” version of you.  Kind of in the spirit of Truman Capote. This access to a chronicle of our history and the accompanying transmutation of our personality into one we would like to project, might be part of the reason we all think we can write.

Writing embodies the changes in our cultural situation.  It is the footprint of it. Just as prior to the printing press, only the priestly scribes could hand write out the words of scripture and therefore keep them from the people, so to, there was a time not that long ago when a person could go through an entire day without writing a thing – or at least as little as a phone message or a shopping list. The recording of our culture and the words used to describe it was a precious thing ascribed to a few clever people who could write. That distance from the written word is unheard of now. Even our phones require writing and reading.

It’s no wonder then, given all this practise,  everyone thinks they can write. And with the proliferation of social media and on-line written interactions  it is also no surprise everyone thinks they are witty, clever or talented enough to write a book. “You should write a book” is a common phrase though, perhaps regrettably, not quite so common as “I should write a book.”  Usually these phrases are uttered over the tops of glasses (half) filled with wine or across  flirtatious fibre optics, however they carry more power than they ever did before.  Once it was a statement of flattery. Now it is a challenge of sorts and an unwitting promise to buy the book when its done. When once a nights dreaming was the only result of these statements, now all that is required to make them a reality is the motivational resilience of about a month. (exactly a month if you do it through Nanowrimo).


Along side this passion for “my” book/words/writing comes a rather interesting defence of genre fiction. Now, before I launch into this essay, I do want to make it clear I have no problems with genre fiction. I have been known to write it myself – not to mention read it. What interests me is the current conversation around the blend between genre and literary fiction.  A defence of genre and a call for the blurring of the lines that separate literature from it. Or rather an acknowledgement of the blurring… or something.

Part of the issue here – and there are many parts – is motivation. The motivation for writing.  The question “Why Write?”  is something every person who wants to write in any capacity must ask themselves. For John Paul Sartre the answer to this question, though not simple, could be summed up as an expression of and appeal to freedom.  As he says in What is Literature, “Writing is a certain way of wanting freedom; once you have begun, you are committed.” Sartre is also quick to add literature is an appeal to the freedom of the reader. Where the bad novel flatters, the good novel is one of a free human addressing free humans about the central subject of – freedom.

It is easy to claim to understand what Sartre says here. When I googled a response to the question “Why do I write” I got pages and pages of answers. Many of them were the stock standard “because I have to”… “because I have something to say”… “to express how I see the world as an artist”… “to create critical moments of transformation”…  “its the only time I feel truly me”… “to express what others feel”… and so on. Overlaying all of these comments is the relationship to the reader and the need to be read. Sartre points to this as well. Language is communication after all. The writer needs a reader for the work  to exist. It is the reader who will bring the crucial interpretation of the work that will bring the work alive.

Do we think of our readers as free human creatures, and we are appealing to that freedom? Or does the motivation to write have more to do with giving voice to that part of us that we think deserves an audience?  There is a big difference between a free reader and an audience. Ultimately, the perfect reader would be the free reader who acts as adoring audience. Did you have the experience when you were young and fanatical about some hero, that if only they got to know you properly they would love you?  Is writing an extension of that moment?  A hope to reveal that piece of us inside that we can’t give voice to, that will ultimately make us loveable?

If what you offer the reader speaks a great deal as to your motivation for writing, what are you saying to the reader when you offer them genre fiction?

I’ll take a look at the answer to that question in tomorrows post.