Is Genre Fiction Art? Pt 2: The difference between genre and literary fiction. (Article)

This is a multiple part article.

For the first part, which serves as a brief introduction, please go here.

In the first part of his discussion, I posed the central question: Is genre fiction art? I mentioned a lot of different points, splattered around as if I had paint-gunned my thoughts onto the blog page. In this section I want to posit that I do not think genre fiction is art, and I will explain why that is. I will also make an attempt at counter arguing those who think it is.

The most recent offering to the respectful discussion around genre fiction was in The New Yorker on October 24, a neat little article written by Arthur Krystal who was defending his right to see genre fiction and literary fiction as two different forms of writing, with literature as the superior form (original article in The New Yorker May 28 2012 titled Easy Writers) by stating that genre is not a dirty word. The need to defend the May article came when an article was posted in Time by Lev Grossman (May 23 2012) that spoke of a kind of revolution in literature taking place where genre fiction is rising up geyser like from the ranks of the supermarket shelves to challenge literary fiction on its merit. Despite the oddness of the dates there, the Grossman article is actually a rebuttal of the Krystal article. Both of the writers agree that there is a different between literature and genre writing. Both of the writers disagree on what the primary difference between literature and genre writing is.

Strangely, both articles discuss status. You are the book you are carrying around it would seem.  This isn’t an entirely new concept either. When you walk through a book store letting your fingers trail across the shelves, it is mostly an impression of yourself you are seeking to fulfil  Some people what to look good at dinner parties, some want to suggest great books at their book club and others want to have the object, spine out, telling a tale from their bookshelves. One of the things we know is that far more books will be purchased than read, and that speaks to our desire to have the book say something about us rather than us say something about it. In fact the almighty rise in some genre fiction has a lot to do with being able to buy an e-book in anonymity off the internet.  Think 50 Shades of Grey.

If status is so important, perhaps the rise in the defence of genre fiction has a lot to do with our increased access to it and our being sick of having to defend reading a mystery/thriller over the latest Martin Amis tome. However, isn’t that defence a defeat in itself? The fact that we have to defend our “right” to read Steven King? What in ourselves are we fighting here? What are we defending?

In other words, what is the difference between literature and genre fiction? And how is this difference something we intuitively know inside ourselves?

The difference is one of the motivations of art, and the principles that are being upheld within the work itself. There is a relationship between art and morality, art and truth that has always been ambivalent and complicated. Art may not always be “good”, but it always challenges and confronts our notions of morality. The greatest works of literature, no matter what the plot, characterisations or style contain, belong to the era in which they were written, and build on a conversation that questions who we are as human beings. Genre fiction, by its very nature cannot possibly do this. It can be beautifully written, it can question the nature of genre, it can examine the question of genre, but it cannot question the overlying morality and adherence to truth that holds it in place.

In this sense, genre fiction is a kind of domestication of literature; of writing. Yes, it may be superior writing, but because it adhered to the principles of genre, it cannot ask the questions necessary of literature that I would call art.

I would even go as far to say that genres being rooted in the passion of our culture, means it serves the passion of that culture and that passion is to protect and defend the values traditionally conceived as lying outside of art, namely truth and morality, but which remain in perpetual danger of being compromised by art. (I’m paraphrasing Susan Sontag rather poorly here in her book Against Interpretation)

This is why Jane Austen is not a genre writer. She is a writer of radical literature that is recognised as art. Austen’s primary question was to critique the novels of sensibility and move literature toward 19th century realism. Her first novel (Lady Susan) was an epistolary novel about a radical feminist. She moved to romance because it was the best format to allow her challenges to the conventions around her. She was a brilliant woman who devoted her life to literature. In short, if Jane Austen were alive today, I can promise you she would not be writing Pride and Prejudice and Emma.  Her work would be challenging the society she lives in, just as it did when she was alive.

Is it a radical thing to suggest genre fiction upholds morality? And what is it that I mean by this?

I’ll address that question in the next post, which will come out tomorrow.