Monday, March 21, 2011

The War of the Literati

When people ask me what kind of books I write, I say, “Contemporary romance”. Nine times out of ten, I can see the person (usually a guy, but not always) turn up their nose and sneer. “You mean chick lit?” is one of the most common questions, in a condescending tone that makes me want to use his/her face as a punching bag. So if there’s one thing I know all about, it’s the difficulty in getting people to consider the literary merits of genre fiction.

But sometimes, the blatant bigotry displayed by some people manages to surprise even me. I came across the following review of a historical romance on Goodreads, and... really, I have no words. See for yourself.
“This book was overly predictable and quite irritating to read. Then again, it was a romance novel, which I feel are poorly written anyway and don't deserve to be considered literature in any way.”

So wait... this reviewer disliked one historical romance, on the basis of which she made a sweeping generalisation about the genre as a whole? She just dismissed thousands of authors and millions of publishing dollars because in her overweening conceit, she believes romance novels don’t deserve to be considered literature? Dear reviewer, ever heard of Jane Eyre? Or Wuthering Heights? Or The Phantom of the Opera? Maybe Les Misérables?  You know what category they all fall under? Yeah, that’s right, romance.

Not all book snobs are as tactlessly outspoken as this one, but that there exists a chasm between literary fiction and genre fiction cannot be denied. Genre fiction is the bread-and-butter writing, the sort that sells and sells and keeps on selling; literary fiction is the cake, receiving all the glory and the plaudits. Can you ever imagine an SFF author receiving the Nobel? Or even the Man Booker? Sure the other writers, the ones in fancy sub-genres such as magical realism and speculative fiction, may be worthy of the honour, but your everyday fantasy author? Not so much.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am something of a book snob too. I would never, for example, put Aldous Huxley and Suzanne Collins on the same pedestal. Despite the fact that Collins is one of the more talented YA authors I know, her realization of a dystopian society sucks rotten eggs when compared to Huxley’s disturbing, disenchanted vision. But here’s the point: You don’t have to be a Nobel Laureate for your work to have literary merit.

Again, in the interests of being completely honest, let me tell you that, despite being a writer and cherishing my work like it’s my first born child, I don’t believe every book ever published, or even every book to ever make it on the NYT list, has literary merit. Some books, in my humble opinion, ought to have been strangled at birth and toasted over a blacksmith’s forge. But there are very many, many gems, real works of art, in genre fiction, that get ignored simply because they are shelved as romance, or young adult or fantasy instead of literary fiction.

And the saddest part is, even in genre fiction there are divisions. The people who read adult fiction look down on the YA readers; the epic fantasy nerds think they’re cooler than the urban fantasy jocks. Male readers think their fiction is cooler and more intellectual than women-oriented fiction... and so on. But really, we’re just making things worse. The bottom line is, good writing is good writing, regardless of genre.

Don’t believe me? I suggest you go read 'The Love Conspiracy', by Susan Napier. This is, believe it or not, a Harlequin paperback romance, but it’s one of the smartest, funniest romances I’ve ever read, with a strong, witty heroine who would stand proudly equal to Scarlett O’Hara. Of course, the book is constrained by the rules of its genre, as is any book, and yet, Susan Napier manages to bring innovation and wit to a genre that is sorely in need of both.

Do you believe paperback romances are all tacky mindless soft porn? Read 'Deal of a Lifetime', another Napier and a very subtle satire on militant feminism, and the benefits of moderation. No, I’m not wilfully reading too much into it; people just tend to underestimate romance writers.

Let us look, for example, at Printz winning YA author Melina Marchetta. Her book 'On The Jellicoe Road', is a beautiful, profound exploration of human emotion. Her writing is layered and textured, the stories within stories revealing different aspects of teenage trauma and abandonment. But despite its undeniable literary merits, how many bookstores, or book critics, would categorize this book as literary fiction?

A lot of genre fiction is stereotypical, sometimes badly-written, clichéd and mass-produced.  But that still doesn’t justify judging an entire genre on the basis of its bad apples. Every writer of literary fiction is not stellar. Even the ones that are considered great are sometimes more the product of good press than good writing. Take for example, Umberto Eco. He is acclaimed as a genius when it comes to technical skill, but his writing has no heart. He has the least aesthetically pleasing writing style I have ever seen. He writes from the assumption that his readers are as conversant with the culture, style and factual background of his stories as he is. In short, he’s a terrible storyteller.

But apparently, there is a general consensus that the less you understand, the more elite the literature is. This is such a massive case of the emperor’s new clothes. If an author is telling a story that more than seventy percent of the world’s population finds incomprehensible, he’s not elite, he’s a bad writer. If you’re going to write fiction, that means you’re setting out to tell a story. Your story might be just that, or it might be a vehicle to declaim the socio-economic structure of the world you live in, but at the ground level, it is a story. Mayowa over at Pens With Cojones says it way better than I ever could.

If anything has damaged literary fiction significantly, it’s the abandonment of that story element which most appeals to the common man. Plot. Long before languages matured enough to allow the excessive linguistic masturbation common to literary novels, man has needed to know the What, When and Where. Literary writers need to embrace plot as much as they do characterization.”

Ironically, while genre writers like me vie for legitimacy amongst the intelligentsia, there are literary writers who worry about the decline of literary fiction. While we worry about being labelled one of the crowd and dismissed, they worry about their inability to appeal to the masses, about declining sales and decreasing publication. It’s like a high school dramedy, I swear. The rich popular girls are tired of being labelled bimbos, and the nerdy obscure guys are tired of being unpopular.

My life has been a study in literary regression. I spent my teenage years reading Hardy and James and Shakespeare; I’m spending my twenties reading Meyer and Fitzpatrick and Stiefvater. But at least, it gives me a certain level of expertise in judging the relative merits of different types of literature. And I say to you, book snobs, that I will bet my George R. R. Martin against your Machiavelli, my Megan McCafferty against your George Orwell, my Melina Marchetta against your Toni Morrison and my Patrick Rothfuss against your Shakespeare, and I will win. Because literary fiction is about beautiful prose, talented writing, and most importantly, an exploration of the human condition. And it doesn’t matter if you write YA or fantasy or romance, if you can incorporate these things into your writing, you’re a literary genius... with the added benefit of a million fans and a bigger paycheque!

Don’t agree with me? Feel free to comment and tell me why! In the meantime, I will return to my favourite stalking horse YA PNRs tomorrow, with an examination of what happens after the HEA. Peace out. 


6 comments:

  1. I... I love you.
    This is something I've been stewing about all year, because I'm taking the AP Literature and Composition exam in May and the third essay question is open-ended, so you can choose a 'work of literary merit'. The firt thing I asked my teacher was 'What is defined as literary merit?' and her answer was basically 'Something that's part of the literary canon'. Which is bull. Because if I get a question that's crying out to be discussed in terms of science fiction, I want to not be punished for doing so- and not be limited to 'acceptable' science fiction. No matter how great Huxley and Orwell are (and they are great), maybe the essay ought to be about Cherryh or LeGuin and neither of them are acknowledged as having 'literary merit'.

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  2. You too? I put off four of my Ap exams for this year so I'm still lost at why some books are literary and others aren't. Take 1984 vs the handmaids tale. Both are pretty literary to me, but to the board one has more merit than the other.

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  3. Wait, which wouldn't be considered literary? Handmaid's Tale was one of the outside reading options in my class, and so was 1984. I can't imagine a reason to declare one acceptable and the other not. (Unless we get into conspiracy theories and blame it all on the stodgy old white men.)

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  4. The Handmaid's Tale wouldn't be considered literary to my teacher. I don't know why though. Neither is Octavia Butler, and she's just as good as Bradbury.

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  5. That is just plain strange. I think I've seen it on a few of the Lit open questions, too. Maybe your teacher is just odd?

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  6. Probably so. I know she had a bit of a problem letting me use The
    Bluest Eye for a comparison essay against The Color Purple and Their
    Eyes Were Watching God. Weird.

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