As at the moment I’m only half way through Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace (over seven hundred pages), and I don’t really like reviewing works until I’ve finished them, I thought I might indulge myself in some not, I hope, totally unfocused musing.
The other day, I found myself referring to a book as being “good, for genre fiction,” and I began to think we do seem to use the term quite loosely and often somewhat derogatorily. I have seen course and program catalogues that state definitively, “we do not teach genre fiction.” Well, what do you teach then? Isn’t fiction a genre?
I typed the term genre fiction into Google and in thirty-four seconds I was informed that there were approximately 43,900 results. A few minutes later, I repeated the search, and this time in forty seconds I was faced with choosing among 44,2000 results. I’m obviously not alone in my enquiry into this term. Needless to say, I did not follow all of the links. I browsed among a few. I also browsed among such sources as handbooks and companions to literature. I’m not sure I was totally content with what I found. I began to think further about the term and about its implications.
Is genre fiction a valid definition, and why the often slightly apologetic, ironic lift of the eyebrow, the exculpatory shrug of the shoulders when we admit to having read it? I realise that my use of the term genre fiction allows me to be lazy when talking about a book. It’s a quick catch-all phrase suggesting to my listener that the book I’ve read is not particularly complicated in any way; it’s a book that for whatever reason is less rather than more likely to be found on a university reading list or reviewed at length by someone with lots of letters after his or her name.
I’m also afraid distinguishing between literary and genre fiction affords those of us who believe we read primarily only literary fiction to feel somehow that we are slumming when we read anything else and to look down on those whom we believe do not for whatever reason “aspire” to read anything but genre fiction, and we somehow feel we have betrayed our “class” when we read something apparently beneath us. Oh dear.
Which is the greater sin: intellectual arrogance or classism? Perhaps they are much the same thing.
I thought some more.
If we take the term genre to mean “kind” or “category,” then we might say, and for the time being it is what I am going to say, that fiction is a mode of discourse rooted primarily in imagination. In other words, the creator of the fiction made it up. This is a rather broad category. It doesn’t necessarily have to be written (think the oral tradition) and it certainly doesn’t have to be prose. If we’re thinking somewhat traditionally, we might classify fiction into tragedy, comedy, epic or romance, and again we would not necessarily demand the work be prose. Or we might classify according prose and poetry or according to novel, short story, screenplay, or play. And, as we know, even when we do categorize in this way, the genres blur on occasion. When is a short story a novella? Asking, “How long is a novel?” is almost as complicated as asking, “How long is a piece of string?” (Sorry for the cliché; it’s been said before, but I couldn’t resist.) Where does one place the dramatic monologue: drama or poetry? Or closet drama?
It’s hard to imagine discussing any kind of text without resorting to some system of classification.
Bookstores certainly organize by category. In most book stores today, after one has navigated one’s way past the discounted books, magazines, remainders, chocolate bars, birthday cards, and household goods, one eventually finds sections devoted to History, Philosophy, Travel and so on. Finally, on reaching the area devoted to fiction, one discovers shelves labelled Mystery, Science Fiction, Romance, and then something along the lines of General Fiction or Literary Fiction. At times, one is left scratching one’s head, at least metaphorically. Why are Jane Eyre and Bleak House on the Literary Fiction shelf and not on the Romance or Mystery shelves? Jane Eyre seems to fulfil the conventions of romantic fiction quite closely, and Bleak House introduces us to Detective Inspector Bucket. Are P. G. Wodehouse and Anthony Hope really “literary”? Is Helen Fielding? Should we care? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
For some readers, the distinction between literary and other fiction lies in whether or not the work is focussed primarily on developing and resolving its plot rather than on anything else. Plot driven works are dismissed as secondary to those that focus on ideas. For others, the distinction lies in the sophistication and effect of the prose. Is the writer, whether writing complex-compound periodic sentences or very simple sentences, aware of what his or her syntax is creating? Is there a particular style to the writing that contributes to the overall effect of the work? I might compare Ernest Hemingway and Anita Brookner here as examples of writers with very different styles but whose works make it onto the Literary Fiction shelves.
However, shouldn’t we assert that all fiction is genre fiction in so far as all fiction can be classified as belonging to certain genres and often to more than one genre? For example, as I pointed out earlier, Jane Eyre is a romantic novel (ingénue heroine gets rich husband). It is also a beauty and beast story (pure innocent “tames” beastly male); a gothic novel (mad woman in attic who reminds Jane of vampires); and social criticism (exploitation of orphans and governesses, place of women in society, role of the church in society); I could go on, but I won’t.
Just as sometimes we want a gourmet meal and at other times we crave a simple cheese sandwich, don’t we also hunger for different kinds of fiction when we read? What is important is that both the gourmet meal and the cheese sandwich be satisfying examples of their kind. What satisfies hunger whether intellectual or physical is heavily dependent upon context. Where am I? What else am I or have I been eating or reading? How much time do I have? Some books are satisfying. Others are not. If I accept that some books will satisfy some readers and not others, and I do accept it, I am tempted to conclude that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether a book is a candidate for a Booker Prize or Gold Dagger Award. If it satisfies its reader, it is a successful book. It’s all a matter of taste.
So far then, as I follow my own train of thought, I appear to concur with those who feel that any distinction between literary and non-literary fiction is false and possibly elitist. And yet I am not at all comfortable with the idea of not classifying my reading.
Where I make a distinction is not necessarily among different kinds of fiction but between different kinds of reading. In discussing the whole tendentious issue of value,” Terry Eagleton reminds us that “enjoyment is more subjective than evaluation” (How to Read Literature, New Haven: Yale UP, 2013, 188). I’m in no way asserting that we have to enjoy everything we read, far from it, but I do feel that we are risking a great deal if we don’t critically evaluate whatever we read. I might actually go as far as to say that if we don’t evaluate what we read, then we risk limiting our enjoyment. Such evaluation should not be based on any perceived intrinsic or essential value but rather on how well what we are reading fulfils our expectations of that particular kind of writing and, to a certain extent, on what want to read at any particular time.
In other words, if I return to my earlier analogy, to what extent does my sandwich fulfil my expectations of a cheese sandwich? Is it fresh or stale? Is it made with real cheese? If the maker of the sandwich has experimented, how satisfying is the result? Of course, if what I was anticipating was a three course meal accompanied by fine wines, I might be disappointed to be offered a sandwich, but, I would argue, as someone who had cultivated my palate to appreciate the art of sandwich making, I would still be able to tell whether the sandwich was a good one or not.
Further, I am not saying that all fiction is of equal value or that all fiction is well-written and constructed. I am saying that if we hone our evaluative faculties and read critically, we will be able to distinguish between what is a good, well-written example of its kind and what is not.
Ultimately, one might prefer reading plot driven mysteries rather than self-reflexive experimental novels heavily dependent upon interior action or upon fragmented narratives, but, I would argue, one’s appreciation of any kind of text is heightened if one takes the time to cultivate one’s understanding of the way language and fiction work and achieve their effects. The critical reader can separate the good plot driven mystery from the mediocre, just as he or she can distinguish the good experimental novel from the merely pretentious.
I suppose in a way I am arguing that there are only three kinds of fiction: the good, the bad, and the mediocre. A critical reader can tell the difference. He or she may not actually enjoy a particular work or style of work—I, for example, prefer Dorothy L. Sayers to Raymond Chandler and Robertson Davies to Margaret Atwood—but I recognise both Chandler and Atwood’s skill, just as any critical reader will be able to judge for him or herself.
But more than that, I would also argue that is we don’t take the time to cultivate an enquiring, critical, and evaluative approach to everything we read, whether fiction or not, we risk condemning ourselves to a diet of textual junk food. The social and political implications of a community subsisting on junk food, whether literal or metaphorical, are actually rather depressing, so I think I’ll stop there and return to The War That Ended Peace, which I hope to be able to review for you soon.