Keep Away from the Genre

Last night’s work read saw a celebrated author of so-called “literary fiction” attempting a murder mystery. Great characters, fabulous dialogue, smart ideas–terrible plot. Why? The writer doesn’t know the first thing about genre satisfaction.

This happens from time to time. A “real writer” will decide to take on a genre, thinking that it must be easy otherwise there wouldn’t be so many of them. But what said “real writer” doesn’t understand is that true genre excellence comes out of love for what the genre has to offer.

Think of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake vs. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Both are futuristic science-fiction by novelists of fairly high pedigree. Oryx and Crake looks more like sci-fi; the book is filled with little touches like Chicken Nobbins, but it feels like a game. The ideas never coalesce because, in the end, she thinks that ideas and character are enough. She forgot about plot, the engine of science fiction. On the other hand, In Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro puts plot first, by focusing the story on his narrator Kathy’s coming of age. All of the genre elements are subordinated to her story, and that’s how it should be. To put it another way, Oryx and Crake may look more like Ender’s Game on the surface, but Never Let Me Go gets why Ender’s Game is in the canon.

In other news, check out this new addition to my blogroll: The Accidental Novelist. Not only does she love the Superfast Reader, but she’s got outstanding writing exercises new each week. I mean, we’re all working on novels, aren’t we?

14 thoughts on “Keep Away from the Genre”

  1. Interesting post. I just finished Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union last evening, so I’m thinking about this very thing. He cloaks his genre orgy (noir, love story, revisionist history) in comedy (itself another genre) and ultimately, the whole just isn’t quite as great as the sum of its parts. Have you read it?

  2. I haven’t read Oryx and Crake, although I greatly enjoyed Never Let Me Go, so I can’t comment on that aspect.

    I do think a lot of people who don’t love genre fiction have trouble understanding it, both authors and readers, which isn’t surprising. I think you’re right in pointing out that writers outside SF can often mistake which elements of SF are essential to the genre and which are merely conventions and can be set aside to meet the demands of the narrative.

  3. Very interesting post and something I hadn’t really thought about before.

    Thanks so much for the props! Welcome to the Mutual Awe Society. We all have our talents, that’s what keeps the world interesting.

  4. To a degree, yes, I do. Assuming you know everything important about a genre you’ve never read/written before is arrogant, and I think in the case of genre fiction, that arrogance definitely has its roots in snobbery.

    So few authors and titles in genre fiction get the respect and recognition they deserve from outside the genre; we have a society that counts only straight fiction as literature, with a few exceptions (one of the most notable being the one Atwood herself slipped through with The Handmaid’s Tale, since near-future dystopian fiction counts as literature. The other big one I can think of is magical realism.)

    SFF’s strong association with juvenile and YA fiction definitely fits into that attitude. Too, I think a lot of lit snobs forget—or deny—that one of the primary jobs of fiction is to entertain—that you can write great fiction that isn’t the vehicle for a significant artistic/literary/political/social message.

  5. Very good point. I was just thinking about magical realism the other day, and wondering why it’s escaped the genre taint. Perhaps because of its international pedigree?

  6. I have a feeling that both magical realism and dystopian fiction have escaped the taint largely because of marketing. If the publisher tells the bookseller a book is fiction and not fantasy, that’s how the book is classified—in the store, and in people’s heads. SFF is a niche market, so it makes better economic sense to classify a book as fiction if there’s a good chance it will appeal to that audience.

    I’ve read debates about whether sci-fi and fantasy are really distinct genres or not, but I think a lot of time the line between each of them and regular fiction is much blurrier.

  7. Interesting discussion and one I have with my partner a lot, I read mostly literary fiction, he reads only SF&Fantasy. I think the point about entertainment vs social issues is an interesting one, a lot of SF books deal with social issues, wrapping them up in an otherworliness that reduces the feeling of being preached at, there are also a lot of literary fiction novels that don’t really address issues as such. There is a lot of snobbism about, that’s certainly true.

  8. Welcome, Crafty Green Poet! Thanks for commenting.

    Have you read much/any fantasy or scifi? Just wondering where you stand on the literary merits of genre fiction, given that it’s not your favorite…

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