I worked for my high school chemistry teacher during my junior and senior years, and he and his wife, the senior English teacher, became some of my favorite people. He introduced me to the works of Douglas Adams and modeled how to get away with being odd in a conformist world, while she was the first teacher I knew who treated high literature with the same reverence that I felt.
That common feeling did not extend, however, to what gets disparagingly referred to as genre fiction. During a visit to the library, a girl in my class asked Mrs. H. what she should read for a book report assignment. In a moment of cheek, I suggested a novel by Ian Fleming. Mrs. H directed the girl to deliver a bop to my head — it was a different time — which I promptly received. Have no worries. A few sheets of paper do no harm beyond a bit of surprise. But this bit of literary snobbery does deserve discussion.
Fleming is but one of many authors who are disparaged by many in the kingdoms of writing programs and literary theorists. And, predictably, by would-be Nobel prize winners whose books do not sell at the same level. But it is my premise here that what is called literary and what is tossed into the genre bin and left for popular taste ignore each other at their individual risk.
First, some definitions. The terms, literary and genre, bring to mind Justice Potter Stewart line about pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964). They are difficult to define, but we recognize them when we read them. Literary fiction is perceived as obscure, focused more on experimentation than result, on wallowing in internal mental spaces than action, and on questions than answers. Genre fiction is for reading on the beach or in an airport lounge, a page turner rather than a work that readers will linger over and return to.
But those are not the best understanding of what the terms mean — if we are concerned with greater depth than what marketing bureaus want to achieve. Fiction is not mathematics, so we cannot expect the latter’s level of precision, and no universally acknowledged authority exists to tell us what we must have in mind when describing something as literary or otherwise. Still, a general idea what what we are talking about is important.
By literary fiction, I do mean some measure of the stereotypes I gave above. Plot is not the driver of a literary story. A lot happens in Joyce’s Ulysses, but where the characters and readers end up by the end of Bloom’s day is at the same place when we started, albeit with a thorough comprehension of the phenomenology of that period. And that is the point of the novel. Joyce is quoted as saying that Dublin of the 16th of June 1904 could be rebuilt out of his book. Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day extends this to decades, and the book’s main character and narrator carefully avoids learning anything in regard to the meaning of the events he has been through — I choose not to say took part in, since that is something else he eschews. The point, if we accept that there is a point, is to participate in someone else’s life. Or it is to try — see the etymology of essay — a new technique, as writers like Joyce or Samuel Beckett illustrate. The English teacher’s loathed question — what is the symbolism of Dorothy’s silver slippers in The Wizard of Oz, for example — is another key point. Theme, imagery, and poetic quality of the language occupy the attentions of the authors and their critics.
By contrast, genre fiction must achieve two things, whatever else it does. It must tell a story that readers feel compelled to follow to the end, and it must do so within the boundaries of its particular category — science fiction, western, etc. If the story can accomplish more without distracting from the primary purposes. so much the better, but any writing that will not do those jobs need not apply.
Genre fiction will have a lot more readers, and literary fiction will win hoity-toity prizes. But what do they have to learn from each other?
If there is one lesson that the authors of genre fiction ought to learn, it is to make characters who are more than pieces of equipment to schlep the plot forward. Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon is a machine that issues information when the cop, the janitor, the owner of the castle, or the girl drifting through the scene with her dog do not feel like sharing, and if the names are randomly swapped, no one will notice, since everyone sounds the same. A story is a sequence of connected events, but the stories that stay with us are the ones that arise out of the motivations of the characters that are unfulfilled at the start. The plot should unfold from those motivations. Can writers of such stories achieve more? I should hope so, and interesting characters lend themselves to deeper themes and more intellectually pleasing decorations in language.
What then should literary fiction learn from its lower-browed cousins? Here again, one thing would accomplish much good: plot. Make something happen. Get us, the readers and characters, somewhere on the last page we were not on the first. And if the characters can climb higher than the level of the schlub, so much the better. More ambition in characters will lead to more things happening in their stories. Their observations, internal monologues, and desires will also be more interesting.
Whatever type of story you write, you will gain from reading outside of your style. Mutts are often healthier than pure breeds, in novels as in dogs. Just refrain from telling your publisher what you are doing. They are afraid of anything that cannot be easily classified.