Your Attacks on Genre Fiction Grow Tiresome

Basically, there are only two reasons to invoke genre when discussing literature, and both of them are about marketing. You can classify a book as belonging to a genre in order to underscore its appeal to a potential reader: If you liked this and this and this, then you may like this, for it is similar to the others. Or you can classify a book as not belonging to a genre in order to underscore its appeal to another potential reader: “Genre novels are all alike,” a book snob might tell you, “every literary novel is literary in its own way.”

No, really: That’s pretty much Edward Docx’s argument in a recent Guardian essay, only he never quite boils it down that succinctly. For him, it’s about how “even good genre… is by definition a constrained form of writing,” so “if you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise.” One assumes that the opposite must therefore be true of the “literary” novel, the author of which can make innovative textual decisions without any thought to convention or precedent, merrily re-inventing the very medium of the novel with each keystroke. One must assume this, because even Docx doesn’t have the audacity to actually set something that ridiculous into print.

OK, I lied at the beginning, because there’s actually a third good reason to talk about elements of genre, the discussion of typology and convention for the purposes of criticism—seriously, it’s like Docx never even cracked open a copy of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, for if he had, he would have been reminded that the very novel is itself a genre. (And, too, he would surely have recognized that the role of a public critic, such as he is playing for The Guardian, is not scholarly or scientific, but rather another artistic contribution to the history of taste. Much like this!)

Even the most literary literature is, at its foundations, generic. Would Docx suggest that Hamlet was easy for Shakespeare to write because so much of the thinking and imagining had been done for him beforehand?


Edward Docx (who, in fairness, has written at least one effectively composed novel, Pravda, you might want to read) does get a few things right in his essay, but they tend to be blindingly obvious points, like Stieg Larsson was a bad, bad writer and Dan Brown is no great stylist, either. But his mistake is to assume that their stylistic flaws are, even in their extremeness, typical of their chosen genres, and to subsequently assume that he can make broad statements about entire categories of literature, including the assumption that “literary” fiction is a collection of singularities which fit under no known form of classification. Which leads to this:

“…If we are to save our excellence in [the English language] from its slow extinction, then we simply have to find a way to bring the finest writers of the language more often to the attention of the carriages of people up and down the country who are evidently still willing and able to buy novels for the journey.”

That is exactly the same brand of elitism that fuels the condescension towards Oprah’s interest in Dickens and the notion that ordinary readers like you and me need critics to sift through all those books to find the ones that are truly worth reading. Such elitism is not a gauge of “literary merit,” whatever that might be, merely a trend in what Frye would call ‘the history of taste,” which he would further tell us has no bearing on genuine literary criticism.

As I write this, I’ve just spent the last twenty minutes looking around my office for the CD-ROM that has a graduate seminar paper I wrote nearly two decades about the fluidity of genre conventions, to no avail—shame, really, because it had this good stuff that started with Chinatown and then suggested that the private eye novel was an intersection of the mystery and the family melodrama, from which I would have argued that generic conventions are basically a set of building blocks that all novelists or filmmakers can use to grapple with philosophical questions—philosophical in the sense of “how is life to be best lived?”—and that the barriers between different genres, or between “genre” and “literary,” are (as I suggested at the beginning) a function of marketing, in a cultural as well as the commercial sense.(I probably quoted Anatomy of Criticism in it; the early 1990s were my peak years for Frye.) If I can ever find that disc, maybe I’ll share some of that with you, but you get the general idea.

My commitment to genre fiction is, I think, fairly well known: I review science fiction and fantasy novels for Shelf Awareness, and I co-host a monthly reading series for romance authors, and you’ll find posts about all sorts of different types of stories here. Certainly, you can’t spend much time writing about, or working in, the book industry without recognizing the degree to which published fiction is commercial fiction, even the literary stuff—heck, they’ve even created the marketing term “upmarket commercial fiction” to describe books with prose critics might find elegant that publishers hope will sell lots and lots of copies. At this point, I’m less interested in the various ways that authors, publishers, and critics have contrived to separate one batch of books from another batch of books and more interested in one and only one sub-genre: “books that hold Ron Hogan’s attention.” I flatter myself that you might want to hear something about such books, but I make no claim for their enduring “literary” value… and I would certainly never suggest that one type of book is inherently superior to another. Some might call that distinction, but to me it just sounds lazy.

16 December 2010 | theory |