In defence of (some) genre fiction

December 14, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

At first, it’s not clear what he’s on about. Writing in the Guardian, novelist Edward Docx expresses joy at wandering through a train and noticing numerous passengers reading books – good, old-fashioned, paper-and-glue books. His joy quickly sours, however, when he realizes that the passengers are all reading one of the three books in Stieg Larsson’s monumentally successful Millennium Trilogy. This becomes the jumping off point for a discussion of what Docx perceives to be the elevated merits of literary fiction as against the debased coinage of genre.

Docx starts off on shaky ground, beginning his diatribe by talking about Larsson and Dan Brown, two writers he admits are “mesmerisingly bad.” It’s true that the first half of Larsson’s first book (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – the only volume of the Millennium Trilogy I was able to get even partway into) is characterized by stilted dialogue, clumsy exposition, and enough arcane detail about transnational finance to make an economist weep with boredom. It is a badly written, tedious book (not all of this, surely, can be blamed on the translator). And Dan Brown’s writing comes perilously close to unreadability. Let’s grant Docx all of that. It remains curious that someone who wants to illustrate the reasons why literary writers are superior to their genre counterparts should begin by focusing on two authors he himself feels represent the bottom of the genre barrel. “We need to be clear-eyed here,” Docx avers, but by opening as he does, he knocks his entire argument out of focus. (Surely, if one wants to argue the merits of literary fiction over genre, it is only fair to choose the best examples of genre fiction to debunk.)

He then goes on to state that the reason genre fiction is inferior to literary fiction has to do with the conventions upon which it relies: mysteries, Westerns, sci-fi, and romance novels all cleave to particular rules, and in so doing limit the potential for innovation and surprise.

[E]ven good genre (not Larsson or Brown) is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material. That’s the way writing works and lots of people who don’t write novels don’t seem to get this: if you need a detective, if you need your hero to shoot the badass CIA chief, if you need faux-feminist shopping jokes, then great; but the correlative of these decisions is a curtailment in other areas. If you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise. Lots of decisions are already made.

So it follows that genre tends to rely on a simpler reader psychology. If you have a body on the first page, then you raise a question: who killed it and how did it get there? And curiosity will power readers a surprisingly long way. As will, say, a treasure hunt (Brown) or injustice (Grisham) or the locked room mystery format (Larsson). None of this is to say that writing good thrillers is easy. It is still incredibly difficult. But it is easier.

Sure, that’s the way writing works. What Docx forgets (or, more probably, chooses to ignore) is that’s the way all writing works, whether it be genre or literary. The detective novel has a set of conventions, true, but so does the family novel, or the coming-of-age novel, or the road novel. Writers make choices, it’s one of the most essential things they do. The minute a writer chooses a subject – a coming-of-age story about a 16-year-old girl living in the Midwest United States, for example – that writer is automatically limited in any further choices he or she may make. The form of the story can differ – it could be told naturalistically, or in an absurdist manner, or as a satire – but the fact of a 16-year-old girl in the Midwest means that the writer is no longer free to imagine the logic or the psychology that would apply, say, to a middle-aged man in Mumbai. These constraints are every bit as forceful for literary writers as are the conventions within which genre writers operate.

Nor is it clear that genre fiction relies on a simpler reader psychology than literary fiction, any more than it has to be less ambitious in its execution. Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves is a generic haunted house story, but it involves characters with a great deal of psychological depth and is narrated in such a way that even the layout of the words on the page becomes an integral part of the reading experience. It is high-concept, postmodern, and experimental, while always operating within the accepted conventions of a supernatural thriller. While it’s true the reader confronted with a dead body on the first page wants to know how it got there, that reader is also likely interested in the process by which the story unfolds, the psychological make-up of the various characters, the particulars of the setting, and all the other elements genre works share in common with literary ones.

Docx suggests that people who draw no distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction are being disingenuous and he may be right to a point, but he also elides the commonalities between the two, and ignores the fact that many literary writers work within various genres from time to time. He points out late in his piece that Crime and Punishment is a thriller. So too might he have pointed out that various highly literary writers have attempted genre stories, among them George Orwell, Henry James, Charles Dickens, Shirley Jackson, Thomas Pynchon, Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Isak Dinesen, Edgar Allen Poe, Haruki Murakami, Peter Carey, Ian McEwan, and William Faulkner. Indeed, two of the authors Docx mentions as worthy contemporary writers have dabbled in genre: Martin Amis’s novel Night Train is a hard-boiled police procedural, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is a work of speculative fiction.

This is precisely why Docx’s analogy to cooking is invalid. It draws a distinction where there isn’t one:

To enlist a comparison, one might choose to set up a vast and international burger chain and sell millions of burgers. Or one might choose to open a single restaurant selling line-caught eel lasagne one night and hand-fondled quail poached in liquorice the next. We all like burgers – me as much as the next man – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But let’s be honest: there is a major difference in both the production and the consumption of the two experiences. Again, we can see why bad literary fiction is so much more annoying than bad genre. We pay more attention to the restaurant that claims to have carefully sourced its ingredients and then used skill and imagination to bring those to the table in a manner that is original, surprising, beautiful, clever and delicious. Failure in this second case, therefore, is far more irritating. But equally, if you are in the burger-selling business, then although your burgers may appear different – you can flip them with bacon or jalapeño or even Stilton – the truth is that they are all fundamentally the same; you are in the burger business or you are not in business at all.

Clearly, Docx assumes an either/or situation: someone will either choose to flip burgers or open a high-end restaurant. There is nowhere in this conception for a chef like Mark McEwen, who regularly puts burgers (costing $35 or more) on the menus of his fine dining establishments One and Bymark. In the same vein, Docx makes no allowance for literary writers who might want to sully themselves by experimenting with genre stories, or for ambitious genre writers, such as Jim Thompson or Elmore Leonard, whose work is more psychologically incisive and stylistically impressive than many (not to say most) so-called literary practitioners.

I go on about this at such length because Docx is rehearsing arguments that have been raised before (and will no doubt be raised again) – arguments that arise out of a brand of literary snobbery that is empty at its core. In delineating the difference between literary and genre fiction, Docx invokes Isaac D’Israeli: “it seems to me a wretched national compulsion to be gratified by mediocrity when the excellent lies before us.” D’Israeli was right, but in today’s literary landscape, much of what is elevated as great literature achieves no more than mediocrity, while much genre fiction manages excellence. Calling out bad writers like Brown and Larsson is one thing: they would be bad writers regardless of the milieu in which they chose to work. But lumping all genre fiction into the same pile ignores a wealth of interesting, ambitious, and invigorating work.


3 Responses to “In defence of (some) genre fiction”
  1. Dave McGowan says:

    Why are we still having this discussion?
    It should be obviouse that genre work makes money for the writer and publisher. Literary work, if it does include entertainment, does well to break even.
    People buy what they are familiar with and what entertains them. They look for a genre they know, an author they know or have heard of and entertainment. If they find the first two and not the third they might not come back to that author ever again.
    There are several great examples in the article. Charles Dickens’ literary pieces have been virtually forgotten but his entertainment pieces (which were also literate) have become classics that sold well then and sell well now.
    The work “has no litterary merit.” ???
    Who cares?
    The work is entertaining?
    Everyone should care!

    By the way, I wonder if Dan Brown (no, he’s not one of my favorites) has spent all his money?

  2. Nathan says:

    This sounds interesting, but my version of Microsoft Word can’t handle docx documents.

  3. I’d like to challenge Edward Docx to write an intricately plotted thriller that makes sitting up in bed at 5m in the morning to finish it, a necessity for the reader. No work of literary fiction has ever made me do that. Sorry.
    And I consider myself (as a crime mystery author) well read in that area, from Woolf to Franzen etc.
    Come on, Edward, let’s see it!