Okay, so I pick up a book the other day and start to read. It’s a literary novel written by a prominent Canadian author and nominated for a very prestigious literary prize. By the time I finished skimming through it (I couldn’t bring myself to read further than a few chapters in) I was depressed, upset and, yes, a little angry too.
Isn’t it amazing that the literary devices genre writers are constantly criticized for using—the big misunderstanding, great whopping gouts of backstory, the sacrifice of communication for description, etc.—constitute genius in the hands of literary writers?
Firstly let me make it clear—I have no beef with literary novels. There have been a number I thoroughly enjoyed and they remain as keepers on my book shelf. Between their covers I found beauty and clarity of language that made my heart sing. The message transmitted by the worlds those authors carefully constructed was worth hearing, and holding on to. Not all of them were cheerful, or even uplifting. In fact there can be a special kind of emotional pain so intense as to be almost sweeter than any joy imaginable. The moment you are forced to confront your worse fear, your deepest shame, the most tightly held secret in the safety of another’s narrative is worth re-visiting.
Having said all that, I have found the same sense of wonder, joy and emotional satisfaction in genre fiction too. There are sci-fi and fantasy novels, thrillers, mysteries and romances that I will never part with, because the stories found within their covers struck the same types of emotional cords as the above-mentioned literary offerings. A great writer is, IMHO, no less great because he or she chooses to pen a romance or thriller. The ability to take us outside ourselves, make us suspend all tightly held beliefs and simply hang on for the ride, laughing, crying, screaming and, yes, on occasion creaming our panties, is not limited to those “lofty” few who swim in literary waters. In fact, in recent years I’ve found far more genre novels worth keeping than literary.
Just because a book contains a mish-mash of self-consciously overdone (and self-congratulatory) prose and imagery does not, in my eyes, make it a work of genius. If an author feels the need to be so esoteric you have to scramble for a dictionary, thesaurus or encyclopaedia (or all three) every two paragraphs or so, then something’s wrong. The object is to keep the reader in the moment, not lead him or her off on an unscheduled tangent.
Likewise it seems strange to me a piece of fiction can be lauded as an emotional tour-de-force, and yet leave me completely and utterly unmoved. I consider myself an author’s dream reader. I am open to everything—willing, no downright eager, to plunge into the world between those covers—anger, pain, joy, lust, heartache, love, hate, WHATEVER...bring it on. Just don’t bore me, or go into such minutiae my mind wanders off to other, more important things, like flossing, or laundry.
And the comments above are aimed at all writers, no matter the genre.
In the end though, what really made me angry is the realization that really good genre novelists will never be offered the kinds of prizes, awards and accolades some of these literary hacks (YES I SAID THAT BAD WORD) are. While the elite few are enjoying their grants and retreats, compliments of governments and snooty endowments, where are the incentives for genre writers? Where the encouragement and offers of help to allow them time to grow and develop? Where the respect?
Funnier yet, when you realise which of these two groups makes the bigger economic impact, selling the most books, creating the bigger cash flow. Genre fiction keeps publishing, even in its mostly archaic state, viable. Genre fiction is, and will continue to be, in the vanguard of the publishing revolution now taking place.
Not all genre fiction is good. Not all literary fiction is either. All I wish is that there was a more of an admission of those facts, and people would stop looking down on very good authors in favour of others, less deserving of the praise just because they are considered "literary".