the genre debate is never done

Last week Ursula Le Guin posted a great piece on genre vs literary fiction in response to Krystal’s article ‘Easy Writers‘ in the New Yorker in May. I don’t know that this debate will ever be done, so I see each of these pieces as the next part of a conversation – the next voice around the table.

For me, the most interesting piece to date has been Grossman’s reply to the same article. I can’t recommend reading it enough. He looks at what exactly “escapism” means, suggests that literary criticism has failed genre fiction, and concludes that genre fiction is disruptive technology. He also uses the sentence: “Because the shades of grey here, they are many.”

When special k started reading a draft of My Lady Untamed, he couldn’t immediately place himself in White’s Gentleman’s Club – didn’t know what it was, or that such a thing existed. He wanted description. He wanted to be placed firmly in a context.

When a contest judge read the same draft she wrote, “You probably only need to say ‘White’s’ – your readers will know what you mean.”

Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that if I could write like Jo Bourne everything would be present in description in the most vivid, unobtrusive way possible.

These two pieces of feedback brought forcefully home to me what it means in real terms to write within an established genre. I don’t describe White’s, because I imagine that the readers of Regency romance have, like me, their own default image of White’s that they call up each time a book takes them there. I work within a preconceived framework that allows romance to be the central, organising element of my narrative.

This is the shared “cultural encyclopedia” that Remittance Girl talks about in her post on erotica as literature. If I write with the expectation that my readers have no knowledge of the Regency I might appeal to a broader audience – but in the meantime I’d be losing my romance audience. Or at least covering ground they’re so familiar with it’d bore them to tears to read it again. I write with an assumed level of knowledge and expectation in my readers.

Grossman writes about plot:

But conventions aren’t the iron cage they’re made out to be. Sonnets are bound by conventions too, but that doesn’t stop them from being great, and wildly various. Conventions are more like the rules of chess: a small set of constraints that produces near-infinite complexity. They’re not restrictive, they’re generative.

My book is a 100,000-word love letter to the romance novels I read. It defers to and challenges the genre. It exists within a context – a long, constantly evolving history.

This is, for me, the practical implication of writing genre fiction. It’s why I don’t agree with Ursula Le Guin that all written fiction should simply be termed “literature”. Unless you’re defining “literature” as “literary fiction”, this is already the case. The way I would level the playing field is to acknowledge that literary fiction is its own genre as fully as romance or sci-fi, with its own set of markers and shared cultural encyclopedia.

We can’t attempt to level the playing field by making all written fiction the same but different, because the truth is that I’m not writing for anyone, I’m writing for a particular audience. It’s my hope that anyone could enjoy reading my novel – but I’d be shooting myself in the foot if I lost sight of the genre it belongs to.

About anna cowan

I look around, and here I am - housewife and aspiring romance novelist. This seems unexpected.
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2 Responses to the genre debate is never done

  1. londonmabel says:

    I went and read them, they were interesting thanks. I do treat lit fiction as a genre, in that I go to those books expecting certain things, and when I’m in a certain mood–same as the way I feel like romance one day, sci fi another etc. However when you sit down and try to take a pile of books and pick out which are “literary” and which ones aren’t… it does get squiffy. Grossman points to those authors who live in no man’s land between the two; and the only LeGuin I’ve read is “Left Hand of Darkness” and it gave me the same feeling/satisfaction as reading a literary novel. But then again that applies to every genre.

    • anna cowan says:

      Very true! This points to the other side of what I’ve written here, which is – do not restrict yourself for the sake of an audience. Or maybe, don’t underestimate your audience. Something like that. I think this is different to acknowledging the tradition you’re writing within. There’s a reason I’m drawn to write romance, and it’s because I WANT to work with the tropes and traditions of it. But I’m also always trying to push myself and the kind of language I use – always trying to become a better, more interesting writer. So I think those lines will continue to blur, and it will advantage all genres.

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