Genre Don’t Get No Respect

July 31st, 2006

So much is it disrespected that people outside genre will go to great lengths to disassociate themselves from it, so much that Ansible regularly features the disclaimers of various Literary Personages: “My work isn’t science fiction, it’s [perfect description of science fiction].”

Those of us within genre tend to object that the various Literary Personages are just being fatheads. If science fiction includes fiction set in the future, then any literature set in the future must by definition be science fiction – right? But this, as simple as it might seem to us, isn’t at all what the Literary Personages mean when they declare: “My work isn’t science fiction.” And it is no use insisting, as we often do, that the Literary Personages are only displaying their ignorance of actual science fiction, that they don’t understand science fiction is exactly what they are doing when they write a work of realistic fiction set in the future, without, say, any talking squids. Because it is not the subject matter of the work they are referring to. What they are actually saying is: “My work isn’t crap.” And the unspoken premise is quite clear: because science fiction is crap. Because genre fiction is crap. No one respects it.

The genres even disrespect themselves, renaming themselves, attempting to distance themselves from the genre labels. Science fiction is SF, it’s Speculative Fiction – but never “sci-fi,” which is the term we reserve for crap. Fantasy keeps adopting trendy new labels, trying them on for fit: magic realism, or fabulism, or slipstream fiction – anything but That Genre Crap. So we have “genre romance” vs Jane Austen; we have “genre fantasy” vs Italo Calvino. One is crap, the other is genius, or maybe “literature.”

It seems absurd, though, to talk about “genre fantasy.” If fantasy is a genre, then wouldn’t that just mean “fantasy fantasy?” And isn’t the notion of a non-genre fantasy simply contradictory? But the term “genre” has come to mean something entirely different from a story’s subject matter. A story’s subject matter may fall under the heading of fantasy, but now it must be further categorized as genre or non-genre fantasy. “Genre” is what Jane Austen doesn’t write. Genre is not-literary. And in the eyes of many, genre is crap.

What exactly does “genre” mean in this sense? Just what is it that distinguishes the genre from the non-genre story when their subject matter may be exactly the same? This is the sort of question that seems to call for Damon Knight’s ostensive formulation: Genre is what we mean when we point to it.

But I would like to argue first for a change of terms, from “genre” to “generic.” This, I believe, would be more clear, less susceptible to confusion. Not to mention that “genre” is a noun, not an adjective. Instead of “genre fantasy,” for example, I propose that we speak of “generic fantasy.”

So, to return to the question: what is meant when people talk about generic genre fiction? The usage of generic for drugs may serve as an example. Drug companies first develop and patent an original formula. Later, when the patent has expired, generic copies can be made, more or less following this formula. In the same way, a generic work of fiction can be said to follow, more or less, a formula. That is, every genre has accumulated a collection of characteristic tropes: plots, settings, characters that are typical of that genre. The most simple, and most formulaic, example is the romance plot structure: girl gets boy. A work that is written to conform with this formula is a generic romance, created within the characteristic boundaries established by the works that have been previously been written in the genre. Generic fiction, in other words, is imitative, not original. This doesn’t mean that a genre is a static concept. Genre tropes evolve. Romance, for example, has gone from allowing explicit description of sex between the characters to the point where this is generally expected of them.

So if we say that Jane Austen did not write generic romance, we mean by this that she was not following a formula already established for romantic novels of manners. Her work was instrumental in creating this formula, which others after her have then followed, but when she wrote, her work was original. However, if we were to take Pride and Prejudice today and package it as a paperback regency romance, would readers who have never heard of Austen be able to distinguish it from any other generic romance? Is there any quality inherent in Austen’s text that we could call “non-generic”? My answer has to be: No. Its only real distinction is its originality. But its plot fits well within the romance formula. It addresses no issues that are not typically addressed in romance novels. It is an exceptionally engaging, well-written romance, with memorable characters and witty dialogue, but there is really nothing in it that would place it in a class distinct from all the generic romances. It is only literary history that makes us say Austen’s work is not generic romance.

So, if Austen’s romantic novels can’t be distinguished by any intrinsic qualities from any generic romance, must we then call them crap? Oh, no! the Literary Personage will cry. Austen’s stuff is good! But what does that mean? That it isn’t really generic, after all?

If it is not, then we must demand what, exactly, is non-generic about it? What are the non-generic qualities of this work that override the obvious qualities that make it generic? And the Literary Personage can not answer here: “Because it’s good.” Because that would be begging the question: Can generic works not be good?

Or does it mean that some generic works, the best, may in fact be good, but the rest are crap? This would contradict the original claim of the Literary Personage that generic works are crap just because they are part of a genre. Genre means a difference in kind, not in quality. So if there are standards of quality for judging fiction, there is no reason they can’t be applied to generic fiction just as well as non-generic, on an equal basis.

The Literary Personage can’t have it both ways. Either generic works are crap because they are generic, which means all of them are, even Jane Austen’s works. Or some generic works are crap and some are not – which means that “genre is crap” is no more than a generalization, no more than what Sturgeon’s Law has always declared.

This, at least, is how I have come to see the matter. After considering many different attempts to articulate the distinction between generic and non-generic fiction, I have to conclude that while they may offer some insight into the nature of genre writing, there is no absolute criterion by which all fiction can be unequivocally divided into generic and not-generic, regardless of subject matter. It is a false dichotomy.

I believe it would be much better to say that some works are more generic than others. That genres should be conceived as sets defined by the genre formula. That is, for each genre and subgenre, there is a work which we might call a “type specimen.” Often, this is the seminal work in the genre, the one perhaps that brought it into being, the one which has inspired most of the imitations – which most of the subsequent works are imitating. The Lord of the Rings, to take the most obvious example, is the type specimen for epic fantasy. This type specimen should be thought of as occupying the center point of the set, with the other works in that genre surrounding it, more or less in a circle. The closer a work is to the center, the more elements it has in common with the type specimen, the more generic it is. Other works occupy a position closer or further from the center and can be thought of as more or less generic. Moreover, while the type specimen may occupy the center of a genre, every other work in it exerts a gravitational pull, so that elements not present at all in the type specimen may still have a great influence on this collective definition. Further from the center, the set grows more diffuse, its boundaries indistinct. We finally reach a point where it is not clear whether a work belongs within a given genre or not. Many sets overlap; works within that overlapping region may be said to belong to more than one genre.

According to this schema, subject matter is one but not the sole defining criterion of a genre. For example, McCaffrey’s Pern series is, by subject matter, science fiction. It takes place on another planet, supposedly in the future after space flight has been invented. Yet many readers persist in identifying it as fantasy. There are the dragons. This is a fantasy trope, regardless of the fact that McCaffrey insists that “dragon” is just the name for an alien species. But if a thing called a dragon looks like a dragon, walks like a dragon, flames like a dragon, quacks like a dragon . . . it’s fantasy. There is also the hierarchical society on Pern, which many readers identify as “medieval” — another trope central to many subgenres of fantasy. These elements place the Pern books within the fantasy genre and within the science fiction genre to which it belongs by the strict definition of subject matter, as well as a number of other sciencefictional tropes present. The answer is: it’s both; it belongs in both sets. [Particularly if, like me, you include most science fiction as a subset of fantasy.]

So if we take a work by a Literary Personage, a novel set in the future, say, Maggie Inwood’s The Chambermaid’s Tale, it appears from its subject matter to be a near-future religious dystopia, a common sort of Cautionary Tale in science fiction, as is the feminist theme. Well within the set of science fiction.

But no, the author interrupts vehemently, No, No, No, Not, Not, Not! My novel is a novel, it’s not science fiction! Science fiction is crap! My novel isn’t crap! We show her the schema, meticulously charted, with her novel located in proximity to the well-acknowledged, well-regarded science fiction work of Joanna Russ, among others. No, no, no! Not, not, not! I don’t want my novel called science fiction!

Our author, it seems, cares not a whit for our schema, for the set of defining sciencefictional tropes, for any of it. The Literary Personage wants nothing to do with genre. She does not want her novel to be called science fiction. It becomes clear to us that it isn’t the substance of genre that concerns her at all, but rather the appearance. She doesn’t really care whether science fiction or any other genre is crap in fact, but for the fact that people may think her work is crap if it carries a genre label. Genre don’t get no respect, and she doesn’t want to get no respect, neither.

As for the reasons genre don’t get no respect, I shall consider this question at a later time.

82 Responses to “Genre Don’t Get No Respect”

  1. David Louis Edelmanon 31 Jul 2006 at 11:17 pm

    The usage of generic for drugs may serve as an example. Drug companies first develop and patent an original formula. Later, when the patent has expired, generic copies can be made, more or less following this formula. In the same way, a generic work of fiction can be said to follow, more or less, a formula.

    That’s absolutely brilliant. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, and it’s a metaphor that just keeps on giving. Especially considering the fact that the generic drug, though building upon a patented formula, is just as effective as its brand name counterpart.

  2. Kate Elliotton 01 Aug 2006 at 1:49 am

    Well said, Lois.

    I hope to have something more cogent to say later.

  3. Jose Garciaon 01 Aug 2006 at 8:11 am

    We ran a Brain Parade on this subject last weekend on Meme Therapy

  4. Constance Ashon 01 Aug 2006 at 10:30 am

    Maggie Inwood, The Chambermaid’s Tale? Puleeeeeeeze. Why this straw man of them vs. us again, to blow smoke over what are really some very useful insights, Lois, such as:

    That is, for each genre and subgenre, there is a work which we might call a “type specimen.” Often, this is the seminal work in the genre, the one perhaps that brought it into being, the one which has inspired most of the imitations – which most of the subsequent works are imitating. The Lord of the Rings, to take the most obvious example, is the type specimen for epic fantasy. This type specimen should be thought of as occupying the center point of the set, with the other works in that genre surrounding it, more or less in a circle. The closer a work is to the center, the more elements it has in common with the type specimen, the more generic it is.

    That’s what I call ‘progenitor’ works.

    Love, C.

  5. Lois Tiltonon 01 Aug 2006 at 10:51 am

    Heh. But that was my starting point.

    I don’t want to call the central defining work “progenitor” or something like that in order to avoid notions of causality. Genres evolve, and I think it’s quite possible that the actual progenitor work in terms of causality might eventually become peripheral to a genre as it moves in another direction.

    IE, epic fantasy coming more to resemble the work of Brooks than Tolkien.

  6. David Louis Edelmanon 01 Aug 2006 at 11:36 am

    We ran a Brain Parade on this subject last weekend on Meme Therapy

    In addition to Meme Therapy’s recent contribution to the subject, I should also point out that there’s a pretty lively debate on a similar topic going on at Lou Anders’ blog too.

  7. Genre, indeed, does evolve. As do tastes and the demands and demographics of readers. Things just aren’t simple anymore, are they?

    I think the hyphenated forms these days, i.e. “science fiction romance,” are occurring because of this evolution. But it’s not all bad.

    The shrugging off of more standard labels, like fantasy, is done as a marketing strategy. Publishers have seen the downward spiral of sales in both SF and Fantasy. They do this in pursuit of more readers.

    Here’s an example, not of a book trend, but a television trend. Consider the program LOST. This could be labeled any number of ways. But since it’s labeled drama, those who previously eschewed sci fi or fantasy are more likely to watch it. In fact, they do.

    It’s funny, most of my non-genre-appreciating friends love LOST, while many of my friends who appreciate SFF say it “jumped the shark” a long time ago.

    Now, consider how the results might be different, had LOST premiered on the SciFi Channel rather than on network TV. Imagine, all those viewers snubbing their noses at something they might have actually enjoyed, all because of labels?

    Careful positioning can make or break even the most finely crafted title. Unfortunately, as your blog entry above addresses, much of this positioning isn’t done very well, hence the “identity crisis” in SFF publishing.

    At any rate, this is of particular interest to me as a publisher of Magical Realism. You folks might be interested in this recent bit added to the MarginNewsBlog:

    Is there room for children’s perspectives and science fiction tropes in magical realism?
    http://www.angelfire.com/wa2/margin/MarginNewsBlog/index.blog?entry_id=1205561

    A word about so-called “trendy” new labels…: magic realism, or fabulism, or slipstream fiction”–These categories actually aren’t trends at all, but have their own developmental timelines that go back several decades.

    The problem with these labels (God knows I have to deal with this all the time!) is that they have been so often misapplied to work that is really more fantasy or sci fi or speculative that they have ceased to be as useful as they once were. We can thank the marketers of books for that vexing problem. They are the ones guilty of misusing, or making trendy, certain labels.

    It’s not that writers who are fabulists or magical realists or slipstream writers mind so much, because chances are good they also enjoy reading good sci fi and fantasy. (I just think of it all as “imaginative fiction.”) But all the same, most authors do hate being pigeonholed and wish all their work would just be called literature and left at that.

    Bottom line: It’s about sales. Readers get confused by the misapplication of terms; when they buy one thing and get another they feel they’ve been hoodwinked by the labels.

    Because the book trade is all about commodities, the categories will probably continue to get more “hyphenated” until something sticks. When something sticks, the publishing world will beat that, too, to death. As long as they sell books…

    VI Warshawski series author Sara Paretsky once said at a writer’s conference (I’m paraphrasing here), “Books are paper products just like toilet paper.” Which makes me, as an author, editor and publisher, very sad and angry all at the same time. And yet, she’s right, dog-gone-it.

    Anyway, my well-over-two-cents on the subject. Thanks for opening the discussion!

  8. Oh, and PS, there’s just as much literary crap out there as there is genre crap. I, too, cringe at the idea that all “literary” work is somehow of a higher standard. And the notion of literary canons, even more cringeworthy. Personally, I’m hoping Stephen King will be required reading a hundred years from now, just to spite the old Order!

  9. L.N. Hammeron 01 Aug 2006 at 12:54 pm

    Don’t mind me. I’m just sitting here with the amusing image of a Pernese dragon paddling around a lake, quacking.

    —L.

  10. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 01 Aug 2006 at 1:19 pm

    What do you do when the literary types come for your genre work and run off with it to Literary Land? I had a sestina I wrote which had reference to not one but six winter fantasy stories, and suddenly, before I could think of sending it to any fantasy market, I had Jody Bottum, editor at First Things, ask for it. It’s currently here:
    http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0512/articles/neuhaus.html
    To keep up my fantasy street cred, however, I sold the reprint rights to the same poem to Diana Paxson, who’s putting it in next winter’s Iduna.

    Same poem, two different markets. The first, a conservative Catholic journal, would be considered literary. The second, a Norse pagan journal, would be in the more genre swim of things. Why? I’d say because of the perception of the religion.

    Maggie Inwood’s The Chambermaid’s Tale deals with a near future where dead ordinary modern evangelical Christians have taken over the country. Not Heinlein’s Fosterites. Not the Church of the Flying Spaghetti monster. Dead boring evangelical Christians. This makes it literature.

    My poem got stolen away to Literary Land for the same reason. A glancing familiarity with the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Dickens and the New Testament is all that’s needed to unriddle it, and given that those works are all over a hundred years old, they’re all in the literary canon as well. In fact, I think that’s a benchmark: Can you name a work written before 1900 that’s considered anything other than literature?

  11. Lois Tiltonon 01 Aug 2006 at 1:33 pm

    So far, my remarks have been limited to pure, abstract genre taxonomy, not the marketing aspect. Which is Yet Another Subject.

    As for the labels like “magic realism”, they do indeed have their own generic history. My reference to the trendiness is to genre authors adopting labels such as these, or creating new ones of their own, in an attempt to distance their work from the common perception of the genre-by-subject-matter in which they write.

    This was most noticeable in the early 90s after the horror bust, when authors and publishers scuttled away from the genre label like cockroaches in the kitchen after the light turns on.

  12. Lois Tiltonon 01 Aug 2006 at 1:41 pm

    As for the question of “literature”, first you have to define the term. And I maintain it can’t be done, it remains in the Damon Knight area of concepts that you can only point to and talk about, but never be quite sure just what you’re talking about.

    What people will call literature is quite a different matter. People will say anything. In music, stuff is called “classical” because it’s old, not when it’s taught in classes.

    But if someone calls Varney the Vampire “literature” this is abuse of the term, the sort of use that contributes to its essential meaninglessness. Varney was a potboiler when it was wrote, and it’s a potboiler still, albeit a potboiler of particular historical interest.

  13. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 01 Aug 2006 at 2:42 pm

    What if Varney the Vampire is redone a la “The String of Pearls” being reincarnated as Sweeney Todd? What of Nosferatu, a popular copyright infringement of Stoker’s Dracula, more recently used as the basis for Shadow of the Vampire and Dana Gioa’s opera Nosferatu? And is being a potboiler antithetical to the concept of “literature”?

    I think the trouble is whether you feel the definition of literature is “good writing” or whether it is “respectable writing.” Anything, given a patina of age, becomes respectable, even the dirty jokes Chaucer used to compose the Canterbury Tales.

    There’s a great bit in Futurama when the character from the current day is depressed about being stuck in the future, so he’s there in his apartment listening to Sir Mixalot’s “Big Butts” and then the cylops girl comes in and says “You can’t just sit around all day feeling sorry for yourself and listening to classical music!”

  14. Lois Tiltonon 01 Aug 2006 at 3:49 pm

    Aristophanes is as raunchy as it gets, but they call his stuff “classical”, too.

    If “literature” has meaning, then a potboiler has to be the opposite. If anyone can say that a potboiler is literature, it just proves the term has no real meaning at all.

  15. Laurieon 01 Aug 2006 at 4:14 pm

    This is a very Puritan mindset and it lends itself to all things genre. It’s “okay” to enjoy a certain type of book or movie or game. That’s what I gather “literature” means to most people; it’s a euphemism for “safe, acceptable, and normal.” It’s not too fanciful and it won’t lead you into anything sinful like letting your imagination run wild. You can discuss it with your co-workers and they’ll be impressed by your normal, acceptable taste in books. How very proper.

  16. James Engeon 01 Aug 2006 at 4:42 pm

    Lois Tilton wrote (in part):

    So far, my remarks have been limited to pure, abstract genre taxonomy, not the marketing aspect. Which is Yet Another Subject.

    I’m not sure you can divide the two subjects. When a writer of literary fiction says that his/her work is not science fiction, what he/she means is that it’s not popular fiction of a particular type. And I think they’re probably right.

    Here’s the thing about “getting respect”: you have to become respectable. And the best thing in the sf/f genres isn’t the slipstreamy stuff which apes the mannerisms of more academically acceptable writers. It’s the spaceshippey, time-machiney, Ringworldy, cyberpunky, sword-and-sorcery-y, magic-deep-in-the-dark-foresty kind of stuff that really counts. (Deep Genre, eh?)

    This kind of fiction will always be disreputable (the late Susan Sontag compared sf to pornography, not altogether to sf’s advantage) because it tends to appeal to the emotional life of the reader subliminally through symbols instead of through open signs transparent to the intellect. If we were to strip away the genre elements from genre fiction so as to get the respect of the respectable, it would cease to a popular form and consequently die (or become irrelevant, at least), as happened in the 20th C. to the lyric poem, symphonic music and jazz, and as may be happening now to the (mainstream) novel.

    JE

  17. Lois Tiltonon 01 Aug 2006 at 4:58 pm

    Laurie, I’m not sure what “this” refers to in your post.

    Me, I don’t see those connatations in the term “literature” at all. What you describe is what I might call “mainstream fiction.”

    But literature is that highbrow stuff, full of symbolism and metaphor and hard stuff like that. The people that you describe would never read literature for fun, and anyone who says they do that is weird or some kind of elitist snob. Literature is that boring stuff they make you read in school and write essays about the Seven Layers of Meaning.

  18. Constance Ashon 01 Aug 2006 at 5:33 pm

    I loved writing papers on the 7 layers of meaning!

    I am no snob.

    But I do love literature.

    And I do love genre.

    And I do love mainstream.

    And I really, really, really love dvds.

    Heh.

    Love, C.

  19. Cliffon 01 Aug 2006 at 8:06 pm

    Me, I think that Literature is defined as great writing. Genre is defined as good writing.

    For the most part, I prefer a good book to a great book. The great books weigh too much, lots of heavy writing in them, and are they are too loud.

    However, among the books in the literary stack, you do find a really good book once in a while. Some even win awards (literary awards, that is).

    I find myself saying, once in a while, as I read a genre work, “This is too literary,” just before I put it down. Yet, I will happily read more densely written texts, when I’m expecting densely written, when I’m in the mood. Were I in the mood for SF and picked up out primary target Chambermaid, I would have droped it quickly, but I was expecting something different and thus I suffered through the whole thing.

    Go figure.

    (If what I said makes any sense, you need another drink)

  20. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 01 Aug 2006 at 8:18 pm

    As I’ve heard it, a “potboiler” is something an author writes to pay the bills, or more to the point, to boil the pot. It can also refer to a specific sort of easy-to-understand mystery especially of the detective school.

    My question is whether this is automatically bad. I’ve done tie-in work. This ranks lower on the totem-pole than “pot boilers” and yet I’ve received happy fanmail for it and good reviews. And it’s not like I’ve gotten rich on it either. Besides which, if work-for-hire in literature is bad, then the same should apply to all arts. Cover art by definition would all be bad then, since it’s done for marketing purposes. And on and on.

    I think it’s nonsense to say that anyone making money off their writing has automatically produced something bad, which is where the idea of “pot boiler” leads if you view it as something bad and the opposite of “literature.”

  21. Lois Tiltonon 01 Aug 2006 at 9:14 pm

    When a writer of literary fiction says that his/her work is not science fiction, what he/she means is that it’s not popular fiction of a particular type.

    Well, this is precisely the thesis that my article is meant to refute.

  22. Lois Tiltonon 01 Aug 2006 at 9:18 pm

    Me, I think that Literature is defined as great writing. Genre is defined as good writing.

    Alas, Cliff, you have only backed from the quicksand into the tar pits. For now you have to define “great writing” and “good writing” and differentiate the two – all without using your fingers!

  23. Sherwood Smithon 01 Aug 2006 at 10:08 pm

    I don’t think quality of writing is at stake so much as expected tropes. A pot boiler follows expected tropes. It might be wittily written, such as Donald Westlake, but we know that by the end, Dortmunder the thief may not win the pot, but he won’t be dead, or his ass in jail. In a romance novel, we know that the heroine and the hero are going to get together at the end, and it’s implied they will have a wonderful monogamous life together. In a mystery, the detective hero is going to solve the case. In a fantasy potboiler, the orphan boy with the Special Mark is going to end up king, or Head Mage, or whatever reward is promised.

    A potboiler is probably going to be written in prose that speeds the reader through the story with the expected sign-posts: gamine little thieves with emerald eyes are heroines. Heroes’ hair isn’t black, it’s raven. Sidekicks laugh a lot, to show their good nature, in fact they roar until tears come even when the comment wasn’t particularly witty–but like a TV laugh track, when the sidekicks all collapse, roaring, the reader is supposed to know that the heroine is going to be accepted as witty and smart as well as full of Attitude. Bad guys are ugly, or they may be beautiful, but there’s something repellent about them. They are mean to their kids, their sex is kinky, they are evil. We can hate them comfortably and cheer when they are killed.

    There are actually genre books that play with the tropes, and a lot more subtly than Margaret Atwood did. (In her tales the genre aspects were actually the most clumsy, at least in Handmaid’s Tale–belabored and obvious to many a genre reader who doesn’t need a tenth of the explanation–though her prose is superlative.)

    There are also genre works that do not in fact examine our culture, but comfortably support its assumptions, reassuring the reader that, yes, the way we are now is teh good. But there are genre works that do indeed hold up a mirror to the good and the bad in today’s culture.

    And there are genre books written in exquisite prose.

    But they are marketed within genre. Though I note these days some novels are being marketed to mainstream audiences–that means covers blank, not with the usual space ships or castles or characters in SCA costumes. Mainstream covers.

  24. [...] 1 – Genre Don’t Get No Respect Lois Tilton weighs in on the ‘respect and the genres’ issue. (tags: respect culture mainstream literature writing genre fantasy scifi sf fiction science) [...]

  25. Cliffon 01 Aug 2006 at 10:48 pm

    Alas, Cliff, you have only backed from the quicksand into the tar pits. For now you have to define “great writing” and “good writing” and differentiate the two – all without using your fingers!

    Yes, well. That’s not so tough is it? Good writing is what I like, and great writing is what I should like. (A flipant response, I admit, but It’s how I feel.)

    Put differently, Great writing is evident in every sentence in the story, while good writing is not so evidant as the story it uncovers.

    I am pleased most when there is great writing that I don’t notice until I’ve finished the story. This is a very uncommon occurance indeed.

    Consider a novel marketed as SF with an appropriate SF cover and blurbs. If it has great writing (as defined above) it will be so self-conscious that the prose can’t go unnoticed.

    Consider the same novel, with a mainstream cover. A tasty plot will feel gratuitous and pandering. Not the stuff of “quality” fiction. Sort of like ryming poetry.

  26. Carol Bergon 02 Aug 2006 at 12:18 am

    Cliff said,

    Me, I think that Literature is defined as great writing. Genre is defined as good writing.

    Or is it that Literature is defined as great writing, while Genre is defined as entertaining writing?

    Some people believe that writing to entertain is somehow less worthy than writing for greatness. But, of course, we all know that some entertaining writing is truly great and that some writing touted as great (ie. literary) is far from entertaining.

    Of course, this glib little response totally ignores the ideas of “lasting value” or “universality” that mark [what I consider] great literature.

    Feeling a bit giddy tonight,
    Carol

  27. Lois Tiltonon 02 Aug 2006 at 12:47 am

    The question: What Is literature? has the same problems as the questions of what genre is. In fact, some views consider literature as just another genre.

    Is it a difference in kind, or in quality?

    Is the term “badly-written literature” a contradiction, or not?

  28. Kate Elliotton 02 Aug 2006 at 2:26 am

    James, I rather like this;

    it tends to appeal to the emotional life of the reader subliminally through symbols instead of through open signs transparent to the intellect.

    On a personal level, I tend to read non-fiction to engage my brain at a higher level or to learn things, and I tend to read fiction for my emotional life or to entertain myself, etc. Naturally these are not hard and fast categories, but it may explain why in general I usually do not want to have to WORK when I am reading a novel while I am perfectly willing to work to read non fiction.

  29. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 02 Aug 2006 at 2:38 am

    Badly written literature abound if you count the various literary genres throughout the years. Look at the “slice of life” short story so popular throughout the fifties. Ever read a bad one? Ever read a boring one? But were they not published with great abandon in the literary magazines of the time?

    Admittedly, I wasn’t alive then to criticize them, but I’ve read examples since included in various textbooks, and while I can find some use and application to the genre, I don’t have much regard for it. Especially since if the ones pulled for the textbooks were the best examples of the form, I’d hardly want to read the worst, let alone the rejected slush.

    I also read and even occasionally write (and even sell) sonnets. It’s an old poetic form with a marvelous literary pedigree, but you have no idea how many bad sonnets there can possibly be until you go to a poetry workshop and start reading through them.

    On the subject of good pot boilers, if you look at pot boilers as the term for a formulaic genre story, you can have a good one the same as you can have a good Mary Sue story–if entertainingly and engagingly written, the reader will pardon the fact that they’ve read the story before and the heroinne is practically perfect in every way.

  30. Sherwood Smithon 02 Aug 2006 at 4:03 am

    Definitions seems to be clashing here. At least, I’m puzzled by some appearing to believe that great writing is unreadable, whereas entertaining writing is what they return to. Should that not be the other way around? Surely great writing is the prose that so sings to mind and spirit you must go back and read it again and again, savoring its grace, wit, and complexity, whereas entertaining writing gets the story done adequately, but once is enough?

    There appears to be an implication that great literature is the sort of book one ought to read but really one secretly despises. Surely great literature is fresh, interesting, beguiling down the generations, which is why it lasts? I am leaving out the stigma of often badly presented and arbitrary lists of “greats” in college. Someone else’s great might not be your great. But aren’t there enduring books on your shelves that you love to return to?

  31. Mark Tiedemannon 02 Aug 2006 at 8:03 am

    A few years ago I wrote an essay taking exception to a New York Book Review piece by Sven Birkerts which declared SF will never–never never never–be Literature because it is not entirely about character, but allows for the novelty of premise to intrude too much.

    Just as a loose, general rule one could make the argument that Genre is fiction wherein premise–let’s say, regarding SF and Fantasy, Landscape–takes a spot front and center as a character , therefore separating itself from so-called Literary concerns. It follows then that the more the Landscape takes over the narrative, the more Genre a work is, to the point where Landscape becomes everything and the work becomes impossible to take as anything else. It would work the other way, too–the more Landscape recedes in lieu of actual character, the more literary it becomes until, voila the Literary Establishment claims it for its own (oh, that’s too good to be science fiction!)

    What this fails to recognize is the extent to which Landscape itself becomes Character. Middle Earth, Dune, Trantor, The Culture–these as as much characters as the hobbits, Bene Gesserit, etc. Likewise in other genres–Los Angeles in Raymond Chandler is explicitly a character, as is the Old West in Zane Grey or Louis Lamour.

  32. Wenamunon 02 Aug 2006 at 8:53 am

    I think it’s becoming harder to avoid the question posed at the end of Lois’s excellent essay: why genres do not get respect. (And no, I am not going to be the one to attempt to answer this! I’m going to throw my two not very original cents in elsewhere.) Arguing the difference between “literature” and “genre” becomes essentially impossible without addressing this point. (I don’t like the term “literature” as conventionally applied; for me almost all written works short of shopping lists and account books are examples of literature. So “badly-written literature” is no contradiction at all, not to me!)

    Just to restate the what others have said better than I will: evidence indicates that, for a noticeable segment of the readership at large, and perhaps especially those who see themselves iin “gatekeeper” positions such as reviewers for major publications, genre labels, and indeed to some extent even the tropes themselves, are marks against the works to which they are applied. I suspect that many here are familiar with the apology that opened Raina Kelly’s Newsweek review of The Stolen Child:

    In the event this is a deal breaker, you should know right off the bat that “The Stolen Child,” by Keith Donohue, belongs to the genre known as fantasy, and that its pages are populated by hobgoblins and changelings. Fantasy is often dismissed as a necessary evil to get kids to take their medicine—i.e., learn values—or as a soft blanket for 40-year-old virgins. But as the success of “The Time Traveler’s Wife” attests, fantasy can serve a nobler function. By replacing the sordidness of the everyday with magic, writers can approach the philosophers’ stone with questions about history, identity and (why not?) the meaning of life.

    Kelly felt it necessary to put this up front, using valuable words in the limited space available for her review to make this point. I suspect she did so because she knew she had to. Even that the book was published under Nan Talese’s own imprint at Doubleday was not necessarily enough to overcome in some quarters the friction of the genre tropes. (I understand that most major reviewers ignored it.)

    For us here, fantasy, including SF, has denotation. We might argue about the precise boundaries of the definition (never mind the subsets!), but we have reasonably good ideas of what defines a work on which we could put the label “fantasy” — or “romance,” or “mystery,” etc. We can lay out objective criteria, use Venn diagrams and devise formal schema.

    For many others — including some of those who do write within the denotation — it is subjective . To them all our objective taxonomy — The Handmaid’s Tale as SF cautionary tale, Pride and Prejudice as causitive regency romance — matters not one whit and they even reject it. For them the genre label doesn’t have denotation. It has connotation.

    What that label connotes is not good. (Or rather, what that label connotes is “not good.”) As Kelly points out in her opening paragraph, it is often seen as a palliative for the physically, mentally, or emotionally immature. Something for those who can’t handle the real world.

    Which brings me back to Lois’s pending question (an answer to which I don’t mean to force before its time): how did genre come to this ignoble state?

  33. Mark Tiedemannon 02 Aug 2006 at 9:04 am

    Which brings me back to Lois’s pending question (an answer to which I don’t mean to force before its time): how did genre come to this ignoble state?

    I could be wrong about this–probably am–but of all the genres, I think SF achieved ignobility quickest and has been the one to which it has clung the longest.

    I think this is partly to do with the phenomena of People Not Knowing Things. I still occasionally attend parties where someone will quite proudly proclaim their ignorance of a particiular subject, usually math or science, and make that claim as if it somehow marks them as a Better Human. That, somehow, to understand physics, chemistry, calculus makes one…less. Or, worse, suspect. Smart people–at least people who are smart in really difficult subjects (or subjects which appear difficult)–aren’t really genuine human beings.

    This trend in human self-perception underlies a lot and seems only to crop up at odd moments, but I suspect it informs a lot of aversion to SF because–whether a particular piece includes difficult science or not–SF pretends to a degree of scientific competence most people lack, indeed which most people are averse to.

    I think this is a small part of the larger anti-intellectualism our culture struggles with all the time.

    Just an opinion.

  34. Erin Underwoodon 02 Aug 2006 at 9:10 am

    The definition of literature is creative or imaginative fiction that generally has an artistic bent to it, but literature has taken on a greater meaning that carries much more importance than this simplistic definition allows. Literature tends to be acknowledged as important works that represent a place, a time, an emotion, issues, a culture, history, etc. These works tend to rise above their counterparts over time and become the literature that future generations look back to in order to glean a greater understanding of the past. (This is one of the primary reasons that academics are drawn to the study of literature, but that’s a whole different subject.)

    Current works of fiction all have the potential of becoming literature in time if the writing, story, characters, etc hold up under scrutiny of current and future readers. Genre is simply a better word than category to distinguish the different types of fiction, which can be grouped together by the overriding features of a story. General fiction, romance, science fiction, fantasy, horror, history, etc. are all genre categories. The problem, as I see it, is that the term “genre” is no longer being applied equally. More and more often I am seeing science fiction and fantasy become the definition of “genre.”

    Given the understanding that genre simply references different categories of fiction, this would explain why literature includes so many different types/genres/categories of works from nearly every era in recorded human history.

    For a writer to say that he writes literature is a huge claim that had better be able to back up with prose that sings to the ear and content that pierces the heart. All too often mediocre fiction writers consider themselves to be crafters of literature because they have been adversely affected by the idea that genre is not literature, when literature cannot help to be anything but the best examples of finely wrought genre pieces that continuously hold up over time. I for one would never have the balls to claim to write literature. I’ll leave it to others to make that judgment.

  35. Sherwood wrote:
    “I don’t think quality of writing is at stake so much as expected tropes.”

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but that’s the way I see it. Some people just don’t want to read about elves or aliens or witchcraft (or don’t think they do). So when the SFF label and all its derivations climbs aboard, you can expect these folks to deplane.

    I also think there is a Great Divide between those who can accept alternatives to Realism and those who only want Realism. It seems to be an American thing, as well, by judging the cultural production outside the US and what ends up being a bestseller abroad.

    So going back to the marketing thing, I think sometimes that book publishers (and other media influences, i.e. TV) use terms like drama or literature to attract a broader crowd to writing that’s at the brink of crossing over into the nonRealism category. When it works, it’s good for everyone because it widens the scope of audience for many writers who might otherwise be pigeonholed. When it doesn’t work, it just pisses off everyone involved.

    Lois, this is a great discussion, thanks for putting it out there.

  36. Carol Bergon 02 Aug 2006 at 10:43 am

    Sherwood said:

    Definitions seems to be clashing here. At least, I’m puzzled by some appearing to believe that great writing is unreadable, whereas entertaining writing is what they return to. Should that not be the other way around? Surely great writing is the prose that so sings to mind and spirit you must go back and read it again and again, savoring its grace, wit, and complexity, whereas entertaining writing gets the story done adequately, but once is enough?

    I agree with you absolutely. But I think there are two sets of definitions being bandied about in this discussion. There is the perceived public divide between “literature” and “genre,” the first being “good important stuff” and the second being “entertainment” literature that is somehow less worthy. I know people who will say that “Bridges of Madison County” is literature (because it is REAL and has no monsters or magic or sherlockian detectives), whereas Earthsea is junk because it couldn’t really happen. But I doubt anyone here would subscribe to those definitions.

    Then there are the definitions that we as writers and readers of genre fiction have internalized, that great writing can indeed occur on the genre side of this divide. (And yes, there are works that are touted as great literature that I find unreadable. I’m just not going to go back and slog through Henry James’ The Americans again, but in no way do I see classic literature as wholly unreadable. Au contraire!)

    I believe that truly great writing – literature – these books you refer to so beautifully as those that sing to mind and spirit include both traditional classics and genre work. It is just too bad that so many people miss out on some great literature because their definitions are so narrow.

    Carol

  37. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 02 Aug 2006 at 10:47 am

    Addressing what Sherwood was saying about “Great Writing” versus “Entertaining Writing,” I greatly love beautiful prose, but it is quite possible to have beautiful prose linked with boring plot, or exciting plot linked with dull or at best workmanlike prose. There are also sometimes things that I’ve read which I’m too tired or distracted at the moment to get into.

    That all said, two of the highest compliments I’ve gotten on my writing were “This read far more literary than I expected” (from the non-fantasy-reading roommate of a friend who’d read one of my stories in a game anthology) and, from another reader of my gaming fiction, “Don’t take this wrong but ‘You have a real purdy mouth.’” (This said in reference to my prose stylings.)

  38. Erin Underwoodon 02 Aug 2006 at 11:06 am

    I also think there is a Great Divide between those who can accept alternatives to Realism and those who only want Realism.

    Tamara, I think the best current example of books that span this Great Divide is the Harry Potter series. I’m still not exactly sure how Rowling did it, but she managed to tap into multiple markets simultaneously. When my boss, who never reads fantasy or science fiction, told me that she was on the third HP book my jaw dropped… literally. It took me awhile to figure out that no, Hell hadn’t frozen over – my boss just found something that she could identify with in the Harry Potter series. I still can’t get her to tell me why she started and continued to read all of the books, but I believe there is something in Rowlings’ work that spans genre, age, stage, interests, cultures, etc. I would even venture to say that she has managed to repair some of the credibility and readership that fantasy may have lost over the years.

    Personally, I think my boss started reading Harry Potter because she wanted to see what all the fuss was about and poo poo the series, but then she was hooked. So, in addition to the biographies, histories, cultural studies, etc that she reads, my boss now has a set of Harry Potter books on her shelf. That just cracks me up. Clearly, there is hope for the muggles.

    I’m not saying that Harry Potter is or isn’t great literature, but it is a fun read.

  39. Lois Tiltonon 02 Aug 2006 at 11:14 am

    Noreen has precisely named the distinction I am targeting, the confusion between the denotation and the connotation of the term “genre”. Which is as a drop of water in a limpid pool compared to the maelstrom of confusion that swirls around the term “literature”.

    The denotation of a term is the definition in sensu strictu – the object you point to when you say: that is a cat; so a cat is that.

    A term like genre or literature, however, being abstract, there is no “that” at which we can point, so we must draw shapes in the air of our minds and point at those.

    And in the case of “literature” the term is essentially meaningless, as I have said, because its connotation – the subjective meaning – is too diffuse, too charged with extraneous implication, too contradictory. In the case of “literature” not only is there nothing to point to, we find people pointing in opposite directions, as this discussion illustrates.

    It is as close to a certainty as we can come, however, that for the people who reject the label “genre” as crap, their own stuff in their own mind is indubitibly that Higher, Nobler Thing: Literature.

  40. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 02 Aug 2006 at 11:49 am

    There’s a certain bit of “get high on primness” to reading “literature,” and by “literature” in this sentence I mean “the accepted canon of respectable books you’re supposed to read.” I did that a bit in high school, but the author who got me off that trip was Dickens, because halfway through The Olde Curiousity Shoppe, I decided that no matter how grisly and lurid the death of Little Nell, nothing could entice me to read any further about such an insipid protagonist. On the other hand, I really liked Chaucer and had started him in the original Middle English.

  41. green_knighton 02 Aug 2006 at 3:57 pm

    I think there are two discussions here – ‘why are people prejudiced towards SF’ and ‘what defines genre’. And I’ll boldly take the stance that some of the writers who deny that ‘I didn’t write fantasy/SF’ probably are right, because while they might have spaceships or ghosts in their stories, they aren’t treating those topics in the manner that SF readers would expect.

    I’ve commented at length on my livejournal, so I won’t repeat myself here.

    http://green-knight.livejournal.com/176332.html

  42. Don Meadon 02 Aug 2006 at 4:50 pm

    —VI Warshawski series author Sara Paretsky once said at a writer’s conference (I’m paraphrasing here), “Books are paper products just like toilet paper.” Which makes me, as an author, editor and publisher, very sad and angry all at the same time. And yet, she’s right, dog-gone-it.—

    Glen Cook once told me that he was at a party where a publisher stated that books were nothing more than white bricks, and he was in the profession of selling white bricks. According to Glen, a fight nearly ensued. Sounds very similar to the above, and I wonder if it’s just a re-told story.

  43. Lois Tiltonon 02 Aug 2006 at 5:49 pm

    I think there are two discussions here – ‘why are people prejudiced towards SF’ and ‘what defines genre’. And I’ll boldly take the stance that some of the writers who deny that ‘I didn’t write fantasy/SF’ probably are right, because while they might have spaceships or ghosts in their stories, they aren’t treating those topics in the manner that SF readers would expect.

    Indeed there are two issues, but what I want to look at is how they are related. That is, whether prejudice towards genre works stems from some misunderstanding as to what genre works actually are.

    Which requires, of course, determining what genre works actually are.

    So that my answer to your theoretical writer would be: No, you actually do write SF, whether you know it or not, but your SF is less generic in at least one aspect, which it shares with [ L-word ] and in that respect it is also [ L-word stuff ].

  44. Wenamunon 02 Aug 2006 at 8:07 pm

    This kind of wrangling is not unique to literature (broad definition). Try arguing art vs. craft, or about the status of a given style in art/architecture in the canon.

    … we may be inclined to think them pedantic or puerile, uninspired or lacking in creative genius.

    That’s Alice Winchester, editor of Antiques, writing in 1966 about the Egyptian and other stylistic revivals of the 19th century. (For the record, she did muster a very brief, historical-context-dependent defense of the revivals.)

  45. Jellyn Andrewson 03 Aug 2006 at 3:28 am

    Erin Underwood said:

    Tamara, I think the best current example of books that span this Great Divide is the Harry Potter series. I’m still not exactly sure how Rowling did it, but she managed to tap into multiple markets simultaneously.

    It might have much to do with the approach, especially in the first book. The first chapter is a little strange and a little intriguing — there’s a cat who’s really a woman and a giant on a flying motorcycle — but after that little bit to get you curious and whet your appetite, we get Harry’s perspective. Harry doesn’t know he’s a wizard. He’s just a normal kid in our current time in a lousy situation that most people can nonetheless relate to. We’re very slowly introduced to his weird magical powers, the fact that he’s a wizard, and all that the wizarding world means. There are a whole lot of chapters before we ever get to Hogwarts.

    Because Harry is ignorant of the wizarding world, we get to learn about it and explore it with him. He can ask the questions that we have and get straight answers. Or, at least, partial answers. And then we can share his frustration at not having the whole story.

    This is true of a lot of the fantasy and even science fiction works that have reached the larger audience, isn’t it? Narnia. Oz.

    SF/F readers know how to jump into a world like Middle Earth or Pern and get cues from the story that’s going on around them. They know how to pick up unfamiliar terms and figure out what they mean. They’re already familiar with some terms that mean nothing to most people, from previous reading experiences. They can figure things out like — oh, soandso must be telepathic, or androids are treated as slaves. You don’t have to tell SF/F readers things. In fact, to tell them too blatantly can tick them off. ‘Duh, I’m not stupid you know! Get on with the story!’

    But mainstream readers, especially older ones, need a little help. If you start out in the ‘real world’ with someone who at least thinks they’re normal, then the readers can pick up things in a way that’s easier for them. Pique their interest and curiousity first so you’ve hooked them and string them along until.. voila.. they’re in a world that’s no longer the one they’re familiar with. And we all know how wonderful and interesting those created worlds are. You’ve got them.

  46. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 03 Aug 2006 at 4:10 am

    Rowling used a lot of classic fantasy tropes of the YA sort. For example, Harry’s horrible relatives…anyone remember Aunts Spiker and Sponge from James and the Giant Peach? That also sold rather well, though not as well as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which also rather quickly had its own movie.

    Rowling’s books are also Deep Genre because she crossed the “Wizard’s School” novel with the “British Boarding School” novel–Hogwarts is very much both. Diana Wynn Jones did it already several years before in Witch Week, and that book also has orphans with magical powers, but she sort of tossed that book in as a one-off in her Chestomanci series with Chrestomanci making a rather Deus ex Machina guest appearance at the end.

    I think the big thing that happened with the books is that Scholastic found a proven hit by a new author then got behind it with a brass band and cymbals.

    And accessabilty is only part of the equation. Tolkien didn’t bother with anyone transported from this world to that, except for choosing the rather comforting and easy to understand Hobbits as his protagonists.

  47. Alison Croggonon 03 Aug 2006 at 5:00 am

    This is interesting. I write “literature” – I’m included in most of the standard anthologies of Australian poetry, made whatever reputation I have with a few slim volumes yada yada yada. Also I’ve had several theatre productions at major arts festivals and published a poetic novella that is respected by a few people whose opinion I respect (and would like to write more of this kind of thing). I write this work because I love writing it, although circulation is small and really it’s a minority interest. I never figured to make money from it – I took as gospel Paul Celan’s comment that poetry was a “message in a bottle” that washed up on unknown shores. It matters, for lots of reasons I won’t explain here.

    I also write fantasy novels – three so far. I take them every bit as seriously as I take my other writing, although to be honest, at first I was a little embarrassed – it was a bit like coming out of the closet. I am getting more confident as I write more, and have learned an immense amount about writing in the process.

    I don’t use a pseudonym. I expect to make money from fantasy. I want the books to be popular, and to that end focus on writing good, clear, evocative, emotionally powerful prose. I don’t give a hoot about literary credibility, I have scads of that, and it’s why I’m so poor. But I do care immensely that I am proud of what I write.

    But my poetry/other work matters just as much to me. I get just as annoyed to reverse snobbism (“literature” is just snobsville and therefore not worth reading, literary writers don’t make money so therefore are just wankers) as I do by the idea that genre writing is a lesser thing. Literature means to me a passionate negotiation with reality, a courageous attempt to find truth despite the fact there is none, the creation of possibility, the subversion of prejudice, the explosion of received realities, the creation of worlds… etc etc. Just like fantasy, in fact.

    I guess publisher and booksellers have to label and to market – but I’m not sure that it’s necessary or desirable for writers themselves to follow those distinctions. But all the same, I do distinguish between fantasy and poetry – they are different activities, with different demands, different readers, different sttylistic conventions. They use different parts of my brain. But that doesn’t mean one activity is worth less than the other.

  48. Katharine Kerron 03 Aug 2006 at 5:49 am

    Well, my apologies if I’m repeating something someone else said, but I am coming to this discussion late (as in, tardily and in the middle of the night), and I’ve not read all the comments.

    I do want to point out that “Maggie Inwood” is a very bad example, because she has changed her mind and come out and said that some of her work is indeed SF, in particular, ORYX AND CRAKE. Which it is, and she’s right. Doris Lessing, too, has had no problem with calling her strange space fiction what it is. I am tired of these particular straw women taking hits they don’t deserve.

    The people I’ve met who have invested the most in the SF vs literature argument fall into two groups: SF writers and literary academics. The academics live for definitions and distinctions. SF writers are often “reverse snobs” in the worst way, attacking books they don’t like or understand Just Because the academics attack them. It’s all childish.

    I write SF and F, I like to read literature, and I’m a Trekkie of sorts to boot. I don’t see why any of these activities preclude any of the others.

    Foomph, I say.

  49. David Louis Edelmanon 03 Aug 2006 at 8:38 am

    By Maggie Inwood and “The Chambermaid’s Tale,” are we in fact referring to Margaret Atwood and “The Handmaid’s Tale”? I just naively assumed we were talking about a different work that I hadn’t read. Now I’m wondering if there’s a joke here that I’m just as naively missing.

  50. [Don, you wrote: "Glen Cook once told me that he was at a party where a publisher stated that books were nothing more than white bricks, and he was in the profession of selling white bricks. According to Glen, a fight nearly ensued. Sounds very similar to the above, and I wonder if it’s just a re-told story." In this case, I was at the conference when Paretsky spoke, and what I posted is a direct paraphrase from her keynote. I once asked her if I could reprint her speech but she told me she never kept her notes.]

    [Alison: you wrote: "I guess publisher and booksellers have to label and to market - but I’m not sure that it’s necessary or desirable for writers themselves to follow those distinctions. But all the same, I do distinguish between fantasy and poetry - they are different activities, with different demands, different readers, different sttylistic conventions. They use different parts of my brain. But that doesn’t mean one activity is worth less than the other." I totally agree.]

  51. Lois Tiltonon 03 Aug 2006 at 10:53 am

    I deliberately didn’t refer directly to Atwood, but to the sort of authhor statements that sound like her initial repudiation of her works’ SFnal status. This is the example most familiar to most of us. “Maggie Inwood” is a chimera that I use as a target.

  52. Lois Tiltonon 03 Aug 2006 at 10:58 am

    Literature means to me a passionate negotiation with reality, a courageous attempt to find truth despite the fact there is none, the creation of possibility, the subversion of prejudice, the explosion of received realities, the creation of worlds… etc etc. Just like fantasy, in fact.

    Just so.

    Whatever “literature” means, this is precisely not the criterion that distinguishes it from fantasy. In fact, if this be literature, then there is much fantasy literature.

  53. Muneravenon 03 Aug 2006 at 11:05 am

    Anyone who has been marched through a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program knows that there is a “literary genre”: An established pattern that a writer in academia adheres to in order to be considered the right sort of writer to receive an MFA degree. It is at least as restrictive as the pattern romance writers follow, or science fiction writers, or mystery writers. This pattern is so familiar to me that I can read a literary novel and spot it as a first novel by an MFA program graduate without even trying. Therefore, it seems to me that much of the snobbery that comes from “literary” authors toward genre authors is a real crock of . . .well, of the stuff I used to scrape off my barn boots. Very few literary writers are innovative.

    I would think that the hope is that the best writers among us start out following some pattern and then gain the skills to deviate from the pattern, maybe even create a new pattern. That would apply to ALL sorts of writers, not just those who claim to write literature.

  54. Constance Ashon 03 Aug 2006 at 12:00 pm

    This is such a straw man. Members of PEN and Academy of Arts and Letters don’t sit around bemoaning how genre writers don’t respect what they do. That’s the difference between the two sorts of fields of operation, as I see it ….

    And there IS literature. Don Quixote is literature, for it has endured over centuries and translations to remain a seminal, begetting work. It is also classified as “Romance,” as “World Literature,” as “picaresque,” as anti-realism, while still providing enormous windows into the time and place and culture of the world out of which Cervantes wrote.

    Literature is what remains read and influential after the author is long gone.

    Now to feed Lois’s snitting of Atwood and company (Atwood is one of my favorite writers both to enjoy and to admire, as Lois knows :) — here’s this from today NY Times review of Julie Philips’s biography of James Tiptree, Jr.:

    In 1967, when Alice B. Sheldon was 51, she spied a jar of Tiptree jam in a grocery store near her Virginia home. This was arguably the pivotal moment in her life. She morphed Tiptree jam into a name: James Tiptree. Her husband added a “Junior.” They laughed. Then she attached the name James Tiptree Jr. to some science fiction stories she had written and put them in the mail. And one of the strangest careers in the already weird world of sci-fi was born.

    Love, C.

  55. Lois Tiltonon 03 Aug 2006 at 1:29 pm

    The juxtaposition of Munraven’s and Constance’s replies provide a perfect illustration of my point that “literature” is meaningless, for they are pointing in quite different directions at the same term.

    And as Constance knows, I am also quite fond of Atwood’s work, which is why I didn’t refer to her, but instead to the chimera.

  56. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 03 Aug 2006 at 3:14 pm

    Actually, with Constance and Muneraven’s comments pointing at different things and using the same word, that simply points to “literature” being a word with several different meanings. Like this:

    Literature (noun, abstract)
    1. Works from the canon of highly respected and influential poetry and prose.
    2. Works from the genre known as “The Literary Novel” or “The Literary Short Story,” usually coming-of-age stories or voyages of self discovery set in the everyday world. Often, but not necessarily, semi-autobiographical.
    3. Works that fit into both of the above categories, such as Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

  57. Lois Tiltonon 03 Aug 2006 at 3:23 pm

    A word with too many meanings effectively has no meaning at all.

  58. Katharine Kerron 03 Aug 2006 at 4:14 pm

    A word with too many meanings effectively has no meaning at all.

    Well, yes, which brings us back to your original point, Lois. The real meaning of literature hidden beneath all the rest is indeed “good stuff” as “opposed to crap.” This is what phrases like “books that withstand the test of time” boil down to. Howsomever, the problem arises when critics think they know in advance which recently books will fall into this category after many years — an extremely difficult job.

    Somewhere online must be lists of the winners of Nobel and Pulitizer prizes, though I’m too lazy at the moment to find them. I’ve seen such lists before, however, and it’s extremely educational to look at the earliest recipients — and see how few names one recognizes after this lapse of time. If I remember rightly, Kipling was the first winner of the Nobel, and while his work is still read, it seems curiously limited now. Most of the others rewarded before, say, 1930 I had never even heard of, and I read a lot.

    And some of the greatest writers of those early times were never even nominated.

    Lois, my apologies for being annoying, but you need a new chimera. :-)

  59. Wenamunon 03 Aug 2006 at 4:25 pm

    What Lois Said.

    And you know, looking at dictionary definitions, the “literature vs. genre” definition is scarcely there. It is there, but secondary.

    From Dictionary.com:

    1. The body of written works of a language, period, or culture.
    2. Imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value
    3. The art or occupation of a literary writer.
    4. The body of written work produced by scholars or researchers in a given field: medical literature.

    And two more paralleling number 4.

    I wish I had access to the OED, but an excerpt from Britannica will have to do instead:

    Deriving from the Latin littera, “a letter of the alphabet,” literature is first and foremost mankind’s entire body of writing; after that it is the body of writing belonging to a given language or people; then it is individual pieces of writing.

    Perhaps the “literature” in “literature vs. genre” should be “great literature” instead? Then we can argue about — or discuss — the criteria for “great.”

  60. Erin Underwoodon 03 Aug 2006 at 4:52 pm

    It sounds like the real problem is that the literary folk simply don’t understand the true nature or definition of Science Fiction and/or Fantasy. Rather than taking a defensive stance on the subject, we should reach out to the writing and reading communities to educate them about these terms because they clearly don’t “get it” right now.

    So, rather than debating what literature is or isn’t, we should define Science Fiction and Fantasy in terms that the “literary” community can understand and embrace? And who better to develop and promote these definitions than the SF&F writers whose works comprise the genres?

  61. Lois Tiltonon 03 Aug 2006 at 7:01 pm

    Actually, Erin, this was the starting point of my article, from which I am trying to show that this is not really so.

    But this will become more clear if/when I continue on to the next part.

  62. Erin Underwoodon 03 Aug 2006 at 7:36 pm

    Lois,

    I look forward to reading the next part of your article. The discussion that you started has been very revealing about the percieved nature of literature, genre, and genre literature.

  63. Vivian Francison 03 Aug 2006 at 7:36 pm

    From a marketing point of view I see (at least) one distinction between the genre and contemporary literature categories. When I pick up a genre book, I expect that it will be easy to maintain a suspension of disbelief throughout my reading; that nothing will interrupt the shared witness created by the story-telling.

    With a contemporary literature book, I know that I might be asked to give more attention to aspects such as the language, rhythm and symbolism during the reading. This will periodically pull me out of my suspension of disbelief.

    Obviously, genre uses language, rhythm and more as well (and with art), but quietly, so the suspension of disbelief is complete. And in literature there are many books which maintain a solid suspension of disbelief throughout.

    So, all of genre could fit into the literature category under this distinction, and many contemporary literature novels could fit into the genre category. Still, this distinction helps me pick the right book for my mood.

  64. Erin Underwoodon 03 Aug 2006 at 7:39 pm

    P.S. I just hope no one from the Sci-Fi Channel has been reading this discussion since I’d hate it if they changed their name to The Science Fiction Channel. :-)

  65. Lois Tiltonon 03 Aug 2006 at 8:13 pm

    Erin – those guys know already.

  66. Wenamunon 03 Aug 2006 at 8:56 pm

    I suspect that a discussion on the connotations of sf&f beyond what has been called “the ghetto” will be interesting.

    (I believe that Karen is going to be along soon — I hope — with a contribution on both this and the subject of lit. vs. gen. We’ve been speaking about this briefly in spare moments and I don’t want to post what’s currently on my mind until she’s had her say.)

  67. Karen Allenon 03 Aug 2006 at 11:15 pm

    Here I am, Noreen. Hope I get all the format thingies right. (If the line breaks are odd it’s because I cut and pasted.)

    I ran across this recently. In an interview published in Across the Wounded Galaxies, Gene Wolfe says:

    I’d argue that SF represents literature’s real mainstream and that so-called realistic fiction–what we normally consider the mainstream–is a small literary genre, fairly recent in origin, that is likely to be relatively short-lived. When I look back at the foundations of literature, I see literary figures who, if they were alive today, would probably be members of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Homer? He would certainly belong to SFWA. So would Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare. That tradition is literature’s mainstream, and what has grown out of that tradition has been labeled science fiction or speculative fiction or whatever.

    This made me curious about when realism might have become a hallmark of “literary” work. Because it was easily at hand, I pulled out my 1990s B&N encyclopedia and looked up “novel.” The writer of the entry says that the change from the previously popular “novel of incident” or action to the modern novel “concerned not with incident but rather with the mental life and personal relations of ordinary human beings” is illustrated by the decline in popularity of Sir Walter Scott (representative of the former) and the rise in regard for Jane Austen (representative of the latter). The writer also contrasts Daniel Defoe’s “novels of incident” with Samuel Richardson’s (Pamela, Clarissa) “novels of character,” and says, “In the tradition of the Anglo-American novel it is the Richardsonian mode that is central, largely because of the richness of its psychological interest.” Thus the novel of character took over the literary spotlight.

    I think it could be argued that many science fiction and fantasy novels are better described, in the above terms, as “novels of incident” rather than “novels of character,” and follow in the tradition represented by Sir Walter Scott and Daniel Defoe rather than that of Richardson and Austen. So the roots of our loss of respect could go back years–but that doesn’t make us any less heirs of the older literary tradition. We have just gone a different direction than that currently judged “literary,” and if Wolfe is right, may have our time in the sun again.

    As for why “realistic” and “character-based” fiction continue to be considered more respectable than other kinds of fiction, especially in the United States, I could guess at a few reasons besides “the richness of its psychological interest.” American pragmatism. Latent streaks of Puritanism (frivolity is Bad) and Victorianism (literature should have High Moral Purpose, replaced perhaps in modern times by High Artistic Purpose). Anti-intellectualism has also been mentioned, re: science fiction. Any other candidates?

    Then of course there’s the question of why and how some non-realistic fiction slips in and becomes respectable anyway.

    Setting those questions aside for now, I also wanted to comment on why writers choose to have their work published within the genre, or not. Science fiction and fantasy aren’t just a genre; they’re a genre with a gigantic built-in community, and perhaps writers’ decisions to seek publication within or without the genre are influenced by whether or not they see themselves as part of that community. I grew up reading lots of fantasy and science fiction (mainly from the library and Scholastic Book Club, since I didn’t have a corner store where I could buy pulps and paperbacks), and by the time I was eleven or twelve I wanted to grow up to be a member of SFWA. I didn’t actually start attending cons and such until relatively recently, but from an early age I considered science fiction and fantasy people “my” people. So when I started trying to write for publication, there was no question in my mind that I was writing (mostly) in the genre. That decision was based partly, of course, on the nature of what I was writing, but also on the fact that I perceived myself as writing within a particular community. A writer who doesn’t feel those ties to the sf/f community–or who isn’t particularly interested in being part of a group that includes not just writers but conventions and fans and magazines and TV programs and movies etc. etc.–will be less likely, I think, to publish as a genre writer, whether he or she is disdainful of the genre or not.

    A bestselling writer of mainstream-accepted fantasy spoke once at a SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) convention I attended, and I had a chance to talk with him briefly afterward. I asked him if he had ever been to a science fiction convention, since I couldn’t recall ever seeing him at one, though his work would certainly qualify him as a participant. He said that he had, but–and I’m afraid I can’t recall his exact words, so this is my interpretation — he hadn’t found it very congenial. Clearly, he wasn’t afraid to label his work “fantasy,” he just didn’t feel particularly comfortable in the genre community.

  68. Lois Tiltonon 03 Aug 2006 at 11:47 pm

    Karen, isn’t what you are calling a “novel of incident” what was previously called a “romance” as distinguished from a “novel” – which was then the newer form, as its name suggests?

    There is a lot of retconning in the history of literature. People like to go back and look at earlier works – like Shelley’s Frankenstein or Aesop’s Fables – and identify these as early examples of science fiction or fantasy. Which, if we are solely concerned with the content of the work, they can be legitimately so considered.

    But these authors could not have considered themselves as writing “science fiction” or “fantasy” because these as genres had not yet been invented. I suspect that if we could have asked them, they might have said they were creating “stories.”

  69. Carol Bergon 03 Aug 2006 at 11:54 pm

    I must say the notion that a writer might choose genre because of community is astonishing to me. I certainly had no idea of conventions or fandom or even organizations like SFWA when I began writing. And I really wonder how many other writers would do this. I chose to write fantasy because it provides a virtually unbounded canvas for storytelling.

    I am very much of Gene Wolf’s (and Ursula LeGuin’s) mind. Fantasy is the oldest form of storytelling, and realistic fiction is but a sub-genre. When people first set out to explain the unexplainable, whether it was why the sun comes up or the nature of heroism, they told stories of hunters or monsters or world snakes.

    My heroes and heroines could live in contemporary Denver, and I could find challenges aplenty to explore their characters (for my fantasy IS very much centered on characters) and the issues that interest me. But I just find it more fun to make my dysfunctional families be families of sorcerers or to have my hero orphaned when his father is burned at the stake rather than when he is gunned down on the south side of Denver. (Jeez, does that sound warped.)

    Carol

  70. Mark Tiedemannon 04 Aug 2006 at 8:59 am

    Carol,

    Depending on how far back one wishes to go, writers writing about monsters, demons, etc. quite probably were writing “realistic” fiction–these were not “fantasy” objects to them. That’s how they perceived the world. At least, that’s one line. Given that, Gilgamesh is very much mimetic fiction (or historical biography, depending).

    It could be argued that genuine “fantasy” or fantastic fiction was not invented until there was a tradition of writers writing outside the dominant culture in which they lived (possibly Geoffrey of Monmouth’s tale of Merlin and Arthur might count). But the Greeks seemed to be writing about the world as they saw it.

  71. Wenamunon 04 Aug 2006 at 10:47 am

    Three rather separate points to make here, in no particular order:

    I think it’s fairly safe to say that the composers of at least some of the earliest recorded fiction narratives with fantastical elements were not writing “realistic” fiction. The Egyptian narrative poem “The Shipwrecked Sailor,” while once seen as a kind of folk tale, is better viewed, in its cultural context, as an allegory and moral tale (even though the moral is shockingly rejected at the end). It would fit very nicely into a modern definition of sf&f (and even has a pleasingly complex and “nested” narrative form of three stories, each nested inside the other. There is no evidence that the Egyptians believed in the disappearing Island of the Ka, or believed that the true manifestation of the divine creator (or sun-god) was a giant, bearded, talking snake, or even that the unnamed sailor of the story was ever a real man.

    Ancient people were far more capable of consciously metaphoric, allegoric, and fictionalized expression than some (e.g. Julian Jaynes and others of the school of bicameralism) admit. I myself have no doubt that the ancient author, if presented with a definition of fantasy, would have recognized the place of his own work in it, but he would not have invented such a definition on his own.

    ——

    Looking through the July 17th Publishers Weekly, I noticed that in the “Fiction” reviews (apart from the “SF/Fantasy/Horror” reviews) is Neil Gaiman’s collection Fragile Things. The anonymous reviewer tellingly says this (emphasis added):

    At his best, Gaiman has a deft touch for surprise and inventiveness, and there are inspired moments, including one story that brings the months of the year to life and imagines them having a board meeting [...] but most of these stories rely too heavily on the stock-in-trade of horror, sci-fi and fantasy.

    Not having read this collection, unfortunately I can’t further discuss what the reviewer might have had in mind.

    —–

    Going to the subject of community that Karen brought up, I’d never heard of SFWA until, I believe, college, when I had a subscription to a writer’s magazine, and then just knew of its existence. But I knew that what I was writing, and what I wanted to write, was sf&f. And this despite what my mother said to me about my speculative fiction: “Eventually you’ll have enough life experience to write real novels.” She no longer feels this way about the genre. Or about some of it, at least. She thought it was all Star Wars and bug-eyed monsters, until she finally started to read mine.

    Now, my real, if not fully digested point: Karen’s mention of community during our very brief phone conversations raised a notion in my head. Could the SF community itself, and I especially mean the convention community, be a contributing factor in the disrespecting of the genre, at least in the late 20th/early 21st centuries? A lot of “peculiar” things go on at cons that just… don’t… in most other places.

    (I’m rather eager for Lois’s “next part.”)

  72. Karen Allenon 04 Aug 2006 at 11:09 am

    Lois, “novel of incident” was the term used in the encyclopedia. I don’t know how widely it may be used elsewhere, if at all. The article does also talk about the earlier romances, specifically medieval romances. I think “novel of incident” is used as a broader and later category, referring generally to novels in which action (perhaps one could say plot, instead) rather than character is central. “Picaresque” novels are included in the “novel of incident” category. I agree, our genre distinctions are largely a modern invention. I think applying them backward, so to speak, is useful insofar as it helps us to see where we as SF writers come from and to show, as we seem to be attempting here, that we stand just as firmly in the collective literary tradition as anyone.

    Carol, I’m sure I would have written fantasy whether I knew that there was a community of SF writers or not — one of my earliest stories, written when I was barely literate, was about a dragon. I didn’t write fantasy because I knew about the SF community. But when I began to write seriously, knowing about the SF community did affect how I saw myself as a writer and how I set about marketing my work. For instance, Asimov’s and F&SF were at the top of my market lists, rather than, say, Glimmer Train and the New Yorker, though I have submitted to the latter two occasionally as well. (I also see myself as influenced by Latin-American magic realism, since I minored in Spanish and read and love the stuff.) I just wonder whether, when writers are asked if they write SF and they say no, even though what they write looks like SF, they’re rejecting not just the genre label but what they perceive as the other accoutrements of the genre. I.e., is SF seen not just as particular kind of fiction, but as fiction written by (and for) a particular group or sort of people?

  73. Karen Allenon 04 Aug 2006 at 11:13 am

    Cross posted with Wenamun, though we do seem to be asking rather the same question at the end.

  74. Constance Ashon 04 Aug 2006 at 12:35 pm

    [It sounds like the real problem is that the literary folk simply don’t understand the true nature or definition of Science Fiction and/or Fantasy.]

    But writers and readers of SF/F don’t have any consensus whatsoever as to what that is, as witness this entire website! Which is why we hastened to inform Others that Deep Genre is NOT a movement!

    In the meantime how is ‘novel of incident’ deemed to differ from the ancient Mediterranean tradition that got labeled first in Spain as the “picaresque,” the adventures of the traditional Iberian figure known as the picaro?

    Love, C.

  75. Lois Tiltonon 04 Aug 2006 at 2:30 pm

    I thought I’d mention, apropos of Deep Genre, that in my own schema this notion, as I understand it, would be something like Core Genre – the stuff near the center.

    In fact, I think I’ll edit the thing to add that.

  76. Karen Allenon 04 Aug 2006 at 2:50 pm

    The article describes Defoe’s “picaresque novels” as “the first novels of incident in English.” It mentions the Spanish picaresque tradition as an influence on the English novel but does not use the term “novel of incident” until the discussion of the later English novels. So he doesn’t draw a distinction between picaresque and novel of incident; he just doesn’t use the latter term in reference to the earlier picaresque works.

    Also interesting is that at the outset of the article, the writer gives this (arguable) description of the novel: “The novel usually seeks to re-create everyday experience, to represent the world as it is rather than to evoke, like the romance, a legendary world. Generally bound by fact and probability, the novel seeks to convince its readers that its world is real….”

    I don’t see much room for SF there. But perhaps that is what many people think of as the literary novel.

    I have no idea what the credentials are of the writer of the article.

  77. Katharine Kerron 04 Aug 2006 at 6:18 pm

    Mark T. beat me to it. We can’t call ancient writings “fantasy”. What we can say is that some modern readers now love those works for elements that we call “fantastic”.

    There are blurred lines even here of course. Consider the AENEID, a very self-conscious production by a learned man of his time who deliberately went back to an archaic model for his style as well as his subject matter. Did Vergil believe in his gods the way “Homer” believed in his? Probably not. Is the work closer to modern fantasy then? Closer, maybe, but still not the same as — in my opinion.

    Medieval Arthurian romance is very close to modern fantasy, on the other hand, being consciously composed for an educated leisured audience to amuse and entertain them whilst reminding them of chivalric ideals. I doubt very much if any of the courtly souls who devoured these romances honestly thought there were monsters in the Forest of Dean and the like.

    We really cannot lump all the “stuff written before 1800″ together, in other words, just because much of it contains elements we think of as fantastic. The difference between Wolfram von Eschenbach and the anonymous composer(s) of the Chanson de Roland is as profound as that between the various parts of the Niebelunglied and The Lord of the Rings.

    Footnote: I’ve read the bicameral theories of JJ and I really don’t think they hold up, though some of the details he uses to support them are fascinating. Just my opinion again.

  78. Alison Croggonon 05 Aug 2006 at 1:33 am

    Very few literary writers are innovative.

    I am not very familiar with the American MFA phenomenon in prose, but certainly recognise what has happened to American poetry through the “professionalisation” of writing (an endless procession of practically identical, competent poets who publish in order to validate their MFAs and then get jobs teaching creative writing to yet more eager MFA students, etc etc). There are exceptions, of course, and I don’t want to blacken the whole idea of teaching creative writing. But the result does seem like so much white bread.

    Not what I call literature, though. Recently I’ve been reading Ismael Kadare, Orhan Pamuk, John Berger, just to name three great writers who’ve been on my bedside table the past couple of weeks. To dismiss these people as lacking innovation because they are “literary” seems to me just…well, ignorant. Nor are any of them, for all their engagement with the “real world”, in the least realistic (possibly Berger, except that dead people keep appearing and talking to him). Oh, and Oscar Wilde as well. If you haven’t read his fairytales, as genre writers, you’re missing something…

    And just to agree with Katherine Kerr above. Let’s not patronise the past, it just teaches us there is no such thing as progress in art!

  79. Katharine Kerron 06 Aug 2006 at 5:06 pm

    I agree with Alison and would add Toni Morrison to the list of writers she’s named.

  80. [...] Update July 31st: Armchair Anarchist at Velcro City Tourist Board kicks this meme around with an interesting comparison to musical tastes (link) Update August 1st: DeepGenre: Genre Don’t Get No Respect Robert J Sawyer’s has recently blogged his thoughts on this subject [...]

  81. Beth McKenzieon 16 Aug 2006 at 11:27 am

    I have enjoyed the discussion.

    I agree that it is NOW primarily a marketing ploy have the book categorized a particular way.

    Historically the term “literature” was reserved for works that demostrated a written picture of society at a particular point and has stood the test of time. It is part of the definition that the books be well-written and express something that will not pass from the societal interest or they will be replaced by others as time passes. I used to be offended to find newly published books next to classical literature in the book stores. It sends the message that the newest of The Vampire Chronicles is as significant to the definition of my culture as the Illiad was to the ancient Greeks before society has had a chance to read, ruminate, compare and make that determination. We didn’t read fiction in school, we read English Literature; works by people who lived in England or wrote about English events, and defined for us (especially those who are not English) the fundamental precepts of what it is to be English.

    But all things change, as do we.

    The thing I think we are blurring- the definition-is really the source of the argument. A body of literature is supposed to define something. Vampire Literature, by definition, is the body of work that is about vampires; the entire body of work. It includes Stoker, Rice, Huff, the newest book by Mayra Calvani, along with any scientific research surrounding the subject. It is not wrong to define the body of literature you are reading. Fantasy Literature is an accurate label.

    Beth

    ATTN Mr. Murphy:

    Thank you for the link to your poem. Writing the sestina is one of my favorite challenges. Especially in these oh so hot days of summer it was a joy to read. I will add it to my cache of Winter Literature and have put the envoi above my desk:

    Hope still flutters, icons falling,
    Six-vaned snowflakes, Heaven’s feathers,
    Stars of whiteness lighting winter.

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