Inspired by an article pointed out to me by Mary Meddlemore, I thought I’d resurrect the debate about genre versus literary fiction, and whether there is a difference at all. One of the suggestions made in Friedman’s article was that literary fiction is more difficult to write because all of the situations have to be invented by the author; she can’t rely on tropes because for literary fiction there aren’t any.
There are several things here that needle me. Leaving aside the rather arrogant assumptions behind it, who says that tropes only apply to ‘genre’ fiction? And how is it easier to write a good story that falls into a ‘genre’ category? The last point is slightly more metaphysical, but isn’t there a case for arguing that all fiction falls into one genre or another?
No tropes in lit fic? How about the battered wife, the abused child, the quest for self/fulfilment/the meaning of life/paradise/some other navel-gazing quest? How about the family saga? The marriage breakdown? Unhappiness in all its forms? Once you get your head round the notion that it has all been said before, usually by Homer, it’s easy to accept that if you scratch deep enough you find that one writer’s original subject is another’s trope. A trope is after all just the use of figurative language. Irony, allegory, metaphors, literary devices, all clichés fit into the definition.
Easier to write ‘genre’ because it’s full of ready-made tropes? LotR then was pretty easy-peasy as a writing effort compared with some of the more mind-numbingly boring productions of the nouveau roman, where the aim is to have nothing whatsoever happen at all. The point is surely that it is hard to write a GOOD novel, whatever category it falls into.
Everything but lit fic is ‘genre’? I’m not a philosopher, but from the outside, that looks like nonsense. Looks very much like another way of saying lit fic is a genre, but the only worthwhile genre. So, since most writers write about the epoch they grew up in, by the end of a writing career, they are often writing twenty or thirty years out of date. Does that make them historical novels? Is a fantasy written by an Oxford don somehow not a fantasy because he is a member of the intellectual establishment? Is Jane Austen really chic lit? She must at least fit into Regency Romance. Where do you put Shakespeare? The plays are all historical, alternate history, historical fantasy, paranormal fantasy, romance, comedy or horror. Yet they strike me a being pretty literary.
Much of this debate seems like a game of moving goal posts, depending on who wrote the story. Is C.S. Lewis a fantasy writer? Is García Márques? Lit fic people like to remind us that all books have to be pigeon-holed in a genre box for the sake of marketing, the sous entendu being that all boxes are inferior to the lit fic box. All of these genres (except lit fic) are broken into a plethora of sub genres, so within fantasy you can have a YA paranormal fairytale with vampires and zombie werewolf fantasy genre. Marketing on Amazon can get pretty specific, but the lit fic section remains vast, rambling, and inviolable.
Perhaps it would be more useful and logical to do away with literary fiction altogether. The argument then wouldn’t be about what books are allowed into the Holy of Holies, the literary fiction category, but which genre each aspiring lit fic book really falls into. If you look hard enough you’ll find that each and every one of them fits into a ‘genre’, and the names of some of those genres will not be very flattering.