A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
From now on it will be a weekly opinion slot, sometimes based on news stories, sometimes written by “guest writers”. Whatever, we hope it will add a bit of debate to the site.
I thought I’d kick off by talking about the strange antagonism that seems to exist between the genres – and between Genre fiction and Literary fiction.
Anyone who has spent any time on writing forums will know that the one subject guaranteed to get everyone hot under the collar is the subject of genre. The Science Fiction enthusiasts will break out and attack the Chicklit crowd; commercial fiction pundits will mock the pretensions of Literary Fiction; whilst Literary Fictionites will pour scorn and condescension on all of the above. It is a subject that invariably gets the blood flowing and hackles rising.
Science Fiction Versus Literary Fiction
Science Fiction is a genre constantly on the defensive, perhaps because it is so often in the firing line of the literary establishment. In 2003, Margaret Atwood, seen by many to have written many fine Science Fiction works herself, set the Sci-Fi community aflame when she famously referred to the genre as “Squids in outer space”.
More recently, Jeanette Winterson, before the release of her book Stone Gods (definitely classed as Science Fiction by Ursula Le Guin in her Guardian review) told New Scientist “I hate Science Fiction.” Instead she said she liked good writers about science. (Adding, when asked what her next book was about: “It’s called Robot Love and it’s for kids. A girl builds a multi-gendered robot, which then kills her parents because it sees them mistreat her, so they both go on the run.” Hmmm. Does sound a teensy-weensy bit like Science Fiction or am I crazy?)
It is this sort of distancing that seems to drive the lovers of the genre so crazy. In the quarrel between Genre and Literary Fiction, the stacks are weighed in the Literary Fiction’s favour if those writing in their genre who are respected by the literary establishment are “stolen away” by Literary Fiction.
In fact, what does Literary Fiction mean as a genre? If it is a style then surely it must become unoriginal by default. If it is a matter of quality…well that hardly seems fair to cream off the best of Genre writing and pretend it isn’t Genre writing…
The more you think about it, the more nonsensical it seems. And it probably shouldn’t matter a damn. Except that the wars are still raging and people still seem to get excessively upset about this issue.
Chicklit Versus The Media
Another great contender for most sneered at of mainstream genres must be Chicklit.
In the early days “Chicklit” was a made-up term applied to a modern strand of contemporary, light-hearted novels that appeared post-Bridget Jones. It was a term that many of the writers who were classed under it felt ambiguous about, or even plain loathed. In 2001, best-selling author Jenny Colgan, addressing an audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival said,
“Chicklit is a deliberately condescending term they use to rubbish us all. If they called it Slutlit it couldn’t be any more insulting.” (From The Guardian)
Since then it has become more fashionable to try and reclaim the term, such as Marian Keyes’s lively defence of her genre to Radio 2’s The Weekender
It’s meant to be pejorative, it is meant to make women feel embarrassed to read it and to write it. I am proud to be a chick lit writer because I believe chick lit is the literature of post-feminism and it’s a very important genre. It completely articulates and explores the confusion of what it is like to be a contemporary woman. (From Trashionista)
Nowadays, the term encompasses all sorts of writing basically aimed at women and there can be some confusion as to what does and doesn’t count as “Chicklit”.
Chicklit authors often put up the cry of “misogyny” in relation to their public lambasting and they could have a point. But if they think they are treated shoddily by the media and the literary establishment, what about that hidden monster: one of the most successful publishers there is, selling 20 millions books worldwide every year: Mills and Boon. According to figures released at their centenary:
50 new titles are published every month. Books are published in 26 different languages and sold in over 109 international markets. A Mills & Boon is sold every 5 seconds in the UK. They have a global author base of more than 200, and ‘Mills and Boon’ has even made it into the Oxford English Dictionary as a phrase meaning ‘romantic story book’. (From SkyNews)
And yet it is a curious fact that the biggest selling part of the market is never reviewed in the papers and hardly stocked in bookshops. Is this a case of simple snobbery? The fact that a lot of people like something, therefore it has to be bad?
Respectability Versus Popularity?
Science Fiction and Chicklit together are perhaps the two most criticised mainstream genres, despite huge sales and commercial success. The charge of misogyny leveled by some Chicklit writers doesn’t explain the dismissive attitude of the literary establishment towards Science Fiction: predominantly read by men, and – of them – mainly teenage boys. And why are other genres such as Crime treated with such respect?
Is the fact that both SF and Chicklit represent very polarised readerships in terms of gender the problem? Whereas Crime is read by both men and woman?
Or do we just want to have our cake and eat it? The grass is always greener, we always want what we can’t have – Chicklit is jealous of the reviews, Science Fiction wants credibility, Comedy yearns to be taken seriously, Literary Fiction is jealous of sales…The age-old battle between respectability and popularity rages on.
But there are more reviled genres still.
This week, The Independent ran an interview with writer, Rupert Smith. Unable to find a publisher for his second book, Smith made the radical decision to become a porn writer. Here, he discovered a fascinating world with a very devoted readership. His novel, “a country house murder mystery entitled The Back Passage“:
regularly topped Amazon’s gay and adult bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic, and, on the UK site at least, has consistently outsold books by respectable literary figures like Alan Hollinghurst and Sarah Waters.
But you wouldn’t know – at least not by going into bookshops or reading the literary pages of newspapers. Erotic fiction, gay or straight, is the most reviled of all genres. While science fiction, horror, crime and romance have their own well-stocked sections, erotica languishes in a dog-eared corner at the back, near the lavs. Some straight smut makes it into airports, to refresh the tired business traveller, but gay material remains beyond the pale.
In the world of literary fiction, an author’s sexual preference has a massive impact on the way his or her books are marketed, reviewed and sold; in porn nobody cares much. Women read about men, men read about women, everyone gets off on everyone else and nobody cares about categories.
But in the world of the bookshop – everyone cares about categories.
Does this provide us with a clue to what is fuelling the genre wars?
It is not just what we like to read, but what we like to be seen reading. It is not about what we are writing, but about how we want that writing to be perceived. When our favourite genre is sneered at and looked down upon, we take it personally. When we are told our writing is of poorer quality, it is a statement about ourselves, our taste, our position in society. When genres are private and hidden, it does not matter what demographic we are. But when we are in the public spotlight, a book is not just a book: it says something, about us and who we are.
“I am my genre!”
When I look back at the books I have loved it has never been because of consciousness of literary merit – even when that merit was there. From my beloved Winnie The Pooh at the age of three and The Ogre Downstairs as a child, to the gothic extremes of Gormenghast, Wuthering Heights or just the rebellious piss-taking of The Hitchhikers Guide in my teenage years, to the emotional reality of Borderliners in my grand old age – each of my favourite books has spoken to me at a different stage of life. Each book captured something I was feeling, said something about me, spoken to me powerfully and straight into the imagination.
And perhaps that is what genre is doing. Speaking to us – simply and powerfully – at different points in our lives, reflecting back at us who we are and how we are feeling.
“I am my genre!” a participant in one of the many Genre versus Literary forum debates cried dramatically.
A bit over-the-top, maybe, but perhaps they are on to something.
For, the real reason why the genre wars will always continue – so heatedly and personally – is not to do with quality, popularity or any of those other side-issues, but is to do with how we see ourselves.