Vulpes Libris

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.

Thursday SoapBox: Genre Wars!

lionsfromflickr.jpgThe Thursday news slot is changing.

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.

Hidden Genres

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.

He adds:

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.

With thanks to Wild Images of Flickr for the brilliant lion photo

17 comments on “Thursday SoapBox: Genre Wars!

  1. Anne Brooke
    April 3, 2008

    I personally wish the term “literary fiction” would be ditched – it’s soooo pretentious and doesn’t mean anything anyway. Um, all fiction is literary. That’s the nature of words.

    Mind you, I’d be hugely proud to write slutlit – it sounds fabulous. In the meantime, I’ll make do with my usual haglit.



  2. Cliff Burns
    April 3, 2008

    Regardless of the genre you work in (Gawd, I despise that term “chick lit”), as long as you bring literary sensibilities and a high degree of critical scrutiny to bear on your work, you will create a story or novel of lasting power and impact. I’ve written just about every type of tale imaginable, tried my hand at numerous genres and formats and, regardless of the offering, have always employed the same high standards, without exception. My new novel is a supernatural mystery and I spent three years working on it–the fact that it has fantastic elements had no bearing on the amount of editing and time/effort I expended on it. In fact, it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, far superior to the finest of my mainstream work…

  3. Amy
    April 3, 2008

    I’m glad you mentioned Mills and Boon. As you say, their books are more popular than nearly anything else and yet it’s almost taboo to talk about it. Yet plenty of people somewhere must be reading their books.

    I did a fairly recent post on my blog where I briefly mentioned two M&B novels I had recently read and how good they were. The books in question were Mary Nichol’s “Runaway Miss” and “A Compromised Lady” by Elizabeth Rolls. I honestly don’t think Rachel Cusk, Francine Prose, Jennifer Egan or Philippa Gregory (some of my favourite writers) write any better than Rolls and Nichols do.

    Perhaps because there’s so many books released each month, it’s perceived as being a bit like a production line, with all the real artistry taken out of writing. But if people took the time to actually read some of the books, they would realise the quality that is there.

  4. Sam
    April 3, 2008

    So, where are all the bookfoxes able to post reviews about chick lit and M&B then? Maybe they are arctic and got lost amongst the Easter snow…


  5. sequinonsea
    April 3, 2008

    Really interesting piece, Rosy (and nice lion photo! 🙂 )

    Does anyone have a decent definition of literary fiction? I’m not even sure I know what it is. It’s a term I’d never even heard until I signed with a literary agent. Durr. Double-durr since I’d completed a CW MA, but evidently the term had flown straight over my head, as I have no recollection of ever hearing it there.

    Sam, we’re open to all fiction (and indeed non-fiction) here. Well, I think we are. P.S One of my most popular reviews was of the Victoria Plum books – fifteen cardboard pages of pure genius. Intrigued by Amy’s M&Bs.

  6. Sam
    April 3, 2008

    I’d never really considered the term much either, sequin, until i joined a writers’ forum where it was fairly frequently bandied about. In fact, as Rosy says, there could be some rather vitriolic in-fighting about genres and their worthiness. I feel sorry for M&B writers as it’s a brand name which attracts a lot of false connotations – although i suspect their bank balances are some recompense:)

    I think i’m the only arctic fox on here (having reviewed the Chocolate Lovers’ Club) – which isn’t a dig, i know lite WF isn’t everyone’s bag.
    If you ever want another fluffy review doing though, you know who to call:)


  7. Mhairi
    April 3, 2008

    Sam … I have “Decent Exposure”, “Wish You Were Here” and “Chalet Girl” reviews to my credit. I think they qualify. 🙂 We do, literally, review anything … and I thoroughly enjoyed all three books.

  8. marygm
    April 3, 2008

    Good piece, Rosy. Although I wonder if there wasn’t some uncharacteristic occupation of a fence going on. 😉

    Just to add to the discussion, I think a lot of people are excessively sensitive on this issue. I mean, if I say I don’t like Science Fiction or Chick lit or Crime or Literary even if I give a reason for my not liking it then that doesn’t mean I am denigrating the genre. It just means that, on the whole, this kind of book doesn’t do it for me. Why do people have to take comments like that so personally?

    Taking your first two examples of authors; Margaret Atwood claims she writes Speculative Fiction (alternative societies and situations within currently known scientific concepts) rather than Science Fiction (scientific concepts that are not currently existing or feasible). Not exactly an incendiary comment. And she also wrote an article in the Guardian on ‘Why we need Science Fiction.’

    As for Jeannette Winterson. I’ve heard her speak and an entertaining speaker she is too. Not a woman to let truth or moderation stand in the way of a good line. I wouldn’t take everything she says on this subject too seriously. But the problem is that most people do and any comment gets blown out of proporation.
    Even on a individual book basis. I’ve had people get huffy and offended because I’ve said that I didn’t like a particular book that they loved. But it’s a good thing that there’s something for all tastes, all ages, even all moods.
    And by the way, where are all those M&B books sold?

    Oh and hello Sam! It’s really good to see you here!

  9. rosyb
    April 3, 2008

    “I wonder if there wasn’t some uncharacteristic occupation of a fence going on.”

    Well, I am not feeling too feisty at the moment, unfortunately. Hopefully I’ll be up to speed soon.

    But I think I was more interested in exploring your other question: why people ARE so sensitive about this issue and the way we do identify with genres and use them as a way to say something about ourselves or even just identify ourselves with them. I think that is why when someone says they dislike a genre, people tend to take it so personally- because it is like disliking a way of seeing or the person themselves – as opposed to saying you dislike a particular book. I’m not saying it’s rational, but that’s what I reckon anyhow.

    “Not a woman to let truth or moderation stand in the way of a good line.”

    Ah well, and similarly with the Atwood line: I couldn’t leave out squids in space, could I? How good was that? But the distinctive made between these different sorts of Science Fiction is interesting in itself, is it not? That they need be made? A lot of Science Fiction fans called their Science Fiction “Speculative Fiction”. I thought Science Fiction meant Fiction concerning Science, not Fiction concerning Fictional Science: although the choice is open, of course.

    Anyway, you should know by now that any comment about Science Fiction is bound, by definition, to be incendiary! 😉

    Amy – thanks for that comment. Really interesting. I have never, to my shame, read a Mills and Boon. I’ll go and take a look at what you say about them. I must say I have always been put off by hearing that there were certain sorts of relationships and eventualities and outcomes that weren’t allowed to be mentioned in the genre and that this is still the case to some extent. But perhaps someone could put me right on that too.

    Clive – thanks for commenting. Interesting you mention Fantasy – another genre that receives more than its fair share of prejudice. I don’t know why.

    Sam, Mhairi’s right – we do all sorts. It’s one of the things about Vulpes – with so many different povs and a variety of contributors with different tastes and styles, we cover a huge range of stuff. In fact I keep thinking we need to get rid of 80 % of the categories and yet when I click on them there is something in all of them! One thing about the site I really enjoy is reading things I might not normally. (Perhaps, Mary, this is why I’m mellowing on this issue- maybe?)

    Sequin, well I’m a bit old-fashioned in that I always liked the word “Fiction” which doesn’t seem to exist in the same way anymore. I don’t know when Literary Fiction came into being as a genre. I used to think it was a term used for things like “Ulysses” and not too much besides. But it crept up as a genre without me even realising. I don’t really know what it means except the usual prejudices like “long words” “might be a bit slow” “could be a bit high-brow”. None of which are necessarily fair or true of things I have read that are called Literary Fiction at all. Perhaps someone could give a definition. Or a bookshop definition – even better.

    Thanks so much for commenting everyone. 🙂

  10. Emma
    April 3, 2008

    The trouble arises because ‘genre’ means so many different things:

    basic plot-form: thriller, romance, detective, adventure

    traditional divisions: comedy, tragedy, epic, farce

    setting: historical, contemporary, exotic, speculative

    subject: sex, crime, families, childhood, spying

    Most book-trade genres are actually a combination of the two: putting it crudely, chick-lit is romance crossed with farce, crime is thriller crossed with tragedy, historical romance is – well, you work that one out – and so on. And, as we all know, a ‘romance’ plot can cover anything from the direst chicklit to very good-of-its-kind M&B to Rose Tremain to Jane Austen. Ditto speculative fiction, from the dreariest category fiction to Frankenstein and LeGuin, and so on. Not all briskly written porn designed with one outcome, shall we say, can claim much kinship with Fanny Hill, except in its subject.

    I think genre wars start up because all genres have some truly dire examples, lots of examples that do an efficient job of fulfilling the expectations of that genre’s fans, some examples which combine the familiar pleasures of the genre with some real originality, and just a few which transcend their fans and become something that’s really special for any reader. For example, I’ll happily read middle-grade detective fiction because I enjoy the form, but spec fic has to be extraordinarily good before I will, because I don’t enjoy the genre’s basic characteristics. Unfortunately, readers confuse a subject or form or setting they don’t enjoy with it being ‘bad’. Or they take the weakest examples of a genre, and assume all are equally weak.

    To the book-trade ‘literary’ is just another genre with covers and PR to match: one where prestige and prizes make up for relatively modest sales, and which you can’t classify by plot-style, subject or setting, but only by its style, where the quality of the prose and the complexity of the ideas are as important as the drive to tell a story.

    To me too ‘literary’ is all about quality of prose (painfully lucid, richly baroque, quietly precise, hilariously shrewd, whatever) and complexity and interest of ideas. Both must be in at least some ways original, which of course means that they’re harder to ‘get’ without concentrating. In fact my test of literary quality is partly whether I sense there’s more to be got – of stuff worth bothering with – at a third or fourth reading. Some readers find that sense frustrating. Sometimes that gives rise to the upside-down snobbery (as opposed the usual-way-up snobbery, busy scorning any book that sells by the ton) in assuming that ‘lit’ry’ writers are just doing it to show off or be clever. Some are, most just naturally write that way.

    I do find, though, that the more I work at my own writing, the lower my tolerance is for un-originality in others’ writing, even when it does the job perfectly well, and even when I might enjoy plot and characters. Faced with prose that doesn’t really set my synapses humming and my skin prickling, I usually just find I can’t be bothered.

  11. rosyb
    April 4, 2008

    Sam, I just realised I mixed you up with other Sam and of course you know we do all sorts because you reviewed for us!

    I got the two of you mixed up elsewhere too I remember. What is it with you and your identical monikers? Lovely to see you here btw.

    Emma, that’s far too intelligent for me at one in the morning. i may have to sleep on it and get back to you. 😉 See you tomorrow…(watch this space)

  12. marygm
    April 4, 2008

    You know, Rosy, I was only pulling your leg. But I didn’t mean to kick a woman when she’s down either. (sorry for that strange mix of metaphors there)

    Yes, I agree that people take any comments about genre very (too?) seriously. Maybe it’s because there is a grain of truth in the generalisations just as there is in national stereotypes and the truth hurts. Maybe chick-lit (in general, of course) doesn’t have the quality of prose of other genres, maybe literary fiction is a tad pretentious and maybe science fiction is by and for weirdos who are a bit disconnected from the real world. (OK, sorry everyone, I’m exaggerating for effect. )

    But just as a stereotyped comment about a nation can cause hurt so can a dismissive comment of a genre. Which comes back to your point about ‘I am my genre’. Of course there are lots of great books in each genre, (just as there are lots of generous, spendthrifty Scots:!)) but still…

  13. marygm
    April 4, 2008

    PS there was meant to be a smiley in there at the end but I messed up.:)

  14. rosyb
    April 4, 2008

    Mary! Not only are you pulling and kicking my legs in a most inconvenient manner – but now you have the audacity to attack my national character!!!!
    I might just have to challenge you to a duel. Except I’m a bit too mean to buy a musket. And reluctant to dish out the travel fare to come and fight you fair and square. 🙂

    I think, to be honest, a lot of people who attack genres often know nothing about the genre at all – but think more about the people they believe to read the genre hence ideas of “weirdos who are a bit disconnected from the real world” (and hey, I happen to have one of those as well!) rather than a real knowledge about what books are out there. That’s why I think it is a lot to do with who you are – or, more precisely – who you want to think you are…

    And maybe people feel excluded by certain genres: men from chicklit for example.

    That article about porn is really interesting btw. The way that women are keen fans, yet that would never be marketed at women…food for thought about the difference between the public and private self and what people like and what they have to be seen to like.

    Ponder. Ponder.

  15. Jackie
    April 6, 2008

    This was a well written piece that gave me food for thought. I never realized that people DO identify so strongly with their genre. It almost sounds on par with one’s favorite rock band in regard to allegiance.
    The gender bias with genres bugs me too. Why is their no “guy books”? No they have proper titles for their categories: Westerns, spy thrillers, etc. I agree that the term chicklit is intended to be derogatory and am glad that people are using reverse psychology with it. And a lot of what is considered Classics today, such as the Brontes’ or Austen was the chick lit of their day. So who’s getting the last laugh?
    Nifty lioness pic, too. Can you imagine getting swatted with one of those huge paws?

  16. Sam
    April 7, 2008

    Mhairi and Rosy, I stand corrected:) Shall have to keep a closer eye on the reviews:)


  17. Pingback: war (of words) breaks out « Scandinavian Crime Fiction

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This entry was posted on April 3, 2008 by in Entries by Rosy, Thursday Soapbox and tagged , , , .



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