I love Tin House. I really, really do. Most of the time. They put out a great mag, they hold fantastic classes (I’ve heard) and they are situated right in my former neck of the woods. (On the other hand, I’ll admit, I was slightly less than impressed with their collection, Do Me: Sex Tales from Tin House. Fantastic fucking cover, but the inside, with a few exceptions, left me dry. As one Amazon reviewer put it (and I have to agree), “Though it boasts a risqué title and cunning cover art, the majority of the stories and essays collected here put the emphasis on the “Me,” rather than the “Do.”)).
But that’s a tangent. Right now, Tin House has an interesting discussion going on about genre writing. Well, sort of interesting. Also, sort of infuriating. Since at least parts of it seem to subscribe to that age-old (and in my opinion, rather outdated) idea that genre writing is just hack. Granted, they’re talking about what they’re looking for in stories, so it’s very much used in a specifc context and probably shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But, oh, this irks me to no end (bold emphasis is mine):
I think you know genre fiction when you read it. My personal definition goes something like this: fiction that almost purposefully avoids the literary, in hopes of keeping the reader (or the writer, for that matter) from having to “work” too hard. It also tends to employ some stock tricks, like ending very short chapters with cliffhangers, often hopping predictably from one POV to another. Characters tend to be one-dimensional, with the kind of awkward and false-sounding dialog you’d expect.
Genre writers know their audience, and it’s a large one: John Grisham sold 60,742,288 books during the 1990s. That’s certainly nothing to sneeze at, and I won’t do that here. But that audience, for reasons that sometimes seem obvious and sometimes are madly mysterious, is almost universally not interested in the same things we are.
We’re interested in good stories.
See, the thing that bothers me is not just the implication that genre works aren’t good writing, but the suggestion that those of us who read genre aren’t interested in good stories.
Now, to be fair, there’s some shitty genre stuff out there. There really is. But there’s also a fair amount of shitty literary work out there — work that sounds like it all came out of the same college class, stories that are so high-brow and boring that you can barely get through it, stories that are near identical recaps of every classic anything you’ve ever read.
I work my ass off every day to give my genre stories what I believe matters. Realistic characters. Lyrical language. Reader delight and surprise. Solid plot. Sensory details. The list goes on and on.
I read for the same things that I write for. My reading list at the moment (these are just the books by my bed at the moment, plus what I’m reading online; I’m sure there are more scattered around the house) runs from Tim Pratt’s Bone Shop to Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job to Annie Proux’s Close Range to the Iliad to Laurence Sternes’ The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy to Stephen King’s Bag of Bones to about six different poetry collections to The World Guide to Mushrooms to Oliver Sack’s Musicophilia. Yeah, I don’t have varied reading tastes or anything. Neither do you, I’m sure.
This kind of attitude and belief also makes my job as a teacher so much more difficult. When students come to me and say, “What is genre?” I try to teach them that there are certain tropes and reader reactions that go with each genre, but that the definition has nothing to do with poor quality, lack of solid characters or a simplified plot. I want anyone who’s attempting to write genre fiction to understand that it must be good fiction, even if you take out the ‘genre’ bit.
I think what I want to say is this: Isn’t it time we got over this ‘us’ versus ‘them’ shit? Isn’t it time we joined together and called great literature for what it is (and did the same with bad literature) without dividing it by anything but the level of quality?
But mostly I want to say: Please stop trying to put me (and my writing) in a box. It’s not a good fit, and my legs are getting cramped.
What do you have to say about genre, quality, reading pleasure and “real” literature?
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
“Genre aside, I’d like to make a film about people.” ~Sophie Marceau
PS — [Added] Some addition places to find responses and thoughts on the matter:
- The Mumpsimus
- Ways to End the World
- An articulate and intelligent follow up to the original post, on Tin House blog.
PPS — Picture by this artist.