Read, and let Read

In light of this ridiculous article on the differences between “mainstream” and “literary” writing, I’ve decided to reprint here an article I originally wrote several years ago.

So what is the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction? James Cowan says literary fiction “endure[s] in the imagination”, while genre fiction is an “opiate… designed to titillate”. Judy Wilson says literary fiction is “craft” and genre fiction is “production line work”. Nancy J. Holland says literary fiction is “intellectual work”, “artful”, “new richness”, while genre fiction is “low brow”, “flat, without depth”, “the exact same thing”. Rosemary Neill says literary fiction is “chiselled out over six years”, while genre fiction is “tossed off in six weeks”. Hmm…. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a distinct feeling that these people think literary fiction is better than genre fiction. Of course, that would explain why lit fic is the default setting in the Australian literary community: it wins the lucrative awards, gets most of the review space, does better in arts funding. And yet, nobody has ever managed to explain to me satisfactorily why literary fiction is so superior to genre fiction.

But, of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I? I am steeped in the worlds of genre fiction, both as a writer and as a reader, and have been since I found my way through the back of the wardrobe at age 7. I learned a particular way of reading—a set of competencies, if you will—that continues to colour the way I read today. And if there’s any point I want to make above all others, this is it: what we have read and enjoyed in the past primes us for a particular kind of reception of certain works. If you are a fan of lit fic, I can almost guarantee you won’t find “quality” in the genres that I find it in. It may surprise you to know that I don’t find much to like in lit fic either: it kind of all looks the same to me.

I like to explain it this way: there is a lot of pleasure to be taken from familiarity—coming home is always nice, as is putting on worn-in shoes, or heading out to a favourite restaurant, or upholding a family ritual. There’s also the distaste we feel for too much predictability—some of us just can’t be “it’s Tuesday so it’s meatloaf” people. Where familiarity tips over into predictability is going to be unique for everyone. A fantasy novel with a medieval setting is always welcome on my bookshelf (pleasure in familiarity) but I will roll my eyes if it features a farm boy who doesn’t know he’s the prophesied saviour of his realm (contempt for predictability). The interesting thing is that if we read in other genres where we feel no pleasurable familiarity, all that is left is contemptible predictability. So, if you’re a lit fic reader and you pick up a book about dragons and castles (maybe even dragons that live in castles), you’re probably already rolling your eyes. How predictable! But, if you’re a fantasy reader and you pick up a book about the struggles of small-town folk, written in a self-conscious overly stylised way, you roll your eyes pretty fast too. Lit fic is utterly predictable to people who don’t read it, trust me. “But that’s only because they don’t understand it!” you say.

Yeah. Ditto.

Why do I even care, you may ask. If I like what I like and you like what you like, then let’s stop all this fighting (and may I just add with a petulant whine: “lit fic started it!”). But there’s more at stake, as I see it, than just a squabble over who deserves the good reviews and who deserves the cashola (tip: both kinds of authors want good reviews and cashola, preferably in large measure). The problem is that as long as we perpetuate this divide between worthy writing (lit fic) and other writing (genre fiction), then we aren’t getting a robust idea of what Australian literature really is.

An article published in 2006 in The Australian asks, what is “killing the great books” of Australia. It suggests that in 25 years “nobody will be reading novels” and cites alarming statistics for the “shrinking canon” of “Australian fiction.” How terrifying! You have to look really hard to find the asterisk and the subscript: “excludes genre fiction.” But fiction written in Australia by Australian writers and published by Australian publishers…. that’s Australian fiction, right? Right? Well, apparently not. And the choice of language is so telling: Australian literature has become far too “exclusive” and our understanding of its function and influence is therefore very incomplete. We discuss and analyse Australian literature to understand our culture better, to know what is unique about us. From this discussion and analysis we plan arts policy, decide how government and arts organisations should work together, settle on funding priorities, and review the ways that readers and books are brought together. And yet we are basing all these conclusions on only one small sliver of Australian literature: we continue to exclude the majority of books. It is such a blinkered approach. The defence, often trotted out, that genre books do well in the marketplace and so don’t need any kind of cultural or governmental attention is stunningly naive. Last time I looked, Kate Grenville was selling a lot more books than I do.

Moreover, we need to respect more fully the needs and opinions of readers. They are, after all, the chief reason that writers publish. Anyone can write for the sake of writing, but somebody who seeks publication seeks an audience. That audience is developed in many ways, and one of them is through the mainstream media. But in the literary pages of the mainstream media, again, we see a bias against genre writing. In 2003 Peter Carey’s lit fic My Life As A Fake and Lian Hearn’s fantasy novel Grass For His Pillow were published a month apart (August and September respectively). Both sold in the 30,000 to 40,000 hardcover sales category, a significant bestseller by Australian standards. Over the next nine months, the Australian media ran 70 headlines out of 367 articles about Carey; and only 7 headlines out of 49 articles about Hearn. The same year, Jane Goodall’s The Walker and Gabrielle Lord’s Lethal Factor (both crime novels) sold comparably to Janette Turner Hospital’s Due Preparations For The Plague (11000 to 12000 copies). In the eighteen months surrounding the books’ publications, Goodall garnered 17 mentions in the Australian media, Lord 19 and Turner Hospital 56. The example of romance fiction, a genre usually held in low esteem, offers no surprises. Belinda Alexandra’s White Gardenia attracted 2 headlines (one titled “Flower Power”), while Melanie La’Brooy’s Love Struck attracted 4. Alex Miller’s Journey To The Stone Country, which sold similar quantities in that year, attracted 29 headlines out of a total of 86 articles. Yes, okay Miller won the Miles Franklin that year, but it still shows that books of comparable commercial significance receive unequal attention from the Australian media based on genre. In real terms, these figures suggest that readers are going to have a much harder time finding articles about their favourite genre authors, than about their favourite lit fic authors. Number one: that’s not fair. Number two: is there a chance that the low regard for these books might actually make readers feel ashamed or stupid for reading them?

The latter idea is one that particularly irks me, and feeds into one of my biggest issues with the way that lit fic is assumed to be our default mode of Australian writing: it’s plain undemocratic. I’m always amazed at how elitist lovers of lit fic can be about fiction, especially when so many of them seem lefter than Lenin in other ways. Dan Brown recently published a new novel, The Lost Symbol, six years after The Da Vinci Code. The new book was the very definition of “long-awaited”: both by readers and by snarky reviewers. It was entirely predictable, then, that shots would be fired the moment the book hit the stores. An article in UK publication The First Post, for example, warned readers not to be “tempted” to buy it as there are so many books by “better writers” out there. The article then goes on to suggest a number of alternatives. Some of them look good; some of them, I’m certain, Dan Brown readers will have already found (Stieg Larsson’s for example). But some of them belong to the School of Wha…? Imagine this exchange in a book store:

CUSTOMER: Excuse me, I am looking for the new Dan Brown novel.
SALES ASSISTANT: I’m sorry, but we’re fresh out. However, I do have many copies of Paradise Lost still in stock.
CUSTOMER: Wonderful. I will take a copy as I am sure they will provide a similar reading experience.

Seriously? Paradise Lost? I’ve read both John Milton and Dan Brown and, just quietly, they’ve not a lot in common. There’s so much wrong with this article. It bags the common reader’s taste; it assumes (incorrectly) that it knows why the common reader reads the books they do; and it suggests that the common reader read something a little less common as it would be Improving. I am reminded of the shout line that appears on Umberto Eco’s official website regarding his book Foucault’s Pendulum: it’s “a thinking man’s Da Vinci Code.” A thinking man? Let’s put aside the gender issue (that noise, by the way, is the grinding of my teeth) but what on earth has given Eco the notion that Dan Brown readers don’t think? Is it just because they’re not thinking of Foucault because, I’ve got to tell you, I sometimes go weeks without a single Foucault-related thought. Making an audience feel dumb is a really good way to lock them out of an art form all together. Why would you read if you were in danger of being outed as an unthinking woman? Every time I hear somebody say they felt embarrassed about reading a book on the train (usually a romance), I want to weep. Read what you like; life is so short and books are so much fun.

I realise that much of what I say may be uncomfortable for many supporters of lit fic to hear. Am I an insane relativist, hell-bent on the destruction of all that is good in overworked metaphors? No, I’m not. I am a critical reader, and I acknowledge that some writing is much better than other writing. I just don’t believe that all the quality is located in one genre. This is an idea that gains traction by our insistence on seeing lit fic and genre fiction as opposites. They aren’t. Lit fic is a genre, just like crime or fantasy or romance.

Genres aren’t as rule-bound as people generally believe. Sure, there are some familiar aspects to genres (that’s how we recognise them as genres), but genres are actually a product of complex processes that are continually being negotiated and renegotiated between authors and their readers and the industry that brings them together. Genres are changing and shifting all the time, spawning sub-genres and hybrids. The real difference between lit fic and genre fiction is that lit fic is the only genre that doesn’t know it’s a genre. It likes to think it follows no well-worn paths. But it does: that’s how you know a lit fic novel when you see one. It centres on recognisable material, follows a recognisable trajectory, makes use of a recognisable style.
It’s interesting to note that film criticism has nowhere near the difficulty talking about genres that literature does. Romantic comedies, thrillers, and art-house are all genres. Nobody tries to claim that some films fall outside classification because of their quality and originality. Art-house produces quite a few pointless turkeys, and the occasional romcom is a work of art (ah… The Wedding Singer…). If you take the 10% across the top of all the genres you find the best quality films. Same for literature. We must move past the idea that, in the field of writing, all the quality is aggregated in the one place.

How we define quality is, of course, a slippery operation. It seems to me that we are stuck in a mindset, characteristic of the late 20th /early 21st century, that says originality is king. Originality is great, I absolutely agree, but I’m uncomfortable with holding it up as the single defining marker of quality writing. Are writers supposed to be telling stories or conducting experiments? Forgive me, but I believe very firmly it’s the former. The impulse to experience a story—to move through beginning, middle, and end—is a profoundly and uniquely human pleasure. I think, in our attempt to define quality, one thing has been continually overlooked: heart.

Heart is what I always look for in a book: a deep, human connection with the characters that is unique and feels real. I like a book that can make me cry, or make me laugh, or frighten me, or provoke joy, or temper my fear of death; then slam me home again, leaving me with the feeling that I’ve been somewhere wonderful and I’m a better person for it. For preference, I like all of these things in the one book. A book should read as though it’s been written with care and passion and deep commitment. And I don’t care if it took six weeks or six years: just however long it took is fine. Nobody calls Handel a hack for writing The Messiah in 24 days. Problem is, heart is often confounded with sentimentality, which, I understand, is a very grievous sin in the lit fic world. And so, much lit fic, to my mind, is detached, cold, overly intellectual, circuitous, iterative, never quite gets to the thing of it. But, yes, I concede that it’s often more original. Though originality doesn’t inspire me to press a book close to my bosom and sigh.

But I don’t hate lit fic; I don’t see it as my enemy. I want lit fic lovers to keep reading it and loving it. People who love to read are the best kind of people in the world. All I’m trying to do in this article is challenge a few misconceptions, and open up a space for mutual understanding instead of mutual suspicion. Read and let read, I say. Write and let write.