The Head and the Heart: A Call for Literary Standards in Genre Fiction

 

The Head and the Heart:

A Call for Literary Standards in Genre Fiction

By: Taylor McGrath

               It is in the nature of humankind to be compelled by emotions. As Aristotle spoke of while outlining the available means of persuasion and creating the standard guidelines for rhetoric that have been used, dissected, analyzed, and used again for centuries, there are three main strategies for making a point: ethos, logos, and pathos. With an ethos-based approach, the arguer relies on the credibility of his or her sources to convince the audience. Logos relies on the clear logic of the argument – if x equals y and y equals z, then x must equal z. Lastly, the use of pathos relies on an appeal to the emotions of the audience. It is what makes those ASPCA commercials with Sarah McLachlan crooning in the background so memorable and guilt-inducing. Every book is an argument, and thus every book relies on one of these three basic tenets of persuasion. Genre fiction is known for its reliance on the appeal to emotions. Romance novels tug on the heartstrings and inspire desire, thrillers instill fear, and mystery novels engender anticipation. Bets hedged, most readers do not begin Fifty Shades of Grey with the intention of being wowed by the literary excellence of E.L. James’ sex scenes. The serialized thousands of romance novels produced every year all fall into the same formulaic pattern — but they also make serious money and account for a huge chunk of annual book sales. Likewise, literary fiction is known for its appeal to logic. The reason literary fiction is compelling is because it challenges the reader’s thoughts and preconceptions; it enchants the mind. While overlap certainly exists between genre and literary fiction, the two subsects of literature are and continue to become evermore stratified. What this results in is a preclusion of categorized “genre” fiction from the status of “literary excellence.” Publishers produce books a certain way for a certain audience, and then readers get accustomed to the books they want to read being produced that way, so publishers have to continue to make sure their books are marketed, designed, and written in the way that everyone is used to. It has become a constant feedback loop, a standard that perpetually reinforces itself and makes the gap between “genre” and “literary” fiction wider and wider. The stratification of literary and genre fiction is as ingrained today and it ever has been, and the arbitrary division of the two prevents either from meeting its full potential. It is time that the gatekeepers of both literary novels and genre novels start to scrutinize their own intentions and make changes to a system that continually reinforces a false dichotomy.

It is important to pay attention to what factors in history played a part in the separation of genre and literary novels: sexism. Today, Jane Austen’s novels are considered well within the realm of the literary classic canon. However, they weren’t in their own day and age (Vivanco 200). They were considered romance — novels written by and for women. In Austen’s era, this wasn’t uncommon; it was the rule, rather than the exception. Austen definitely played a large part in blazing the trails for women writers. Her contemporaries, namely the three Bronte sisters, were well aware of the standard practices of literature as a men’s stomping ground, and to counteract that automatic prejudice chose to publish their own works under male nom de plumes (“Bronte”). Over time, of course, it was universally recognized that the “romance novels” that these women produced were nothing short of brilliant. High literature was, without contention, “an old boy’s club,” with male writers in the 1800s and beyond typically not shying away from voicing their opinions on women entering the literary scene. A woman simply committing the act of writing was often enough to be deemed “radical,” and men decried the existence of these “bluestocking” feminists that pushed such a progressive agenda. Women were, in fact, often relegated into certain types of writing — domestic life and (you guessed it) romance being some of the few subjects that women had the right to write about. Women who could not fund the publishing of their own work often went without being published at all; Austen herself searched for fifteen years before finding a publisher willing to take on her work (“Austen”). It goes without saying that the times have changed; the highest paid and most famous living author of current day is a woman, women consistently win literary awards of high prestige, and Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre have all the recognition of excellence that they are due. However, the lingering sexism inherent in the days of old helped shape the practices that preclude romance novels from being subject to the same editorial scrutiny as “literary” novels. Romance is still recognized as a genre intended to be written by women, for women, and often falls on weak, formulaic tropes as a result.

The fact of the matter is that romance novels and other genre fiction make money like no other category of writing out there. Though we laud Yann Martel and George Saunders as critically acclaimed and masters of the pen, these authors’ titles rake in only a fraction of what the romance genre does. In an analysis conducted by Thomas Stewart for The Richest, it was found that romance novels, as of 2014, bring in nearly $1.5 billion USD, or around $1.925 billion CAD (Stewart). The next biggest genre in terms of profit is crime, standing at $728.2 million — a figure that is notably half as large as the romance genre. The genres of religion, sci-fi/fantasy, and horror round out the top five types of books that make the most money. Stewart didn’t limit his analysis to just genre, which makes the discovery that the most lucrative books to publish have one thing in common so much more significant — they are (with, perhaps, the exception of religious books) genre fiction. As Stewart writes,

“They all come from widely varying backgrounds, their novels are incomparable, and their styles disparate. However, each of these writers have one area of common ground; their successful novels are specifically ‘genre’ works. These authors are known, respectively, for fantasy, romance and mystery – and if the statistics show us anything it’s that genre books sell better than your average literary piece, short story collection or poetry.” (Stewart)

So, if genre fiction novels make money, why are they pigeon-holed as books written by “certain writers” for “certain presses” that publish that kind of thing? We must come back to the idea of the “mission to civilize.” Each press has a drive to publish the works the wish to be associated with: What works are we putting into the world? What are we known for? Literary presses publish literary works, and genre presses publish genre works. No one expects a Harlequin romance or vampire thriller novel to land on the Giller Prize longlist – and for good reason. Your standard Harlequin romance reads  like the formula for making carbon dioxide into oxygen: well-known and acknowledged by just about everyone who has ever bothered to look into it. The issue needs to be addressed by both sides, then. It is on literary presses to scrutinize why they don’t publish romance novels, and it is on genre presses to scrutinize whether reliance on formulaic undercuts the value of the entire genre. The incentive is clearly there for both: genre fiction makes money, and no press is going to deny what an important factor that is.

A fair argument would be that sexism isn’t the only thing that divides genre fiction (and romance novels in particular) from literary fiction. This is noticeable in the reliance on formulaic plot in genre fiction that is innately absent from literary works. As Laura Vivanco argues, however, it is not that genre fiction cannot be beautifully crafted, but rather that it has been allowed to not be for so long. Vivanco’s For Love and Money The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance analyzes the mimetics and mythoi of romantic novels. As she states, “Many of the mythoi, intertextual references, and metaphors they use draw on literary tradition” (Vivanco 203). The potential for literary excellence is there; there is nothing about the essence of “genre” that makes it impossible for it to also be “literary.” As others have noted, the term “literary” does not, in fact,” have much denotative meaning. It carries heavy connotations — high standards, excellence, interest, intrigue, beauty —  but in most cases, “literary” as a genre is defined only in negation of other genres. Claire Squires, in Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain, notes that “‘Literary’ is then an assurance of quality, a guarantee that what is to be approached here is ‘good’ writing” (Squires 4). She goes on: “Any subject, or plot line, could potentially pertain to a literary novel” (5). There is nothing inherent in the term “literary” that should bar the inclusion of a genre novel’s plot, she acknowledges, though she goes on to explain the many ways they are. Steven Connor, in The English Novel in History: 1950 – 1995, explains: “Literary fiction is usually defined by negation — it is not formula fiction or genre fiction, not mass-market or best-selling fiction — and, by subtraction, it is what is left once most of the conditions that obtain in contemporary publishing are removed” (Connor 19). It is a false dichotomy; this definition by negation imagines literary novels and genre novels as on two opposite sides of some spectrum, when in reality it is entirely possible for a work to be both. Ask Jane Austen — she’d tell you.

To go back to Aristotle and his lessons in ethos, pathos, and logos — there are three main strategies used to persuade an audience, yes, but the argument is always going to be stronger when one uses more than one of these available means of persuasion. As Squires states, “The cultural assumptions that give rise to genre hierarchies are naturally open to question — why, after all, should a work of art be regarded more highly because it appeals to the head rather than the heart?” (79 Squires). Perhaps the answer is to appeal to both the head and the heart. To be fair, the overlap of genre and literary fiction already exists in the published works of today; it is sitting there, waiting to be acknowledged. Perhaps then can the books of tomorrow be crafted a different way.

Works Cited

“Austen, Jane.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia (2016): 1p. 1. Funk & Wagnalls New

World Encyclopedia. Accessed 29 Oct. 2017.

Behrendt, Stephen C. British Women Poets And The Romantic Writing Community. Baltimore:

Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Accessed 29

Oct. 2017.

“Brontë.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia (2016): 1p. 1. Funk & Wagnalls New

World Encyclopedia. Accessed 29 Oct. 2017.

Connor, Steven. The English Novel In History: 1950 – 1995. Routledge, 1996.

Franklin, Caroline. ““The Colour Of A Riband”: Patriotism, History And The Role Of Women In

Helen Maria Williams’s Sketches Of Manners And Opinions In The French Republic

(1801).” Women’s Writing 13.3 (2006): 495-508. Historical Abstracts. Accessed 29 Oct. 2017.

Makala, Melissa Edmunson. Women’s Ghost Literature In Nineteenth-Century Britain. Cardiff:

University of Wales Press, 2013. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Accessed 29 Oct. 2017.

Squires, Claire. Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain, Palgrave

Macmillan, 2007.

Stewart, Thomas. “Which 5 Book Genres Make the Most Money?” The Richest, 31 January

2014, http://www.therichest.com/rich-list/which-5-book-genres-make-the-most-money/

Vivanco, Laura. For Love and Money : The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon

Romance, Humanities-Ebooks, LLP, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,

https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/lib/sfu-ebooks/detail.action?docID=33

06112.

2 Responses to The Head and the Heart: A Call for Literary Standards in Genre Fiction

  1. trentongalozo says:

    Hi Taylor,

    I’m a little early to the comment game, but your topic caught my attention and I wanted to weigh in, specifically on “It is a false dichotomy; this definition by negation imagines literary novels and genre novels as on two opposite sides of some spectrum, when in reality it is entirely possible for a work to be both.”

    Just a 45 minute busride west is UBC, where I took creative writing courses (many), but it only takes the very rudimentary, introductory Intro to Fiction class to be exposed to the deceptively innocent teaching that literary fiction is a genre unto itself opposite of genre fiction. Essentially they defined genre fiction as being externally plot driven and literary fiction as internally character driven stories. At UBC, at least, literary snobbery is almost nonexistent and they encourage writing of genre or literary value (in the courses available outside of the major). But they still teach that dichotomy and that dichotomy inherently carries the literary snobbery and the feeling that producing a work of fantasy or scifi or romance or mystery will amount to a work without literary merit.

    I think one of the issues with “literary fiction”, the connotation attached to it, and how it is taught in the creative writing courses, is that it labels a very narrow selection of all literature and carries so many preconceptions that it limits creativity; as much as literary formula is about defying formula, it itself almost has a rigid ‘formula’ to be adhered to: it must follow these rules; it must not be formulaic; it must do this but not that; etc. Literary fiction is it’s own genre rather than a quality of existing genres.

    I’ve had many debates with older teachers about litery fiction versus “fantasy” in that beowulf is fantasy no matter how much literary merit it has. That it is fantasy does not detract from that literary merit. But there are such deeply ingrained connotations around the words describing the catagories of books, and “genre” ficiton like fantasy and scifi and romance, have garnered such negative cultural connotation that works of fantasy or scifi or romance that are considered literary must be stripped of their “genre” categorizations to let the literary label sit on it pure and unsoiled.

    I point to your example of Jane Austen. Her novels are today considered literary but in her day were considered romance. But people are reluctant, especially in an academic context, in my experiences, to label them “romance” now because of the negative connotation of that term, so it must be described as literary and literary only. But romance does not preclude literary. It’s interesting to have that anecdote put into the context of sexism and how sexism has played a role in creating this polarization of genre and literary.

    Thanks for writing, I enjoyed reading!

  2. anumeha2000 says:

    Hi Taylor,

    I really enjoyed your essay. A lot of your arguments mirrored the ones I made in my own essay. The following line stood out for me –

    “Literary fiction is usually defined by negation — it is not formula fiction or genre fiction, not mass-market or best-selling fiction — and, by subtraction, it is what is left once most of the conditions that obtain in contemporary publishing are removed”

    Literary writing, it seems, is a process of elimination, rather than selection. It is classified not on the bases of what it is, but on what it is not. That is ironical, indeed. The merit of great writing should be free of any pre-conditions.

    As you pointed out, romance is often called formulaic. I wonder if that is entirely true. With an exception of Harlequin romances, which do follow similar plot and story-lines, romance as a genre is much wider than we give it credit for.

    I would like to refer to what Ms. Susan Safyan, editor of Arsenal Pulp Press, discussed in the Pub601 class. She talked about the difference between a story and a plot. The former is about what happens, while the latter is about how it happens. Author E.M. Forster talked about narrative craft in his book, Aspects of the Novel. He delineated the difference between story and plot. A plot, according to Forster, is a, ‘narrative of events, with the emphasis on causality.’ A story, on the other hand, is ‘a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence.’ To put it simply—‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story, while ‘The king died and then queen died of grief’ is the plot (Story Insight 2001).

    ‘Protagonist stumbles into a brave new world. At first he/she is transfixed by its splendor and glamour, but slowly things become more sinister . . .’ If original story-line is a measure of literary merit, then Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Life on Mars, and Gulliver’s Travels should not score very high. They have the same story-line after all (Yorke 2016).

    Yes, most romances might follow ‘boy meets girl’ and ‘happily ever after’ storyline, but there is so much room for creativity where the plot lines are concerned. One only has to go through dozens of romance sub categories on Amazon to get a fair idea about the span of romance as a genre. Questioning the merit of romance books because they end predictably is like rejecting to watch any sport because you know one of the teams will win.

    A book can take its reader on a vivid, imaginary trip. The journey is as important as the destination. And that stands true for every reader; literary or genre doesn’t matter. What matters, is the ultimate experience any book can give its reader.

    Works Cited
    Story Insight. Aspects of the Novel. 2001. http://www.storyinsight.com/techniques/media/forster.html (accessed 11 18, 2017).
    Yorke, John. The Atlantic – All Stories Are the Same. 01 01, 2016. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/01/into-the-woods-excerpt/421566/ (accessed 11 18, 2017).

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