Four books walk into a bar.


“Tell me something about yourself.” The bartender queries.


“I am a detective novel. A murder has been committed, and I must piece together a jigsaw puzzle.” The first book announces matter-of-fact, systematically arranging the toothpicks and lining up the peanuts.


“I am a romance novel. There are two protagonists, a central story about emotions and a guaranteed HEA.” The second book whispers. “Also, I am rich. I’ll pay everyone’s bill.”


“I am a suspense novel. No, I do not have a twin called Crime or Mystery.” The third book looks around covertly for its doppelganger.


“This is a literary book. It is everything the other three are not.” Curiously, a pre-recorded voice of a literary critic announces on behalf of the fourth book.


The bartender thinks a while and then promptly places a bottle of tequila in front of his patrons. “You guys have issues. You need a drink.”


Hell yes.


What is the identity of a book? It’s a loaded question and can be argued on many levels. From the book’s tangibility, to its cerebral presence, a book can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Classification of books is primarily done to establish a standardised supply chain between the author and the reader. It’s simply a means to make sure that a book reaches its actively seeking and passively unaware readers. Anyone wanting to read about World War, or about parenting, or a romance,  or about art history, will be able to identify the most probable place to look for such a book. It’s the first clue a reader has while seeking a certain book. So, for an author, it’s important to be in the right place to be found. Without genres or categories, the sales people at publishing houses wouldn’t know how to sell a book, and book store workers wouldn’t know where to shelve it (Vivian 2011). A category is the address where the author and the reader meet; their first point of contact. Two very distinctive addresses being literary and genre. The former is more revered, while the latter is more popular.


Genre fiction, which includes books like crime, suspense, mystery, romance, science-fiction, is generally considered formulaic. What is formulaic fiction? It’s the type of fiction that adheres to the pre-set parameters of a genre. Books in each category follow a certain trope and build a plot that is engaging and entertaining, but doesn’t venture too far out of the prescribed lines.


Why do people read what they read? There are abundant of reasons, some of them better or worse than the others and many of them mutually contradictory. Some people read to pass time. Some read to savor the existence of time; sometimes to escape into someone else’s world; or to find themselves in another’s world; at times to flee from need for rational explanations; or to exercise their critical capabilities (Lesser 2014). Every reader that picks a book has some form of motivation for doing so. A book, no matter how well written, will be nothing without its reader.


The reader, while making a choice of reading a book, is effectively entering a contract with the author. A book is chosen based on the author’s profile, the genre, cover, description, review, possibly a sample page and sometimes serendipity. Novice readers might sometimes miss the available cues but experienced readers have developed an intuition and broad familiarity with the books and authors (Ross, Before Reading 2014).


The genre selected by the reader sets the benchmark for reader’s expectations. What started as a means to facilitate trade logistics – the categories, now defines the content that gets written. The publishing world self-regulates itself over a period.


What are these genre specific expectations?


Mystery readers know what to expect when they pick up a detective story. A murder has been committed, the reader is involved, along with the detective (and a possible side-kick), in sifting through clues to uncover a hidden, anterior story that happened off the pages, before the detective arrived. The writer needs to provide all evidence concerning the truth in early pages and yet, keep the reader guessing until the last page. In 1920s this genre was consolidated and rules were set. These rules specify the role of the detective and an introduction of criminal as a character. The writer needs to play fair with reader when presenting clues and use logic to solve the mystery. Supernatural agents, love interest, solving crime by accident, by intuition or by Ouija board are excluded (Ross, Detective, Mystery and Crime Fiction 2014).


A Gothic fiction is a genre obsessively focused on the house. It can be female or male centric. This category has been the parent to detective, ghost, horror and romantic suspense. The plot is all about uncovering a secret that has happened before the story began; a missing family tome or opening of a taboo chamber in the house? The narrative is nested in layers to create distance between the reader and the reality (Ross, Gothic 2014).


The love story has a long history, with happy outcomes such as Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and tragedies like Romeo and Juliet. In today’s publishing scenario, the definition of a romance novel is much narrower. The consensus seems to be that a romance novel is something broad enough to include Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and Gone with the Wind, but narrow enough to exclude The Bridges of Madison County. A romance can have various elements from other genres – a historical, kidnap and espionage plots, sports theme settings, vampires, werewolves, aliens, and so on. But the central theme is always between the hero and heroine, as they move from misunderstanding, oftentimes dislike at the onset of the book, to declared love at the end. Everything else is secondary. A happily-ever-after (HEA) is a part of the contract between the reader and the author. The key is to achieve right balance of fantasy and realism, with a fairy-tale narrative trajectory placed into a recognizable world (Ross, Romance Fiction 2014).


Horror readers expect to be scared. This genre sees a lot of overlap from other genres like crime and science fiction as scariness is subjective. What might be horror for some, might not be for others. Horror is a fantasy that touches the reader’s deepest fears, where the universe is fundamentally malevolent and a reflection of the society as it exists today. The horror reader simply wants to confront his/her fears. Horror books give their readers the permission to explore their darker fantasies (Ross, Horror 2014).


Considering the expectations that are pre-established by the publishing industry, is it fair to call out the genre books for being formulaic? What is a formula anyway? In this case, a formula is a product of reader’s expectations and publishing standards. Literary fiction is quietly distanced from genre and its restricting parameters by simply being whatever genre fiction is not. The authors that do not follow these rules, do not find their audience and those who follow these rules are relegated to sub-par writing retention room (Mcgrath 2017). It doesn’t seem right.


The society that we live in today is a result of rules and regulations. Work and worship, family and love, celebration and death, everything is defined by rules. We know rules. We follow rules. We occasionally break rules. Rules exist to eliminate confusion and establish a way of life.


To go beyond the boundaries, one must identify them first. The tabla – a membranophone percussion instrument consisting of a pair of drums, used in traditional, classical and folk music in India is played with Taals – one of them being a combination of sixteen beats called the “Teental”. A tabla player creates music with these sixteen beats, using pressure, placement, momentum and speed. These beats can be played in various permutations and combinations to produce music. It’s amazing, the variations in rendition of a tabla, considering its limited sound repertoire. But then, music isn’t just about the sounds that you hear, but also about the silence between two notes, that adds to the depth of the music itself. This pause, or nothingness, between two notes is called Naad. It’s a Sanskrit word that means “primordial sound” in English. The sound which exists and is not produced by striking two objects. This is the sound of the cosmos and of human consciousness, an ultimate sound that transcends space and time, a sound that has no beginning or end. The entire world of music is defined by the rules. The guitar has six strings, the piano has 88 keys and the flute has eight air holes. The form of the musical instruments is just a point of departure, rather than the defining quality of music it can produce. What music it makes, in the hands of the right musician, is what counts.


Similarly, a book is not merely the permutation and combination of words strung together to form a story, but also what the reader reads between the lines; what they experience; what they remember when the book is finished. Genre fiction is all about the Naad. It plays within the genre rules, yet reinvents itself every time, to deliver a different plot and experience to its reader.


The art world mimics these boundaries too. Every painter starts with a canvas and a set of colors. But great art is not defined by the size of its canvas or the amount of colors. What defines great art is the use of the canvas, the symphony between the colors applied, the emotion conveyed, the treatment of chiaroscuro and how the overall painting interacts with the observer. The Late M.F. Hussain, a modern cubist painter of Indian decent, who gathered lot of critical acclaim internationally, was well-known for not painting the face and limbs of the subjects in his paintings. His rationale was that his work was at a higher level of abstraction and didn’t require conventional forms.


Similarly, genre fiction takes its point of departure from the basic understanding of its readership and the author then paints the canvas with myriad shades, to be enjoyed by the right reader, at the right time. The contract between the author and reader needs to be fulfilled. Yes, these boundaries are supposed to be pushed and it happens every once in a while. It’s a continuous process. Lines get blurred as one genre mixes with another; a romance is mixed with suspense, a sci-fi book pairs with mystery, a horror meets Gothic. In the digital age of today, where feedback is seamless and instant, an author has a fair idea about what the reader wants.


To say that literary writers are superior to genre writers would be unfair. Yes, literary writing showcases the beauty of the language more adeptly when compared to genre writing, but then, that’s the part of the contract between the literary writer and reader. The prose must shine. There is no such expectation in genre writing, which isn’t to say that genre readers don’t appreciate well written words. But for them, reading is more about the sound between the words, rather than the words themselves. Ultimately, various styles of writing exist because the readers read at different levels.


Ask anyone what their favorite song is? Or who their favorite painter is? Or which is their favorite book? The answer would always be a function of your perception, mood, awareness and consciousness. The answer would always be what resonates the most in that moment.


The so called ‘formula’ of genre writing is a part of the equation between the reader and the author. It should be kept away from generalization because it’s between the genre writer and the reader. An outsider will never understand the language of a romance or mystery book. Only a genre fan can do it. Like pattern is necessary to produce a rhythm, like a color story is necessary to produce art, genre fiction needs to follow certain rules to be able to deliver what it promises. Call it formulaic or label it something else, but it is exactly what the readers want.


Every sunset is beautiful. Is the sun just a round ball of fire with burnished hues? It comes up and goes down every day. So, what makes it so beautiful? You need the observer’s eyes to appreciate the beauty of a sunset. It’s personal.


Like the choices of a reader. They are personal too.


Anumeha Gokhale



Jodie Archer, Matthew L.Jockers. 2016. The Bestseller Code. New York: St. Martin Press.

Lesser, Wendy. 2014. “Why I Read.” 3-10. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Lisa Adams, John Heath. 2007. Why We Read What We Read. Illinois: Sourcebooks.

Mcgrath, Taylor. 2017. “The Head and the Heart: A Call for Literary Standards in Genre Fiction.” 10 29. Accessed 11 21, 2017.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Before Reading.” In The Pleasures Of Reading, 16-22. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Detective, Mystery and Crime Fiction.” In The Pleasures Of Reading, 37-49. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Gothic.” In The Pleasure Of Reading, 65-74. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Horror.” In The Pleasures of Reading, 75-81. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Romance Fiction.” In The Pleasures of Reading, 166-80. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. 2011. On Reading. London: The Belknap Press.

Vivian. 2011. Kvetch of the Day. 09 30. Accessed 11 22, 2017.



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.

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