Genre

“Genre is a dirty word in Canadian fiction,” writes the crime novelist Sam Wiebe[1]. This sentiment, however, is not exclusive to Canada. There seems to exist an “unspoken hierarchy”[2] about fiction writing in most places across the world, with literary fiction representing everything that is artistically intellectual and ‘highbrow’, and genre becoming synonymous with ‘pulpy’ entertainment. In his New Yorker article titled “Easy Writers,” Arthur Krystal perfectly encapsulates this binary with the following analogy: “For the longest time, there was little ambiguity between literary fiction and genre fiction: one was good for you, one simply tasted good. You could either go to an amusement park or trundle off to a museum, ride a roller coaster or stroll among the Flemish Masters.”[3] And since “we’re still judged by the books we read,”[4] genre fiction, for many, simply becomes a ‘guilty pleasure’.

 

Nevertheless, over the last decade, this hierarchical segmentation of literary vs. genre fiction as ‘high’ culture and ‘low’ culture has become the subject of much volatile and dynamic cultural debate. A good example of the dynamic nature of this debate in the recent years can be seen through the Time magazine’s book critic Lev Grossman’s “agile”[5] riposte to the above-mentioned piece by Krystal[6]. Grossman, in his article, defends genre fiction by primarily arguing that the deep-seated condescension that creeps into any discussion about genre’s focus on plot (as opposed to prose) is not entirely reasonable, stating that this bias is the result of a lack of proper “critical vocabulary” to understand “the long view that plot requires.”[7] Grossman’s other argument (which, to an extent, renders the whole debate pointless) is that “— and here’s the real nightmare, horror-movie reveal, wait for it — literary fiction is itself a genre, just like mysteries or westerns or fantasy.”[8] Essentially, what Grossman is (quite cheekily) suggesting is that considering literary fiction just another ‘genre’ of fiction writing (with its own “conventions” and “formulas”), might be a blasphemous notion for many, as it threatens to dismantle the carefully structured hierarchies[9]. Writing in the same vein, New Yorker editor Joshua Rothman, dares to ask an even more disruptive question: “What is it, exactly, about genre that is unliterary—and what is it in “the literary” that resists genre?”[10]

 

The debate, however, as Rothman himself contends, “goes round and round, magnetic and circular—[like] a lovers’ quarrel among literati.”[11] But while this discussion continues on the global scale, Canada’s unease with this ‘pulpy’ ‘commercial’ vein of writing stands out amidst the rest. The treatment of genre fiction in the Canadian literary space is quite peculiar owing to its “trans-national cultural” history[12]. In order to understand this complicated relationship, one must first take a deeper look at Canada’s nation building era during the 1940’s, where it “sought to define itself as a nation both independent of its British colonial past, and unique from the American culture that was so easily imported from south of the border[13].

 

In “Soup Cans and Love Slaves”, Michelle Smith skillfully analyzes the agendas of “national politics” and “cultural authority” that fundamentally shaped the Canadian literary scene for the years to come[14]. Smith notes that the flooding Canadian markets with American mass market pulp magazine, and the subsequent imitation of this model by Canadian publishers was what spurred the government into taking drastic actions to protect its “mental borders”[15][16]. The “cultural institutions in Canada,” as Belle Cheung posits, “began as “tools of nation building and social cohesion,””[17] and this onslaught of pulp fiction (which for Canadian ruling class of the period represented both, “a form of lower-class literature” and “a form of American mass culture”) threatened to convolute the carefully cultivated cultural hierarchy that the country was trying to establish over its neighbour.[18]

 

“… the ban on pulps was a political decision aimed at creating not only morally sound readers, but cultivated citizens.”[19]

 

Consequently, various bodies were established to help the government sustain (and in turn regulate) the cultural production within Canada. These agencies soon began funding “both individual artists engaged in making “high” art and academic institutions that increasingly structured their liberal arts programs to support the study of these works.”[20]

 

“Books made in Canada [then],” (as long as their not self-help books, cookbooks, or in this case genre fiction), observes Elaine Dewar in her Walrus article, “are widely considered to be Good Things that any Right Thinking Person should purchase during the Holiday Season, the more the better […] On the Canada Council website, you can find lists of Canadian-owned publishing companies that have been awarded many different kinds of grants to defend Canada’s mental borders.”[21]

 

However, one has to only take a look at the Canada Council’s eligibility criteria to realize what was left out of these “mental borders”[22]: “The Canada Council supports the excellence and vitality of Canadian literature as expressed in a variety of practices and registers in the […] literary genres[23][emphasis added]. This excerpt makes it clear that the Canada Council’s generosity towards the “publishing ecosystems”[24] is not extended to any writers “who deal with lawmen, criminals, private detectives, spies, aliens, ghosts, fallen heroines, and killer cars.”[25]

 

Sam Wiebe, in his Quill & Quire article, articulates this feeling of being ‘left out’: “Being a genre writer in Canada often feels like being the shortest tall poppy. […] Yet the support offered to budding literary authors – grants, awards, festival invitations – is rarely extended equally to genre authors. Whether this is due to assumptions about literary worthiness, or a misunderstanding of the economies of genre publishing, it has an effect on how genre writers are represented in the Canadian literary landscape.”[26]

 

With government funding being such an important part of the infrastructure of cultural production in Canada, this institutional bias against genre fiction ends up doubly affecting a certain group of writers: the ones who are not white, male, or middle-class. A big problem for writers from marginalized communities, argues Arifa Akbar, in her Guardian article about the lack of diversity in the British publishing industry, is that “these writers, for all their achievements, are often expected to write about identity whatever their chosen genre.”[27] Akbar draws our attention to case of Abir Mukherjee, a dynamic British Asian crime novelist, who, despite being a critical success, was told that his work is not “authentically Asian enough.”[28] This drove him to ask a very pertinent question, which brings the legacy of White colonial biases embedded within the industry to the forefront: “Would you ask a writer from Northern Ireland only to write about the Troubles?”[29]

 

Similar sentiments are echoed over at this side of the pond by S. G. Wong, a Canadian noir writer, who argues that Publishing to her is an industry that concentrates on “replicating past bestsellers”, instead of mapping an unchartered territory[30]. While this practice could be justified from an economic standpoint, it, nevertheless, ends up restricting the playing field for certain groups:

 

“For writers from marginalized groups, this often means being told readers want only certain kinds of narratives from us: the immigrant experience; coming-of-age-as-queer; overcoming-disability-to-triumph; the pain-of-being-Black/Indigenous/Other; etc. They’re all variations on a theme: how the marginalized can become accepted into the historically-centred culture. Obviously, this narrow framing excludes the full, complex experience of marginalized communities—but it’s how publishing gatekeepers control what gets considered mainstream.”[31]

 

Another example of this genre bias affecting writers from a marginalized background can be seen in Drew Hayden Taylor’s journey towards establishing a platform for Native science fiction in Canada. Native science fiction, he says, was by definition an oxymoron for many:

 

“You see, Native people simply did not write science fiction. Just like we did not write erotica, murder mysteries, vampire novels or fantasy books. No more than a fish could ride a bicycle or trees could tap dance.”[32]

 

When he decided to create a Native sci-fi anthology, which would feature “cream of the Aboriginal crop of Canadian writers”, he was faced with the same problem that many hailing from a similar socioeconomic background struggle with: the task was a “little too expensive”, and “several publishers failed to bite at the prospect.”[33]

 

The question then is that with little to no support from funding bodies (in an industry which heavily relies on it for its survival), and the “gatekeepers” accepting only certain narratives as “authentic”, what happens to those who the Western society has pushed to the periphery, the ones who wish to articulate their art within a generic mode? A possible answer is suggested by Akbar herself: such writers, she notes, often “step sideways”[34]. Instead of trying to break the glass ceiling, they move on to find and create alternative streams to bring their work to the world. A brilliant example of this in practice is Canadian publisher Hope Nicholson’s publishing model for Bedside Press, where she uses crowdfunding to finance her projects. The recent success of Moonshot (an anthology of stories in the form of comics told by indigenous creators) which was named as one of the Top Canadian Entrepreneurial Crowdfunding Campaigns by the Globe & Mail, and raised over $74,000, is evidence enough to see that her model is working[35].

 

While the future of this somewhat utopic conception of an “alternative mainstream”[36] remains uncertain, it nevertheless is at least an avenue for the ones who have been left out of the discussion for so long to have their voices heard.

 

_______________________

[1] Sam Wiebe, “Diversity in Crime Writing: Sam Wiebe Urges His Genre to Reckon with Inclusion.” Quill and Quire.

[2] S. G. Wong, “Claiming Space: CanLit Redux.”

[3] Arthur Krystal, “Easy Writers.” The New Yorker.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Arthur Krystal, “It’s Genre. Not That There’s Anything Wrong with It!” The New Yorker.

[6] Lev Grossman, “Literary Revolution in the Supermarket Aisle: Genre Fiction Is Disruptive Technology.” Time.

[7]  Ibid.

[8]  Ibid.

[9]  Ibid.

[10] Rothman, Joshua. “A Better Way to Think About the Genre Debate,” The New Yorker.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Michelle Denise Smith, “Soup Cans and Love Slaves: National Politics and Cultural Authority in the Editing and Authorship of Canadian Pulp Magazines.” Book History, 262.

[13] Ibid., 285.

[14] Ibid., 262.

[15] Elaine Dewar, “How Canada Sold out Its Publishing Industry.” The Walrus.

[16] Smith, “Soup Cans and Love Slaves,” 263.

[17] J. Cohnstaedt as qtd. in Belle Chi-Tung Cheung, “‘Just Add Colour’: Unintended Whiteness in Vancouver Theatre and Arts and Culture Policies in Canada.” University of British Columbia, 25.

[18] Smith, “Soup Cans and Love Slaves,” 262.

[19] Ibid., 271.

[20] Ibid., 271.

[21] Dewar, “How Canada Sold out Its Publishing Industry.”

[22] Ibid.

[23] “Applicant Profiles.” Canada Council for the Arts, 82.

[24] Dewar, “How Canada Sold out Its Publishing Industry.”

[25] Krystal, “Easy Writers.”

[26] Wiebe, “Diversity in Crime Writing: Sam Wiebe Urges His Genre to Reckon with Inclusion.”

[27] Arifa Akbar, “Diversity in Publishing – Still Hideously Middle-Class and White?” The Guardian.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Abir Mukherjee as qtd. in Akbar, “Diversity in Publishing.”

[30] Wong, “Claiming Space: CanLit Redux.”

[31] Ibid.

[32] Drew Hayden Taylor, “Drew Hayden Taylor: Why I Write Indigenous Sci-Fi.” Canadian Art.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Akbar, “Diversity in Publishing – Still Hideously Middle-Class and White?”

[35] “Moonshot: Andy Stanleigh and Hope Nicholson.”

[36] Akbar, “Diversity in Publishing – Still Hideously Middle-Class and White?”

 

_________________________

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Akbar, Arifa. “Diversity in Publishing – Still Hideously Middle-Class and White?” The Guardian, December 9, 2017, sec. Books. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/09/diversity-publishing-new-faces.

 

“Applicant Profiles.” Canada Council for the Arts, 2019. https://canadacouncil.ca/glossary/applicant-profile.

 

Cheung, Belle Chi-Tung. “‘Just Add Colour’: Unintended Whiteness in Vancouver Theatre and Arts and Culture Policies in Canada.” University of British Columbia, 2018. https://doi.org/10.14288/1.0371028.

 

Dewar, Elaine. “How Canada Sold out Its Publishing Industry.” The Walrus, June 8, 2017. https://thewalrus.ca/no-one-blinked/.

 

Grossman, Lev. “Literary Revolution in the Supermarket Aisle: Genre Fiction Is Disruptive Technology.” Time, May 23, 2012. http://entertainment.time.com/2012/05/23/genre-fiction-is-disruptive-technology/.

 

Krystal, Arthur. “Easy Writers.” The New Yorker, May 21, 2012. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/05/28/easy-writers.

———. “It’s Genre. Not That There’s Anything Wrong With It!,” The New Yorker, October 24, 2012. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/its-genre-not-that-theres-anything-wrong-with-it.

 

“Moonshot: Andy Stanleigh and Hope Nicholson.” Accessed October 8, 2019. https://torontopubliclibrary.typepad.com/teens/andy-stanleigh-and-hope-nicholson.html.

 

Rothman, Joshua. “A Better Way to Think About the Genre Debate,” The New Yorker, November 6, 2014. https://www.newyorker.com/books/joshua-rothman/better-way-think-genre-debate.

 

Smith, Michelle Denise. “Soup Cans and Love Slaves: National Politics and Cultural Authority in the Editing and Authorship of Canadian Pulp Magazines.” Book History 9 (2006): 261–89. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30227392.

 

Taylor, Drew Hayden. “Drew Hayden Taylor: Why I Write Indigenous Sci-Fi.” Canadian Art, December 16, 2016. https://canadianart.ca/essays/why-i-write-indigenous-sci-fi/.

 

Wiebe, Sam. “Diversity in Crime Writing: Sam Wiebe Urges His Genre to Reckon with Inclusion.” Quill and Quire (blog), December 19, 2018. https://quillandquire.com/omni/diversity-in-crime-writing-sam-wiebe-urges-his-genre-to-reckon-with-inclusion/.

 

Wong, S.G. “Claiming Space: CanLit Redux,” 2019. https://sgwong.com/blog/claiming-space-canlit-redux/.

Literature is split into two main camps: literary and commercial (or genre). Or that’s the general conception. Both forms come with their connotations, and as most binaries do, they fit into a hierarchy. Literary fiction is high culture and commercial or genre is low. Annie Neugebauer addresses many of the stigmas associated with genre or commercial fiction like the idea that it’s “trashy” and less intellectual than literary fiction.[1] What’s important here is the “less than,” that genre or commercial fiction isn’t as valuable as literary fiction and therefore that its readers are also seen as less than – less intelligent and less cultured. Nathan Bransford believes there’s a hybrid form that borrows the strongest elements from both literary and commercial forms, which offers an interesting compromise but one the old-school literary critics would balk at.[2] Heaven forbid that the precious literary canon be tainted by fantasy, sci-fi, mystery or romance. In fact, there are many examples of literary fiction that is rooted in genre, past and present. Jane Austen was a romance writer and Kazuo Ishiguro delves into fantasy.[3] [4] By exploring the differences between literary and commercial fiction and their stigmas with some case studies I will argue the validity of genre fiction for the literary whole using the specific example of science fiction.

First, lets break down the difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction. Neugebauer claims that the primary difference between the two is that commercial fiction is for entertainment while literary fiction is art.[5] Anita Mason claims that “a literary novel is governed by nothing – […] not even the requirement to be comprehensible – and the whole of the writer’s skill is directed towards creating the best possible novel. This involves, at some point, a surrender to the unknown.”[6] It’s that whole art for arts sake thing. Neugebauer counters this by saying that it’s a myth that commercial fiction isn’t deep and that it’s always simple.[7] Elizabeth Edmondson argues that literary fiction was just a marketing ploy set up by publishers to set certain contemporary fiction apart and “therefore Important, Art and somehow better than other writing.”[8] Edmondson goes on to say that good fiction, of any kind, is when “the imagination of the writer speaks directly with the imagination of the reader,” and she goes on to say that the purpose of a book is to entertain and captivate, not to have issues shoved down your throat or “be called upon to admire the beauty of the language.”[9] I believe that’s the difference between good and bad writing, period. If a book is obvious and in your face about its intended message, or is in any way pedantic, it immediately becomes less appealing. And to counter the idea of Mason’s that a literary novel doesn’t require comprehensibility is Bransford with his claim that literary fiction should most definitely have a plot.[10] A character “musing about the vagaries and eccentricities of everyday existence” written with ornate prose is extremely boring if nothing is happening.[11] Although Bransford does make the point that plot happens on the surface when it comes to commercial fiction and beneath the surface for literary fiction.[12]

So why is commercial or genre fiction so bad? The literary critics go as far as to scream horror and the downfall of culture and reading when the “It novel” of the year (2014) has the “’tone, language, and story [that] belong in children’s literature.’”[13] This is in reference to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, in an article by Evgenia Peretz in Vanity Fair. The book is apparently not complex enough, it is absurd and has no sense of reality or authenticity – and that’s what makes a book a work of literary fiction.[14] To me this is just simple literary snobbery. If it’s approachable and accessible the high-brow critics aren’t fond of it because it spoils the game of their elite literary club. The requirement of a certain level of education, a certain level of understanding, and a certain connection to a community of people are locked doors that only certain people have access to, and only certain people should have access to – in the elite’s humble opinion. In a blog entry from Kvetch of the Day, Vivian comments on the snobbery of literary elitists, and claims that “literary fiction” in fact often falls into formulaic fiction.[15] They define formulaic fiction as “fiction that adheres too strictly to the rules of its genre,” and in this case she makes the claim that “literary fiction” is its own genre of literature, as much a mystery or romance is.[16] The rules of the literary fiction genre that they lay out include, but are not limited to, a “lyrical” writing style, plenty of symbolism and a recurring image or two, also chocked with symbolism – and if it lacks either then it is a “slice-of-life vignette” that can be described as “stark” and “gritty” by reviewers.[17] And of course, the final rule: that there’s no need for a satisfying ending.[18] The lit crit snob wants a “serious” piece when they’re reading Literature (with a capital “L”), and the entertainment factor is a drawback.[19] Which if you think about it, doesn’t make any sense. Yes, we read to learn and to expand our minds, but we also read to be entertained. Being entertained engages the reader in a different way, it allows them a space to play with ideas and keep their mind open. When authors do it right, this is when they can slip in more complex ideas that challenge the reader.

While The Goldfinch is not clearly dabbling in genre fiction, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is. Ishiguro’s novel is a “full-on excursion into fantasy” and the author worried that readers wouldn’t follow him with this novel because of their prejudices against the surface elements.[20] Here is a case where someone who is classified as a “literary” writer is using “fantasy tropes to explore questions about love and mortality.”[21] Ishiguro claims that the combination of literary fiction and fantasy enables him to achieve things that frank blank realism couldn’t.[22] This was also an opportunity for him to put issues in a setting where people wouldn’t get too literal about it, that they wouldn’t immediately dismiss it as a “a book about the disintegration of Yugoslavia or the Middle East,” that it would force them to look at bigger picture questions of humanity.[23]

It’s particularly science fiction that is used as a vessel for these “literary” questions. Mandy Chew writes how “science fiction has always been a platform to explore social issues in a veiled environment,” and gives the examples of Ender’s Game which deals with child labor and slavery, Elysium that addresses health care and SnowPiercer that explores climate change and social classes.[24] It’s often the case that sci-fi stories have “underlying social discussions at the heart of their content.”[25] Anita Mason gives the example of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, which is rooted in genre but has all the qualities of a literary novel.[26] Mason describes the book as having writing that is spare, a tight structure, “the observation of the human condition is both profound and impish. Character is crucial. The issues are huge and we feel the weight of them,” and this novel was nominated for the Man Booker.[27] Yet, it’s based in science fiction. How can you then brand an entire genre as simple entertainment?

Stephen Marche’s article in Esquire agrees that “the forms of genre—science fiction, fantasy, the hardboiled detective story, the murder mystery, horror, vampire, and werewolf stories—have become the natural homes for the most serious literary questions.”[28] He also points out that Conan Doyle, Jim Thompson and Stanislaw Lem weren’t seen as literary geniuses in their time but now their works are considered great literature.[29] Perhaps the snobbery towards genre fiction of today will wane with time as well. Marche also makes the point that “there are stupid books and there are smart books. There are well-written books and badly written books. There are fun books and boring books,” and that most importantly both literary fiction and genre fiction can possess any of these qualities.[30] What genres like sci-fi or fantasy offer is complete freedom for the writer to explore ideas outside the scope of literary realism, “where grand philosophical questions can be worked out on narrative terms.”[31]  Kvetch of the Day’s article says that “the important part about art is breaking the rules,” and so by entwining genre fiction with literary, or simply giving what we classify as “genre” fiction a better look we are breaking the genre rules of literary fiction – and therefore creating art, which is what literary fiction is all about.[32]

 

[1] Annie Neugebauer. “What Is Commercial Fiction?” Annie Neugebauer. July 16, 2012. Accessed October 20, 2018. https://annieneugebauer.com/2012/07/16/what-is-commercial-fiction/

[2] Nathan Bransford, “What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?” Nathan Bransford, February 26, 2007. Accessed October 20, 2018. http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2007/02/what-makes-literary-fiction-literary

[3] Elizabeth Edmondson, “The genre debate: ‘Literary fiction’ is just clever marketing.” The Guardian. April 21, 2014. Accessed on October 20, 2018. http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/apr/21/literary-fiction-clever-marketing-genre-debate

[4] Alexandra Alter, “For Kazuo Ishiguro, ‘The Buried Giant’ Is a Departure.” The New York Times. February 19, 2015. Accessed on October 20, 2018. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/20/books/for-kazuo-ishiguro-the-buried-giant-is-a-departure.html?_r=1

[5] Annie Neugebauer. “The Differences Between Commercial and Literary Fiction.” Annie Neugebauer. January 27, 2014. Accessed October 20, 2018. https://annieneugebauer.com/2014/01/27/the-differences-between-commercial-and-literary-fiction/

[6] Anita Mason, “Genre fiction radiates from a literary centre.” The Guardian. April 22, 2014. Accessed on October 19, 2018. http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/apr/22/genre-fiction-literary-centre-anita-mason

[7] Annie Neugebauer. “What Is Commercial Fiction?” 2012.

[8] Elizabeth Edmondson, “The genre debate: ‘Literary fiction’ is just clever marketing.” The Guardian. April 21, 2014. Accessed on October 20, 2018. http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/apr/21/literary-fiction-clever-marketing-genre-debate

[9] Ibid.

[10] Nathan Bransford, “What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?” 2007.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Evgenia Peretz, “It’s Tartt—But Is It Art?” Vanity Fair. July 2014. Accessed October 20, 2018. http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2014/07/goldfinch-donna-tartt-literary-criticism

[14] Ibid.

[15] Vivian, “’Genre’ is not a synonym for ‘Formulaic.’” Kvetch of the Day. September 30, 2011. Accessed October 20, 2018. http://vivianskvetch.blogspot.ca/2011/09/genre-is-not-synonym-for-formulaic-rant.html?m=1.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Alexandra Alter, “For Kazuo Ishiguro, ‘The Buried Giant’ Is a Departure.” The New York Times. February 19, 2015. Accessed on October 20, 2018. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/20/books/for-kazuo-ishiguro-the-buried-giant-is-a-departure.html?_r=1

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Mandy Chew, “Why We Need Science Fiction.” The Medium, June 20, 2017. Accessed October 20, 2018. https://medium.com/indian-thoughts/why-we-need-science-fiction-7ee0ac3bfdc3

[25] Ibid.

[26] Anita Mason, “Genre fiction radiates from a literary centre.” 2014.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Stephen Marche, “How Genre Fiction Became More Important Than Literary Fiction.” Esquire, March 11, 2015. Accessed October 20, 2018. https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/books/a33599/genre-fiction-vs-literary-fiction/

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Vivian,“’Genre’ is not a synonym for ‘Formulaic.’” 2011.

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
Mpub

 

Bibliography

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.” https://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub800/. 10 29. Accessed 11 21, 2017. https://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub800/2017/10/the-head-and-the-heart-a-call-for-literary-standards-in-genre-fiction/.

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. http://vivianskvetch.blogspot.ca/2011/09/genre-is-not-synonym-for-formulaic-rant.html?m=1.