Friday, February 29, 2008

Who Wins

One blog I read through my aggregator is The Rejector ("I don't hate you. I just hate your query letter.") and she had an interesting post yesterday (read: post I find fascinating in its dissimilarity to the way I see things) about The Academy Awards.

It got me thinking about genres in general, and back to the disagreements I've had with a couple of readers about relative values of genre fiction.

Here's basically how I feel about genres in novels, movies, and food.

I believe that there's excellent writing and storytelling that transcends genre, and it's often called "literary fiction" when it does so. There are so many examples of this. Gregory Maguire springs to mind, but there are plentiful historical examples as well. Lewis Carroll?

But with writing that's similar to what's typical within a genre, I fall back on a food analogy.

Sometimes I like to eat candy and sweets. Sometimes, I want an actual meal, but I feel more like a cheeseburger than a platter of steamed asparagus. Likewise, sometimes I might read typical genre fiction.

There's nothing wrong with it! There's tremendous creativity in speculative fiction, and sometimes really ground-breaking stuff starts there and works its way into more mainstream discussion.

I haven't seen every movie nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, in any given year. But I usually make an effort to see a few of them, including the one that wins, even if they fall well outside what I would normally choose to see on a rare night out at the movies (escapism and fun is what I'm typically looking for in a movie, not an uncomfortable challenge).

But the fact remains that when I've seen a really good movie, even if I found it uncomfortable at the time or unappealing in advance, I'm never sorry afterwards.

And after I eat a good, healthy meal, my body feels enriched and well-nourished.

It is likewise with fiction for me. I hated Madame Bovary. Hated it! But I've read it several times, and it sticks with me in a healthy-meal kind of way. It took Flaubert 10 years to write that first chapter.

Is there not some objective difference between writing like that and a mass market thriller/mystery/western/romance/fantasy/chick lit novel that an author churned out in a few weeks of work?

All can be good writing, all can be valuable contributions to society. But there is, I believe, in art, a level that speaks to greater human truths rather than just moments of entertainment. (Obviously, a love/sex analogy also springs to my mind here, as well as some examples from within the art world.)

There's nothing wrong with seeking entertainment, or with seeking to provide it.

But I'm glad that there are people out there who are looking beyond a clever punchline, a contagious chemistry, a cool special effect. I'm glad that there are writers and artists and filmmakers who strive to make minds open and grow in new and exciting ways, to serve nutritious food.

(In case you were wondering, I love that mixed metaphor. It's my little inside joke, me not taking myself too seriously. That's my sense of humor, poking fun at myself, but I'm sure most of you know that by now!)

Does anyone really think that Spiderman 3 deserved to win Best Picture, just because a lot of people saw it? I guess so.

Edited to clarify: The Rejector seems to be suggesting that it's pure Academy snobbishness that the year's highest grossing film (I'll take her word for it that it's Spiderman 3) wasn't nominated for best picture.

My point isn't really about genre, or even length of time it takes to create. It's that I don't believe that commercial success is the sole indicator of what's good.


  1. I have one objection that I want to talk about. The amount of time spent creating said masterpiece against the amount of time writing to genre. a thriller/mystery/western/romance/fantasy novel that an author churned out in a few weeks of work. While there may be writers who can do this, I would imagine they are experience writers. A romance writer is just as likely to spend a year on a novel as an author going for the nobel prize. It's just as likely that both authors could take a few months. It's not like we can sit and write a selling novel in a couple of settings. All the elements of fiction have to be included. Genre fiction there are expectations of what the reader will experience.

    Romance there should be a romance that ends with the couple getting together. Character development is key in a romance and most readers expect some sort of plot besides the romance. All this takes time and planning. Some authors chose to tackle some pretty deep issues within genres as well.

    I agree that genre fiction will rarely win the Nobel prize, but there are awards of excellence within our genres.

    You bring up some very interesting points for discussion.

  2. Point in case, I should always edit before I post. :)

  3. Yeah, I can see how my post reads that way. But note: I'm not suggesting that all genre fiction is written quickly.

    (I disagree, however, that it's just as likely that a Nobel prize winning novel was written in a few months.) Many big name authors in popular fiction do write really quickly, turning out a book or two a year. While there are of course exceptions to the rule, most big name authors who write literary fiction (as defined by whomever is publishing or shelving it) often take much longer. Random example off the top of my head: Danielle Steel and Marilynne Robinson.

    And lest there be any confusion: I agree with you that any book that gets published in any genre should have solid character development and plotting.

    (I am a genre writer myself, you know.)

    Question: What will distinguish Jane Austen's novels from those of Nora Roberts 100 years from now?

  4. Um... I'll admit to not reading carefully and not reading the post you link to, but one question popped into my head...
    There is (at least in my mind) probably a very distinct difference between "Best Picture" and "Most Popular Picture". Lord knows what's most popular in this country doesn't always equate to quality. I mean, to continue your food metaphor, look at McDonald's! :O
    We, as a culture, want what's fast and explosive and easily palatable. Hence Spiderman 3, hence McDonald's.
    So is the Academy Awards about quality or popularity? They're two different things.

  5. Actually I've never read Nora Roberts so I wouldn't be able to tell you what distinguishes the two. I have read "Pride and Prejudice" but couldn't get into "Northanger Abbey." I think Jane Austen did something most women of her time wouldn't do. I don't believe that applies to Nora Roberts, but again I haven't read her. Would I love to write a modern day equivalent to "Pride and Prejudice"? Heck, yeah. I've actually never read Danielle Steele either. I've stuck to historicals.

    I just think a generalization of genre writing only taking a few months isn't entirely true. I would definitely love to get to that point and be able to sell everything I write, but I think that's a long way off.

  6. Lady Liberal: Yes! Exactly! Thank you!

    Amanda, as I clarified above, I didn't say that genre writing only takes a few months. (In fact, I keep saying exactly the opposite.) In this post, I specifically compared the sort of popular fiction that is written very quickly to something else. That's far different from suggesting that all popular (including genre) fiction is written that way!

  7. Sorry if my tone comes across as rough in comments. It's not intended that way. I enjoy your discourse on fiction. I like seeing it from someone else's point of view. Good post as usual.

  8. Amanda, not at all! And, thank you. I just felt like you were misunderstanding what I was saying, or putting words in my mouth, and I want to be clear about my point.

    (Which Lady Liberal pretty much nailed above.)

  9. I totally agree and understood your point. The comment about time just got to me for some reason. I don't think we should expect Spiderman 3 to be nominated for an academy award. Though I haven't seen the film. I saw Atonement and it was moving. There have been nominees in the past like Titanic that also smashed the box office. I rather doubt anything I write would be nominated for the Nobel Prize. Do I want it to get to the top of the Bestseller's list? Heck ya. Spiderman 3 might still win the MTV Movie Awards. There is still hope.

  10. Hope? Gah! (For the record, I have no idea of Spiderman 3 was good or not; I haven't seen it. I did see and LOVE Juno. I think it's my new favorite movie.)

  11. Voltaire allegedly wrote Candide in 3 days.

    There is excellently written genre fiction. There is crap genre. There is excellently written "literary" fiction. There is crap "literary" fiction. I would bet that the percentages of what's written is about the same regardless of whether it is within a genre or not.

    The difference is that there are fans of genre that will read the crap genre material. There aren't as many fans that will read the crappy literary fiction. So while it is written, it isn't published, or disappears from the shelves quickly.

    With genre, you know it's well written if 20 years later there are people still buying it. But that's a good rule of thumb for the literary as well.

  12. John, I agree, especially about the getting published part.

    I would add, however, that literary fiction isn't simply another genre. It's a little more complicated than that, as, as it sometimes includes good books that would also fit within various genres.

    I do think that current literary fiction often follows many of the same conventions as other genres, but there are differences as well. An extraordinarily well-written fantasy novel might be considered literary fiction as well as fantasy, just by merit of the writing, while the reverse is not true. (Likewise, an extraordinarily well-written mystery is not automatically a romance, unless the love story forms a very significant part of the plot in such a way as it conforms to the conventions of that genre.)

  13. I'll accept it if you aren't using "literary fiction" as a synonym for "mainstream". Which it doesn't appear you are. If all "Literary" means is "guality" than you can have quality coming from anywhere.

    The problem is when critics declare there is no quality genre fiction. Then you point to X, Y and Z, and they respond, "That's not genre, that's literary." No, it's still genre. And there are a lot of critics that do this, to the point that there are several authors who will deny they are writing genre - pissing off many potential readers - so that they aren't relegated by the critics into a cubbyhole the critics ignore.