Literary versus Genre Fiction, Round 315

Some bloke named Edward Docx (Honestly? He’s named after a Microsoft file format?) bashes genre fiction, all genre fiction, in the Observer, because he’s caught a few glimpses of Dan Brown’s and Stieg Larsson’s work and – oh shock and horror – found bad writing therein.

I grant him Brown, though his issues with Stieg Larsson may well be due to a bad translation – and I’m saying this as a translator myself. Now I haven’t read Larsson (probably the only person in the Western world who hasn’t), but all I’ve heard from the genre-friendly segment of German literary critics has been positive. So it may well be the English translation – or all that alleged talk of Swedish acronyms and Polish food packaging industries is a lot more topical in Swedish than in English. Political concerns often don’t translate well.

Docx contrasts Larsson and Brown and other genre writers with literary writer such as Franzen, Coetzee, Hollinghurst, Amis, Mantel, Proux, Ishiguro, Roth, conveniently ignoring that Martin Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro and Philip Roth have written speculative fiction, that Hilary Mantel has written historical fiction, that Annie Proux has written westerns and romance fiction. Duh.

Interestingly, Docx counts Danielle Steel and Tom Clancy among the “good” genre writers, which is strange, because I’ve never heard anyone praising Steel for anything and Clancy’s writing has degenerated into technical manuals with occasional action. Curiously enough, my very anti-genre German teacher (all our teachers were vehemently anti-genre) glowingly praised Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October as a stunning piece of political fiction in the late 1980s. One day, I’d love to call him on that – if there weren’t about twenty other things I’d like to call him on first.

Docx would probably have gotten along splendidly with my anti-genre German teachers of twenty years ago, because he’s using the same arguments they used: Genre fiction is constrained by its formula, it leaves the writer no narrative freedom and so on. All that’s missing is the accusation that genre fiction is assembled from predefined elements like some kind of model kit. None of that is in any way new nor was it new when I heard it from my German teachers twenty years ago. Hell, I later came across the very books those teachers quoted from (nigh verbatim) in the university library. I’ve refuted those claims against the German teacher with a convoluted argument involving the 1980s bestseller Ganz Unten by Günther Wallraf (which happened to be non-fiction – oops), the Christian Daniel Friedrich Schubart poem Die Forelle (most famous nowadays in its musical version by Franz Schubert), George Orwell and SF. I refuted those claims in my MA thesis and refuted them again in a few papers since then. Yet the literary versus genre fiction debate simply refuses to lay down and die.

Here are a couple of rebuttals from crime writer Steve Mosby, Chuck Wendig and Nick Mamatas.

Finally, not direct rebuttals to the Docx article, but rebuttals to the many articles and essay like it: So, Bill, I Hear You Write Those Little Poems: A Plea for Category Romance and Glee and Sympathy by Jennifer Crusie. Both are aimed at critics of the romance genre (which even the other beset genres such as SF, fantasy, horror or crime fiction like to bash), but they could apply just as well to any formula fiction accusations against any genre ever.

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4 Responses to Literary versus Genre Fiction, Round 315

  1. Pingback: Happy New Year… and some metrics | Cora Buhlert

  2. Pingback: Brenda Starr, Stieg Larsson and some Housekeeping | Cora Buhlert

  3. Ilya Popov says:

    Cora, good to see you’re up and journaling again. Was going to send you an email until I saw that you had new blog posts. Better to stick to replying here, or emailing you directly?

    Hope you’re doing well and in good spirits,


    • Cora says:

      Hi Ilya,

      good to hear from you. Everything’s fine with me. I hope you’re well, too.

      Sorry for not replying to the email you sent me a while ago, BTW. You caught me at a very busy time and then I just plain forgot.

      Anyway, you can email me (address is still the same) or reply here. You’re out of the moderation queue, so a comment should show up right away.


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