Thursday, 16 May 2013

Genre v Literature

Back here I talked about theory versus practice. Today I'm going to unpack my thoughts about the title of this post by drawing up a list of what I think of as science fiction novels that I've been told are not genre works, but rather literature.
The Time Machine
War of the Worlds
Brave New World
On the Beach
Canopus in Argos
The Handmaid's Tale
These are only given as examples, and people's opinions may vary on whether or not they are works of science fiction?

In the case of Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos series, the literary critics have argued she wasted her time writing SF (As an aside I was once Doris Lessing's minder at a science fiction convention, tasked with making sure the fans wouldn't overwhelm her and help her navigate around the convention).  That's what gets my goat.  The assumption that writing genre is a waste of time.

It seems to me that the qualities most ascribed to literature is that they are stories that are written and read as if they were set in a timeless now.  The primary purpose is to describe the human condition, which I understand to be that of fear, uncertainty and doubt.  Style and form take precedent over story and plot.  Finally, the writing of the story is in, and of itself, part of the artistic process, which is a journey for the writer who characters are discovered through the process of writing the novel.  Therefore literature is something that is superior to genre, because it talks about the human condition and therefore has lasting value.

Now I may have misunderstood what I thought I was being told, so any mistakes in characterizing the above case are mine.

However, while a novel may have lasting value, I would argue that this is a product that arises from the passage of time.  Take Shakespeare as an example.  Now considered to be timeless, but there was a long period when his works fell out of favour and were then rediscovered.  So unto each generation a new literature born, to paraphrase Joss Whedon.  The one true thing that can be said is that the definition of literature changes.

If one agrees that is true, then all the works in my list can be both literature and genre.

So perhaps the question is why is genre less than literature, given that the definition is style and substance that allows for classification?  So in short all literature fits within a genre.  In my experience as a therapist people have a need to divide things into true versus false, good versus bad, which is binary thinking that becomes all, or nothing.  I believe that things are generally on a continuum of yes, no and maybe, which changes according to the evidence.

Therefore when critics seek to separate works into literature versus genre they are working against the historical roots of writing by creating a false dichotomy where none needs to exist.  Please feel free to discuss and disagree with me.

1 comment:

  1. I believe a critic who uses "literature" to mean "stuff I like" and "genre" to mean "stuff I don't like" is not worth listening to. I think it's part of the urge to universalise one's tastes, to go from "I enjoyed this book but not that one" to "this book is good and that one is not". Unfortunately an awful lot of the "literary fiction" genre is written for a diminishing audience of ageing critics by a diminishing population of ageing authors and has little to say to anyone else, but people keep buying it (and often not reading it) because of a continuing misplaced respect for the self-proclaimed establishment.