Removing the “vs.” from Genre vs. Literary

Exploring the internet yesterday, I ended up on the Electric Lit website, reading Andy Hunter’s post, “Ursula K. Le Guin talks to Michael Cunningham about genres, gender, and broadening fiction.”  Anything with Michael Cunningham’s name in the title will get my attention, and though I haven’t read enough Ursula Le Guin, I did enjoy The Left Hand of Darkness, and reading this article got me interested in reading more.

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Michael Cunningham (The HoursThe Snow Queen) says of our current literary period, “I feel like the most prominent aspect of this period is what I call ‘broadening.'”  He goes on to explain that “broadening,” for him, means “the sense of a much larger collective conviction about who’s entitled to tell stories, what stories are worth telling, and who among the storytellers gets taken seriously.”   The post, Cunningham, and Le Guin discuss the line between “literary fiction” (Cunningham, Toni Morrison, J.M. Coetzee…) and “genre fiction” (science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thriller, horror,…) and the effects of that line.

I think this is an interesting and important discussion.  I’m aware as I write this post, that even putting the parentheses above and including genre labels and authors plays into defining and supporting the line between literary and genre fiction.  I agree with Cunningham and Le Guin that this line is not always meaningful and can be harmful.  Cunningham asserts that ” some of the most innovative, deep, and beautiful fiction being written today is shelved in bookstores in the Science Fiction section.”  Many people, as this post points out, declare an aversion to science fiction and other forms of genre fiction, perhaps picturing people dressed up as Star Trek characters and imagining that aliens, ghosts, and romances offer little more than superficial fantasies.  However, literature in any genre can offer meaningful experiences to the reader, and there is a lot of variation within all of these genres.  (There’s also a lot that can be learned from studying Star Trek and the community that has evolved around it–work that I have not done, but I’m certain others have!)  Calling one part of fiction “literary” or “mainstream” tends to put other types of fiction to one side as less serious or important.  Le Guin calls this “the lingering problem: The maintenance of an arbitrary division between ‘literature’ and ‘genre,’ the refusal to admit that every piece of fiction belongs to a genre, or several genres.”

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This comment of Le Guin’s reminded me of Cunningham’s Specimen Days, which weaves together excerpts of Walt Whitman’s poetry with stories from different time periods, including a story set a future landscape with nonhuman characters.  While Cunningham is considered to be a solidly “literary” author, his work does cross these “arbitrary line[s]” and benefits from doing so.

I think Stephen King and Juliet Marillier are other authors who are often placed in genres (horror, fantasy), but whose work is character-driven and aware of the power of language.  Both of these authors explore, as Le Guin and Cunningham do, the way humanity functions under different circumstances.

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Le Guin is right that “genre” is often “used not as a useful descriptor, but as a negative judgment, a dismissal.”  Later in the same post, Le Guin says “But the walls I hammered at so long are down.  They’re rubble.”  I hope that this is true.  I think this post does acknowledge that the division between genre and literary does still exist, but I agree that there are moments of wonderful crossover.  Categories can be useful as lenses for looking at literature, but works can and do fit into multiple categories sometimes.

This is a great conversation, and I hope you’ll check it out!–though I quoted from it here, the conversation is much more in-depth on the Electric Literature website.

What do you think?  Is there a line between “literary” and “genre fiction”?  Should there be a distinction?  Are there authors whom you feel have been placed in a genre category whose work could be looked at with a “literary” lens?  Which genres would you put some of your favorite “literary” authors in?

 

 

 

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Reading Adventures – Gone Girl, Dark Places

Don’t worry–no Gillian Flynn spoilers!  The only possible spoiler is about a long-gone episode of Nip/Tuck (see below).

After a day of recuperation after the fabulous Writer’s Digest Conference at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York, I’m reading to dive back into my blog.  Last week, I was away from home at a training, and met my friend and fellow writer, Lisa Pais on the train down to New York for the conference.  I’ll tell you more about the conference in my next post!

I wanted to share two of my latest reads.  I had heard a lot of buzz about Gillian Flynn’s novel, Gone Girl, so I started reading it last week.  While it didn’t grab me in the first few pages, I was soon hooked.  I loved the characters Flynn created and the way those characters surprised me.  I don’t tend to read psychological thrillers or mysteries, and it had been a long time since I’d read something with the flavor of Gone Girl.  I was impressed with Flynn’s level of detail and the way she tied everything together.  Wow.  I don’t think I could have managed to write that kind of novel!

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After Gone Girl, I was eager to add another Flynn novel to my Kindle for my train trip down to NYC.  I ended up deciding on Dark Places, about an adult who has grown up without her immediate family after they were brutally murdered when she was seven.  This novel hooked me immediately (although I was biased toward Flynn at this point!) and I had a hard time putting it down.  My stomach roiled in discomfort several times, but I loved the story and thought the plot and characters were again very well done.

I was reminded of the time period when my husband got me into watching Nip/Tuck.  Did anyone else watch this?  I loved and hated to watch it.  We were behind, so we were watching the seasons on itunes, episode after episode.  The characters were interesting, the plot was exciting, but during and after each episode, I usually felt like I was going to throw up.  After each episode ended, I would think to myself: Wow, I wish I hadn’t watched that.  I should stop watching this.  Then: Let’s click on the next one.  Maybe something good will happen to these characters in the next episode and no one else will get hurt or traumatized.  The arc which stuck with me the longest is probably the one with the crazy agent who had a penchant for making teddy bears…sometimes out of people…I’m shivering and cringing all over again just thinking about it.

Anyway, I liked Dark Places even better than Gone Girl.  For me, Dark Places led me into situations which were extremely enticing because they were bizarre; I had never imagined anything like many of the experiences Flynn’s protagonist, Libby has.

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I was trying to talk my husband into fitting Flynn’s books into his schedule, and I was saying to him that I didn’t think I had such disturbing elements in my own writing, and then I realized…I actually do.  Maybe my writing isn’t as different from Flynn’s as I had at first imagined.  I have some sympathy for my own psychopaths and villains, and I know how they ended up the way that they did.  While my novels are not thrillers and don’t have the same feel as Flynn’s, there are some interesting parallels.

This reminded me that it’s important for me to read outside my usual genres and my comfort zone.  There is a lot that I can learn from top-notch writers in any genre.  Especially as a writer, it’s helpful to me to see how writers use the common elements of setting, characterization, plot, tension, etc. in telling very different stories.  In my writer’s critique group as well, though there are some connections that pop up in our writing, we are ultimately telling stories in several genres with different styles.  I love my writer’s group!

I’m also currently reading Omar Farhad’s Honor and Polygamy, which is even further from something I’d normally read.  I’m also in the middle of Kristina Riggle’s Keepsake, which is right in my comfort zone (and which I’m enjoying very much!).  Sometimes, I read books one at a time, but I do find that, especially in the summer, I have some time for reading multitasking, and my brain wants me to spread it a little thinner.

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Anyone else had some recent experiences reading outside your typical genre?

(Images are linked to the sites where I got them)

“Where There’s Smoke” by Jodi Picoult – Review and Connections

While out and about in the car today, I used the Kindle Text-to-Speech feature to listen to Jodi Picoult’s new (FREE!) short story, “Where There’s Smoke.”  I loved it.  One of my all-time favorite Jodi Picoult novels is Second Glance (another is The Storyteller), and I’m excited that Picoult is again taking on ghosts and their interactions with the world of the living.  I love the way she did this in Second Glance: the novel remains character-driven and has a great plot as it incorporates elements of the paranormal.  Second Glance has a similar feel to Picoult’s other novels for me, and I think the strength of the characterization make this novel accessible, not only to those who enjoy paranormal novels, but to readers who tend to focus on commercial, upmarket, and women’s fiction which might not normally include any ghosts.

In “Where There’s Smoke,” the main character is Serenity Jones, a TV psychic receiving communication from spirits on the other side and struggling as we all do, to live life the best way she knows how.  I really enjoyed the story, finding Serenity easy to relate to despite my initial hesitation over her profession.  Though I’m interested in the paranormal (loving shows like Paranormal State, Ghost Adventures, and The Haunted), I sometimes feel skepticism when it comes to big TV psychic personalities and wasn’t sure what to expect with Serenity.  Well, I loved the story and the stakes that Picoult created for this character and those around her.  I’m looking forward to Picoult’s upcoming novel, Leaving Time.  This novel will include Serenity, and the short story definitely worked to hook me and cause me to breathe a sigh of disappointment when I saw that I’d have to wait until Leaving Time‘s October release date to find out more.

What are your favorite Picoult novels?

Do you find the paranormal interesting?