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Feb 28, 2009

Literary vs Genre - the Analogy to Poetry

Lady Glamis is discussing the age-old question of litearary vs genre fiction.

Genre Writer: Genre books have plot. Literary works have pretension.

Literary Writer: Literary works explore life and language. Genre pulps are about bombs that go bang and bombshells that bang.

Genre Writer: Snob!

Literary Writer: Hack!

I know I have about as much chance of putting this dispute to rest as bringing peace to the Middle East, but here's my take on it.

Writing a genre novel is like writing a sonnet.

Writing a literary novel is like writing free verse.

The sonnet has a lot of rules. It has to have a certain number of couplets, it has to begin and end in a certain way, it has to rhyme. It should also be meaningful, profound or beautiful.

Free verse has no rules, except it has to be meaningful, profound or beautiful. And -- ironically -- if it has couplets and rhymes, it is in danger of being mistaken for a sonnet, so free verse usually excludes such tropes.

Some poets mix forms. They might write a piece with the cadence and length of a sonnet, but no rhymes.

Here's the point. It's easy to write a bad sonnet, and it's easy to write bad free verse. It's difficult to write a good poem, no matter what form.

Let's say you're writing Romance. You have to honor the genre conventions: have a hero and heroine, focus on their relationship, end happily ever after. Genre conventions impose limitations beyond the obvious, as well. Lovemaking between the hero and the heroine must be passionate, sexy and arousing.

What? You want to write a love story where the two-minute insipid sex bores the heroine and she finally realizes her ugly, balding lover is also a jerk? Fine, but don't get angry when you can't sell it as a Romance. 

Here's where the argument grows heated. Literary fans will sneer that real life is more likely to include unsatisfying sex and broken relationships than rich, handsome Dukes who are also sensitive lovers. Romance fans will point out they don't read Romance to read about real life. At which point, literary fans will mutter, "Escapist," under their breath.

This is true, in the same way that rhyme is a way of escaping ordinary prose and song is a way of escaping ordinary speech.

There's also the notion that it's easier to write genre literature. I don't think so. Think about the purpose of a Romance -- to make someone experience again what it's like to fall in love. I bet if you cat scanned the brain of a Romance reader, you would see a faint echo of a brain in love. 

No wonder Romance is popular. Falling in love is one of the most wonderful sensations there is. Romance is easy to read, because the feelings it evokes are something we want to feel.

But here I disagree with Spin Regina who equates "easy to read" with "easy to write." ("Eas[ier] to sell"? -- maybe.)

Excellent fiction requires exquisite attention to form, no matter what the genre. It's harder, in a way, to make a genre novel shine, because you have to do so within the restrictions of genre rules. Lots of people wrote sonnets, but it still took the genius of a Shakespeare or a Dickinson to make the sonnet transcend itself. 

On the other hand, if you have absolute freedom to write whatever you want, you have to have extreme self-discipline to create your own rules and structure. 


4 comments:

sraasch said...

Wow! That is one of the best analogies for literary/genre fiction I've read.

Mary Lindsey said...

What a great take on the difference between genres. I agree, there is a bunch of snobbery involved. Even among the commercial genres, there is a hierarchy.

I heard a funny saying once:

"Literary fiction is what everybody wants to write but nobody wants to read."

:)

Lady Glamis said...

You have stated all this splendidly! Thank you so much for your comments and ideas. You've given this a lot of thought, and I agree with you on many levels.

Sarah Jensen said...

And now I get it! Thanks so much!