FacebookTwitterPinterestInstagramTumblrGoogleYouTube
 
 
RSS Feed Print
On genre hybrids and A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES
Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Friday, January 4, 2013 11:01 AM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 438


I'm currently reading A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES, a rather lengthy novel about witches, vampires and ghouls, and an enchanted manuscript that supposedly (I don’t know, I haven’t finished it yet!) explains the genesis of these creatures. While the themes would definitely characterize this as fantasy, the language and tone lean toward literary fiction. The author is a professor of history, so certain passages read like a scientific monograph, I’m afraid. On the other hand, the world is just so inventive and rich that I’m willing to overlook the sometimes sluggish plot and the intermittently dry language. 

What do you think about genre hybrids? Do you think the combination of fantasy (or any other genre) with literary fiction is a good one, or does the cross-pollination of literary and genre elements ends up being odd--and ultimately unsatisfactory? 


Herb Mallette
Posted: Friday, January 4, 2013 5:09 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188


I don't think "literary fiction" is a valid genre, so maybe I'm not the best person to answer this question. To me, real literature is simply what results when people write extraordinarily well, and it therefore knows no boundaries of genre or convention.

If a writer's goal is to write Literature from a genre angle, that writer is probably too full of him/herself and too indulgent for my tastes. I'm thinking here of Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon and a nominally s.f./fantasy novel I read years ago by Salman Rushdie (I can't recall the title). In both cases, fantastic or science-fictional concepts were used, but ended up being lost in the author's desire to endlessly cerebrate instead of telling a story.

On the other hand, if the writer's goal is to write a deeply original work that has something to say and does so in language that is rich, inventive, and perhaps sometimes too dense for readers of "commercial" fiction, I'm all for it. Lucius Shepard comes to mind in this category, along with some of James Morrow's work.

In short, exceptional and intellectual writers can produce terrific work regardless of genre, whereas writers who think that "literary fiction" is its own genre probably aren't going to write stories that satisfy me even if they include genre elements.


LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Friday, January 4, 2013 6:19 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662


I'm kind of thrown by the phrase "literary fiction" as well. It doesn't really tell me much. Take one of my favorite writers Christopher Moore. His stuff is always in the Literature section at book stores amongst other "literary fiction" even though he writes primarily Absurdism (which should totally have its own section). His stuff could also be classified as Humor or Fantasy. "Literary fiction" is a phrase used for those too lazy to classify writing by it's attributes or genre.

I'm with Herb when he says that real literature is simply what results when people write extraordinarily well. When something is good, and I mean just fantastic, genre doesn't matter. Take the amazing American Gods by Gaiman. It's a book about America with many fantastic elements, but reads "literary." I wouldn't even call it fantasy. People should read it more often. (It is also one of the many books responsible for ruining any joy I might take out of watching Supernatural. My friends really need to read more.)
Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Monday, January 7, 2013 3:05 PM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356


Herb & LeeAnna -

While literary fiction may be a vague catch-all phrase to some, it is in point of fact a real genre, with a real BISAC code. It generally ends up in bookstore sections marked "fiction" shelved next to books that are wholly non-literary.. Some bookstores have sections called "literature" - which makes even less sense. LOL!

But one of the purposes of Book Country is to hopefully try to educate writers not just about writing but about the book marketplace as well. And that means you'll need to accept that literary fiction is a real genre. =)

More on BISAC codes here: http://www.bisg.org/what-we-do-0-136-bisac-subject-headings-list-major-subjects.php

Cheers!


Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Monday, January 7, 2013 3:13 PM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356


Just for fun, here's a list of all the current BISAC codes associated with fiction: http://www.bisg.org/what-we-do-0-100-bisac-subject-headings-list-fiction.php

Herb Mallette
Posted: Monday, January 7, 2013 8:30 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188


Thanks for the information, Colleen, but it in no way surprises me that there's a BISAC code for literary fiction -- any more that it surprises me that writers like Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut have insisted that their works are not science fiction. 

I would, however, make a profound distinction between marketing categories and genres. Literary fiction is a marketing category, and I think that it is a valid marketing category. But it's not a genre. Works of "literary fiction" do not utilize common tropes that unite them as similar works while compartmentalizing them away from other genres in the way that works of "science fiction" or "horror" do. The desire to be "literary" is an attitude possessed by some writers, and the marketing of fiction as "literary" is commercially sensible as a way of guiding readers who enjoy densely written, cerebral works over "merely entertaining" ones. But a great many works of literature have as their genre science fiction or mystery, and the eschewing of genre conventions in no way conveys literary value upon a novel. In short, nothing links all examples of "literary fiction" other than a degree of intellectuality and quality, and those characteristics are readily found in the best books of every genre.

Please note that I don't expect my opinion on the validity of "literary fiction" as a genre to be binding on anyone else. You're more than welcome to think of it as a genre if you please, and to consider the BISAC code to be ironclad empirical evidence supporting your view and refuting mine. But I would in closing posit that the acceptance of "literary fiction" as its own genre would preclude any notion that work of genuine literary quality transcends genre -- is larger than whatever label might be applied to it. True literature would then merely be one of many kinds of fiction, and just as there is good science fiction and bad science fiction, we would then have to acknowledge the existence of lousy literature along with that which is sublime.
Carl E Reed
Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2013 2:41 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608


Ah, this reminds me of Professor Laurence Perrine’s thought-provoking and influential essay on just such a subject/question. In his essay Escape and Interpretation Perrine argues that all literature can be divided into two broad categories, “escapist” and “interpretive”:

Escape literature is that written purely for entertainment—to help us pass the time agreeably. Interpretive literature [CER: or so-called “literary fiction”] is written to broaden and deepen and sharpen our awareness of life. Escape literature takes us away from the real world: it enables us temporarily to forget our troubles. Interpretive literature takes us, through the imagination, deeper into the real world: it enables us to understand our troubles. Escape literature has as its only object pleasure. Interpretive literature has as its object pleasure plus understanding.

Perhaps anticipating the objections raised by his critics, Perrine hastens to add:

Escape and interpretation are not two great bins, into one or the other of which we can toss any given story. Rather, they are opposite ends of a scale—the two poles between which the world of fiction spins.

The problem with this definition of escapist vs. interpretive literature/literary fiction is that it encourages the reader to denigrate and undervalue works with a higher fantasy-to-reality quotient than those books currently shelved under the headings of “literature” or “general fiction” in the bookstores. By this criterion, a novel that concerned itself with, say, the plight of black slaves in the antebellum American South would automatically be accorded a higher literary status than a book chronicling the experiences of an earthling raised on Mars come back to his home planet to become a martyred messiah; the personal conflicts and drama occasioned by a modern suburban American housewife attempting to bed all the married men in her neighborhood would be judged a more “interpretive” work than the adventures of an Icelandic-legends-inspired group of halflings, elves, dwarves and wizards. Using this standard, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (that wooden work of stilted dialogue, crude stereotypes and breathless melodrama) must be accorded higher literary status than Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land (the underground science fiction classic that addressed themes of free love, the empty authoritarianism of organized religion and the unthinking cruelties perpetuated by willfully stupid, xenophobic people upon the nonconformist and the iconoclast); the 24 Newsday writers who collaborated in the making of the satirical hoax Naked Came the Stranger would be hailed as better writers than J. R. R. Tolkien. Is this really a workable standard? Is Perrine’s escapist-vs.-interpretive dichotomy a useful criterion by which we may judge the excellence, relevance and general importance of different types of literature?

I argue: most emphatically not. In place of Perrine’s principle I propose that we should—nay, must—discuss literature in terms of its arete (a Greek term signifying excellence). Normally translated “virtue”, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy informs us:

. . . arete refers to a quality the possession of which either constitutes the possessor as, or causes it to be, a good instance of its kind. Thus sharpness is an arete of a knife, strength an arete of a boxer, etc. Since in order to be a good instance of its kind an object normally has to possess several excellences, the term may designate each of those excellences severally or the possession of them all together—overall or total excellence.

Surely this makes more sense? And, in fact, isn’t that the very thing we do in communicating our opinions to each other about different types of literature? Do we judge a suspense thriller by the same criteria we would a work of literary fiction? Do we pit a Robert E. Howard swords-&-sorcery fantasy novel against Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, and argue over which book is more “interpretive”?

What of Perrine’s assertion that “interpretive literature takes us, through the imagination, deeper into the real world”? Many members of academia and the general reading public, in thrall to realism and the intellectual bigotry that equates realism with relevance (and relevance with the celebration of the mundane and the commonplace) would automatically judge a book that featured elves, space ships or vampires a “lesser” work than a book that confined itself to descriptions of people, places and things that actually exist (or have existed).

And yet, do not the majority of readers profess belief in the supernatural? Are not most readers believers in gods, angels, demons, “principalities and powers” of one kind or another? What of atheists and agnostics, who may reject all religionist or mystical claims to epistemological knowledge, yet still believe in the importance and influence of the Id, the subconscious, the “reptilian brain”, or any of the other myriad atavistic drives and impulses which work to influence a man or woman through genetic determinism? Dare we reject an entire body of “escapist” literature if it speaks powerfully to this aspect of man’s existence? Are we to ignore and denigrate man’s shadow-self: his nightmare fears and wishful fantasias, opiate visions and lurid midnight madnesses, fleeting hypnogogic visions and clarion calls from “realms beyond”? To do so, I would argue, is to be escapist in the worst sense: intellectually dogmatic, creatively constipated and psychologically jejune (for as C. S. Lewis has noted, “Nothing is more characteristically juvenile than contempt for juvenility.”)

In conclusion, I argue that this escapist vs. interpretive benchmark by which we are encouraged to judge the seriousness of literature misses the mark. It is useful, yes—but only as one of many criterions by which we may judge a book’s excellencies (or regrettable lack thereof).

So getting back to your original question, Nevena, I would say that if by “literary elements” you mean those aspects of writing that are most especially moving, insightful, pertinent, technically well-executed and/or memorable—yes, please—I would welcome them in any and all genres, cross-pollinated/contaminated or otherwise.     


LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2013 7:50 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662


Oh, Carl! How I've missed you!

On a less dramatic note, how ya doing? And I agree with your well articulated point.
Carl E Reed
Posted: Monday, January 14, 2013 12:08 AM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608


I'm hanging in there by my well-chewed fingernails, LeeAnna. Heh! Hope all is well with you and yours. (Reading a lot of David Foster Wallace at present.)


LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Monday, January 14, 2013 2:25 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662


Things are good with me and mine. Sorry to hear you have to hang by your well-chewed finger nails. A person should at least get to use their finger tips.

I haven't read any David Foster Wallace, but I've been meaning to since my writing professor was such a big fan.
 

Jump to different Forum...