The Secret Truce in the Literary Genre Wars

Hungergames_posterShould young-adult, science fiction, and fantasy novels be considered works of literature? Is The Hunger Games a work of art? Does anyone care? Over the last couple of years, a handful of authors have pitched their tents in the no man’s land between “genre fiction” and “pure literature.” But the more intense the genre wars become, the more difficult it is to understand what it’s all about. Is it a question of what we should read? Is it a critical discussion about what counts as “literary quality” writing? Or is it a war of words over which books should be published?

Enter New Yorker editor Joshua Rothman, whose recent piece, “A Better Way to Think About the Genre Debate,” clarifies the stakes of the discussion while offering a broader historical perspective. Rothman’s essay is easy to paraphrase: what we now consider to be the “literary novel” was itself once a genre. Specifically, modernist novelists like Virginia Woolf looked with disdain and frustration on the social novels of the 19th century (Dickens) and the newborn mass culture of the early 20th century. So they went in another direction entirely, producing “spiritual” works whose “aura” still hangs over the 21st-century ideal of literary culture. The problem, though, is that we no longer have a mass culture. So literary culture, Rothman says, is left in a state of confusion.

Rothman tries to offer a truce between the warring camps with the help of literary critic Northrop Frye, whose Anatomy of Criticism uses only four genres to describe works of literature: novel, romance, anatomy, and confession. This distinction allows Rothman to bring books like The Hunger Games into the literary fold as “romances” rather than “novels.” Rothman writes:

Many young-adult books, like those in the “Hunger Games” trilogy, are pure romances: maybe, instead of asking why so many grownups read young-adult novels, we ought to be asking why novels are losing, and romances gaining, in appeal.

Much as I admire Rothman’s contribution — it’s an earnest attempt to redirect the conversation — I think, at best, it merely soothes the anxiety of a shrinking class of readers. Let’s face it, for those readers and authors who already discount The Hunger Games, it doesn’t matter if you consider the book a novel or romance. This “literary” faction will not want to consider why fantasy and science fiction novels are appealing to readers, because they simply don’t give a shit. They consider these books subpar, un-literary trash. Inasmuch as the genre debate appears to be real, it is a political debate about who and what counts in literary culture, and for a small number of readers, genre fiction as a whole will never count as literature.

For better or worse, though, I do not think that the genre wars are real, or at least I’m convinced that a truce was made years ago. Sure, there is a dwindling cache of readers and authors who fight for “literary quality” and “experimentation,” but they constitute a (mostly) silent minority. There are simply not enough of these people to counteract the flood of readers who mix and match literary fiction with genre fiction. And it’s not, as Rothman says, that “mass culture” has somehow changed drastically in this regard — revered, high-literary novelists, from Graham Greene to Roberto Bolaño, intentionally wrote and read trashy fiction. Instead, the novels and novelists themselves have changed. Increasingly, literary writing invites genre elements into the fold, even while it excludes “experimental” or “modernist” devices.

When we talk about genre fiction as literature, we’re too quick to assume that the most influential features of genre novels are magic wands, dwarves, time machines, or whatever. In reality, genre novels supply a certain quality of reading that has the so-called literary crowd anxious and envious. The issue at stake is not whether literary fiction can be fantastical or magical, or whether genre fiction may be elevated to the status of literature. Nobel winner José Saramago — a literary hard-ass if one ever existed — stuffed magical islands and plagues of blindness into his fabulist fictions. And Tolkien and William Gibson are widely accepted members of the modern canon.

So what’s really going on here? Well, it isn’t the genre of prose that has literary novelists anxious. It’s the market status of genre novels. Now that literary criticism has evaporated as a genre of writing, the market is the only arbiter of what gets read. And if a book isn’t read or published, it isn’t literature, at least not anymore. Besides, the market status of a genre novel has little to do with how witch-y or wizard-y it is. Instead, it’s the page-turning, universe-building quality of genre novels that pushes them rapidly through the market and into the hands of readers. More and more, literary fiction is co-opting this page-turning quality of genre fiction.

Want proof? Consider the current Amazon “literary” bestseller list, which includes The Goldfinch, a “700-plus page-turner about a tragic loss,” as well as Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You — Amazon’s book of the year. It’s pitched as “a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait.”

Meanwhile, genre works continue to be published and sold at a blistering rate. This means, yes, that books like The Hunger Games are subsidizing literary novels, which sell relatively poorly. It’s on this basis that you won’t hear much complaining about the so-called genre wars, at least not outside of The New Yorker and the stray Slate piece. What’s more, we’ll probably see more and more novels like Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, a genre-fied triple threat that fuses sports, YA vibes, and literary quality.

So if literary and genre fictions have brokered a truce — where the former borrows from and is subsidized by the latter — why are we talking about this at all? Aren’t genre authors content with their massive, devoted audiences? It might be helpful to note that this debate is being carried out in the pages of The New Yorker, the magazine whose style and audience is itself born out of Faustian pact between cosmopolitan individualism and commercial populism. This is the same magazine that uneasily mixes “high literary” writing with vanity fiction from Tom Hanks. And, I might add, its book blog is called “Page-Turner.”