Going for the Money

For years, so-called "literary" writers routinely to sneered at genre fiction as a lesser form of writing. But now more and more of those same writers,  under their own names and under pseudonyms (like John Banville writing as Benjamin Black, or Scott Spencer writing as Chase Novak for example), are turning to genre fiction because that's where the money is, as The Millions reports:

The good ship Literary Fiction has run aground and the survivors are frantically paddling toward the islands of genre. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but there does seem to be a definite trend of literary/mainstream writers turning to romance, thrillers, fantasy, mystery, and YA. Justin Cronin has produced the vampire epic The Passage.Tom Perrotta is offering The Leftovers, a tale of a futuristic Rapturesque apocalypse. And MacArthur-certified genius Colson Whitehead is writing about zombies. It’s enough to make my historical mystery about Jack the Ripper look downright pedestrian.

[…]So while publishers might happily support a literary author making the switch to genre they’ll probably be less enthusiastic when that writer develops an itch to move back toward literary writing. The obvious compromise – write literary under one name, genre under another – works for some, but is a stopgap solution while the industry struggles to catch up with the reality of what’s happening. Because it’s not just a matter of writers flipping back and forth, it’s a matter of genre and literary cross-pollinating to produce a new species. Genre books written by literary writers are different than those written by authors who have always embraced and exemplified that genre.

The so-called "literary writers" are only beginning to notice what those of us who've always toiled in  "genre" writing have always known…the labels are meaningless. All that matters is whether you are telling a good story that grabs readers. And all it takes is one look at the bestseller lists to see what readers really want. More often than not, the bulk of the NY Times list is dominated by mysteries and thrillers. If a book is a mystery or a thriller, does that inherently make it less "literary" than a story about a family that's slowly disintegrating under the weight of the lies that they tell themselves and one another? I don't think so.

4 thoughts on “Going for the Money”

  1. I dunno, I think lit fic and genre fic as they’ve been developed in recent decades may be as different as poetry and prose. With lit fic, which has a fiftieth or less of the audience genre enjoys, an elite read for the beauty of the prose and for depth of characterization to an extent that is almost sans story. With genre it’s for the masses and it’s mostly about story.
    I think we may be returning to the pre-bifurcation period, e.g., before about 1970, when the literary writers did indeed include a story.

  2. I think there are genre fiction books that carry the weight of literary fiction — in this regard, I’d say the best of crime fiction does this, for instance, but not, say, a book about a caterer and her cat who solve crimes — and I think there are literary books that carry the propulsive plot of genre fiction, and here I think of even classic books like, say, The Quiet American, or, in a different construct, The Wire. I’d argue — and I have — that most of what we consider classic literature contains an element (or more than element) of genre writing. The Great Gatsby is a classic noir, To Kill A Mockingbird is a legal thriller, etc. And literary fiction often becomes commercial fiction — The Lovely Bones, for instance. So while I think there can be a dividing line between what is strictly genre and what is strictly literature with a capital L, I think the historical divide between the two has always had more to do with quality than plot per se.


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