Friday, May 21, 2010

(Literary) Fight Club

By Russel D McLean

So here we go again. And before we start, let me state straight up that I am not about to pass judgement on any writer's output or value, but I am going to try and tear down an ongoing literary slanging match that is, in my opinion, becoming increasingly harmful to both sides.

For those who haven't been keeping up, it seems that bestselling thriller writer Lee Child has either made a horrific faux-pas or, worse, he genuinely believes that literary writers “know in their heart that we could write their books but they could not write our books.”

It’s the kind of quote that, even from its alleged context (a TV debate on literary vs genre, precisely the argument that's beginning to get me down) sounds childish, petulant and plain baiting.

Reading the full quote, things start out nicely. Child claims that since his and Ian McEwan’s books were released at the same time (Child's latest is 61 HOURS, Ian McEwan's is SOLAR), the media were trying to set up some kind of grudge match. Child asks “why should I be worried about Iain McEwan’s books?” which is a fair enough question. And, I assumed, was going to go down the “look, we’re aiming for two vastly different sectors of the market, like asking whether John Woo should be worried by the latest Judd Apatow flick” kind of response.

But no, he goes for the previously mentioned statement and proceeds to make crime and thriller writers sound particularly full of themselves in the worst possible way. In the same kind of way that many literary writers have sounded when claiming that thriller and crime writers don't need to work as hard at what they do and that we're all about formula.

It doesn't help that Child picked a peculiarly poor example when it came to McEwan because, let’s face facts, McEwan sells by the boatload even though his output is less frequent than Childs. McEwan also has five movies adaptions to Child’s zero. And yet Child makes the case – however indirectly – that McEwan should somehow be jealous of him?

Here are the publishers stats on Child (as reiterated across the proofs of 61 hours): one book by Child is sold in the world every second. But does this really mean anything? Do those sales make him better or more talented than McEwan?

Here’s the thing: I’m getting fed up of the literary/genre debate. From both sides. I do believe that certain literary types have stereotyped genre as being empty of brain and purpose (which is true in some cases) while some of us genre writers have come to regard literary as so much empty posturing with only the appearance of intelligence (again, true in some cases).

However, in amongst all this mud slinging we’re forgetting an important thing:

None of it matters.

No, seriously. Because we’re all in the same damn boat, us authors of fiction. Every kind of fiction is intended to have a different effect upon the audience. Hence, McEwan’s books are attempting to induce very different emotions and reactions than a Child thriller. But they share many common features, and come from a similar spring of inspiration and creation.

So why can’t the two co-exist? Literary and genre side by side, proud to be fictional?

Why do they have to be in competition at all?

And as to Child’s later assertion that why wouldn’t a starving literary writer write a “bestseller” in the vein of Child, or even just a crime novel, let me point out from experience that many crime writers are also starving and believe me, if we could hit on that magic and very lucky formula for bestsellerdom (which McEwan has as equally as Child, despite the protestations of Child) we would be doing it. Its not like we – or our literary equivalents – are saying, “Tell you what, we’re going to write an inadequate book that’s not going to sell”. Because all writing is about connecting with an audience, and the widest audience possible. Yes, literary writers may talk less about money and audience and more about art and theme, but when you think about what sales mean you’re connecting with an audience, so money and connection to readers are concepts which have to be linked.

I’m speaking here as a man more likely to pick up a crime thriller than a literary novel, but that’s not to say that literary novels are all without merit or that all crime novels are brilliant (in fact there are many, many shitty crime novels and some translucently wondrous literary novels as well as brilliance in nearly all genres). I think – I believe – that a good book is a good book, and one that connects with an audience will do so no matter who has written it or for what reason. Maybe I’m na├»ve, but I honestly wish any writer – yes, even James Patterson and Dan Brown – well in what they do because, even if I don’t approve of it, clearly their work is connecting with someone somewhere. And, frankly, getting bogged down in genre wars, in macho-bullshit posturing over whose work is more important or enduring, over whether or not a literary novel could be “written in three weeks” or any number of these petty arguments, distracts us from what’s really important: writing books for readers like ourselves, books that connect with readers, that slip into people's lives, that make them say, for whatever reason, "I am glad to have read that".

In the end, it doesn’t matter what you write. Or even how big your audience is. If we all wrote the same kind of books, then the world, believe me, would be a poorer place.


Sandra Ruttan said...

You're right. And you know, sometimes, the reasons people have a big audience is because they write what will sell, instead of what they really want to write. Is that more noble or less noble? It's really neither. But just because you're more popular than someone else, it doesn't mean you're superior.

At the end of the day, we're all writers. There are genre writers who are formulaic, and there are literary writers who aren't good, but that can be said of every genre out there. I suppose I can see Banville/Black having more interest in this, since he plays in both fields, but beyond that, how many people really care? Does Lee really think McEwan's readers are the kind that are going to abandon McEwan and read Child? I think for the most part it's a vastly different audience, so I don't see what this accomplishes.

Gerald So said...

I, too, think the literary vs. genre debate is mostly baseless. Literary fiction is a genre of its own. The debate only serves to keep "literary" books separate from "genre" books in the minds of those who label books one or the other (which arguably may be the largest portion of buyers). So the debate serves a purpose, just not one that helps me decide what to read.

Paul D Brazill said...

Child was enjoying himself, wasn't he? And I enjoyed him too. It was a wind up and it worked. It's al marketing at that point in the game, for him and McEwan. There's no such thing as bad publicity,eh?

I've never read Child but have read a fair bit of McEwan.I'll give Child a try at some point though.Horse for courses.

Mindy you, at first I really did think Child was talking about the bloke that played Magneto ...

John McFetridge said...

The thing is, genre writers came late to the big publishers' table.

For decades guys with publishing companies named after themselves published hardcover books of what they liked - what they knew and understood. It has mostly become what we call, "literary."

Genre was published in paperback by 'pulp houses,' and we love it for that.

But when the publishing companies named after guys got bought by faceless corporations they saw that the pulp books sold a lot of copies so they started publishing those, too. But for the most part the people working at those companies weren't fans of that kind of book - they didn't know it very well and they didn't love it. But it sold.

That's changing as now the people working at the big publishing companies do love what we call genre - and not just because it sometimes sells.

It's the same thing that happened with sci fi and the movies. For a long, long time movie studios were staffed by people who didn't like sci fi. Actors worked in sci fi but didn't really like it, directors made sci fi movies but tey were usually B movies. When big-name people worked in sci fi they always said theirs weren't really 'sci fi,' and so on.

So there's always this... conflict, as things change, as the people involved change.

Anonymous said...

The literary vs. genre debate has been a successful IQ reduction tool for many years.

Since I'm not interested in lowering my IQ, I choose not to participate.

Scott D. Parker said...

Good post, Russell. The funny thing about niches (any niches) is that folks of one niche can look down their nose at residents of other niches. At first, I didn't watch reality shows when they started airing a decade ago. Then, I started watching Project Runway and, despite my protestations that it was better than the Bachelor, it was still a reality show. Who cares that I think the Bachelor is a dumb show? Folks like it. And that's all that matters. Period.

The same holds true for books. I've never read a romance novel but there are millions of readers out there that devour them. BTW, you see what I just did? I looked down my nose at a genre that lots of people love. Just because I don't particularly like romances, I use them as an example. So, I'm guilty, too.

I liked this line from you post the most: "I honestly wish any writer – yes, even James Patterson and Dan Brown – well in what they do because, even if I don’t approve of it, clearly their work is connecting with someone somewhere." Funny, Brown and Patterson get dissed often, too. Heck, in this week's "Castle," Castle gets a funny, if not true, dig at Patterson. But, you ask any writer and they'd all trade places with Patterson in less than a heartbeat.

Fiction is entertainment. Entertainment comes in different ways to suit different people. Like you said, if we all wrote/watched/read the same stuff, how boring would life be?

Lamar said...

While agree with your basic point -- the literary vs. genre argument is inane -- there is one point I'd like to hit on, if I may.

You ask, "Why do they have to be in competition at all?" You're speaking about genres overall, but the question could just as easily apply to writers individually.

The answer is that they have to be in competition because there are only so many people and there are only so many hours in the day. There is only so much currency available -- not just literal currency, but the currency of audience and time, as well.

It isn't just doing the writing that we care about, is it? It's the getting published part, as well. And it's the making enough money to keep doing the writing part, too.

The truth of the matter is that every person who chooses to read someone else's book instead of ours is a lost opportunity for us, and every dollar that goes to that other writer is a dollar we aren't going to get.

So, depending on what our goals are, yes, we're all in competition. It doesn't matter if one writer writes "literary," whatever that means, another writer writes crime fiction, another writes fantasy -- we're all competing for the limited audience available, who have limited cash and limited time, and so must make choices.

And we're not even competing just against other writers. We're competing against TV, movies, radio, music, exercise, eating dinner, driving for pleasure, playing golf, playing games, playing the piano, playing with the kids, having a conversation, downloading pr(/)n -- whatever it is, we're competing against it.

If you've ever just paid attention during a political campaign or watched any sort of advertising or even just listened to athletes talk trash to each other, you know that competition brings out the worst instincts in a lot of people. It isn't enough to present oneself and one's work in the best light; one must also attempt to gain stature by running down one's opposition. And this generally works pretty well because, let's be honest, people being people are more often than not ready, willing and eager to believe the bad things you say about someone else than the good things you say about yourself.

So, yeah, the "literary vs. genre" argument is nonsense, but it will only ever go away because it has been replaced by another, more current comparison.

No, I'm not bitter and angry.