plot + character | genre – literature

I’ve made the point before (and will make it again) that the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is artificial and has more to do with social and class issues than anything else. Literary fiction is just another genre, with its own set of expectations and history and intended audience. Some people would argue that the literary genre is inherently more worthwhile or better than the other genres, but I see those arguments as circular and self-serving.

My take on this whole thing in a nutshell: characterization is crucial, but so is story. That is, plot is not a four letter word. A really good novel will have great characterization, a compelling, well put together plot/story, and in bonus cases, beautiful prose. These three things are not mutually exclusive.

[asa book]0743277198[/asa] I am raising this topic because I just finished reading James Lee Burke’s newest novel, Crusader’s Cross. I’m not going to do an indepth review, but I will say this: the man has all three crucial points covered: plot, characterization, prose.

There are some writers out there who are unapologetically not-literary-genre-focused and who are both commercially and critically successful. Burke is one of them. Elmore Leonard is another. Both of them write crime fiction, and both are very good at what they do. They deserve general praise and love and lots of readers. But I’m busy wondering how that happens. Why are some authors who write outside the literary genre spared the sneering of the crit-literati? Is it that some genres are lifted into the realm of literature over time? Think of the first big immigration waves from Ireland and Italy, and the discrimination those people had to deal with. Within a couple generations they were running city hall and giving fancy balls. With enough time they lifted themselves into the higher society and took their turns sneering at the new immigrants.

Is the crime genre like that? Has it been around so long that it’s been subsumed into literati land? Any ideas?

14 Replies to “plot + character | genre – literature”

  1. As always, good points. But has crime fiction been around for that long? Hasn’t the romance genre been around for longer? I wonder whether it really has more to do with gender issues. I mean, is crime fiction perceived as being a more male dominated genre (and more “serious”) and romantic fiction more female dominated and therefore valued less?

  2. I don’t think time has anything to do with it. Agamemnon and Lysistrata have been around the same length of time, but one is a “morality” tale and the other is considered a sex farce. I think it’s because murder is accepted in our society and sex still isn’t

    Instead of hijacking your comments, I went ahead and posted a longer (and one might say more convoluted) response on my blog. I always enjoy your discussion posts and hopefully that can generate some more thought.

  3. bc– that’s an excellent point, but I’m thinking now of the fact that crime fiction was pretty much sneered at for a good hunk of the 20th century. The classic noir stuff was not taken seriously when it first was published.

  4. Modern novel genres don’t become more acceptable to the “literati;” individual and exceptional works within a genre can and do. John Le Carre maybe, Graham Greene yes, but Ian Fleming and Tom Clancy, no. Umberto Eco maybe – Peters no. Leonard yes – Grisham no. Ursula Le Guin and Phil Dick, yes – John Norman and Piers Anthony not a chance. Hey, for all I know, Dr. Seuss okay – Berenstein Bears barf. But if you single out plot and character, you’re ignoring why modern and postmodern works become canonical. If you look at the list above, you can see that this type of reader is looking for a complex and original world view, not just acute observation; intellectual content, not just social commentary; formal innovation, not graceful plotting. Scott Turow’s mysteries, for example, are (IMO) tightly plotted, psychologically realistic, and in excellent but not showy prose, and, although he’s widely respected, hasn’t made the leap Elmore Leonard has, for other reasons. Check this intuition with some fountainheads of modern literary fiction: Kafka’s Castle is virtually devoid of conventional characters; Ulysses isn’t plotted, just mapped onto the Odyssey.

    I mean, are you really interested in exploring the topic, or is this just the usual sour grapes from a popular writer unlikely to make the leap, accusing other folks of being self-serving? Saying literary fiction is “just another genre” is like the adolescent who discovers that “everybody is selfish.”

  5. deRien —

    Yes, I am interested in a real discussion and I appreciate the time you took to comment.

    Before I reply to some of your points, I have to point out that I have credentials on both sides of the (artificial) lit/genre divide. My first novel won the PEN/Hemingway award and was a finalist for the Orange Prize. I chose to start writing in other genres, and it’s a decision I don’t regret.

    I have a clarification and a question to start with.

    Clarification: I should have said more clearly that the literary genre is not homogenous within its own boundaries. Not every novel published with the hope of critical acclaim gets there, and for good reason. Just as you point out the difference between LeCarre and Clancy, there are degrees of success in the literary genre. I’m not going to provide examples because that would certainly open up a secondary and distracting debate.

    Question: You wrote “Modern novel genres don’t become more acceptable to the ‘literati;’ individual and exceptional works within a genre can and do.”

    In some genre other than crime or espionage, can you name a author/work that has been well received by the literati? If your statement is true but there are no such romance novels (for example), then that amounts to a blanket condemnation of the whole genre. Is that in line with your view on the subject as a whole?

  6. I think whole genres do become acceptable to the litearti and crime is the classic example. French existentialists loved the moral ambiguity of noir writing and what they saw as the subversion of someone like Micky Spillane of stiffling suburban values (the misogyny didn’t seem to worry them). And in a way I can see why. I don’t see much morally complex romance. When romance writers do start writing more complex, greyer work, they’ve started branching out to crime or reaistic historical work or sic fi.

    I do see literary fiction as just another genre and a frustrating one at that. It has it’s own rules and expectations like other genres but claims it doesn’t (well that’s my perception anyway).

    deRein – I’m not sure why you think Rosina is being self serving. I thought she was opeing up a terrific subject for discussion.

  7. Sorry for the ill temper in my previous post. Look, whether we ought to esteem middlebrow writers like Anne Tyler more and fraudulent highbrows like Paul Auster less, I get as a reasonable point of debate, or maybe because that’s just becuase I’d say less.

    In other genres it’s more than possible. In science fiction, even more than the examples I already mentioned, Stanislaw Lem has unquestionably crossed over, and of course Atwood and Lessing have done SF. Harukani Murakami. In what might be called “fantasy,” Bulgakov’s Master and Margarite , Grass’s The Tin Drum and The Flounder, in historical fiction, Robert Graves I, Claudius and Margarite Yourcenour’s Memoirs of Hadrian . Gah, I suppose Sade, Colette and Anais Nin even score for pornography, but I’m not sure if the French count. Can’t think of any Westerns.

    Okay, is it cheating to include writers who aren’t identified as genre? Maybe, and I could have dredged up H.G. Wells all the way back to Ovid if I wanted to be utterly anachronistic. The point is that the literary gang finds the tropes and conventions of many genres worth trying out as something other than parody. Why not romance?

    Well, look at what I see as the generic conditions for Romance (and apologies to anyone who read a similar entry in my blog)): primary focus on romantic love and an HEA. I think that there’s a point that both of these are inherently anile and certainly in conjunction. But I think the more important points are that they are (1) too limiting, and that (2) the target audience is too much in control of the content to allow for the degenrification.

    (1) Contrast these requirements with the two with the form of, say, the aubade, which in the narrowest tradition is a poem narrated after waking up from a night of love-making: you not only have wow, bleh, and eh? stances in aubades, but a whole range of other reactions and thoughts, including that the love-making wasn’t the point. If you’d like a parallel to Romance, think of sports fiction where the good guys win the Big Game – and the readers are pretty sure that’s what’s going to happen. Unless that’s pretty thoroughly deconstructed, nobody is going to take it seriously as a literary fiction. And if you think Malumud’s The Natural fits into this category, it’s because you know the movie ending, not the original.

    I think the second point is more important, though. Romance is relentlessly reader-driven. It’s true that the opposite generally destoys fiction too – writers, whether very successful and therefore indulged or the lonely-garret obsessives, but that doesn’t eliminate the need for a certain tension between the expectations of readers and what the writer wants to do – and not just in the type and amount of sex, or the TV-movie level of social commentary. It’s not that romance readers won’t read tearjerkers (and much else) but when a book is marketed as romance, they want to know what they’re going to get, and it can only be challenging in the most accepted ways, and they can’t get in the way of the emotional resolution.

    So, the question about Romance sounds to me less like “why can’t a Hollywood movie be art” and more like “Why CAN’T a commercial jingle be also artistic?” Because it would work against its jingleness, I suppose.

    I knwo this is already too long but let be reiterate the basic point: plot and character in the sense you mean (nineteenth century “realism” with a happy ending) are meaningless in terms of what the literary establishment wants – I mean, it can ALSO have that, but no amount of genis-level plottiness or characterization are going to make it literary, and more than a wonderful technique in realistyic acrylic paintings is going t make it into a Manhatten gallery. The story part is the entertaining part and as some literary author (Cynthia Ozick?) said on behalf of her comperes, “I am not entertained by entertainment.”

  8. deRien–

    I have to give my response some thought, but to start with — weblog? You have a weblog? I’d like to have a look, if you feel like sharing the url.

  9. And I swear I posted the bits about Murakami and Philip Dick (a genuine unhyphenated sf genre writer) BEFORE opening up the current New Yorker to see them cited in reference to early works by Britlit writer David Mitchell.

  10. Oh, the entry to which I was referring is here:

    http://scaramuccia.blogspot.com/2006/01/its-not-about-your-unnmentionables-in.html

    But the only point I make there that I didn’t already in my unforgivably longwinded comments to your post is that that Romance is very clearly a marketing genre, it also represents the truncating of romance with a small r, the more general Love Story, so that comparison to another genre would be, for instance, to space opera rather than science fiction as a whole.

  11. deRien — thanks for the link to your weblog. Now I see the connection via Auntie Beff.

    A couple things to start with: 1) no need to apologize for commenting, at length or otherwise. It’s good when people speak up, makes me feel less like I’m hollering into a cave. 2) You clearly have a more varied and deeper acquaintance with a wider range of genres than I do. I have the sense that you’re also pretty up to date on current discussions in literary criticism. My arguments and opinions are more homegrown, because while I have a PhD, I managed to never take a single course that required that I read Barthes or de Man.

    Now a couple of points: I am not somebody who claims that there is no such thing as a bad novel. There are horrific novels on bookstore shelves across the world and more to come. I am comfortable saying this novel is a failure and backing up my claim. I am also comfortable with people who disagree and provide counter-arguments. On the other hand, I won’t use aesthetics in arguing for or against a novel. Aesthetics are about fashion, and fashion is by definition mutable and personal. So I find discussions about beauty of prose and similar topics rather circular and frustrating.

    And now I have to go cook dinner. More soon.

  12. Is it just too sick that my academic coursework didn’t generally require reading those authors either – and I chose to do it on my own time? The only thing I’ll say in my defense is that a book read as part of a class isn’t the same book if read entirely freelance.

    I’m not sure if reactions to language are any more subjective than similar judgments about story and character. “Beautiful” would be too limiting in any case – I’d be thinking: stirring, or memorable, or effective – although it can be beautiful too. I’d like to think when I write about a single paragraph from Peter Beagle, that I’m explaining why it’s good. Anyway. the novel’s too young a literary form to decide what’s the rug and what’s the figure, and in less dubious terms I’m way too distracted to explore the diffeerence between what makes someone finish a book, and what makes them read it again.

  13. crickey, you’re good.

    This is a big discussion, so I’m going to take a short cut and ask a question.

    You quoted Ozick on ‘entertainment’ and in general there’s been some back and forth about HEA here. What I want to know is, when did entertainment become a dirty word? And what is it’s opposite? Education? Is fiction that educates inherently better than fiction that amuses, entertains, distracts? Are the two mutually exclusive?

    Also, when oh when are the criterati going to stop dissing the happy ending? And I’m not just talking about HEA as it occurs in romance, I’m thinking of this whole no pain no gain approach to storytelling. Because for me, literature is one kind of storytelling. A priviledged one, yes, but basically a medium to get a story across. Stories are how we pass along the cultural good. Kids learn from stories how their community and society works, what is expected of them, where boundaries are and how/when/if to break them. So why this emphasis on the dark side of things?

    It’s a fashion, of course. In the 19th century Dickens could serve up gloriously happy endings while Hardy gave us poor old Jude. There was Austen’s satisfying endings compared to the dranging Sturm of Wuthering Heights.

    Really what I would like (and will never get) is to just drop all genre discussion. Stop with the categories already. Don’t let publishers and booksellers preselect books for you. Shelf everything in alphabetical order, and let the reader browse, for dog’s sake.

    So there’s my question, and a rant.

  14. I think entertainment became a dirty word with the advent of all-the-time television, like pommes frites became a health hazard with McDonalds. That much saturated corporate lard just can’t be good for one’s heart or head. I think the word “better” should always have an antecedent phrase: “better for something- goes-here” and I’m not sure I can answer your question in those terms. “Education” wouldn’t be the word I’d use, maybe because being educated by something seems as passive as being entertained. I suppose that I think anything that makes me think more deeply or more subtlely, or that gives me a glimpse of secular grace (and wit!) that I can emulate in some way, makes me bigger somehow than I was before – but I suppose that’s a pretty egoistic criterion. But amused – or enchanted, enthralled, whatever – isn’t a bad word to me at all. It just takes a lot nowadays.

    On happy endings: for Dickens, of course, we have alternate endings for Great Expectations. I hope it doesn’t make me a criteratus to much prefer the original, wistful ending, which felt more true. I’d be interested if you felt the same way. In terms of fiction now, think you’re right that there are fashions. A late nineteenth century music critic lamented since composers just had to be mood-ridden, he feared for the disappearance of the major keys entirely. But I’m not sure there’s been a happy philosopher since Democritus. It’s intriguing that you locate the utility of stories in what they teach children (not us?), which answers one of your own questions about what might make something “better” than another, because cheap right answers may be ultimately as destructive as wrong ones.

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