Tuesday 2 August 2011

The Genre Debate

In my previous post, I linked to an article in the Telegraph about why people read thrillers and which was - shall we say - a tad condescending to those who read genre fiction. This topic is one that always irks me. I hate that sort of snobbishness (whichever side of the fence you're on). For me there are books you like, and books you don't, plain and simple.

I'm not even going to touch the definition of thrillers, but expand it to all crime fiction.

I really can't stand D H Lawrence. And I still have nightmares about being made to read a book at university in which nothing happened except every 8 pages or so a caterpillar crawled up a wall (Alain Robbe Grillet's LA JALOUSIE (a book which was trumpeted by my lecturer as "a masterpiece")). By the fifth appearance of the caterpillar I wanted to bash its little head in with the most convenient Nancy Drew book in my collection. All that bloody navel gazing. If I want to gaze at anyone's navel I have one of my own. OK, it's not pretty, but it's mine damn it, and it's an honest navel. I don't need to spend £10 on a book just to be bored by someone else's lumpy navel. But that doesn't mean I'm saying it's a bad book - it's just not a book I liked.

Give me a book that engages my mind, my emotions, takes me into another world, makes me laugh and makes me cry, written by someone who wants to tell a good story, with engaging characters and excellent writing. You get books like that in every genre (including the 'literary fiction' Hensher seems to prefer), I just happen to prefer crime fiction.

And I dislike the whole idea of crime fiction (or any genre fiction, in fact) being seen as the neddish little brother of literary fiction. It seems that unless books are picked up by the establishment and lauded as 'literary' then they are unworthy.

Don't we all get different things from a work of art (in the general sense to include literature)? And isn't what we get from that work of art dependent on our emotions, our background, our experiences? So surely the understanding and the meaning is going to be slightly different for all of us? My understanding of Jane Austen is going to be different from my grandmother's understanding of Jane Austen. Yet the favourite book of both my grandma and I was Pride and Prejudice, and we used to have some great discussions about it.

And who's to say what Jane Austen's intention was when she wrote it? OK, she wrote about it in some letters, but who's to say she was telling the truth? :o) And if I want to think that William Blake's Tiger, Tiger is just a lovely poem about a tiger, then who's to say I'm wrong and poor old William doesn't whirl in his grave every time someone comments on the religious symbolism and significance. "Damn it, I saw a tiger at London zoo and was really impressed, you pretentious dickheads", he might be saying.

I am glad that I can enjoy, or not enjoy a book without caring whether it's a literary masterpiece or a piece of genre 'trash'. I can pick up a book with pure unadulterated joy, and come at it without any preconceptions. I like books which are well written, have characters I can care about (not necessarily like but care what happens to them) and which engage me and, yes - shock, horror - entertain me. I couldn't give a stuff about what happens to Paul Morrell in Sons and Lovers, but I do care about what happens to The Grinch who stole Christmas. Where would be the enjoyment in picking up a book by some feted and lauded 'genius' and feeling that I had to gush about it? Sometimes, the emperor just isn't wearing any new clothes.

I don't like posing and posturing. In any genre, when the author gets in the way of the words as though he's sitting on my shoulder pointing to the page as I read "Look at that turn of phrase, isn't that divine?" then it really turns me off.

I agree with Raymond Chandler: "I think that certain writers are under a compulsion to write in recherche phrases as a compensation for a lack of some kind of natural animal emotion. They feel nothing, they are literary eunuchs, and therefore they fall back on an oblique terminology to prove their distinction."

Hensher's slightly sneering attitude really bugs me. Why can't people be allowed to enjoy things for what they are without being made to feel that they are somehow less of a person because they like crime fiction more than literary fiction, or prefer Madonna to Mozart, or comic strips to Canaletto, or Lear to Larkin? People like what they like and it makes us who we are. And being snooty about other peoples' tastes because they are 'simpler' or 'deeper' or have less 'literary quality' than our own is just pure snobbery. Forwards or in reverse, it doesn't matter. What is the point of trying to make something which can enhance peoples' lives inaccessible to all but the select few?

I like difficult books. I like simple books. I like books full stop. I just don't like being told that that difficult book has more merit than the simple book I've just read - the simple book that made me laugh and made me cry, and left a little bit of itself in my brain and in my heart. I don't think that JUST because a book is difficult it's better than a simple book. Sometimes a tiger is just a bloody tiger.

Bringing this waffling back to crime fiction, one of the main attractions of crime fiction is the excellent characterization that these books usually have. Crime fiction takes an ordinary character at an extraordinary time in their lives and shows how they react and cope in the dark place into which they are taken. Or, in the case of police procedurals and PI novels, how they deal with death and devastation on a regular basis. They have a far wider and deeper approach to characterization than a lot of more mainstream novels and say a lot about humanity and society. It's the whole order from chaos thing, and sometimes it's just continuing chaos - and that's all good. Sometimes order is achieved, sometimes it isn't. I don't always like it when the ends are tied up all nice and neatly, I like ends to be left loose. But I like there to be ends.
I guess what I'm trying to say (very badly) is that I read crime fiction because there's such a wide variety of stories about 'people'. There are points and plots and problems - great characters and strong stories.

The crime fiction genre is huge and varied and wonderful. There are a lot of books out there that I find dull and bland or at the other end of the spectrum so gory that I need to wash the blood off my hands after I've read them. I don't enjoy books where crocheting cats with a degree in astrology solve the murder, but I have friends who do. I don't like books which make me feel I could carry out an autopsy if pushed, but I have friends who do (I'm not sure which of those groups of people scare me more!). There is something for everyone. Although I prefer my crime fiction either dark, twisted, noir and warped, or full of black humour, it doesn't mean to say I don't read anything else.

And nobody should be made to feel that anything they choose to read is unworthy. If you read something and love it, then I want to hear about it. Even if the book is not to my taste, I love hearing people's enthusiasm for the books they love.

Oh, shut up, Donna.


  1. Great post Donna, pretty much summed up my whole feeling about the patronising article.

    Steve Mosby discusses the issue over on his blog as well. http://www.theleftroom.co.uk/?p=1486

  2. Well-said, Donna! *Applause*

  3. No, don't shut up, Donna. This needed to be said and you've done it so well. Thank you for that.

  4. Donna, every single word is just perfect and so much like my own ideas and opinions. If I could write as well as you, I'd have said exactly what you've said here! Good is good, be it whatever it is! Pretentious literary people deserve some of the dark things we read about that are quite ugly, and they deserve being crocheted into a blanket with a very spitting angry cat!

    We don't need to be defined, and we certainly do not need to be put down for liking good writing-whatever kind it is. Posturing like they do, would be silly and sad, if they didn't get the glory for it-but they do. So it makes me basically not want to read the ones they laud.

    Extremely well said, Donna, this is a wonderful piece. Thank you for saying it. *adding to Applause*

  5. I see the term "literary fiction" as a synonym for "books in which nothing happens."

  6. Thank you all for your lovely comments! I just felt I needed to rant a little :o)

  7. Good rant! And I agree with every word.

  8. The problem with those who think they read "literature" is that they don't understand that some of the literary greats were also popular e.g. Dickens. The problem with these critics is also that they like to assume that they are somehow better "readers" than the rest of us. It makes them feel good to have the occasional snipe at us.
    Perhaps it is saying something about them that it rarely occurs to me to snipe at people who don't like crime fiction. I just accept that that is the way things are.

  9. Kerrie - very true about popularity. I have absolutely nothing against literary fiction (whatever that may be, actually!) I like a lot of books considered literary. I don't like others, just as there are crime fiction books I wouldn't touch with a barge pole.

    My bottom line is - there are books I like, and books I don't :o)

  10. Haha!

    Don´t you ever shut up, Donna!

    Well, as a teacher I´d better stick to ´literary fiction´ most of the time, but then there are some lovely ´literary´ guys who add quite a lot of nice crimes to their stories. E.g. Dickens, Paul Auster - and the lesser known Irish writer of drama, Martin McDonagh. His "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" is a creepy story about mother & daughter living together in a remote cottage in Galway. You wouldn´t fall asleep while reading that one! ;)

  11. Testify! That's the best post I've read all month, and right on the money, so much so that I can add absolutely nothing. Rant on, sister.

  12. Whenever someone sneers about crime fiction I ask what genre MacBeth, Hamlet, and the Great Gatsby would be if they were the writers' first work and submitted to a publisher today (and if they weren't plays, never mind that).
    Revenge, human fallibility, and our motives for secrecy are not genre tropes. "Crime fiction" or "thrillers" are a function of marketing.

    When something is said to "transcend genre" it only means that someone with a prejudice against the genre it was labeled as actually liked it, despite their snobbery. There are plenty of shitty or middling literary novels, but they are immune to the potboiler sobriquet. They're uh, "weak efforts," or whatever. I have an honors degree in English as well, I just prefer stories about human emotion, not rich white people's ennui or self-loathing.

  13. As a fifteen stone tattooed geordie skinhead from the Byker area of Newcastle who loves Shakespeare but cannot stand 'literary' shite where nowt happens can I just applaud your post and say spot on pet!

  14. Dorte - sounds good - I shall track it down.

    Heath - cheers, bro :o)

    Thomas - oh, another of my hot buttons - 'transcend the genre' - who says it bloody needs to be transcended?!

    I'm guessing that's one of the lovely Radgepacket crew, so, cheers, hinny :o)