The OF Blog: David Anthony Durham on perceived differences between "literary" and "genre" fiction

Monday, October 12, 2009

David Anthony Durham on perceived differences between "literary" and "genre" fiction

This is one small part of an interview I'm currently conducting with him, but I thought his response to one question in particular deserved to be highlighted on its own.  Hopefully, the full interview will be completed in the next few weeks (both of us are swamped with work right now, it seems):

Every now and then, there's some comment or assertion on some blog or article about how there's some discernable difference between  mainstream,   literary,  or  mimetic  fiction and  speculative  or  SF/Fantasy  fiction.  As an author who has had stories marketed in both categories, what differences, if any, do you believe exist between these perceived narrative modes?

There are differences. Sure. There are commonalities too. I tend to think we make too big a fuss over differences, though. People stake out their turf and take too much self-righteous glee in lobbing insults onto other people’s turf. To me this is kinda silly. Kinda childish.

Here’s what I believe about “literary” and “mainstream” fiction – just today’s selection of thoughts.

I believe that there is value in writing and reading purely for entertainment, but I also believe fiction can offer more than that and that when it does it’s often harder to access without effort.

I believe that literary fiction by its nature intends to speak meaningfully about the human experience, but I also believe literary writers have no monopoly on this and that they often wear blinders that stop them from seeing quality work in other genres.

I believe that genre fiction has its roots deeply in long-standing traditions of storytelling, sometimes reaching right back to the classics, but I also believe a lot genre writing is uninventive and boring.

I believe that literary fiction’s goals are admirable, but that it’s often… uninventive, boring, safe and lacking ambition.

Looking at my own work, I’ve heard many responses that make it clear genre readers have appreciated my literary attention to character psychology, language, complexity of detail in social and political landscape, but I’m also aware that my writing seems to short circus some readers that don’t connect with any of those things at all.

Some genre readers seem to choose not to like a book when the book fails to be what they expected it to be, when the story or characters aren’t just like the last book that they really loved. That’s a perfectly valid reaction, but I don’t think it should necessarily lead one to conclude that a book is bad – or that literary is just boring. That book may just be different. The author’s interests may be different. Not all readers may share those interests, but some readers give up before they’ve engaged enough to know.

And that’s where I think there is a difference between mainstream and literary that matters. Mainstream writing by its very nature should be easy to swallow. It should go down smooth, without challenging a reader too much – or by challenging them in the ways they expect to be challenged. To take another example, McDonald’s isn’t a massive chain because they make the best tasting hamburgers in the world. They’re massive because they’ve managed to find the right formula for delivering consistently familiar and mediocre food, food that never surprises and… never fails to be what you expect when you walk in the door. That’s a rather remarkable achievement, and I do think similar impulses drive book buying in the genres as well. Why not return to authors, stories, plot twists that have worked before, rendered in language that doesn’t get in the way?

Literary fiction often begins with a different premise. It may require that a reader learn to read it. Even if you’ve bought a hamburger of a novel, it’s hopefully a different cut of meat. Your first bite isn’t just like the first bite of every Big Mac you’ve ever tasted. You might have to chew for a while to know what it actually tastes like – and then to figure out if you like it.

That’s probably a lot easier an experience to go through with a hamburger than with a novel, but I think there’s a parallel. Some genre readers are turned off by literary fiction before they’ve chewed on it long enough. And, to be fair, I think that many literary readers ignore that the genres do have lots of complexity within them, many titles that they’d love if only they had the sense to give them a try. I’d say one has to learn to read Neil Gaiman or Kelly Lynch, for example. They’re literary. They have the advantage that they’re also fun to read regardless, but I think they get better the more you digest them.

I’ll never forget an early review of my first novel, Gabriel’s Story, in the San Francisco Chronicle. The reviewer found the language of the first part strange, convoluted and a bit hard to figure out. But then he wrote that by the second part the language had started to work to “greater effect”, and by the end he loved the book. He seems to have walked away thinking that the first part wasn’t as good as the following three parts. But I’d argue that the writing was consistent. What changed was that it took him that first part to get into the rhythm of my writing. After he did, everything got smoother and smoother for him.

Now, if I’d started the book with simpler language he might have been happier from the start, but if I’d done that I wouldn’t have been using the language that he’d learned to love by the end. I think that’s often the case with good literary fiction. (And I do mean the “good” stuff; I’m not saying that all literary fiction is.) Hopefully, it holds you from the start, but in a great many ways full appreciation of it comes gradually.


Eileen said...

I've often wondered at this question myself, and reflected on the blurry line between "high" and "low" art/literature. Until now, I'd never read a satisfactory exploration into this topic. I think Durham nailed it. There is a difference between literary and genre fiction but the two categories aren't clear-cut.

Literary fiction is self-conscious art, though sometimes too self-conscious. Genre fiction is built on safe, time-tested formulas, but it can still occasionally surprise the reader, and has a long history of its own.

That's just my bare-bones breakdown of what Durham said.

Larry Nolen said...

I liked his answer too, quite a bit even, but I can't help but think some of it is grounded in contemporary material culture (typical degree-based myopia, I suppose) and how "high" and "popular" cultural artifacts mix, mingle, and separate on various whims.

Anonymous said...

I wish we'd look at it as a spectrum in three dimensions rather than a dichotomy. It's a lot harder to throw stuff on turf that has no boundaries, merely gradients.

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