Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Genre fiction is fan fiction

Looks like I will be doing battle with the false distinction between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction” till my dying day. The confusion comes about as a result of wanting to claim literary as a term of prestige, or a warning of boredom ahead, instead of using it in its standard meanings, either “having to do with literature” or simply “written.”

I suppose you could say that a novel like Christopher R. Beha’s brilliant What Happened to Sophie Wilder, which is literary in being about literature, might be described, accordingly, as literary fiction. But the description still sounds off key. Beha’s literary fiction is that one half of Sophie’s story, told in first person by a friend and ex-lover who is also a novelist, is really a true and faithful account of what really happened to her—fact and not fiction, that is. The reliability of an unreliable narrator is a dependable literary fiction. To advance the term as a taxonomic distinction instead is to give up an exact and effective means of describing what else a fiction pretends to be.

The term genre fiction is less disturbing only because those who throw it around are less pleased with themselves. I don’t want to offend them. How about substituting the term fan fiction, then? [Ed.: But see below.] “[H]alf the readers in the country,” Howard Jacobson writes in Zoo Time, “no sooner finished one book than they started another identical in all but the tiniest and most irrelevant details. . . .” My hard-working and voracious wife is among them. She reads only mysteries. Originally hooked on Rex Stout, she has over the course of our marriage been steadily working her way through Anne Perry, Laurie R. King, Sue Grafton, Susan Wittig Albert, Virginia Thompson, Emily Brightwell, Elizabeth Peters, Sara Paretsky, and Kate Ellis (to name only the authors she owns multiple copies of). Right now she is in the middle of Eggsecutive Orders, a “White House Chef mystery” by Julie Hyzy. The very title will appeal to fans and ward off all others. The so-called “genre” serves merely to gather together in one convenient location, as in a bookstore, a stack of nearly identical books.

Call me a snob if it makes you feel better. I’m not opposed to mystery writers the way I’m opposed to government-run healthcare. There are three mystery writers I particularly enjoy—Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Bill James—but the literary nexus into which I’ve fit them has little to do with “genre.” Ross Macdonald led me to John Fante and Oakley Hall—two more southern California writers—and I came around to Bill James only after reading Colin Macinnes and Patrick Hamilton, two earlier novelists of the English lower depths.

Fan fiction has its uses, especially for readers who prefer suspense to fear and anxiety to pity. But leave the word genre alone. It too has its uses, but among them is not the marketing device of amassing recommendations for readers whose tastes are confirmed and confirmed again.

Update: In a tweet, Miriam Burstein observes that “fanfiction is already a thing” (although the term parasitical fiction would describe it better, if you ask me). I confess that I had entirely blanked on its existence, since it is so clearly sub-literary. Burstein suggests “comfort fiction,” which is a lot better than “junkie fiction,” I suppose. But I wonder if fanfiction and what I’m calling “fan fiction” here aren’t two varieties of the same cultural phenomenon, one amateur, one professional—or, rather, one that expresses itself in writing, the other as a search for something more to read.


Unknown said...

Would it be offensive if I were to say that I suddenly feel an overwhelming urge to mention the title of Shakespeare's comedy, _Much Ado About Nothing_, as a way of responding to this issue?

I really mean no offense. However, it seems to me that the labels exist, and arguing against the labels is--well, we're back to Shakespeare's title again.

D. G. Myers said...

It’s pretty tough to offend me. You’d have to make fun of my kids. To my mind, though, this is not a question of labels, but of concepts. How is the best fiction best conceived? What is it you are thinking of when you think of fiction which is well-written and in which “the better the writing” seems, in fact, the operative principle? How do you explain the difference between fiction which accepts the paramount demand of quality and fiction that is written according to some other standard? This is the essential difference in the realm of fiction, and it is muddled and mangled by substituting the distinction literary/genre instead.

Unknown said...

Well, for me the best fiction is that which combines both strangeness and recognition, becoming that kind of paradoxical event, causing me to have those "Aha!" moments in which I "see" something about life I have either always known or ought to have known but have never before thought of in quite that way. Then, with the fiction in front of me being both magnifying glass and mirror, I am forced to say to myself, "Aha!"

So, let's have a new "genre": "Aha! fiction.

Postscript: I hope you have been having a wonderful holiday season.

Unknown said...

Yes, the "Aha!' concept makes it all subjective, but so be it. I long ago gave up objective assessment of literature: hardly anyone can agree on the objective standards, so let us all accept subjectivity as the standard. How is that for double-talk?