A Reader’s Manifesto

From the school of “slap one hand to raise the other,” we have a thought provoking article from The Atlantic, emailed to me by Bitchery reader Deb, on the nature of “literary fiction.”

I was nodding and giving a chorus of, “Uh huh, sing it, yup, I’m so with you,” as the author lined up the sad differences between what is considered genre fiction and literary fiction:

Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be “genre fiction”—at best an excellent “read” or a “page turner,” but never literature with a capital L. An author with a track record of blockbusters may find the publication of a new work treated like a pop-culture event, but most “genre” novels are lucky to get an inch in the back pages of The New York Times Book Review.

Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand, is now considered to be “literary fiction”—not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance….

The dualism of literary versus genre has all but routed the old trinity of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, which was always invoked tongue-in-cheek anyway. Writers who would once have been called middlebrow are now assigned, depending solely on their degree of verbal affectation, to either the literary or the genre camp. David Guterson is thus granted Serious Writer status for having buried a murder mystery under sonorous tautologies (Snow Falling on Cedars, 1994), while Stephen King, whose Bag of Bones (1998) is a more intellectual but less pretentious novel, is still considered to be just a very talented genre storyteller.

But when he starts flailing away at Proulx, Guterson, and others, I felt a little bad for them. Proulx, for example, gets a mighty spanking, and while I know what he’s talking about, and for the reasons he outlines I don’t enjoy her writing, damn, he done beat that horse for a good two hours. Then he moves on to McCarthy.

Nothing makes me snicker like seeing people prick holes in the self-inflated, self-important opinion some people have of the quality of their reading material, especially when Myers writes of Guterson and other writers, “it more important to sound literary than to make sense.” But then, few things make me twitch more than folks who take themselves too seriously, and certainly this is an examination of what is held in serious, lauded regard.


And then, as my empathy for the writers getting spanked tipped the see-saw against my enjoyment of seeing the self-important taken down a bit, I read this about Guterson:

Only the sex scenes, which even his fans lament, are laughably bad.

“Have you ever done this before?” he whispered.

“Never,” answered Hatsue. “You’re my only.”

The head of his penis found the place it wanted. For a moment he waited there, poised, and kissed her—he took her lower lip between his lips and gently held it there. Then with his hands he pulled her to him and at the same time entered her so that she felt his scrotum slap against her skin. Her entire body felt the rightness of it, her entire body was seized to it. Hatsue arched her shoulder blades—her breasts pressed themselves against his chest—and a slow shudder ran through her.

“It’s right,” she remembered whispering. “It feels so right, Kabuo.”

“Tadaima aware ga wakatta,” he had answered. “I understand just now the deepest beauty.”

If Jackie Collins had written that, reviewers would have had a field day with You’re my only, the searching penis, the shudder’s slow run. Thanks to that scrotum slap, which makes you wonder just what Hatsue’s body felt the rightness of, the passage fails even on a Harlequin Romance level.

You had to go there, huh, sir? Fails “even on a Harlequin Romance level?” Someone get that man a few well-crafted Blaze excerpts quick, so he can experience what well-written sex is like. Myers lauds King and other thriller writers who are dismissed as only good enough for the subway, but oh, so easy to dis the romance.

*le sigh*

The highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow are alive and well, it seems. And romance landed somewhere in the moustache. And that’s really a bummer, because if he’d (a) flailed a little less at Proulx et al, and (b) championed specific examples of genre fiction writing that were “quality writing” according to his definition, the article would have been a welcome change to the usual “literary pretention” vs. “genre fiction – but not romance omg it suxx” debate.


Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    --E says:

    I first read that article a few years back and had pretty much the same reaction as you. “Enough already, we get it that the emperor is naked. But are you going to discuss genre novels that are actually in a genre?”

    I was thinking of SF/F, but I had a similar reaction to the shot at Harlequin: “Have you ever read a Harlequin novel? Or any other publisher’s romance novels, for that matter?”

  2. 2
    Barb Ferrer says:

    Given the drek that just passed through my local newspaper, disguised as an article on romance, it’s a wonder I have any hair left—what with it catching on fire and all.  Half a dozen times, easily, I’ve tried to write a response and half a dozen times, I’ve erased what I’ve written because frankly, it seems as if my time is better spent writing the best stories I can, rather than trying to convince people who have no interest in being convinced of the merits of romance.

    I think my stock response these days is “There are great books in every genre and crap books in every genre, including literary fiction.”

  3. 3

    OMG – I can’t wait until YOUR book comes out!!!

  4. 4
    Wry Hag says:

    At the risk of humiliating myself—which is, truth be told, no longer a risk but a near certainty—I went through a literary-fiction-writing period.  It netted me two agents, one on each coast, and a whole pile of “encouraging” rejection letters…but nary a dime.  (In fact, one of those efforts is still floating around, at Samhain Publishing, and still not netting a dime!)

    So I say, “Viva la Genre Crappe!”  At least it allows the potential for earning a living.  As for those high-toned literary aspirations?  (Ask, if you can, many a dead but now-classic author, who wrote well before Oprah’s Book Club appeared.)  Those aspirations don’t mean pffft if you can’t pay the fucking bills.

  5. 5
    iffygenia says:

    Don’t you think that piece is pretty out of date, not to mention polemical?  I think there’s plenty of genre/literary crossover happening now—in fact I thought there was a fair amount in 2001, when that article ran, but much more so today.

    FYI, this was the piece that made B.R. Myers’ name in 2001.  I thought it was badly-argued grandstanding at the time, and it annoys me more now that he’s become known for his slap-em-silly reviewing style.  IMO he’s a terrible fiction reviewer—I’m not convinced he even enjoys fiction, by the way he pounces on small things to hate and ignores the big picture.  And this morning I saw this link on Conversational Reading—another B.R. Myers diatribe, this time against a book on food.

    I think most people’s reaction is “Yeah!” to half of what he says, but “Wait a sec” about the rest.  That says a lot a lot about the weakness of his argument.  He claims to have a big picture of literature, but his argument depends on specific instances.

    I thought this response by Meghan O’Rourke in Slate (also from 2001) was a lot more rational and interesting.  It ends:

    At any given point in history, there’s going to be more bad writing than there is great—or even good—writing. Let’s take a look at an earlier time, one that Myers is nostalgic for. In 1900, both Sister Carrie and Lord Jim were published. Both received critical attention, and neither was a best seller (although, to be fair, there’s a Byzantine story behind the initial publication of Sister Carrie). What were the best-selling novels that year? Unleavened Bread and Red Pottage and When Knighthood Was in Flower. Myers’ idea of a happier cultural moment, when best sellers received serious critical attention, is a sentimental lament for an imagined past—a time when all writers were great, all readers ideal, all books beautifully bound, and the girls were smart and pretty.

    And, once again, why the gulf here?  There’s bad lit fic and bad genre fic, good lit fic and good genre fic.  I don’t understand why fans of one have to despise the other.  I happen to have read more good lit fic this summer than I have romance.  There’s plenty of both out there.  I feel like I’ve said this dozens of times in both directions: finding lit fic you love, or romance you love, takes a lot of experimenting.  It’s well worth the effort in both cases.

  6. 6
    Chrissy says:

    Makes me think of Terry Pratchett.  “Guilty of Literature,” indeed!

  7. 7
    utsusemi says:

    I read “the passage fails even on a Harlequin Romance level” as meaning “this author not only fails to deliver the intellectual puch he claims—he can’t even write appealing sex [such as one would find in a romance].” The reviewer seems to be saying that Guterson’s sex scenes are the same (if not worse) as scenes that would get a romance writer mocked by literary reviewers, but he gets a pass for them because he writes Literature.

    Though I guess that’s still reducing Harlequin Romances to the sex they contain—while at the same time acknowledging they do it well, perhaps.  I admit that if a similar graf got written about SF/fantasy (my personal pet genre), I’d probably be a tetchier reader.

  8. 8
    SB Sarah says:

    RE: datedness – you know, it’s weird. I had a few people email this to me today, and I’ve seen it linked on other sites in the last few days. Funny how something older pops up all of a sudden back into discussion – and this was the first I’d read the article. Gotta love the internet.

  9. 9
    michele says:

    Is any sex that is enjoyed both parties acceptable in “literature?”  It seems to me that literature is as much a genre as anything in romance or SF/F … unhappy characters? check. unhappy ending? check. stomping of ideals? check. showing the futility yet the unending nature of struggle?  check.  Any sex in literature seems to be either rape or something to be endured – never enjoyed.  Wouldn’t it be ironic if literature which is considered an countermovement against the patriarchal state actually reinforces patriarchal concepts of women by denying female characters enjoyable sex unless they’re nasty or bad?  OMG, eeeevil nasty villain sex is acceptable in romance and literature!  Someone call the literature enforcers and get to work on that right now.

  10. 10
    Kaz Augustin says:

    I’m just soooo past the “let’s slag romance ‘cos it’s so easy to do” that it hardly registers with me anymore. Like members of the KKK, you ain’t gonna change any of their minds anytime soon and I like my battles on face-to-face grounds. Less easy to twist my words that way. And easier to focus on the target.

    But, since SF&F has been mentioned a few times, the writer that sprang to mind for me regarding Literature vs Genre is Iain (M) Banks. He writes the same in both arenas. But while his “litrachure” is lauded & awarded, his s-f works are never mentioned in the same breath. Maybe he also has himself to blame because of that “M” he inserts for all his s-f. (And, to be fair, his s-f fans tend to shy away from his literary works.) Imo, his *genre* is light-years ahead of Proulx’s *literature*…An excerpt from my favourite, “The Use of Weapons”…

    He lay, often, looking at her sleeping face in the new light that fell in through the open walls of the strange house, and he stared at her skin and hair with his mouth open, transfixed by the quick stillness of her, struck dumb with the physical fact of her existence as though she was some careless star-thing that slept on quite unaware of its incandescent power; the casualness and ease with which she slept there amazed him; he couldn’t believe that such beauty could survive without some superhumanly intense conscious effort.

    * sigh * Combined with spaceships, action, philosophy…is there anything better? And would the para above look out of place in any literary work?

    The central argument to this whole debate is much deeper than Myers’ ersatz reasoning. I posit he fails for the same reason as Proulx does…they both take their own utterances way too seriously.

    PS: After reading literature and genre, my overall impression is that genre is written for the reader, whereas literature is written for the writer. The word that springs to mind is “self-indulgent”. Would anyone else like to dis/agree?

    Verification word: serious. LOL Yes, I am.

  11. 11
    Estelle Chauvelin says:

    Is any sex that is enjoyed both parties acceptable in “literature?”

    Watch Your Mouth by Daniel Handler comes to mind, which is Weird As Hell Literature with Elements of Fantasy, but since it doesn’t really fit into any genre I can think of and I’ve always seen it shelved in the general fiction/literature section, I’m going to say that it counts.  That book has more sex in it than any Romance I’ve ever read, and though much of it squicks the narrator, I can’t remember any of it that the parties involved didn’t enjoy.

    As somebody who can count the genre-less fiction on her shelf on her fingers, and possibly the fingers of one hand, it’s probably not a surprise that I can’t come up with anything else.  I’m really not sure that there’s more than one other of them that includes any sex, given the small sample size.

    As for the passage in the article, I wonder if that was nominated for the Bad Sex in Literature Award.

    Oh, yes, that’s another example: in the humble opinions of me and whoever nominates people for those awards, Updike’s sex scenes suck, but that doesn’t change that at least sometimes both parties involved enjoy it (even if I the reader am saying WTF).

    For that matter, both parties involved in the horrible passage quoted in the article seem to be enjoying themselves, badly written though they are.

  12. 12
    iffygenia says:

    genre is written for the reader, whereas literature is written for the writer. The word that springs to mind is “self-indulgent”. Would anyone else like to dis/agree?

    Of course I disagree.  I read all of the above.  I don’t read lit fic just to delight in the mechanics or theory of it.  I read it because I find good storytelling that pushes at conventions—which is my favorite kind of genre fiction too.

    Self-indulgence?  I’d say it’s pretty self-indulgent to stall the plot to write extended passages describing a thick, meaty, enormous, throbbing, weeping, seeking, burning manhood.

    Any fault you find with lit fic can be found with genre fic, and vice versa.

  13. 13
    Ann Bruce says:

    I get more satisfaction from one trashy novel (that sounds kinda dirty…) than the so-called highbrow lit that inevitably puts me to sleep with its flowery prose and molasses-like pacing and preaching.  Oh, the preaching in those novels.

    Thought provoking, no.  Eye rolling, yes.

  14. 14
    Kaz Augustin says:

    Hi there iffygenia! Always love reading your comments. Yes, I do see your point. I mean, LKH is renowned for her, ah, indulgences. And of course I’m the first to admit I’m painting in broad, imprecise strokes.

    Still, I think I’ll stick to my original impression that I think genre is (generally) written with the reader in mind (which could be as crass as “what sells?”), whereas lit is not. (I doubt Salman Rushdie really wanted that fatwa.)

  15. 15
    Nadia says:

    Slightly off topic, but I was in a small bookstore in Durango Colorado last week and after 10 minutes of frustration I loudly asked where the paperbook romances are. The pretentious 20-y-o hippie snob who runs the place said they were mixed in with the other books, which they weren’t, and asked me if I had read Diana Gabaldon which I have, and frustrated he asked, well what do you want? And I told him, loudly, I wanted a big section of paperbook romance books so I can pick out a few and read them on the way home. He gave up and I yelled to my husband that I wanted him to take me to a real bookstore.

    Literature, indeed. I think some people surround themselves with swishy books just so they can impress the other pseudo-intellectual misfits hanging out at the hippie bo-ho book parlor.

  16. 16
    Kimberly Anne says:

    Can anyone explain to me why litfickers (god, that sounds dirty!) get such a charge out of attacking genrefickers and vice versa?  Why must one form of reading material be “better” than another?  It seems to me that when a person touts genre fic or lit fic as inherently more worthy of praise than the other, they’re fighting not the opposite camp, but something within themselves.  It seems more an act of insecurity in their reading choices than anything else.

    Singling out a particular author or book for praise or blame is something else, IMO.  Most readers realize that that is nearly all personal choice – except in cases of atrocious grammar, bad punctuation, and glaring historical errors. Then they become snark fodder.

    When you condemn an entire segment of bookdom, you show your own ignorance and prejudice, nothing more.

  17. 17
    megalith says:

    Well, apropos nothing: Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” is a brilliant piece of writing, and her work on the screenplay is also impressive. But that opinion certainly doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the David Weber SF I’m currently reading or the Mary Balogh I just completed yesterday.

    I like reading as widely as I can; it offers more opportunities for discovering writing that both moves and impresses me. Even if it is just the nutrition info on my cereal box.

  18. 18
    rascoagogo says:

    I saw this on Mimi Smartypants the other day and sent it to my mom (and blogged it), leading to a really good conversation today. Yeah, it’s a little high-horse. But I love that he’s calling people out on their own turf for playing the intellectual game by fawning over mediocre, self-important writing and snubbing good writing that comes from the wrong side of the bookstore.

    It’s hard to say something’s crap when it’s heralded as being excellent by the people that are supposed to be the guardians of modern literature. Far easier to cave and feel like you’re not cultured/smart/whatever enough to “get it”.

    I’m not a real writer, so please jump in and correct me. Don’t you think that there’s a lot of pressure to write things that feel like literature to be taken seriously in the Literary World? I certainly felt it when writing atrocious short stories for English classes. Do you think that talented writers might bend to that, then have a clearer voice? Is Brokeback a better story or is it better written without such convoluted descriptions?

  19. 19
    Jaded says:

    I read “the passage fails even on a Harlequin Romance level” as meaning “this author not only fails to deliver the intellectual puch he claims—he can’t even write appealing sex [such as one would find in a romance].” The reviewer seems to be saying that Guterson’s sex scenes are the same (if not worse) as scenes that would get a romance writer mocked by literary reviewers, but he gets a pass for them because he writes Literature.

    That’s how I read it, too.

  20. 20
    Marta Acosta says:


    Oh, I completely disagree.  First of all, why do so many people make a distinction between literature and genre novels?  Genre novels can be literary, and literary novels can fall into a genre, i.e., Raymond Chandler’s books.

    Anyone can tell a story.  Telling a story well, having layers of meaning, having well crafted sentences, offering insight, requires not only talent, but skill.

    It’s just as ridiculous for literary types to discount all “genre” fiction as it for genre writers to announce that all literary writers are merely pretentious dickwads.

    There are lit writers who write specious, pedantic prose, and there are genre writers who can’t string a sentence soundly enough to hang themselves.  There are lit writers who can craft a story that’s a thing of beauty, and there are genre writers with the same gifts.

    And then there’s all the rest, at varying levels from the very good to the abyssmal.

    A lot of people cannot tell if something is well written, or not.  I can’t tell if I’m singing off-key, but I’ve been assured that I do.

  21. 21
    iffygenia says:

    Don’t you think that there’s a lot of pressure to write things that feel like literature to be taken seriously in the Literary World? I certainly felt it when writing atrocious short stories for English classes. Do you think that talented writers might bend to that, then have a clearer voice?

    I don’t think that’s necessarily so.  What I love to read is books that straddle that line—I’m trying to line up some books to review that I think do that.  Steve Almond’s short story collection My Life in Heavy Metal is a good example.  When he wrote those stories he was a relatively recent graduate of a MFA program, and he teaches college-level creative writing.  Some of the stories are more experiments in style, and some are more about straight narrative; the several best stories show off his voice.  At his best he’s pungent, emotional, and freaking hilarious.  He uses sex as character development—I wish a couple of his stories could be compulsory reading for romance authors!

    For a lesson in using voice and meticulous plotting to make a well-used romance plotline fresh, I highly recommend his short story Geek Player, Love Slayer.  It’s not available online, but my review has links to another good one, How To Love a Republican.

    Also, I think any good lit reviewer or teacher should have a lot of respect for voice.  I’ve been re-reading Jennifer Crusie lately, and her book flaps list a lot of amazing praise from major reviewers.  She has a funny, irreverent, in-your-face “voice”, and they love it.  I think if anything, the lack of voice and freshness in some genre fiction is what holds it back (same criteria as lit fic, really).

  22. 22
    megalith says:

    Well, in the article Myers specifically mentions “Closer Range”, the collection which ends with “Brokeback Mountain”, which is why I brought it up. “The Half-Skinned Steer”, about which he complains, I found rather annoying because of its needlessly complex narrative timeline. Proulx’s voice is hit or miss for me, but “Brokeback” really shines. I also enjoyed “Snow Falling on Cedars” by Guterson, but then I wasn’t aware I was supposed to be reading something profound. I think Myers is mistaking his personal taste for some imprimatur of quality, the very behavior of which he is accusing the awards committees. I agree with some of his complaints, but disagree with others. He seems to like Stephen King and dislike Virginia Woolf, while I feel exactly the opposite. Either way, I call ‘em as I see ‘em.

    Myers might disparage the “amateur reviewers” at Amazon, but I rarely read professional reviews without turning to reader reviews for a reality check.

  23. 23
    bookwyrm says:

    I followed this link from the PlotMonkeys blog today, but felt I had to put my two cents worth in.

    I work at Border’s. One of our biggest sellers is Romance and that is MY department. I merchandise it, I recommend. Why? Because I am the only one in the store who reads it. I want to occassionally slap some of my fellow workers because they look down on it, and the comments they make.

    But Jodi Picoult is always lauded as such a wonderful lit writer. To me her books are just a much romance as anything in the genre section, but since she is ficlit, it’s ok to read them. I am not putting her down, I like her stuff too. Or look at Jackie Collins- her stuff is in fic/lit too. I have always wondered how they made the decision as to what is labeled what.

    Tell me that Jane Austen’s books aren’t romance. And why are Christopher Moore and Anne Rice fic/lit, and Steven King horror?

    As a group, I see more romance, mystery and sci/fi books being bought in bulk by my customers than any other department, including fic/lit. I got “yelled” at by a customer the other day because I gave her a bag and she filled the thing! All of it romance. And she wasn’t the least bit embarrassed by it and woe betide the person who made a snarky comment to her about what she chooses to read.


  24. 24
    SB Sarah says:

    I would just like to say that “litfickers” is now my new favorite sounds-like-a-cuss word. I’m going to say it all day. Over and over.

  25. 25
    iffygenia says:

    I would just like to say that “litfickers” is now my new favorite sounds-like-a-cuss word.

    Me too.  I’ve been saying it all night.  lutfuckers. litfickers. lutfickers. slutficker. listfucker. lustuckfer.

    OK, I’m perhaps a little loopy.  Couldn’t sleep.  tilfsucker.

  26. 26
    SB Sarah says:

    “Mother chucking litfickers!”

    That sounds really awful and isn’t. I love it.

  27. 27
    karibelle says:

    Kaz Augustin said:
    “PS: After reading literature and genre, my overall impression is that genre is written for the reader, whereas literature is written for the writer. The word that springs to mind is “self-indulgent”. Would anyone else like to dis/agree? “

    I ABSOLUTELY agree!  That is not to say I don’t enjoy “literature,”  I have a degree in it.  But I have learned that it is okay to not like a classic or highly acclaimed piece of literature.  I think if the “literary author” has a good sense of the human condition then the self indulgence becomes something more.  It becomes something other people want to share and can effect people on a deeply personal level.  Even those who don’t have a good sense of what others want to read will strike a cord with some readers. 

    Yep, he burned Proulx a new one and it was a bit painful to read…but not as painful as trying to read a Proulx novel.  I hold a bit of a personal grudge against Proulx for “The Shipping News.”  I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I was about that book.  My grandmother is from a tiny fishing village in Newfoundland. I have never had the chance to visit there (I will someday)and I have always been fascinated by the pictures and stories she has shared about her homeland.  Then I found out there was a Pulitzer Prize winning novel set there!  I left the bookstore beaming and wanted to pull the car over on the side of the road to start reading.  I managed to wait until I got home and an hour later threw the book against the wall in disgust.  I suppose there is something to be said for an author who manages to put words together in a way they have never been put together before.  After all, there is very little true originality left in the world.  But DAMN!  Just Damn. I actually find myself leery of Pulitzer Prize winning literature because of that.  I have to remind myself…Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Harper Lee.  They usually do get it right.

  28. 28
    dl says:

    Book snobs make me gag, I’m just looking for well written stories to read. 

    Nadia, I totally share your opinion, it’s kinda like people who need the correct designer label on their clothing regardless of the fit or appearance…“Literature, indeed. I think some people surround themselves with swishy books just so they can impress the other pseudo-intellectual misfits hanging out at the hippie bo-ho book parlor.”

  29. 29
    P.N. Elrod says:

    Never mind the clumsy viewpoint shift—a slapping scrotum???

    (Gets mental image of the couple’s genitalia duking it out like the Three Stooges on crack)

    Is she Curly if she shaves?

    :dies laughing:

  30. 30
    Marta Acosta says:

    Sure, To Kill a Mockingbird was all about Harper Lee trying to make other people feel inferior while she was just being totally self-indulgent with pretentious ramblings.  Ditto that fricking Mark Twain.  What the hell did he mean by Huckleberry Finn?  Who can read all that totally affected dialect?  The Portrait of a Lady?  Booorrring.  I read Teen People and it is way more interesting—and it’s got pictures!  Shakespeare?  It’s all gobbledygook and costumes.  Give me a movie with The Rock anyday.

    But the snobbery is all around. Like people who say Britney Spears is not a genius, and why don’t I listen to Aretha Franklin—I HATE those snobs.  Or they’ve got some Picasso print.  Kids in kindergarten paint as good as Picasso.  Or it’s all about some restaurant with local, organic ingredients they went to.  McDonalds has the BEST FISHWICH EVER.

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