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April 22, 2004

Rewind -- Lit Writers vs. Genre Writers

Back in early blogging days, we Blowhards had next to no visitors -- this place was one very lonely Internet outpost. Yet we were doing some fiery and original writing, or so we like to imagine. Sad to think of these postings mouldering unread in the archives. These days the blog is hopping; we feel like lucky restauranteurs whose eatery has somehow caught on. What a treat to welcome so many lively visitors. So we hope our current crowd will forgive us if we occasionally see fit to re-run some of our early-on writing. Perhaps a few of these golden-oldie postings will amuse and provoke.

Since the topic of genre and artistic forms has cropped up recently, here's a quickie posting I wrote comparing American literary writers with genre writers. Note: I've met a lot of examples of both categories and know plenty of exceptions to the general observations I make below. But as rough overgeneralizations and smudgey rules of thumb, my observations seem to me valid. Plus, what can I say, I just like making rough overgeneralizations. And exceptions are always allowed for.

Friedrich --

Another entry in our ongoing attempt to put into words the things people know but that don't make it into the official sources...

In a general sense, there are real group differences between American literary-fiction writers and American writers of genre fiction (horror, romance, mysteries, erotica, graphic novels, etc).

It breaks down this way: Literary writers tend to feel that what they do is a vocation -- ie., a religious calling. Genre writers tend to view what they do as something that's fun -- which doesn't mean that they aren't committed to what they do, or don't fundamentally take it seriously.

Lit-fict writers tend to feel harshly conflicted (a word we New Yorkers love) about money and careers. How could they not? Trust funds make people feel guilty, jobs take up too much time. Everyone hopes to be touched by the magic wand -- to win the respect of the bigtime, and to earn enough money from the writing to pay the bills. Yet nearly everyone winds up next-to-unread, and chasing academic jobs and grants. And isn't it kind of anti-artistic to fret over money and prestige anyway? So pretences and rivalries abound. Genre writers tend to experience no conflicts at all about money and career. Most seem to know that writing fiction-between-covers is an absurd field, but hope to win readers and make money at it anyway. They're straightforwardly happy when and if they do.

Self-serious creatures on an artistic crusade, dependent on a sense of mission and destiny that's forever in need of recharging, lit-fict writers tend to be serious and touchy people -- and difficult on the personal level, to say the least. (Depression, jealousy and resentment are common ailments.) Lugging around egos that are both big and fragile, they make high-maintenance friends and acquaintances. Genre-fict writers tend on the personal level to be easy friends and colleagues. They've got a sense of perspective -- they're doing the absurd thing they do because they dig it, after all. They wish each other well; when someone in the field succeeds, it makes the others happy.

American lit-fict writers: monks and nuns of art, intent on overcoming suffering and achieving redemption through art. American genre-fict writers: on the one hand, happy amateurs, like kids in a garage band; on the other, cheerful professionals who get a kick out of their loony field.

Amazing numbers of exceptions allowed for, of course -- I've found that southern lit-fict writers are often quite cheery and companionable, for example.



posted by Michael at April 22, 2004


"I've found that southern lit-fict writers are often quite cheery and companionable, for example."

Of course, "we" are *grin, grin, grin* and thankee, kindly, sir!

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on April 22, 2004 11:40 AM

Sorry, Pattie, and apologies in advance to everyone I'm going to offend with this remark, but I was going to say that maybe Southern lit-fic writers are cheery because compared to actually having to live in the South, anything is fun. Even lugging around an ego both big and fragile. It seems everyone in the South pretty much does that anyway. Grin. Grin.

Posted by: annette on April 22, 2004 1:33 PM

My guess is that, whatever other dramas they lug around, Southerners have less of a complex where writing's concerned than people from other regions do. They're such natural-born storytellers. And since even their literary books are more concerned with storytelling per se than are lit books from other regions, maybe "being a literary writer" is just kind of a fun thing for them to do -- a straightforward extension of what they do anyway. It's a theory anyway. I'm sure it won't be hard to come up with a better one ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 22, 2004 1:55 PM

The description of "happy-to-be-doing-it" genre writers reminds me of my favorite, James Ellroy. For those who don't know, he wrote L.A. Confidential and specializes in period crime fiction. Quite simply, the guy is nuts, but in a GOOD way. His book tour appearances are legendary. He usually begins by going up to the lectern, barking and/or howling in the microphone and saying the following (which I'm quoting from memory, so I'm sure there it's not exact):

"Good evening peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty sniffers, punks and pimps! Iím James Ellroy the death dog with the hog log, the gray owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right, and the slick trick with the donkey DICK!"

And then it takes off from there. It's a full-throated performance that has the audience cracking up, shaking its head in incredulity, and having a blast. He doesn't just love the process of WRITING books, he loves the process of SELLING them: touring the country, giving his performances, meeting his readers.

Kinda hard to imagine Annie Proulx or Jonathan Franzen being so enthusiastic or unconflicted.

Posted by: Bryan on April 22, 2004 2:18 PM

I don't think this is off-topic. Hoping you know more about painters than I do. Just this afternoon I found a gallery online with a collection of jpgs of good size to view on my computer. I downloaded them, it is what I do, though I realize the "samples" are not there for non-buyers. One of their specialties was Abstract Expressionists, and I got about 50 pictures from about 25 painters, all working in the 1950's, none of whose names I recognized. I recognize maybe ten Abstract Expressionists from that period. The work was priced in the several thousand dollar range to 15000. After 50 years, of course. I doubt they made money when they were working.

Are these "genre painters"? Did they have serious ambitions, or were they having fun? Can comparisons of any sort be made to "genre writers"?

Posted by: bob mcmanus on April 22, 2004 3:18 PM

From a interview with Neal Stephenson in Salon:

Speaking about 19th century serial novelists like Dickens, the interviewer asks: "What do you think makes those writers different from 'serious' writers today?"

He says, "I don't think they spent a lot of time agonizing about their art. I think that they found gainful employment producing stuff that was meant to be entertaining, that readers of the Strand magazine would enjoy reading. A lot of it was forgettable, but guess what, a lot of what those kinds of people wrote is now thought of as literature. I've published books that probably aren't literature, but to me it just feels easier and more natural to sit down and produce the material and let the chips fall where they may."

The whole interview is good and probably of much interest to the Blowhardian community.

Posted by: Bryan on April 22, 2004 3:56 PM

Literature is a very personal choice, much like perfume. And yes, Michael, you hit the nail on the head about southern storytellers. We do love a good yarn. And, it is a pleasure to live in the south - heat and all. We gripe about it, but wouldn't change a thing.

I wonder if others feel this way - I think there are less professional lit-fict writers in today's literary world than there were 5 or 6 decades ago. Money changes everything, and seems true of the current writer's environment. That, and you add a Hollywood movie offer to the pot, and the whole picture changes. (ha - Pattie scored a wordplay!) Perhaps, the Hollywood effect is overlooked?

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on April 22, 2004 4:46 PM

I think a higher percentage of lit-fict writers than genre writers have "a calling." This doesn't mean that they are better writers. What it means is that though they manage to survive, more or less, doing whatever comes to hand; none of it is real to them. Only writing is real. This may be a stupidity. If they are lousy writers a suicidal stupidity. But they are helplessly in its grip.
Genre writers strike me as people who may enjoy their work and do it very well. But they could just as well have made a good life as doctors lawyers businessmen farmers. They are not "doomed" to writing. Most lit-fict writers are.

Posted by: ricpic on April 22, 2004 6:19 PM

I've linked to this post, if all right, this evening. And I am wondering...what writers would you venture to say could fit both categories well? I posted a suggestion at my home. Just my inflated Texan opinion *grin*.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on April 22, 2004 11:08 PM

Bryan -- Thanks for the tales and the link. I'm semi-sympathetic to the high-lit attitude (although much more sympathetic to the genre attitude). But I do think there's the question of how self-conscious can you get, or rather how big an appetitie for self-consciousness do you have. With most lit writing, there's a sense of the writer watching himself write. I think most readers find that annoying. Like I say, I can have a bit of a taste for it -- used in the right amounts and shrewdly, I find it can function as spice, and really bring out the flavors. Past a certain point, though, literary self-consciousness strikes even me as self-defeating. And it seems to me that a lot of lit writers get carried away with the spices, forgetting that there better be some actual mass and nourishment underneath it all. Too much, and all you're watching is a writer watching himself writing. And really, who cares? Do you find you have much taste for lit self-consciousness?

Bob -- I wish I knew more, and would be curious to hear your ruminations. I fake my way by this way: pre-modernist painting was made up of genres -- history painting, landscapes, still lifes, portraits, etc. Artists didn't just happen to paint landscapes or mythical-subject paintings -- they were choosing deliberately from a menu of options, and were declaring their intentions by doing so.

And one of the things modernism did (at least second-third-fourth generation modernism) was to try to transcend the whole "genre" thing. Like the writers and architects and composers, the visual artists were trying to bypass convention and go straight for the art. (As though art exists independent of craft, technique, conventions, etc. Ha!) AbEx was maybe the most extreme manifestation of that dream -- what's on the canvas is the painter enacting ... well, being a painter. It becomes all about the paint handling, the drama ...

So AbEx was thought of as a modernist style or phase. But, as you're so good at pointing out, when artists try to do without genre and other craft elements, they wind up falling back on fashion and tricks, and the styles collapse into quasi-genres anyway, just ones without explicit rules. There's this moment when a new modernist style feels new, fresh, red-hot. It's the real thing! And then it calcifies, turns into a bunch cliches as dead as the worst genre work, and the modernists have to hurry off to some (sigh) new discovery that excites them. So by now, AbEx painting has become a kind of modernist genre, just something might or might not choose to do, if you've got the taste for it. (I kinda like some of it, though I can't help finding it a bit quaint these days. How are you responding to it?) I remember watching some art-school kids putting paintings together some years back. And it was a hoot: they'd be working away, and then clearly make a conscious decision that they needed a little "painterly expressiveness" over in this patch or corner. So they'd whip up a few square inches of Abstract Expressionism -- hot, impassioned-looking stuff. But they did it very coolly. It's apparently something you can just kinda choose to whip up when you want to -- it's just a sign, a move, part of the language.

Anyway, looking at it that way seems to get me by. How do you respond to art that tries to bypass genre and cut straight to the art?

Pattie -- That's really true. A lot of kids who in generations past might have become (or tried to become) serious writers of books of fiction these days go into TV or movies instead, largely because they might be able to make a living there (and because the life of most lit writers these days is pretty miserable -- chasing teaching positions and grants ain't fun). There's a lot of fiction-writing brains and talent in TV and movies. The downside is that they aren't getting (or giving themselves) many chances to do personal work -- they're 90% stuck filling out corporate-product demands. But you can see how good they can be when they get the chance: "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City," "Law and Order," "Buffy," "Frazier," "The Simpsons" -- that's all sharp, high-quality stuff. And there are movies that are sensationally well-written, whether they're personal faves of not: "Seven" and "Training Day" come to mind. Years ago, the writers behind those shows and flix probably would have been spending most of their creative energy writing their own books, and would have taken the occasional break for movie work for the sake of a check or two. Too bad for the world of present-day fiction-book writing and reading, no? And many thanks for the link.

Ricpic -- That strikes me as exactly right. Many of the lit writers seem to see writing as, as you say, a calling -- as something religious, maybe like prayer. They're praying to the great god of literature to touch them with a little Greatness. It's all about devotion, subjection, hope and transcendence. (My response: who cares? Oh, OK: it works once in a rare blue moon. But the batting average stinks.) The genre writers are much more prone to see writing as part of life, just something you do for whatever zany reason. Make the damn book, try to have a good time, do your best to deliver a little something of worth to any audience, and get on with the next one. Where the magic's concerned? Well, that'll take care of itself or it won't, and it's beyond our control anyway. I can't tell you how shocked -- idiot former English-major that I was -- I was to discover that the genre-writing crowd is every bit as bright as the lit-fiction-writing crowd is. Brighter often, as well as more worldly, less foolish and less prone to hysteria. I sometimes wish there were less of a face-off between lit writing and genre writing in this country. I think the lit writers could use some of what the genre writers offer, but I also sometimes think that some of the genre writers could use a little of what some of the lit writers have. In the arts, if there's such a thing as being too reverent and dreamy, there might also be such a thing as being too businesslike. Well, maybe, anyway. Anyway, there are times when, however much I'm enjoying a genre novel and respecting the craft and the respect for the audience, when I think there's a dimension lacking -- the magic, maybe. What are your thoughts about this?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 24, 2004 12:23 PM

There's one fiction genre you omitted: science fiction. SF at its very beginning had a sense of mission: publicizing ideas about science, technology, and the future. A lot of SF stories are quite didactic (some early SF rather pompously so). Robert Heinlein in his 1950s juveniles consciously tried to encourage his young readers to take up mathematics and science. This sense of mission, of SF as a literature of ideas, is why SF (unlike other genres) developed an extremely vigorous fan community. There have been many works in the modern SF genre that were written to make a point. Of course SF _is_ genre fiction, and Heinlein himself remarked that his real competition was with beer (for the buyer's discretionary dollars.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on April 28, 2004 7:35 PM

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