Saturday, March 16, 2013

Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction

Via we recently received an invitation to join a small group-discussion board concerning Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction. I've read some of each, but I lean toward the Science Fiction genre, or works becoming known as Speculative Fiction. The invitation to that group inspired some thought on the subject, as follows:

Many now classic works have been labeled with a genre which were composed prior to the existence of that genre. Clearly, without a genre for which to write Frankenstein is a literary work by default - not horror or sci-fi, just Lit.

Perhaps I'm jaded, but these days it seems difficult to find Genre fiction written with Literary intent. I don't blame authors. Few authors would spend the vast amounts of time and effort required for publication if they didn't have a strong desire to write, or an idea they simply couldn't contain. I'm sure responsibility falls primarily on the shoulders of publishers, who buy what they think will sell. Author's, then - to make a living, must write what publishers buy, becoming 'jobbers' rather than 'artisans' out of necessity.

The most prominent examples of Literary Genre fiction which come to my mind are hardly current: Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, George Orwell's 1984, Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale are good examples. Of this group, only Bradbury might be branded a genre writer.

In my opinion one of the most well-known spec-fic writers, Philip K. Dick, was not a very good writer, but neither was he a sell-out. His concepts and ideas are the stuff of legend, in print and on the big screen, but he doesn't seem, to me, to have been an artisan. He was more a philosopher than a writer, driven to share his ideas and concepts. Rather than explore the craft, he needed to expel demons. So, rather than Lit or Genre, it's Fascinating Ideas which have sold his works.

Two fellows whose skill I admire greatly today are Michael Chabon - a true literary artisan, and William Gibson, also a craftsman - though perhaps not as widely recognized as such.

Gibson is almost single-handedly responsible for inventing the now-fading sub-genre of Cyberpunk Sci-Fi in his novel Neuromancer. He and Bruce Sterling co-wrote The Difference Engine, which was crucial to the rise of modern Steampunk. Furthermore, Gibson's literary contributions since have helped lead to the current trend of re-designating much of what had been known as science fiction with the term I used above, Speculative Fiction. Gibson puts the writing first, to better convey his ideas, and seems to have only been grafted with the sci-fi moniker as a side effect of the success of his early works, which were indeed sci-fi.

He's since become far less a science fiction author than he is the teller of well-written and interesting stories. His latest books likely wouldn't be considered science fiction at all to those unaware of his earliest works, though I'm not sure what tag I would apply.

My point in all of the above is really just to say that the writing of Lit and/or Genre begin with the intentions of the writer. One must choose to be Literary first. Applying a Genre to one's work is simply the vehicle used on a great Literary road-trip. Whether or not it will sell is anyone's guess.