@mmdahlia27 asked on Twitter: What makes “literature” literature? Who decides & what criteria is used? Or, maybe just labels and why we feel the need/it’s important to categorize & judge everything.
I submit the above quote by author Carlo Fuentes. The second half of his soundbite: “I’m a writer, not a genre.”
The thing is, of course, is that until we get to know a writer, it’s difficult to decide whether we want to read them. Case and point: when I was growing up, really until I graduated high school, we went to the bookstore at least once a month. By the time I was fourteen, I didn’t have much interest in browsing the then-tiny young adult section for books to read. I moved on, to the other side of the bookstore. Not the area labelled vaguely “Fiction & Literature” but the shelves with the most exciting signs hanging over them: “Science Fiction/Fantasy,” “Horror,” and “Mysteries.” I wasn’t picky once I was safely within the bounds of those sections. I knew, probably anything I picked up would interest me, because I was interested, very broadly, in what we call genre fiction.
To me, as a young reader who knew a few key names, genre categories were enormously convenient. They helped me find books I wanted to read. Of course, no categorization is perfect. Aimee Bender wasn’t in the fantasy section; she was over in Fiction & Literature, despite the fact that her work contains many aspects of the fantastic. As I grew as reader, I ventured outside of the neat categorizations and into the still-amorphous “Fiction & Literature” and I found wonderful books there, too, many of them with the same elements of the genres I so enjoyed.
So, why do we need genres, really? The only legitimate argument I can make for them is that they are useful to booksellers and consumers. Because, on a basic level, that’s the point of a category. They allow us to understand information quickly and easily. E.g. If I tell you a novel belongs to the fantasy genre, you know immediately that the rules of physics probably don’t apply in the novel’s universe. Probably a world (like or unlike ours) has been meticulously constructed. The novel features magic in some sense and possibly supernatural beings. You know, off the bat, whether that book might interest you. We apply these benefits also to the myriad awards available for writing. For example, the Hugo Awards will be announced this weekend, recognizing superior work in speculative fiction. The use of category here allows an organization to recognize quality in the kind of writing they enjoy.
The problem, of course, is that there’s overlap. And rather a lot of judgment. Labels lack nuance. Over time, they also pick up inaccurate associations, such as those we make with popular fiction, which is that it is not “literary” in the sense that it does not attend to character, language, structure, theme, and other artistic notions the same way that so-called “literary fiction” does.
What I find really funny is that “literary fiction” has subsequently become a genre in its own right–despite the literary establishment’s distaste for the word–defined not only by what it does, but by what it doesn’t. This issue stems in part, I think, from the visceral reaction many (but certainly not all) literary writers have to popular fiction: it is “low art,” it caters to the least common dominator, it does not qualify as “serious work.” And then genre writers respond in kind, labeling literary fiction as boring, self-indulgent, and overwrought. You can see this most clearly in the latest Stephen King snitfest (in which he wisely does not participate).
This is, sadly, where categories damage us. It’s difficult enough to be a writer without infighting. And unfortunately, there is quite a bit of infighting. Moreover, some writers might find themselves unable to move easily from one genre to another, which inhibits creativity.
For my part, I think there’s only question you need ever ask of a book: did it move you? If so, recommend it to a friend.
What are your feelings about genre distinctions? Like them? Hate them? How might we reinvent them?