Monday, June 20, 2011

Genre vs. Literary: It’s Not a New Debate

"I cannot say that I have at any time a great admiration for Mr. Raymond West. He is, I know, supposed to be a brilliant novelist, and has made quite a name as a poet. His poems have no capital letters in them, which is, I believe, the height of modernity. His books are about unpleasant people living lives of surpassing dullness."
~The Vicar Leonard Clement in Murder at the Vicarage, discussing his impression of Miss Marple's nephew, the renowned novelist Raymond West; by Agatha Christie

In my opinion – that’s a pretty good burn from Christie to the literary establishment.


As this book (the first in the Miss Marple series) was published in 1930, I think it’s safe to say that the debate of quality between genre stylings and literary stylings is not exactly new.

During Agatha Christie’s publishing phenomenon, and during the Golden Age of Mystery in the 1930s, there were other writers at work. (I know, shocker!, considering her domination of bookstore shelves…even today it’s hard to get a new mystery in edgewise because her books take up so much room.) You may recognize the names of Christie’s contemporaries during this period: Virginia Woolf (who was thrilled that her sales numbers went over 1,000), James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and one of the probable targets of the above quoted passage e.e. cummings – a poet who used no capital letters in his work.

Does directing a zinger like the one quoted above mean that Christie was being catty towards the literary establishment?

Maybe.

But I think of it more as a participatory comment. Let me explain what I mean by that.

All writers – regardless of what we write, or how we write it – are concerned with where they fall in the “lit” spectrum. Genre writers defend their writing constantly from criticism (or worse, non-criticism indicating that the work is not worth commenting on). Accusations towards this camp include, but are not limited to, “It’s formulaic, thus predictable. It’s easy to read. The themes are simple or absent. There is no experimentation with language. Characters are cut-out.” And so on. Basically arguing that genre is easy in every sense of the word and is therefore not worth noting.

On the other end of the spectrum are the lit writers. Accusations against this establishment are pretty rife too: “It’s boring. The characters are navel-gazing whiners. The language is too ‘flowery’ – why do I need every detail of the wallpaper? The story is slow. The characters unsympathetic. The scope too narrow.”

So, I think Christie was sounding off against her own critics when she slid this gem in, and she continued to speak out like that later with Ariadne Oliver, her literary doppelganger.

I hate to say it, but it’s probably going to keep going on like that. Papers will be written debating the literary merits of X, Y, or Z. G will be ignored by critics entirely. S will be acknowledged, but in a small, two inch review in a dying magazine. Depressing, huh?

Well, perk up. It felt that way when George Eliot wrote “Silly Novels by Silly Lady Novelists” (and George Eliot is a lady novelist…just not a ‘silly’ – read: genre, particularly romance – novelist). It felt that way when Agatha Christie wrote the above passage. And it will feel that way through the times we write. Check out the Franzen-Picoult-Weiner debate for today’s variation.

The thing is, we’re writers. So, whatever you’re writing, write it to the best of your ability. Then write something new and do better. Be prepared to defend yourself either way. Because you’re going to have to defend yourself. It doesn’t matter what you write. Young Adult, mysteries, the next Pulitzer winner, the next Nobel Laureate, whatever – every last one of them are assaulted and every last one of them will have to answer the Who What Where When Why of their work.

Christie chose to put a few well-placed words in her bestselling books. Millions of eyes have read those words. She participated in the debate. And participation is good.

Even if it is a little catty.

2 comments:

  1. Writers tend to be so supportive of each other. Except on this topic. I'm with you. It doesn't matter the genre (or lack thereof), just write it the best you can.

    Imagine if DB (mystery writer for those who may not know her) and I (mainstream) fought about this topic. The other people in our office would have to take cover.

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  2. Hmm, even writers are more supportive than readers who don't write, however. I mean, I sort of laugh at the cheesy Harlequins of the 70s. But I cringe every time someone makes a face at me when I tell them I write romance.

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