“There’s no such thing as a ‘literary’ genre novel,” she tells me in between panels. “They just slap the word ‘literary’ onto any genre book that makes it outside of our ghetto.”
My reaction at that moment let me know that I had changed.
Not long ago, I was far worse – openly scornful of literary works as being full of poseurs and navel-gazers, imagining those authors and readers layering their own insecurities and layers of symbolism onto fiction and poetry – oh yes, poetry – until that cigar was not only transformed from a cigar into a phallus, but into a monument to every deeply Freudian bit of pathos in one’s soul.
But things have changed. And I don’t think it’s because of me.
I don’t think that literature is like that any longer.
Those poseurs and navel-gazers exist, yes. They may be the most vocal (and obnoxious) elements of “literature”. They may be deserving of every bit of scorn… but they are not literature.
I had the chance to ask Joyce Carol Oates what she thought the difference was. She offered this analysis:
“Genre fiction ends resolutely and clearly; literary fiction can end ambigiously and irresolutely.”
At first blush, this is a useful distinction as well – there’s no argument that, say, Star Wars or any episode of Star Trek does not end cleanly. The pulps definitely had clear resolutions while literary fiction did not.
I don’t think that’s the case any longer either.
There is a growing body of fiction that gets called “interstitial fiction” that inhabits that space between literature and genre. That body of fiction has grown large enough, I think, that we can begin to look at these classifications1 as more of a spectrum.
Certainly there are stories and books that firmly fit on either side… but there are more and more that are inbetween to some degree.
The lines are blurred, and as genre writers experiment with the fancy plating and etiquette of literature while literature writers incorporate simple pleasures into their own works, we end up with more and more fusion as each style informs and enhances the other.
And this is a good thing.
1 Originally developed to know where to shelve books…which is less of a problem these days.