Speaking in Genrealities

By Drew Lazzara
At least as long as I’ve been paying attention to these sorts of things (so probably much, much longer), there has been an ongoing critical dialogue about the blurring distinctions between literary and genre fiction. You should absolutely read and listen to an excellent sampling of the discussion from the likes of writers Lev Grossman and Arthur Krystal and the fine podcasters at Slate.com here, here, here, and here.
To quickly summarize, the debate essentially revolves around the perceived artistic gap between these two types of writing and whether it even does or ought to still exist in contemporary fiction. It’s completely fascinating to think and talk about, and it’s important for our literary culture to wrestle with notions of artistic stigma and intellectual hierarchy.
But it’s not the kind of thing that can ever be decided, because it’s ultimately a matter of philosophical (and perhaps semantic) differences. Where one comes down on the question is really just a matter of personal perspective. Questions of relative artistic merit are always subjective.
I believe, though, that the publishing industry has a very practical stake in the evolution of this debate, because a major portion of the discussion involves differences in reader expectations between types of books. As publishers, we don’t particularly care what you call those types, but we do care a great deal about understanding who reads them. We have been primary agents in the framing of this discussion, because clearly-defined distinctions are useful to us. We treat literary fiction and genre fiction differently in publishing for the very specific reason that we understand more about what genre audiences want and expect than we do about readers of literary fiction.
If, as writers like Grossman argue, the rigid artistic boundaries between the two disappear, so will our crystalline sense of audience. In a glass-half-empty world, this diffuse readership complicates acquisitions, marketing, and sales efforts. An optimist, on the other hand, might view this merging of sensibilities as an opportunity to expand audiences for all kinds of fiction and apply what we understand about one type of reader to many more.
It is in genre fiction that one can most clearly observe the machinations of our industry at work, primarily because the presence of genre elements makes trends easier to recognize. When Twilight, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Fifty Shades of Grey become huge successes, the distinguishing element seems obvious, and the market gets flooded with vampires, the undead, and sexually awakening middle-aged women. Genre gives publishers something to put their finger on, which allows them to understand more readily what their audience needs, which makes marketing and selling more straightforward endeavors. What exactly readers respond to in literary fiction is much more difficult to pin down.
Genre elements also give reader communities something central around which to coalesce. Science fiction, comics, and even romance lend themselves to huge gatherings and conventions in a way that the work of, say, Philip Roth simply doesn’t (plus, I hear PhiRoCon is a real sausage fest). This social aspect of genre drives readership as these books become a mode of human connection. And an entire community of readers communicates its feelings much more effectively than an individual. For a publishers, it is almost as if the audience is speaking with one voice. It’s music to our ears.
Literary fiction offers none of these inherent advantages to publishers. I personally feel that, because it often lacks the recognizable “hook” of genre, literary fiction is a more necessarily personal reading experience (not better or worse, mind you. Just more personal). Two people may love a literary work with equal passion, but what they are responding to can be completely different. This can be a headache for publishers, particularly smaller or medium-sized presses whose leaner margins require they take fewer risks. We compensate for what we don’t know by being careful, thoughtful acquirers and doing our best.
But as genre elements make greater and greater inroads into literary fiction, there lies an opportunity to cross-pollinate these audiences in ways that were not as present before. Works like Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, or Karen Russel’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and even Lev Grossman’s own The Magicians series have introduced literary readers to the high artistic possibilities of genre. The success of these crossovers may encourage traditional literary authors to experiment more freely with fantastical or supernatural elements. Likewise, it may make hardcore genre authors more conscious of issues of style and subtlety of characterization as they prepare their world-building.
Most importantly for publishers, it could pull readers back and forth across the old divide, increasing readership for both kinds of fiction. More and more, readers are recognizing the similarities between genre and literary works; if publishing wishes to take advantage of what it knows about genre and what it wishes it knew about literary, it is important to guide readers to those connections and foster reading communities. To encourage our authors to blend styes and think more expansively about what their manuscripts can do. To advocate for the artistic merit of all writing and break down stigmas that keep people from reading different kinds of books, or reading at all. Publishers should view the growing of both readerships as a critical tenet of their business plans and marketing strategies.
There will always an audience for largely inaccessible, hardcore science fiction, just as their will always be a hunger for dense, hard-work fiction. So there will always be isolated camps, and thus always an argument about whose art is better. As a publisher, I just hope we continue to promote meeting in the middle.