Let me begin by outing myself as a literary snob. On many occasions, I have defended myself against this label, protesting that due to a deep affection for certain titles or authors that are considered to be genre, I clearly love all good storytelling equally and am not an elitist. Nonetheless, when confronted with the choice between melodic accounts of hardship, human frailty, and dust-bowl depressions or epic tales of heroes wielding swords, creatures from other dimensions, and damsels in distress, I will choose the former every time. During the recent Write to Publish event, instead of attending the panel titled “Literary Fiction: Stories Close to the Heart,” as I had intended, I found myself glued to the words of Allison Moon, Jemiah Jefferson, Stacey Wallace Benefiel, and Holly Lorincz as they discussed genre fiction on the panel “Merit, Shmerit: Genre Fiction and the People Who Love It.” Confronted with their points of view regarding the faulty perception that literary fiction and genre fiction are innately at odds with each other and their unified suggestion that the term genre is not much more than a marketing technique having little to do with the merit of a piece of writing, I realized that I am guilty of subscribing to the notion that literary fiction is real and important in a way that genre fiction simply is not.
The panel on genre fiction at Write to Publish 2014.
The panel began their discussion by trying to define the term genre, an umbrella word that is arbitrarily applied to anything that is fiction or creative nonfiction and not considered to be literary fiction. Whether horror, romance, science fiction, western, or mystery, what seems to be most central to determination of genre is the identifiable presence of certain characteristics, such as character stereotypes or the presence of a specific set of implausible situations. As Lorincz, an editing and publishing consultant at MacGregor Literary, pointed out, this is often problematic because readers’ expectations become entangled in the formulaic style of each genre, meaning that authors in that genre often have to conform their storylines within predetermined boundaries. Interestingly, although pieces of literary fiction are considered to be serious, detailed works that are complex and multilayered, the idea that genre writers have to adhere to conscribed parameters if they want to write about a certain type of character suggests that a different complexity exists between these authors, their writing, and their readers: a genre writer who desires to be distinct and to generate an audience must do so within a confining set of circumstances, leaving the literary author more freedom to explore.
Lorincz went on to say that in the current market, all writing with female protagonists between eighteen and twenty-three years of age is pigeonholed into the new adult category, a perfect example of the problematic nature she described earlier. Whether or not such an author intended to write a new adult title, it is likely that the writer will be encouraged to add more content that is specific to the new and largely nonspecific genre. In this case, that content is likely to be heavy and frequent exhibitions of sexuality, an element that itself apparently prevents a novel from being perceived as serious, complex, or multilayered. Stacey Wallace Benefiel, the author of several YA literature books, described her experience with publishers who suggested that she alter her manuscript to conform to YA tropes, and explained that her ultimate frustration with the publishers’ conflicting expectations led her to self-publish.
Perhaps the meaning is even more nondescript, as suggested by Allison Moon, who stated that genre is nothing more than a fictitious term useful only for industry marketing. Moon, who has self-published two books of a series described as a lesbian coming-of-age story—with werewolves—discussed the possibility that many of the lines used to define genres are based on divisions that have little to nothing to do with quality of the writing. Instead, categories are determined along social divisions such as gender lines. Moon revealed that part of her impetus for writing the Tales of the Pack series was being told by a male peer that no one would be interested in reading about big, hairy females. She then elaborated on her experiment, noting that she did not conform to the prescribed tropes of the supernatural romance genre. Not only do her stories highlight empowerment of female characters and confront societal mores about sexuality and gender performativity, but they break the golden rule of genre writing: they do not provide the reader with a happy, romantic ending. While that certainly sounds serious, detailed, complex, and multilayered to me, there is that messy business about all the sex and the supernatural beasts. One thing we know for sure is that only genre fiction details graphic sexuality (just think Foxfire by Joyce Carol Oates) or contains elements of supernatural transformations (like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). How then does the term genre relate in any way to relevance of social worth or quality of authorship?
Jemiah Jefferson, like Moon, writes about the intersection between the supernatural and sexuality, and claimed during the panel that genre is defined by the attempt to create success in multiple forms. In that case, the issue is not lack of complexity, but exhibition of specific forms of complexity. The idea of literary fiction, then, is disparate from the reality, which is that the form itself is a genre, and does not specify a degree of quality distinct from any other genre. Each panelist is deeply committed to the role they play in the industry. Benefiel is focused on engaging with her audience on a personal level, Lorincz is determined to connect each passionate author with their reader, Jefferson refuses to conform to societal expectations in life or in her writing, and Moon confronts and obliterates gender expectations and the heteronormative dominance prominent within fantasy fiction. It is hard to conceptualize a system which would denigrate the roles they play in the literary world as being somehow less significant than their “literary” counterparts.