Monday, February 22, 2010

Literary Snobbery

I’m about to get on my high horse and open a big can of intellectual whoop-ass on you, so be warned. (Sorry about the mixed metaphor.)

We live in an era when a sharp division has arisen between literary writers and genre writers. To some extent both sides look at each other with mistrust and some contempt. The term snob is more often applied to literary writers, but genre writers are just as capable of snobbery as anyone. I'm here to say you’re all a bunch of knuckleheads and tell you to get back to work.

Both terms “literary writer” and “genre writer” are unhelpful in themselves. What is all writing, but literary? It’s made of “letters,” right? And all writing is “genre writing,” that is, it belongs to a specific tradition or traditions. It reminds me of what Louis Armstrong said about folk music. “All music is folk music. Horses don’t play music.”

A literary writer generally means someone trained within the academic system. He may have an MFA or even a PhD, and has sat through numerous structured workshops. One of the first things he heard from his instructor and fellow students is, “We don’t do genre fiction.” The lesson that genre is off limits does not have to be repeated; it is given with such force that it is a rare writer indeed who attempts more than one genre piece in an academic workshop. The prohibition against genre is not as bigoted as it sounds at first blush; teachers don’t like it because 99% of student genre writing is so execrably bad. But then 99% of all student writing is execrably bad. What happens in a workshop is that after reading a given piece, the other students sit around and talk about it, and being college students, even graduate students, these readers like to have pretty high-toned intellectual discussions. To a large extent, this is what determines good literary writing; does it give educated readers something interesting to talk about? The danger for literary fiction is that it may do nothing more than provide conversation fodder for a very select group of academically trained readers.

The genre writer is shaped not by academe, but by the marketplace. This sounds crude and reductionist, but I speak as one who has the highest possible regard for the marketplace. The question demanded by the publisher of genre fiction is, “Will this book get people to buy it? Will they keep turning pages until they are done? When they are done, will they have an appetite to go out and buy another?” The danger for genre fiction is it may not be intellectually or spiritually nourishing, but merely appetizing. Kind of a verbal junk food.

Genre writers are apt to think of literary writers as pretentious and hoity-toity. Literary writers may think of genre writers as whores.

Here’s the point where I call you all a bunch of knuckleheads.

You’re all a bunch of knuckleheads.

No literary writer ever sets out to become one – not at first; nor does a genre writer decide, “Genre, that’s for me!” We place our own selves in little cubbies of genre writer or literary writer as experience and adulthood shape us. But the beginning of all writers is the same. We read something that keeps us turning pages, and when we are done, we have the wonderful sensation of having been changed by what we have read. We want to have the same experience again, and reach for another book. And we can imagine no higher or more delicious pursuit than creating the sort of stories that have meant so much to us.

There is nothing wrong with writing something intellectually stimulating. God bless anyone who inspires people to talk about books. There is nothing wrong with writing something that makes readers want to read more. God bless anyone who inspires people to read. You so-called literary writers, work harder to make your stories and poems more satisfying to the general reader. You genre writers, don’t rest on commercial success; strive to make your writing offer something richer than first it appears to do.

And all of you, get back to work.

Man Martin is author of the award-winning novel, Days of the Endless Corvette. His novella, Scoring Bertram Wiggly, is available exclusively for Kindle on, and his second novel, Paradise Dogs, is coming out Spring of 2011 from Thomas Dunne Books.


Anonymous said...

Well said.

Karin Gillespie said...

I agree that all fiction is technically literary. As writers we should be precise with words. Maybe the genre name for literary fiction could be "scholarly" or academic." Or if that sounds too dry, maybe it could be character-driven fiction.

TOM said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.