Why Does Literature Seem To Snub Genre?

I seem to have a backlog of random posts on my thoughts about the book world and reading at the moment. It seems I am having a phase where every book I read sparks a question about my reading habits or reading in general. I hope you all enjoy these posts because there is going to be quite an influx of them over the next few weeks. The first of these that I want to talk about came from my review of Penny Hancock’s ‘Tideline’ yesterday when I said it was ‘the sort of thriller that I want to put in the path of anyone who doesn’t deem thrillers as literature’ because this is something that seems to be a common misconception in the book world or in bookish circles. Why can’t a crime novel, and indeed any work that is deemed genre, also be deemed ‘literature’?

My initial line of thinking is the fact that on the whole crime novels are not particularly known for being flowery, you can’t really make a dead body picturesque can you – though you can make it haunting and atmospheric, yet flowery prose doesn’t mean that a book is literary either does it? Crime novels, and I am focusing on these as they are the genre I read the most outside what people deem ‘literary novels’, by their nature have to focus on plot and they have to have pace. This doesn’t have to come at the expense of good writing though as I find with authors like Kate Atkinson or Susan Hill the writing that they use in their ‘crime’ novels (atmospheric, observational, vivid) is the same as they use in the novels that would be put in the ‘fiction’ section and which are deemed to be much more literary because they lose the crime tag.

I have just recently given up on a very ‘literary’ novel because while the writing was stunning the book itself wasn’t going anywhere. The plot was there but it was fizzling out, it was dragging, and I was getting increasingly bored. So I gave up. That very rarely happens to me with a good thriller. With literary novels you often here the phrase ‘a multi layered novel’ have any of these people read the aforementioned Kate Atkinson (whose use of small coincidences to twist a tale is fantastic) or Sophie Hannah by any chance as both these authors created tales which are definitely multi layered, whilst being gripping reads with big stories at their heart, and I do think every reader loves a good ‘story’. Many people will say that genre fiction is train station or airport reading, but isn’t that in itself interesting that when people go away they want those sorts of books? Here we could go into the dangerous territory of ‘readability vs. literature’ so lets move swiftly on…

The other misconception I have often heard is that crime novels, or any genre novel actually, often feature one dimensional or rather stereotypical characters. I always find myself wanting to shout ‘what about Sherlock Holmes, people actually wrote to the man, they thought he was real’ to this, but I suppose that’s classic crime so doesn’t fit in with my discussion on modern crime now, though it was deemed literature in its day. If I was discussing chick-lit I would here use the Jane Austen argument and how at the time it was not deemed as ‘literature’ and look at how she is hailed now, Charles Dickens is another one, paid per word as a regular newspaper serialisation, now heralded as one of the greatest writers ever to have lived by many.

Let’s get back to the characters in modern crime though. I think we could find the ‘stereotypical’ characters in almost every novel we read, does ‘stereotypical’ therefore actually mean the true to life people who live next door or you might pass by on the street? What of one dimensional characters? I read few crime novels where this is the case, they wouldn’t work for me as a read if they were. Again there are a number of authors, including the above, where I could say this statement was untrue; Tess Gerritsen (I read the Rizzoli and Isles series because I want to know what they are up to, I like them, I feel I have gotten to know them over a series) and Val McDermid (Jacko Vance might be my favourite serial killer ever, if one can have one) for starters.

Val McDermid once said to me ‘it’s not the crime that’s the really important thing to me, it’s what crime or murder does to the people surrounding it that truly motivates me’. I have paraphrased there, sorry if you read this Val, but I think is one of the true signs of why crime can be counted as literature, it looks at how humans are conditioned to react, emote and deal in extreme circumstances. People say ‘oh but crime stories are so farfetched’ but they happen and often it’s the most bizarre crimes that have us sitting watching the news and saying ‘oh you couldn’t have made that up’ and ‘how would you deal with that, can you imagine?’ With a book you can from the safety of your sofa, just as you can being in a war torn country, having been bereaved, experiencing dictatorial leadership or simply being in a very dysfunctional family. All these things people are experiencing all over the world but just because it’s not happening to us or those we know doesn’t mean it is ‘farfetched’. Also thanks to crime in translation we learn about other cultures through the subject matter dealt with by the novels of the likes of Henning Mankell or Natsuo Kirino.

Of course there is some badly written and one dimensional drivel out there on the crime shelves, but the same applies to literature doesn’t it. We also all have different tastes. I have always found it interesting when I have reviewed an M.C. Beaton and then had emails saying people won’t read my blog any more as they thought I only read ‘proper’ books. What constitutes a ‘proper’ book I do not know, any ideas?

I am fully aware that I can fall prey to the same issues with other genres (aliens… like they exist) though I have just read a stunning werewolf novel (no, really) and indeed I have been umming and ahhhing about reading Jojo Moyes ‘Me Before You’ because I have heard rave reviews from people I trust and think the premise sounds interesting, but from just looking at it my mind says ‘chick-lit’ and I switch off, this has happened whenever I have been recommended Marian Keyes, which has happened a lot. Am I then adding to the literary snobbery myself, I hope not, and may now rush and get ‘Me Before You’ just to prove a point.

This might be one of those posts that often appear on Savidge Reads where I start with a question that has been buzzing around in my head, write about it and end up asking more questions than I can answer and coming out the other side without a conclusion. It is a subject that interests me and one I would love to have a good old natter with you all about, so your thoughts please…


Filed under Book Thoughts

36 responses to “Why Does Literature Seem To Snub Genre?

  1. Oh lordy, don’t get me started on this one! No, really: I can rant for, like, hours and hours and hours. You’ve probably figured from my blog that I’m a big sci-fi, fantasy and horror dork: biiiig genre fan: and the fact that M. John Harrison or China Mieville never win mainstream literary awards just bugs the hell outta me. Thankfully, we genre fans know better, and we don’t really need awards or the press to tell us where the good stuff is. Plus we have the likes of Lynn Shepherd and Thomas Pynchon re-enforcing the literary legitimacy of crime fiction. And anyway, ‘realism’ is such an ambiguous and wishy washy critical term – overrated, I think.
    I still have my fingers crossed though, for the day when China Mieville wins the Booker prize and there’s an overnight paradigm shift in the way genre fiction is viewed.

    • Nice to see you on here Tomcat, totally agree, I almost forgot, after marketing tools, academic tools, then there are the judges of so-called awards. Labels are merely useful tools for those in certain jobs who need guidelines.

    • Hahahaha no I like the fact you could rant on it, rant away again by all means anytime Tom.

      I haven’t read Lynn’s book yet (shame on me but I feel I have seen it mentioned on too many blogs and have rather sillily read all the reviews so I feel I know the book too well before reading it) but I do feel there are some big ‘literary crime’ novels on the way. I think China could win it one day he needs to get something in the middle of Embassytown and The City and The City and its his. Well, unless some author who has been shortlisted lots is in the short list again that year… mieow, catty!

  2. Doesn’t ‘literature’ embrace all and isn’t ‘literary’ i.e. realistic fiction a genre in itself? Sorry to answer with another question.

    I think ‘genre’ is something that publishers and marketing/publicity use to attempt to categorise works of literature to make their role to promote easier, it’s more of a media tool and becomes important after the work is created (unless a writer is specifically targeting a certain niche market).

    I have read some discussions, which suggest ‘literary’ is what is often taught in university programs and perhaps that is why it is often anaylsed by intellectuals and we read about it within the pages of certain journals/magazines. But they also suggest that it doesn’t sell as well as a genre, it’s just that it has been given a certain status.

    If we come back to plain storytelling, I think it is the voice that is important, does it compel us to want to continue to read or not?

    • By its very definition yes it should Claire alas it doesnt seem to be the way of the beast in the industry. Maybe that is part of the problem, working in the industry I think I can be part of the issue on occasion, sort of.

      Storytelling plain and simple should win the day… should.

  3. To add to the problem, people also expect you to read just one type of book. I am often asked what sort of books I read…well, good books, I hope! I can appreciate a beautiful written novel but they don’t always draw me in. I read literary fiction, chick-lit, sci-fi, horror, crime, fantasy and anything that doesn’t fit into a neat little marketing pigeon hole.

    There are book snobs in every genre though, some will only read SFF and god forbid they read a book about real people doing real things. I also saw a tweet (didn’t read further) about a sci-fi romance and could the romance overcome the sci-fi. Surely if it’s well written, it doesn’t matter if it’s set in space with aliens or not? I guess there are subjects that I don’t enjoy reading about but mostly if I can get caught up in the world inside, it’s a book I will enjoy.

    Worst thing is when a literary book leaves you feeling confused and stupid. They may have tried out something “new” but doesn’t make it a good book for me.

    • Yes its interesting you mention this here Ellie as I discuss just that thing, sort of, today on the blog. I hadn’t seen this comment or I would have mentioned it. Interestingly I wonder if being an eclectic reader is a good or a bad thing, I often envy those bloggers who actually have delightfully niche tastes.

  4. Annabel (gaskella)

    I could go on for ages about this subject too. The snobbism that exists between literary and genre worlds really irks me – and it works both ways too, not always literary types snubbing genre, (there was a backlash in the SF community over Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro usurping their territory some time ago too).

    I have always read all kinds of books – including many genre ones, but I try to use the term genre only to indicate the subject. It’s led to me dropping using the term ‘literary’ fiction to distinguish between mass market and non-mass market books too. There is too much emphasis on status, and there are so many books now thanks to R&J and TV Book Club for instance that transcend being described as ‘literary’ or not – in both directions. (They’re not so good at genre though, neither R&J or TV Bk Club has tackled SF yet to my knowledge!)

    I just want to read great books of all kinds and not get hung up about their genre and/or status. Claire’s point about plain storytelling is everything. Rant over.:)

    • Oh yes I agree on it working both ways Annabel. I think there can be a lot of anti-literary thoughts from some genre types but thats life isnt it, people need to gripe about something.

      Oh I think one of the novels on the R&J list had a big SF twist as Gav wanted to read it, I can’t remember which one it was now sadly.

      Like you I just want to read all sorts of books though as I think you have seen already today this itself leads to issues.

  5. Erika W.

    What an interesting entry and responses to it–thank you everyone, for leaving me with some intelligent thinking to develop through a pedestrian day!

  6. To answer your question, in my opinion, it is because the literary world is incredibly small minded. Heaven forbid that writers try new things, experiment with interesting narratives or readers want to branch out. As Ellie said above people are forever trying to pigeonhole, it’s an easy thing to do, sadly.

    What I also abhor is how ‘literary’ is in fact it’s own bloody genre, nowadays. How ironic. Thing is, I’ve spoken to quite a few authors and many of them hate having their work placed under a genre. Can’t we all just agree that we read books for good stories and to be entertained for small moments in time?

    • I wouldn’t be as hard as to say its a small minded world, in fact I think it is more that the nature of the industry which is what Ellie brings up.

      Hahahaha I know what you mean about the ‘literary’ genre.

  7. I think good writing elevates any book, whatever genre. And there are many crap literary novels as there are other types. But yes, this is an issue that also makes my blood boil! Sometimes I wish we didn’t have to categorise books as many are often a combination of genres. Categories makes things easier but sometimes they put off readers too.

    • I remember Stella Duffy, I think it was Stella, saying it would be interesting if book shops simply had all authors in alphabetical order. No cover deisgns just a spine and a blurb, would be interesting to see what people tried outside their comfort zone.

      • gaskella

        My local indie shop experimented with having the crime section integrated back into general fiction – but people actively come to look at the crime shelf – so they changed it back, as people couldn’t find crime authors they hadn’t heard of. So from the bookseller’s perspective, categorising probably sells more… ???

      • Like many of the covers of French books. Nothing but the title and the blurb to sway you and ‘le bouche à oreille’.

  8. Others have said better than I can what I think. Abandon labels, categorisation never helps me in fiction. I don’t care if “The Moonstone” is a detective story, a book about Indians abroad or an example of romantic, lesbian, vampire fiction (perhaps it isn’t the latter). It’s either a book I like or it isn’t and sticking a label on it doesn’t help me in any way; indeed it prejudices my approach to reading it (which is also why I hate “blurbs”).

  9. I think it’s a literary snob thing really. I love crime novels and some of the best novels I’ve read are crime or fantasy, which is also a genre that takes a lot of flack. There are crime novels that really are a bit of fluff (I’m currently working my way through Charlaine Harris’s crime stuff which is fun but very light) and then there are literary crime novels – I’m a big fan of PD James.
    (This is Layla, under my new blog name. Whee!)

  10. Louise Trolle

    You should seriously read Johan Theorin (my favourite Swedish writer after Astrid Lindgreen), his books are such a feast of literary, folklore, thriller & crime (Echoes From The Dead, The Darkest Room and The Quarry). and The Darkest Room is one of the few books where I HAD to cheat and read the ending, when I was about half-way through, because I just couldn’t bear not knowing!

    They’re not very gruesome (I get soo annoyed when (crime) writers seem to think, that if you want to write a moving story, just keep the bodies (preferably kids) and nasty events/descriptions piling up).
    But Theorin writes so well, and just hints at things, and weaves together his stories that it makes the spine tingle 🙂 (on me anyway 🙂

  11. Louise Trolle

    Regarding genre, well I think it can sometimes be helpful, (having worked as a bookseller, if you don’t know a customers favourite author’s books, it helps if they tell you that they like romance and fantasy as opposed to political thrillers and biographies).

    BUT genre and quality in my mind has nothing to do with eachother.
    As a literature major I’ve read literary novels by authors who thought they were geniuses – and their books were selfindulgent, badly edited crap (in my opinion 🙂 🙂
    Authors like Jasper Fforde, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett on the other hand ARE geniuses (in my humble opinion).

    That said, I find that most people have “subject prejudices” (like your thing with boats Simon… 🙂
    Mine are what I call social realism books (pessimistic stories about dysfunctional families/terrible childhoods, parents that drink and tormented teenagers who cut themselves etc.) If a book seems to fall into this category, theres a 98% chance I won’t read it.
    (If I’m heavily persuaded by friends or blogs, and the book contains a fair amount of humor and is well written it can sneak into the 2% margin 🙂
    I also tend to avoid police crime novels (Oliver Bottini excepted).

    • Hahahaha yes I do have subject prejudices. They tend to be horses, boats, aliens and world war one. Not hard to please at all am I?

      I think all genres will have good and bad examples in them. But then some people will love the rubbish stuff and that is all good too.

  12. This is why the High Cannon of literature bugs me, I would much rather read a gripping crime novel than say, Madam Bovary.

    Literature seems to be a term for novels which are social/political/game changing but not always readable/accessible to the masses. This isn’t always the case – but it feels like it. That or I’m completely missing the point.

    • I’ve not read Madame Bovary… oops. I have always wanted to though. I think there is a place for both to be honest.

      I think your opinion of literary novels isn’t that far off.

  13. Louise Trolle

    Also some works – like Madam Bovary, may be deemed valuable, because they describe the central dilemmas/culture/issues of their era in a unique og poignant way, not (only) because they are great literature.

  14. Came late to this debate – clearly I need to follow your blog instead of just checking on on it periodically – but I am so glad you raise this issue. And it feels, from the comments, that many of us agree with you. I want to be free to enjoy all kinds of literature, without worrying too much about categorisation. Just like age-banding for children, division by genre is only vaguely useful (I find even in libraries they are not quite sure where to put Kate Atkinson for instance).

    • Never too late, that is the joy of blogging Marina, the discussions just keep on going. Kate Atkinson should have copies of the book in both the sections I think, personally 😉

  15. I often wonder if we should do post on how liteature is getting watered down by genre ,the reason genre is there is because there different books for different types we don;t all go and buy the sun or daily mail yet in fiction we are expect to blur the lines ,I m a strog believer in keeping literature for literature ,all the best stu

  16. I read all over the place when it comes to genre, including literary fiction. I don’t really get people who don’t as it is so limiting, and that is whether you are talking about people who only read literature with a capital L, or whether it is someone who only reads romance (or even only reads certain sub-genres within a genre).

    To me it is is nothing less than snobbery and it amazes me a little given that every second month there are headlines lamenting the fact that not as many people read who used to, and then we judge the ones who do read and make them feel bad about their reading choices! Doesn’t make sense to me.

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