This afternoon, Australian speculative fiction writer Alan Baxter started up a Twitter discussion (using the #ewf11 hashtag) on literary fiction, or more specifically, how the writing/publishing community seems to view it as a “higher” form of writing than genre fiction, and whether this is a valid point of view. Since this is a topic that has interested me for a long time – and because I was looking for a way to avoid working on my conference paper – I was eager to join the fray.
As a die-hard fantasy reader and writer, it’s probably easy to guess which side of the fence I’m on for this argument. Ever since I began writing seriously, I’ve noticed that a lot of people look on genre fiction – particularly fantasy, science fiction and horror – as low-brow entertainment, and therefore dismiss it as having no literary merit. One of the main examples of this was a teacher I had in TAFE while doing my writing and editing diploma; he hated fantasy as he felt that it was an excuse for bad writing. However, as I pointed out in the Twitter discussion, bad writing exists in all genres, not just fantasy.
Another point raised in the discussion was the existence of morals or messages about the meaning of life in literary fiction somehow making it more valid than other forms of writing. As many people said on Twitter, genre fiction is just as capable of giving readers something important and meaningful to take away from the story. And – as I and other Twitter users noted – genre fiction can deliver these things in a way that is more interesting; sure, I like stories about character development and the human condition, but I know that I’m going to enjoy it more if the story also involves dragons, magic or airships and so on. It’s all very well for a story to have a message, but if it is dull, no one is going to read it. Twitterers provided examples such as Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett; though both fantasy authors, their work blurs the boundary between genre fiction and literary fiction. In a way, it should be entirely possible for some genre books to be considered literary fiction, but because of the “snobbery” of literary fiction, genre fiction is excluded from its ranks.
There is also the issue of reading for enlightenment versus reading for entertainment. Sometimes readers don’t want to be bombarded with deep and meaningful preaching on what it is to be human. Sometimes we just want to read something fun and exciting, or frightening and disturbing.
A lot of good arguments were brought up in the Twitter discussion, but since I’ve already avoided my homework for long enough, this will be the last I mention in this post. A common sentiment expressed in the discussion was that story is just as important as writing. Well-crafted prose is all well and good, but the plot and characters and events in the story can make or break the writing, and vice versa. If the writing is good but the story it tells is boring or disorganised, many readers will abandon the book. Likewise, if the story is well-plotted and exciting but the writing is sloppy and badly executed, we are not likely to read beyond the first few pages. Personally I tend to favour story over writing, but both of these elements still need to be good for me to finish the book.
Anyway, I should probably get back to writing my conference paper (damn assignments cutting into my writerly ranting time). What are your thoughts? Were you also involved in the Twitter discussion? I’d be happy to see more opinions in the comments.