Tag Archives: oxford literary festival

The Genre Fiction Debate

corpus christi college

Image by Klovovi under Creative Commons license

Though each speaker(Gaynor Arnold and Elizabeth Edmondson, for, and Juliet McKenna and Anita Mason, against) spoke well, their arguments did seem to repeat each other regardless of what side they were arguing for, the main crux of the issue being reduced to, genre is irrelevant, it’s really a matter of whether the book is good or bad.

Gaynor Arnold’s speech stressed that from her perspective the genre and literary fiction have so much overlap that it’s very unhelpful to put authors into these categories. As an author she was quite concerned that her books would be read as historical fiction. She stressed that a book should be judged by, “is it a good book per se, not is it a good book of it’s type?”

Anita Mason argued in favour of retaining a distinction between the two, because she sees a genre novel as being governed by limitations which allow it to meet the criteria of that genre, while literary fiction is governed by nothing and is trying to do something different.  She cited Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake as a novel which is rooted in a genre (speculative fiction) but has all the qualities of a literary work, comparing writing to a wheel with literary fiction as the hub and genres as the spokes. The hub holds the wheel together and unites the whole, but it is the spokes which give the wheel its strength.

Elizabeth Edmondson used Jane Austen as an example of a literary author who wouldn’t be published as such today- she’d be shoved into romance or comedy which are very rarely considered to be “literary”. Edmondson speculated as to whether classing certain books as being literary fiction wasn’t just a marketing strategy from the publishers to set certain titles apart, a bid to elevate them to the status of literature without the test of time. It’s an interesting idea… one which brings to mind Penguin’s inclusion of Morrissey in its Classics series. Edmondson reminded the audience that though literary fiction may be considered more profound than genre fiction, profundity has a dark twin called pretension which can result in judgemental and reductive reading. “There are only good books and bad books, which can be thrust into many genres- lit fic is just one of these.”

Juliet McKenna was by far my favourite speaker, she is what the world might term a genre fiction writer and is damn proud of it. She sees literary fiction as attempting to reflect real life while speculative fiction introduces an element of other to discuss major ideas without the restriction of a “real life” setting. She argued that the unfamiliar worlds of speculative fiction need to create a clearer picture of the world that they are set in, as the reader’s mind won’t just fill in the blanks that the author has overlooked, so in this sense it is much harder to write speculative fiction well than it is to write literary fiction. I also liked her point about the increased scrutiny that genre fiction authors receive from their reads, the sci-fi and fantasy genres have very active communities built up around them who are incredibly invested in their genres.

The most interesting part of the talk for me was a brief discussion of the influence of metadata in publishing which came up as a result of an audience member complaining that an agent had rejected her novel because it sat across a range of genres. The influence of key words and tagging means that books in future should have the opportunity to define themselves more broadly and reach out to a more specific audience type that isn’t necessarily restricted by a generic categories.

The talk hasn’t revolutionised my views on genre vs literary fiction, I still think genres are useful categorisations for readers. I was a little disappointed that the whole panel was made up of women- even if it is as a result of the Hilda’s college connection. There can only have been two men in the crowd, probably because they saw the genre debate was among a panel of women and thought it would be about chick lit and this genre wasn’t really touched upon. Call me a gender traitor, but I think that putting a man on the panel might have shaken up the debate a little bit- it was a little too collegiate with everyone ultimately agreeing with one another.