Category-ized Fiction

Jessica at Read React Review is spending the next few days walking through Thomas J. Roberts‘ 1990 book An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction, which studies the differences between genre and literary novels, and the points where their readerships diverge and overlap. Jessica (who isn’t divulging her last name, best as I can tell) is an academic and a romance reader, so she brings an interesting perspective to the matter. And though she doesn’t quite say it explicitly, her post opens up the question of how much some of these distinctions have collapsed recently—and how often writers have tried to collapse them.

As Jessica describes it, Thomas breaks down fiction into four categories: At the extremes are classics and “junk fiction” (ie, genre fiction), and in the middle are “serious fiction” (literary fiction, apparently) and “plain fiction” (i.e., bestsellers). Thomas attempts to define who reads what, and Jessica has a lot of fun calling him on his nonsense. What I’m trying to figure out is if the problem here is with Thomas or with the time he was writing in. The past 20 years have been defined by hybridization on all fronts, with plenty of literary novelists rising up from genre writing and literary novelists trying their hand at page-turners.

But these conflations have always been with us, yes? I recently read a forthcoming biography of Pearl S. Buck, and if any writer had a mission to bring sentiment to literary fiction, she was at it in the 1920s. Tom Wolfe‘s The Bonfire of the Vanities, everything else aside, was an episodic page-turner from a literary writer. What may have changed is that such attempts to merge of literary and genre are more intentional. It’s just one data point, but I’m thinking of Sarah Blake‘s The Postmistress, a likable novel about three women during World War II. Its mix of war stories and tales from the home front isn’t cynically devised—indeed, Blake writes engagingly about how Londoners endured the Blitz—but it is intended to whipsaw the reader between the sentimental stuff and the stuff of literary novels. That’s not just my judgment; it’s Blake’s editor’s. In a letter attached to attached to pre-publication copies of The Postmistress, Amy Einhorn writes: “When I started Amy Einhorn Books, my mission statement was to hit that sweet spot between literary and commercial. … Sarah Blake has written a book that has nailed that sweet-spot with a bull’s-eye.”

None of which means that the differences between genre and literary have entirely collapsed, and Jessica points out various cases where literary types fail to read and understand genre on its own terms. But there’s a lot more movement between Thomas’ categories than what Thomas seems to address.

One thought on “Category-ized Fiction

  1. Writers like Lethem, Chabon, Pynchon, Wallace, and Roth make the borders between those categories rather porous.
    On the crime genre side, Pelecanos, Price, Lippman and Lehane inject serious literary intent into their work.

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