There is a wonderful piece in last Sunday's New York Times - Great Literature? Depends Whodunit written by Charles McGrath. The article examines the split between literary fiction and genre fiction and begins with an extraordinary story.
Joan Brady writes literary fiction. This 68 year-old expatriate American, living and writing in England, won the Whitbread book prize in 1993. She lives next door to a shoe factory and recently, she sued the factory claiming that "the glue and solvents used in the Conker shoe factory next door to her home in Totnes had poisoned the air and made her sick." And Brady's evidence, you ask? Well, as reported by McGrath, she abandoned a half-finished literary manuscript and wrote, instead, a potboiler. The toxins from the shoe factory, she allege, caused nerve damage and a loss of concentration which caused her to write the potboiler. Her argument, in essence, appears to be that she would never write genre fiction if she were in her right mind.
In his article, McGrath reminds us that the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is fairly recent, that Charles Dickens wrote horror and mystery, that Henry James wrote ghost stories, that Jane Austen wrote chick lit.
Good writers write what they write well. And readers read good books (and sometimes, bad books) that speak to something in their own life. Some days its Dostoyesvsky, some days Stephen King. Edgar Allen Poe. Steinbeck. Asimov. Kafka. Conan Doyle. Tom Robbins. Jonathon Swift. McMurtry. Vonnegut. Sophocles. John Irving. Joseph Heller. Yukio Mishima. Ovid. Dr. Suess.
And the case of Joan Brady? Her potboiler was a success, selling roughly 50,000 copies in Great Britain (and more copies around the world). Nevertheless, the shoe factory settled out of court, paying Ms. Brady 115,000 pounds for her descent into the hell that is genre fiction.