Our brains are biochemically hard-wired to recognise familiar patterns almost instantaneously. A staggering amount of parallel processing goes into this, making the human brain extremely efficient at pattern recognition.

This skill is a survival instinct. Anything that is not like us is a possible threat. When you're in a book store, sneaking through the aisles, sniffing the air, hunting down that perfect new book to knock on the spine and drag back to your reading cave (complete with leather pitted chairs, banker's lamp and smoking jacket), there are a lot of possible kills to be made. Hundreds. Thousands. You need a method to quickly sort out the areas that most interest you. Book covers are one. Genre sections are another.

Genre classification as a subject for discussion heats up every so often around the net, and it's happening again. I think it's worth discussing, if only to remind us that the labels we attach to things are not the things themselves. And that snobbery is an attribute to be looked down upon.

If you're all not absolutely spent from the heated battles out there, please do chime in over here. But only if you think I'm actually making a point. I mean, I've barely slept.


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I don't sweat genre snobbery. Snobbery is just a manifestation of insecurity. And what genre sells the most books? Is it sophisticated "literary" fiction? Doubtful. As an educated guess, I'd say that the it's the much-maligned romance novel. And it wouldn't surprise me if crime/mystery came in second. I know that there are those who disagree (or at least pretend to) with my use of money as a yardstick, but in the end, publishing is a business. And genre classification facilitates the business.

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."
-Samuel Johnson
The thing that annoys me is that we apparently can't discuss the differences between genre and literary fiction without getting all bent out of shape about "snobbery." It reminds me of being unable to talk to writing students about writing without having them constantly bring it back to publishing.

I posted what I thought was my best thinking about this to date at Laura Lippman's blog, so rather than pretend I'm writing off-the-cuff at this very moment, here it is:

- - -

Seeing as I seem to be writing them, I've been reading (as time allows) short stories lately.

The 2005 Best American Short Stories (edited by Michael Chabon) is a great example of the crossroads between popular and literary.

The 2006 Best American Short Stories (edited by Ann Patchett) meanders somewhat down the literary road.

The 2006 Best American Mystery Stories (edited by Scott Turow) meanders somewhat down the mystery road.

The roads aren't parallel. That is, they do meet, and there's cool stuff there, and you can see some distance down each while walking some distance down the other. But the fact of a crossroads isn't quite enough for me to accept that there's only one street.

Plenty of mysteries are badly written, but still successful as mysteries. Crime writers who are routinely lionized can hold my attention until the end of a book on the strength of how they construct a plot, but I have no interest in reading those books again. The point is the puzzle, and there's nothing else there. The same goes for science fiction: If the idea is great and the execution of it is okay, and the characterization is one-dimensional, it's successful science fiction. I haven't read much romance, but I assume the same is true there: It can be lousy writing, but as long as the core definition of the genre is met, it's a decent genre piece. But not great writing.

The converse is true too: We've all read literary fiction with stupid plots.

I think those writers who work at the crossroads tend to bristle when genre fiction is discussed as though it's separate from literary fiction--because you're actually doing both. But there is a "both" to be referred to. Two different things, not mutually exclusive, but not occupying exactly the same territory, either, except at that crossroads.
Yeah, I read this over at Laura's I love any use of crossroads as a metaphor, because I sold my soul at one. Not sure what I got out of it though.

"And that snobbery is an attribute to be looked down upon. "

Did no one get the sarcasm of this paradox?
You mean us all being here isn't what you asked for?

Got the sarcasm. "There are people in the world who do not love their fellow man--and I hate people like that!" --Tom Lehrer
No, don't go, stay!

Here. Have another drink.
Thanks! What's the cranky guy down at the end drinking?
I dunno. He said "give me three inches" and I moved on.
"Crime writers who are routinely lionized can hold my attention until the end of a book on the strength of how they construct a plot, but I have no interest in reading those books again. The point is the puzzle, and there's nothing else there."

The only thing about this is it is a generalization. I have read crime fiction novels that I consider to be far more character studies, insightful and powerful. And I do re-read those books.

My husband has probably read LOTR 4 times just since we've been married.

And I have read some work that falls under the 'literary' category that wasn't worth reading once.

Nobody can read Patterson or Brown and say they completely understand crime fiction based off that alone. There is a wide range within the genre, in the same way there's a wide range within all categories. Some work will appeal to us. Some work will touch us in a profound way. Some won't, and the list will be different for every single person here.

Nobody will persuade me that Bruen's Jack Taylor series, for example, or Lippman's standalones aren't every bit as powerful and insightful - if not more than - much non-genre work produced.
It's funny, once you place a label onto a book or a movie, music, art, what have you, you immediately lump it into a genre. Literary is a genre. Horror is a genre. Large breasted midget rodeo porn is a genre. At least, if it isn't my career's fucked.

No one can quote Kierkegaard without coming off as a pretentious ass, so as an official pretentious ass, "Once you name me you negate me." Everything has possibility until you classify it. It can be literary post-modern Thai vampire kickboxing noir or Transgendered demolition derby chick lit until you label it as Romance or Horror. What gets lumped into mystery or crime? What's Charlie Huston's "Already Dead"? What's "Pride and Prejudice" if not chick lit?

Genre is a marketing tool. It gives a convenient place for people to stick books on shelves. Whether it's right or appropriate is something else entirely.
Any man who can reference large breasted midget rodeo porn and Kierkegaard in the same comment is really really sick and has my undying appreciation.
I suddenly have this overwhelming desire to write the Great American literary post-modern Thai vampire kickboxing noir novel. I'll leave Transgendered demolition derby chick lit to you, Toni, 'cause I know you'll kick ass with it.
Ha. Go around and blow up one freakin' thing with a Tranny along for the ride, and no one lets you forget it.

Of course, the title of Book 3 is going to be Bobbie Faye's Vigilante Ta Tas.


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