Stay with me while I set this up, because I'm really pissed off:

UT's Michener Center last night brought Denis Johnson last night to read. He's the author of a book of short stories "Jesus' Son", the novels "Resuscitation of a Hanged Man", "Angels", "The Stars at Noon", and more. He's got Faulkner Awards and National Book Club awards. He's taught at UT's MFA program which is pretty prestigious (I mean you really have to be something special to get in, there are like 6 seats and 2,000 applicants, because acceptance supplies a grant that covers the entire tuition.) Recently, Johnson's novella "Nobody Move" was serialized in four issues of Playboy and from this he read for forty minutes.

Now, I just finished editing Out of the Gutter #5: The Revenge Issue, with Matt Lewis and it is going to press in the next few days, but I couldn't hear any difference between what we or any writer on Crimespace is doing and Denis Johnson's work, but he doesn't get dismissed as a pulp/suspense/thriller writer. He gets academic approval and literature status. I've read his short stories in" Jesus' Son" and I don't understand how L.A. Weekly quoted it as "In a world of predictable fiction, Jesus' Son is a point-blank godsend."

A student after the reading asked me what I thought and I was in a daze and said, "It's just pulp fiction."

and he said, "Yeah, but it's good Pulp Fiction."

and I said, "Then don't bill it as anything else than pulp fiction otherwise he's slumming."

and he got all defensive, "Yeah, but the voice is raw and real."

and I told him to go to a soup kitchen six blocks over and steal their stories.

He turned away and the entourage of MFA's slipped off to a closed party with Denis Johnson.

So here is the question, what with Tin House and others using genre sponsored contests to exclusive writing programs, have any writers here been able to cross the line or even want to into the fiction/lit shelves of the bookstore? Have they been able to get grants or lit based awards? Or are they stuck in a genre section? Who is in charge of labeling and pigeon holing novels?

Just note, I'm not attacking Denis Johnson personally, it's just the shorts I have read of his were more like character studies and impressionistic forages into degenerate portraits, but not completed stories.

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I agree, too. We just have to accept the fact that very often someone known as a literary writer is going to win crime fiction awards and once in a while a crime fiction writer is going to be priased by the literary crowd.

So what?
LOL! It sounds like a question on an IQ test. Genre is to literary as: C) Bowling is to bass fishing.

You know, they're both human activities, but that's where the similarity ends.

Bullshit, Jon!

I would argue that good writing is good writing, no matter what section of the bookstore it's in. There are plenty of literary novels that stink, and plenty of genre novels that shine. It's all writing, though. We're not talking about two entirely different animals, as you suggest.

That's where genre writers get their panties in a wad, I think--that "us" and "them" attitude some literary types maintain. To some lit folks, picking up a Stephen King novel (for example) is closer to sticking their fingers in dog shit than to reading. They feel the need to bathe afterward.

Personally, I strive for the best of both worlds. I want stout prose and three-diminsional characters and grand themes, but I also want Story. I want to entertain on a mass level. That, to me, is paramount.

I don't care about being compared to "Literary" fiction. That's not the point at all. It doesn't matter what they say in the papers; it's still rock and roll to me. I just don't understand why some people equate popularity with excrement. It does not compute, Will Robinson.
I don't view the conventions of any genre as "inherent limitations." I think of them more as the framework from which the story may be suspended. Not to put words in his mouth, but I think it was Dennis Lehane (if not him, it was someone equally well respected) who said he chose crime fiction when he started because he'd be able to better tell when the story ended. It seems to me that aside from providing some kind of closure, a premise that involves crime of some sort, and a certain amount of action along the way (not to be confused with sex and violence), the author is free to do pretty much what he wants. Limitations are self-imposed, or may be implied by the marketplace; that does not make them endemic to the genre. That fact that so few attain a "transcendent" level of excellence is due to the difficulty of writing anything that well, not the "limitations" of the genre. A lot of "literary" fiction is crap, regardless of its original pretensions.

Once again, Chandler said it best. From his essay, "The SImple Art of Murder:"
The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average—or only slightly above average—detective story does. Not only is it published but it is sold in small quantities to rental libraries, and it is read.

Which is, of course, why it is published, even in small quantities.
Stephen King annoys me. Half, or maybe a third, of Hearts in Atlantis is about the best literary account of the awakening of the 'student movement' in America in the mid-60's. It's full of all the stuff of literature, even at the sentence level.

And then come the possessed cars and the demons. It's as if he does this on purpose this drive people crazy, just to show them he could if he wanted to. The way Wayne Gretzky was always the worst player at practise.

But they're special cases.

I think since writing started to be taught in schools all writing has slowly evolved its formal demands - literature's are just as restrictive as any genre's but that's not a bad thing. It may trip you up to not recognize that or deny it, though. In every genre, literature included, there are precious few works that transcend their own formal demands, but those are the ones we celebrate.

Or, you could say, since publishing became a multi-national business run more by accountants than editors, formal demands of genre, again in every genre, became criteria for publication.

(we pure theorists can, of course, ignore the fact that a book has to get published before we can study it and ignore that entire process ;)

Some people still want to make a case for one genre, literature, being better than the others, fine, up to them and all that.

Now, I'm saying this because there are very few of those formal demands in the crime fiction I write or the crime fiction I read. Scott Phillips wrote a terrific book called The Ice Harvest which is in many ways a literary novel, a mid-life crisis novel, about a lawyer who has slid from working for the mob to being in the mob. It gets filed in the 'crime' section of bookstore, but there's no detective, no clues, no one figuring out a murder.

So, I still say if you put together a list of formal demands for all the genres, including literature, only a small percentage of the books published in the last twenty-five years would slip outside these "inherent limitations" in any of the genres.
My take on this is fairly harsh. There is too much bad writing out there being praised as brilliant. There is also an awful lot of awful stuff that sells like hotcakes and brings its author million dollar contracts. But among the mass of books published every year are some true jewels in both categories.

The bad thing here is that it may be easier to succeed in genre than in literary fiction. Having written a somewhat literary novel recently, I can't seem to sell it because my sales history isn't sufficiently stellar for a publisher to take a chance with this book. The same goes for a collection of short stories in the mystery genre. Your past will follow you.
Ah, yes, but I take pride in what I do. The only time I thought of using a pseudonym was many years ago when I tried my hand at historical romance. (Fortunately never published).
The problem with the short story collection is furthermore that it features the same character as my series.
So am I to understand that if you start with lit, you can jump in and out of genres however you like, but if you cut your teeth in a genre, than you're stuck there. Now Kafka can write about a roach and it's not considered magical realism/horror/whatever else, but lit because it is used as a symbol or because it wasn't printed in Weird Tales? Where as Lovecraft with his prose, not unlike Melville will always be a stuck in sci-fi because of how he was distributed.

I also found it interesting at the Texas Book Fair two weeks ago, they brought in Richard Price (Clockers, The Wanderers, The Wire) to speak with The Paris Review and when asked a similar question he denied himself as a mystery thriller writer citing he was more concerned about character than the crime, but conceded to being a whore as a screenwriter. So there isn't character based pulp fiction? I thought you had to be invested in the characters in order to stay with them?

I've been thinking why this bothers me and why I started the thread, I think because I sincerely love writing and it really offends me when others make this craft into an exclusive club. It feels like it bars new voices. I also think it limits the risks that the writer can take in exploring a story. My first story I had published was about a white trash vacuum cleaning salesmen in Louisiana who really wanted to succeed, had this whole ideal of what it would be like, and he finally sells the vacuum to a cajun werewolf and gets bitten, he spends the rest of the piece denying he has been bitten but there is always a full moon once a month. The theme was about poverty/success, but I had one hell of a time getting it accepted in any lit mags. Some editors suggested sending it to horror, but then the horror editors said it wasn't horror-ish enough. Finally it was accepted as a Southern Gothic Tale at and it has a podcast with it. Here it is finally with a home:
"So am I to understand that if you start with lit, you can jump in and out of genres however you like, but if you cut your teeth in a genre, than you're stuck there."


Richard Price is a good example, actually. Blood Brothers, The Wanderers and The Breaks have crimes in them, but no mysteries (it's been years since I read them, but I'm pretty sure). Freedomland and Samaritan are more recent and more closely aligned wih mystery fiction - there are murders and cops trying to find out whodunnit, but he's established as a literary writer so his books are often not in the crime fiction section of books. I don't know if this helps his sales or not.
I got to meet George Saunders last year at the Texas Book Festival, a really nice and accessible guy, and asked him how he went to getting his work placed in the Atlantic when it was about a grandmother who comes back from the dead in order to instruct her grandson to become a male stripper in order to prevent a murder, and he said he had solved the genre debate by declaring his work as "satire". After figuring out that satire covered all the rules, putting it in his cover letters, he was free to work on Cavemen in theme parks and anything else. Also, his writing is really tight.
yeah, I will use him as a model, as well as Lorie Moore who I just discovered thru the podcasts, she really cracks me up.
My view is that you can write a genre novel, or you can make art. It's very hard to do both at the same time, because the formal demands of genre ("popular fiction") are so often fundamentally clichéd and therefore at odds with the requirements of art.
ROFLMAO!!!! What are the REQUIREMENTS OF ART??? Who gets to decide what is art and what is not? What's his job title? The Art King?

Story is Story. It all arises from myths and archetypes. When you get down to it, everything since Homer is fundamentally cliched. Shakespeare? Oh, yeah. There's nothing new under the sun, my friend. No new stories, only new ways to tell them.


What is Art with a capital A? Philosophers have been pondering the question for centuries, and I'm pretty sure there's no clear consensus. Please direct me to The Art King, so he can impose his artly wisdom.

I opened randomly to a page from Charles Baxter's The Feast of Love:
We took a minute out for a breather, though we kept ourselves together. No condoms, I don't like them, I'm on the pill. It's funny about Oscar, he can come and pretty soon he's got his hard-on back, standing up and smiling at me. Weird. Maybe this was, like, the month of his sexual peak...

And I opened randomly to a page from Stephen King's Firestarter:
She screamed. She turned her head toward the open bathroom door and there was a sudden blue flash in there like a lightbulb burning out. The showerhead fell off the wall and clattered into the tub, twisted and black. Several of the blue tiles shattered to fragments.

Is one of those more artful than the other on a sentence level? If I get to be The Art King, I'm going to chose Stevie's over Chuck's every time.

My panties aren't in a wad, Jon. I just don't think it's fair to say genre fiction is intrinsically unartistic. Society's definition of what is Art and what is not changes--sometimes radically--from generation to generation, so today's tripe might be tomorrow's masterpiece. You know, maybe even my drivel has a chance to be considered Art somewhere down the road. I'm not setting out to create Art, though. People who do get easily lost, I think. It's better to set out to entertain, IMHO, and then leave the distinction to The Art Kings and Queens of the future.
First of all, forgive me if any of this sounds harsh, Jon. It's all for the sake of argument, and pretty meaningless when you get down to it. I won't take anything you say personally, and I hope you don't take anything I say personally.

So here I go:

Of course there is--just as there's consensus among physicians about what medicine is, among scientists about what science is, and among plumbers about what makes for a good plumbing job and what gives a bad plumbing job away as the work of an amateur.

Medicine and science are in a constant state of flux, with new studies published all the time questioning what was considered fact yesterday. So your argument is flawed right off the bat. But, at least we can study science and medicine (and even plumbing, through civil engineering) somewhat objectively with experimentation through the scientific method, theories and proofs, trial and error, etc. Not so with art. What constitutes art is completely subjective. What constitutes good art is also completely subjective.

Art, if it's any good, engages the audience on a deeper and ultimately more interesting level than mere entertainment. In the end it's about showing us something we don't already know about inhabiting a human skin. It's also about challenging our expectations, pushing the envelope of form, questioning the nature of meaning, and making beauty, at the same time it responds to the two-thousand-plus years of western artistic tradition.

How is that definition in anyway similar to, say, outlining the effects of digoxin on the circulatory system? It's not. Sorry, but everything you mentioned there is completely subjective.

You might consider James Joyce's Ulysses Art, while I might consider it incomprehensible rubbish. "But it pushes the envelope of form," you might say. "It challenges our expectations...blah, blah, blah." No, it challenges your expectations. You might consider it Art--you might even consider it Great Art--because, to you, it meets the correct percentage of answers on your arbitrary checklist of qualifications. That's fine. To you it's Art, to me it's not. We can disagree about whether something is Art or not, even though we both might work and make a living as artists... work at studying and thinking about art...know something about art and its roots in tradition.

Just because I disagree with you doesn't mean I'm stupid, Jon. But, you know, thanks for giving me a much better answer than I deserved (even though the answer was inherently flawed, and most likely the result of being brainwashed by Academia for way too many years).


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