Genre vs. Lit - everybody's talking about it

Recently on the Elmore Leonard discussion forum, someone posted this about the novel, Pagan Babies:

"I was a bit uncomfortable at the use of a horrific, real-life tragedy within a crime novel."

Of course, almost every crime novel is inspired by some real-life tragedy. In this case it's the scale of the thing.

Pagan Babies opens five years after the Rwandan genocide with a description of forty-seven bodies, "... turned to leather and stains," in a church. Two sentences in Elmore Leonard's typical straight-forward, adjective-free prose. It's one of the most moving openings to a novel I've ever read.

And it's material that's been covered before in the novel Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Canadian Gilles Courtemanche and the movie, Hotel Rwanda, among others.

None of those caused people to question the use of a real-life, horrific tragedy. So, it must have been in the context of a, "crime novel," that caused the uncomfort.

For me this crystalized the "literature" versus "genre" issue. The feeling that genre isn't capable of taking on big, serious issues. I find it particularly frustrating as genre writing is almost the only place these days to find writing about these issues. While "literature" seems to operate more and more at the extremes - either big issue subjects in books like The Kite Runner (usually by foreign writers), or further and further stuck in the rut of domestic breakdowns and personal, individual, middle-class crises, it's genre writing, crime and horror and fantasy and sci-fi, that continues to dig deeper into things like murders, child abuse, corruption and yes, even the alienating effects of the modern world.

Sure, it was only one guy who said it, but to me it's the great unspoken in the debate. Genre just isn't worthy. All evidence to the contrary.

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