Too Deep to be Popular? Or Vice Versa?

(Cross posted on One Bite at a Time.) Crimespace currently has a couple of enthusiastic debates (here and here) about the endless dispute between literary fiction and genre fiction. Sides tend to form pretty quickly in such engagements. The “literary” side goes on about the “limitations” of genre writing, while the genre folks complain about the snobbery of the lits. I’m inclined to come down on the genre side, not solely because I write what would be called genre fiction, were anyone ever to publish it.

I was a musician in a previous life. Played in all my high school’s bands (literally), got a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education. Spent three years in an Army band before getting a Master’s in Performance from New England Conservatory. Free-lanced around for several years playing in small orchestras, brass quintets, concert bands, whatever needed a trumpet part. This has allowed me to play, and appreciate, a wide range of music, and verify first hand that the same discussion goes on between classical and popular musicians constantly. I can safely say there is a degree of snobbery toward more popular forms of the music from many of those who exist on the more exalted plane; the popular musicians are not imagining it. They have their own blind spots, often citing the inaccessibility of classical music. The musicians’ arguments are too similar to writers’ not to be analogous.

Classical musicians deride “jazzers” for their imprecision and simplicity of structure. Jazz advocates claim classical players don’t swing. This argument moves through musical genres: jazzers often look down on country music, and it’s unusual to hear a young rocker acknowledge his debt to R & B. All of them can improve their own work by paying attention to the other. Jazz players can create tighter ensembles by listening to orchestras; orchestral pops concerts would be much better if the orchestras actually could swing.

Writers who consider themselves either, neither, or both ignore the precepts of either at their peril. The genre writer who fails to appreciate the implications of a more literary approach will find himself describing a rainstorm, instead of, in John Gardner’s words, “evoking the sensation of being rained upon.” The literary writer who looks condescendingly upon genre fiction as having nothing to teach him can evoke plenty of rain, but may have trouble getting his characters to do anything practical or believable once they are wet.

It’s been credited to too many people to be anything other than apocryphal, but everyone benefits if we all accept there are only two kinds of music or writing: good and bad. Subject matter, genre, or style determines neither. Both sides need to learn from the other if each is to remain vital. Literary writers cannot afford to travel the road too many of their musical brethren have, eventually writing only for themselves and those who wish to be considered part of the cognoscenti. Messages and themes, no matter how profound, lose their vitality and importance if the audience that can appreciate them is too small to matter. Popular forms that appeal too often to the least common denominator will find themselves passed over as those fickle tastes inevitably change.
On the other hand, as John Connolly’s experience shows, “literary” writers aren’t always just snobs. Sometimes they’re assholes, too.

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