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.

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For quite a different take, check out the Guardian story:

where she says, "My mental faculties haven't deteriorated. And anyway, what an insult it would be to thriller writers to suggest that you need to be stupid to write them. It seems to me so irritating that you would denigrate a remarkable genre where much of the best writing is done."

Seems like someone's trying to start something...
Thanks for the link to the Guardian. It's always instructive to see how different papers approach a story.
Here is the NYT article.

I don't think it's fair to say Dickens and Austen wrote genre fiction, because what McGrath means when he is talking about literary vs. genre fiction is the quality of it, or at least the perceived quality of it. Yet he claims Dickens and Austen as genre writers simply because they happen to write stories which could be labeled with a genre, which is contradictory to the quality issue he uses to separate literary vs. genre in the rest of the article. So saying that Jane Austen wrote chick-lit is incorrect, because the styles are different and chick-lit has only recently even been recognized as a genre. Same with Dickens. Just because your story has a mystery in it doesn't mean it's a part of genre fiction, if you define literary vs. genre in terms of style and quality rather than plot elements, which is what McGrath does for the rest of the article.

Minus points for the NYT for not doing the research the Guardian did to find out that toxins really did cause Brady health problems.
Wow! 50,00+ copies! Did anyone get the name of that glue?
I think the whole concept of literary v genre is so bourgeois.
The idea that some work is 'improving' and others simply 'commercial' is just idiotic. If a writer starts out hoping his book will not sell to the masses but will be for the initiated few then he is being exclusive which is the opposite of what art and literature is about.
For all those who say Dan Brown and John Grisham can't write I say, yeah, I bet they weep about it every morning.
I have to say that I no longer believe it is possible to write better books than Brown and Grisham and get the sales. The very features that make Brown's DVC shlock are what readers want.

The trouble is, of course, that more and more authors (and publishers) go for the proven winners and we get more and more copies of recent best sellers. Then the glut happens, and editors clamor for "new voices."

Let us remember that there is a difference between quantity and quality.
I.J., what about books like THE LOVELY BONES, COLD MOUNTAIN, and THE HORSE WHISPERER? My point is that well-written, perhaps literary, books can be bestsellers, too. No?
Also Trainspotting, The Secret History, White Teeth...the list is endless
HB xx
What's shlock?
I looked it up and it wasn't even in my dictionary...
HB x
Slang for plots designed to appeal to the lowest denominator. I give you: maniacal albino monks jetting from one bloody assassination to the next. (Leaving aside the bending of historical facts to appeal to liberated women and anti-Catholics).
It's also exclusive to define for other people what art and literature are about. A person can write for whatever audience he wants to write for and for whatever reason. There is elitism on both ends of the spectrum.


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