Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Genres 2

with 7 comments

Oh, ack.

In the first place, I didn’t say that a genre was a book with a “pat” ending, and although the endings of genre novels are predictble in the sense that they are predermined–the heroin will marry the hero who will turn out not to be the brutal thug he’s appeared throughout the entire book; the detective will solve the murder mystery–that’s a long way from saying that they are always predictible in their details.

What’s more,  I don’t agree that a genre can be defined only by its scene or setting.   I left some fudge room for  SF, because in my experience SF writers and readers like to claim just about anything, no matter how tenuous its connection, as SF.  So I’m giving them the rope they seem to want to hang themselves with.

What’s more, I don’t think that the mainstream novel is “about” the “interior lives” of the characters.  Saying that a novel allows us to enter into a character’s head and think the way he thinks for a while is not the same thing as saying that the novel is about anybody’s “interior life,” or even that the character is self aware enough to have an interior life.

A genre is a predetermined narrative structure into which the writer fits whatever else she wants to do or say.  There is nothing pejorative about the term, and there are genre novels in the canon–Frankenstein and 1984 among others.

Gone With The Wind is a mainstream novel.  So are The Hunt for Red October, Peyton Place, The Da Vinci Code, To Kill a Mockingbird, Exodus, Little  Women, Valley of the Dolls, Foucault’s Pendulum, The Way We Live Now, War and Peace, August 1914, The Razor’s Edge, Magnificent Obsession, The Robe, Moby Dick, The Portrait of a Lady, The Great Gatsby, Seven Days in May and The Bridges of Madison County.

Some of those books are good, some of them are bad, none of them are genre, and none of them are literary.  Most of them have plenty of action and incident. 

What’s more, the simple fact that a mainstream novel has one element or another that might appear in a genre, or even several, dones’t stop the novel from being mainstream or make it genre. 

And Cheryl is right–all these distinctions are, and must be, fuzzy around the edges.  What’s more, genres and subgenres come and go. When Scruples was published, it was a mainstream  novel.  Ten years later, after a couple of dozen novels all written on the same pattern, we had a new genre, usually calling, in the business, the “shopping and effing novel.”  The plot elements had solidified, and dozens of writers created books to fit them.

The mere fact that a book fits into a genre does not disqualify it from the canon, nor does it disqualify it from being a good book.  Some genres, or more usually subgnres, become so rigid that working within the guidelines makes it close to impossible for a writer to write a good book–the serial killer novel is getting very close to this–but that’s because any predetermined form necessarily limits a writer’s choices and those limits are necessarily artificial in the sense of being outside the writer’s own judgment.

But Cheryl is right that it’s hard to think of mainstream fiction on the market now, because there’s nearly none of it.  

To the extent that there was disrespect for the genres in publishing, that disrespect came from the fact that up until recently genres sold very little relative to mainstream.  Books by Irving Wallace and Leon Uris were huge best sellers.  Horror practically didn’t sell at all and science fiction sold in paperback and that only in limited quantities.

Genre novels didn’t become the big sellers in publishing until the Eighties, and by now they’ve nearly wiped mainstream off the shelves.

And the question is why.   I can certainly understand why contemporary literary novels don’t sell.  Halfway through a book by Ann Beattie I’m likely to start muttering, “stop whining already!”

But something like Iriving Wallace’s The Man. about a freak accident that kills several members of the US government and puts the White House in the hands of its next black President, or Leon Uris’s Exodus, about the founding of the state of Israel, or any of the Michener books–it seems to me that there was certainly enough action and incident, enough varied and surprising characters, to interest any ordinary reader.  And none of these books is in any way hard to read.

I am beginning to wonder, though if  the problem is that I set the bar too high when I think that somsthing is not hard to read.  All the books mentioned in the last paragraph were enormous best sellers in their time.  They sold to and were read by plenty of people who had not gone to college.   Even my mother plowed her way through Valley of the Dolls, and she resisted reading the backs of cereal boxes. 

But I deal more and more with people who can’t understand Terry  Pratchett’s Small Gods–and I don’t mean they can’t understand the extended metaphor, or the references to religious history.   I mean they can’t follow the plot, and it’s not that hard a plot to follow. 

John sent me a series of links to a three part article about students and reading.  If you go here


you’ll find Part Three, with links to parts one and two. It’s best to start from the beginning. 

John complained that the writer was ‘too highbrow” for him, and he definitely comes out of the high art tradition, and the works he’s talking about are definitely canonical (The Odyssey, The Aeneid), but the question of reading comprehsnsion remains no matter what the books you’re talking about. 

And there does seem to be some kind of weird problem going on with linear thought, with putting one idaafter another and following it to a third. 

And I’m not talking just about students here, either. 

That’s a far cry from worrying about whether or not people can read truly difficult books in or out of the canon, or whether they can benefit from a writer’s ability to let them experience the way other people think–which is not a parlour trick, but the very purpose of fiction, and the only thing that makes a book worth anything as fiction.

Of course, a book may be worth a lot on other standards of value–as entertainment, for instance, or as a cultural artefact–but the real stuff of fiction is in the way it expands our understanding of the full range of what it means to be human.\

But I’m not asking for that now.

I want to know if there’s become a problem in “getting it” on a much more basic level. 

Maybe the reason that genre fiction has taken over the place mainstream fiction used to have–the commercially most viable place, the most widely read place–is that there are many more people now who are unable to follow a story if it isn’t largely predetermined, if it isn’t already familiar and predictable.

And that makes me a lot more worried than Indian casinos and the John  Edward show–and maybe they’re all connected.

Written by janeh

February 1st, 2009 at 11:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Genres 2'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Genres 2'.

  1. Yeah, there’s a problem with “getting it”. It started with MTV, and music video editors who composed entire videos, minutes long, out of half-second cuts. No way to get an entire thought into your head before another image replaces it. That style of composition on TV and movies spread and intensified, used to generate artificial excitement and cover the inadequacies of the performers. (for instance, Britney Spears can’t dance a lick, but her editors make sure you never see both the beginning AND the end of any move, in the hopes you won’t notice)

    I’ve seen speculations that this shortening of any consistent image has also shortened attentions spans of children exposed to it. I’m not sure about this, as anyone who has seen a kid immersed in a computer game for hours or days on end can attest. If you can’t follow a thought from one end to the other, why should you be able to, or enjoy, following a sentence? Or the entire narrative arc of a novel?

    People seemingly can’t spend 10 minutes on any activity without reaching for a cell phone, or an iPod, or something to occupy their apparently wandering attention, since the immediacy of the people sitting right at their table or the need to drive their car palls quite quickly. We joke about there being a new city ordinance that one can no longer walk or ride a bike in Long Beach without being on the phone as well. It’s actually not very funny.

    Then we’ve got the internet…click to a page, read a few sentences, view the flashing advertisements, oh look! a link let’s click it…another page, another link, just a nugget of info here then off into the ether like a digital butterfly, never actually landing anywhere. I read somewhere that if a page doesn’t load within 7 seconds, most people will click off somewhere else. That’s the limit of our patience and persistence these days.

    The fact is that a book is not, for most people, entertainment. It doesn’t inform them about other people, settings or immortal truths. A book is a drudgery, incompatible with the flash, flash, flash metaphor they’re used to consuming. A book represents a nearly impenetrable source of information they can’t quite reach without more work than they want to do.

    Genre books (and here I’m thinking about more restricted genres like cozy mysteries and gothic romance novels) do some of the work for you. They arrange the narrative arc in an expected fashion. Details may vary, but the destination is the same. Likewise for series books. Characters recur, become familiar. (I once heard someone say they couldn’t read big long books like Michener because there were “too many characters” and they couldn’t keep them straight)

    A cozy mystery is going to do very little in regard to revealing the inner truth of being human. They are not structured to do that. A reader is pretty much assured they *won’t* have to work that hard or come close to anything like inner revelation.

    I’m having a hard time in my head distinguishing mainstream from literary fiction. Literary fiction in general bores me silly. I’ve read plenty of the other kind of book, though, Michener, Clavell, selections from your list above. It doesn’t surprise me at all that people who can’t take a walk without being on the phone at the same time are reluctant to tackle books like those. What is going to hold their attention for hundreds of pages? These are people who can’t be alone in silence, ever, so why should they spend so much time with their own thoughts and the thoughts of the author, and perhaps even examine some preconceptions and discover some truth? *shudder* That’s for eggheads.

    Reluctance isn’t the same as being unable to comprehend, of course. You read the essays of your students, Jane. You know that if you can’t write a decent sentence, the likelihood of being able to entertain or follow a logical thought is low. (ind of a chicken and egg thing) The same with a narrative. If you can’t write, you most probably can’t read the type of writing in novels. It has nothing to do with intelligence, and everything to do with being trained to become familiar enough with your own thoughts to organize them and express them to the outside world.

    It seems to me that most people spend all their time in an effort NOT to be alone with their own thoughts. Who knows what’s in there? They don’t “get” themselves. Why should they “get” anything else?

    Ah…the unexamined life, again.


    1 Feb 09 at 12:52 pm

  2. Part of the difficulty is that SF is both a story type and a setting. Saying that a novel which hinges on a scientific development or an extrapolation from present trends and saying “it’s not science fiction because it doesn’t take place on another planet or in the far future” is like reading about a man and woman courting and marrying and saying “it’s not a romance novel because it doesn’t take place in Cornwall or the highlands of Scotland.” Not even all gothics are north of Edinburgh, and not even all “hard science” science fiction takes place in the distant future.

    Certainly the boundaries are fuzzy. For myself, I would be very hard-pressed to explain how Jack Ryan, hunting a defecting Soviet submarine commander in a noiseless–newly invented propulsion system–and practically undetectable submarine is “mainstream” while Professor Argonax, hunting an exiled Indian prince in a larger submarine than had hitherto been built is “science fiction.”

    As for genres crowding out mainstream, I’m not entirely convinced it’s so. I was clerking in a bookstore around 1970, and they don’t look revolutionized from here. One change is that about that time the upper limit on hardcover SF sales went away. Going from memory here on the numbers, but it used to be accepted that an SF first novel would make money in hardcover, but any SF in hard covers had an upper sales limit of, I believe, 5,000 copies. A first mainstream novel typically lost money, so a lot of marginal texts were designated SF by nervous publishers. On the other hand, because of that upper limit, nothing by a good reliable seller like Drury could ever be CALLED science fiction, because such marketing would limit the sales. Heinlein writes of a Lunar expedition, it’s SF. Drury heads his crews for the gas giants past Mars, HE’s writing mainstream. But the barrier broke somewhere around STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND and TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE. The specialty houses were cleared out of the game and SF became serious money for publishers.

    There’s a market for romance, including gothic, for crime stories, including detective novels and for adventure stories. The market for science fiction as story type–what happens if we invent X? What happens if Y trend continues? tends to be a little more limited, and when the trend is social or political SF merges insensibly with the political novel and even the polemic. If the end of Drury’s ADVICE AND CONSENT is outside the borders of SF, it’s within sight of them, but the same is true of ATLAS SHRUGGED.

    I would say the big shift is that readers are more comfortable with SF as a setting. Adventure novels and more recently romances which previously might have had a western or other historical setting or been set in some unexplored niche of the world are now set far in the future or past, or a long way away. (It’s also true we’re running out of unexplored niches.)

    But I might also take a look at publishers. They’re going through a lot of material in not much time, and calling a novel “mainstream” doesn’t advance your explanation. Call GONE WITH THE WIND a romance set during and after the Civil War, and you’ve told the buyer something he can understand–though you run the risk that he’ll want Scarlet and Rhett together at the end.

    How many of us, asked to explain a story we like, go into paragraphs of “It’s sort of like..” or “It has elements of…” “But it isn’t really…” The good stuff can sometimes be very hard to explain succinctly, and I have an ugly hunch publishers and buyers are spending less time on each case.

    THAT worries me.


    1 Feb 09 at 1:12 pm

  3. I like those links, although the author’s conclusions are rather depressing from the point of view of someone who likes reading and can’t stand presentations of fragmented information – particularly if it is presented visually.

    I’m glad that I’m no longer in the front lines of education, because I suspect a combination of increasingly rapid technological change and development of communication methods and a couple generations of K-12 education that did not focus on correct and accurate reading and writing have indeed produced many people who have never learned very basic reading skills. In fact, I suspect that many of them wouldn’t be able to keep track of a complicated plot orally, since we are not an oral culture either.

    I suspect too that the lack of experience in decoding and writing text goes hand-in-hand with a lack of awareness of why accuracy matters. I’d be willing to bet that the student whose awkward writing about St. Augustine led to the exact opposite of what he presumably intended would have whined ‘Well, you know what I meant!’ if asked about it. I’ve heard that a good bit over the years – the idea that something should be expressed clearly so that the reader doesn’t have to guess at the meaning is also passe.

    In spite of my depressing opinions, I still hope that it’s not true that the reason so few mainstream novels appear to be best-sellers isn’t that there are too few people who are able to read them. I don’t recall the older examples I read as being THAT difficult to read!

    I can’t think of another good hypothesis. Perhaps the competition from TV and computers simply reduces the time available to read…but that doesn’t seem convincing to me. I can do both, and I’m not alone in that.


    1 Feb 09 at 2:41 pm

  4. I read the links also, and there’s something I don’t understand. If this is the general level of reading competence among college students today, what is happening to all the kids who have followed Harry Potter’s quest for ten years, who know every detail of Bella & Edward’s romance, who go on adventures with Alex Rider? These kids may or may not be able to understand, say, the Christian allegory in Harry Potter, but they certainly should be able to follow a fairly complex narrative with multiple characters and plenty of ambiguity. These books are more difficult than anything I managed to get my hands on in grade school (in the 1960s), but the kids (lots of them!) are interested enough in the story to keep going despite whatever difficulties they have. And they really are reading them, it’s not parents getting the books for uninterested kids. Watching them wait for new books to come out is like watching them wait for Christmas.

    If, once they get to college, they’ve lost that ability to comprehend, or can’t translate it to their college work, what’s happening to them?

    In defense of the student writing about St. Augustine, I also received the impression from Augustine’s writing that the pear tree was as important to his conversion as the women–to the point where I began to suspect that the pear tree was some metaphor which I still haven’t gotten.

    Lee B

    1 Feb 09 at 3:51 pm

  5. I didn’t read the linked articles until after I posted above. Bertonneau articulated something I learned back in 1988. I’d returned to college after a long hiatus, and ended up correcting freshman essays for my Linguistics professor. I was astonished, at the time, at the number of students who couldn’t write. On closer examination, I realized that in fact they couldn’t *think*. Some of their words formed grammatical sentences, but taken as a whole, their essays contained no coherent logic, no complete thoughts. This is what I was referring to in my first post.

    As to the coming literacy apocalypse, I think it’s overblown. There is a great population of college students who would not have been in college in the 70s. They just wouldn’t have been admitted. There have always been a minority of people who are highly literate, highly aware, and highly motivated. These people are the ones who end up running things, innovating, and creating progress. The great masses are always along for the ride.

    While it may seem that so many people are in this non-literate state, the fact is that there a just a lot more people than there used to be. The absolute numbers are much higher. Proportionally, I don’t think they are in much greater numbers than the traditional Great Unwashed. It’s just that now many of our Unwashed have college degrees. I’m not sure what that says about college degrees, but I know these people will seek their own levels, and the world won’t be any more dumbed down than it always was.

    What would be sad is if many of these people would have, with proper, rigorous education, ended up being literate, historically oriented, and able to think, and instead have been ruined by progressive educational concepts and processes. But there’s no real proof of that. The gifted ones who will take us into the technological, progressive future come out of the same educational system.

    And the rest of us will go on reading and writing mysteries, and genre fiction, and I suppose, some mainstream. I suspect fiction has fads and trends, just like everything else.

    One final note: Remember that unlike in the 60s and 70s, there are many fewer at-home moms, who have time to read potboilers. So mainstream novels like Peyton Place or Valley of the Dolls don’t become bestsellers. The people who would read them are at work, and when they’re not, they’re too tired.


    1 Feb 09 at 4:11 pm

  6. I was thinking more about the way the student wrote of ‘loses his self-control problem’ when he meant (or should have meant!) something like ‘gained self-control’. But the pear tree works too!

    I’m not sure of the real extent of the problem. When I was in school, avid readers were somewhat usual too. And I’m not sure what proportion of the current generation are mad about Harry or Edward – lots, sure, but 20%? 50%? 75%? And of those, some will not transfer their skills to reading in the same way students can understand every nuance of sports statistics without ever applying that to math. I had a biology teacher once who said he always used horse racing and betting odds to illustrate basic genetics in his previous position, in an area in which most people followed that sport. It didn’t work withe me and my fellow-students, who if we followed sports, followed hockey. In spite of the success of the betting analogy, a lot of learning isn’t transferred readily from one setting to another, and I don’t know a solution for that.

    While I said that I am not working in teaching now, I have seen lots and lots of student-written reports, and believe me, when the students get a question that asks them to explain something, most of them are either horribly incoherant or write an obvious direct quotation from a text, usually taken out of context so that it, too, makes no sense. Either they aren’t transferring their skills from their recreational reading, or they aren’t among the throngs who await the next Harry Potter. Or, very likely, writing clearly and well requires more than transferance from reading, and they aren’t getting much direct instruction in expressing their ideas clearly.


    1 Feb 09 at 4:19 pm

  7. I don’t think being unable to read and write in the way we are discussing here makes one a memeber of the ‘Great Unwashed’, much less that they are merely ‘along for the ride’ and lack ‘initiative and inovation’. Some of them do, no doubt, but some of the bright and literate never contribute much to society either.

    There are other extremely valuable talents besides the kind of literacy we are describing here. Some people are completely fiction-blind, but brilliant at mathematics, science or technology – and related inventions. Others are brilliant at relating to and dealing with humans even if they can’t see the point of fiction. They can work as pyschologists, teachers (although, one hopes, not teachers of English literature!), parents, politicians, salesmen. Even the ones who lack sufficient other skills to become inventors or scientists or mathematicians or counsellors can make themselves essential to society in jobs requiring fewer such skills such as in some of the service industries.

    Nursing was mentioned before. Sure, it might help a nurse to get a broader understanding of human nature from reading, and she might enjoy it as recreation. But I bet there are plenty of nurses who dislike and don’t bother with reading (as we are defining it) who can and do nevertheless read well enough to learn the technical requirements of their work and have the people skills necessary to be good at dealing with all kinds of people under the worst and most stressful circumstances. The question is, should people who could become such excellent nurses be required to read at the level of even a baby literary scholar?


    2 Feb 09 at 6:23 am

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 215 access attempts in the last 7 days.