A few days ago, I attended a social function during which one of my husband’s academic colleagues politely asked me what I was working on. “I’m 1800 words into a new novel,” I replied, quoting that day’s Facebook status. “I’m not sure what it will end up being, but it seems to have a lot of sex in it.” To be fair, I’ll tell you that I actually do have a pretty good idea of where it’s going, but what I said was writer-speak for I’m working on something, but I’m not comfortable giving out specifics at this early date. The colleague smiled and said, “I’ve often thought about writing something like that to make money so I could support my literary writing.” As though the colleague just hadn’t bothered to take the time to do such a thing.
Having endured many similarly condescending comments from academics about genre fiction–which is often assumed to be somehow unworthy because it might contain crime, considerable violence, supernatural elements, or graphic sex–I kept my mouth shut and soon excused myself. Discussion never goes very far in those situations because institutional prejudice is not easily defended by a sane individual.
But if I were to try to explore the comment from a literary perspective, I’d have to ask which definition of a literary novel disallows plenty of sex? Has this person ever picked up the very literary Jane Smiley’s terrific Hollywood jest, Ten Days in the Hills? When it comes to crime, what about the work of crime/urban fantasy writer Charlie Huston, whose prose chops are perfection itself? His terse, violent, yet realistic novels, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death and The Shotgun Rule, put him in a class with Cormac McCarthy? (Wait. McCarthy received only cult adoration before The Border Trilogy, and, afterward, commercial success. He’s never been an academic darling.) F. Scott Fitzgerald, anyone?
Even though the comment irritated me for any number of reasons, I didn’t take it all that personally. I’d be the last person to attempt to classify my novels as literary by any definition. But if “literary” actually means that I’d have to spend most of my time writing something I didn’t believe in in order to justify or indulge myself in writing things that people would have zero interest investing time or money in, please, God, save me from such a fate. I’d rather, say, spend my days writing fiction I didn’t believe in so I could support useful hobbies like restoring 14th century Flemish tapestries or filling out my children’s abandoned baby books.
There’s much I would like to say about this subject, but I’ll keep it brief because my frustrations with it are deep and probably won’t sound all that rational. In a moment, I’ll send you to an article that addresses the current state of the American novel with far more dignity and thoughtfulness than I can currently muster.
So, here’s my challenge for all those literary writers who disdain the way of the contemporary genre writer: Go ahead. Try it. See if you can write a page-turner that will keep the reader so riveted that, at three o’clock in the morning, he suddenly realizes that he’s had to get up and use the bathroom since two, but couldn’t tear himself away. Write one of these novels every year. And do it with a few carefully chosen adverbs, if you dare. Given your love of language, feel free to take on Laura Lippman and Jo Nesbo and John Hart or Michael Connelly, who are triple-threat prose/plot/suspense masters. Or, if their success isn’t big enough for you, throw caution to the wind and aim for the over-the-top-plot-and-hang-the-prose crowd led by the singular dynamo Jackie Collins. Toying with the supernatural? Surely you can spin out a Twilight rip-off in the span of a NaNoWriMo or over your winter holiday break and have a three-book deal by next April. And be very careful not to call it art, or even craft. Dare you.
Now, go on over to The Daily Beast and read Justin Peacock’s August 31 piece, The New Social Novel. “The novel is the only major storytelling form in our democratic culture where out-dated and counter-productive distinctions between high and low, between genre and literary, still exist,” he writes. His essay is more than dead-on. It’s definitive and damned academic.