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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Default in our Stars?
What do US web addresses, UK stamps, and Literary Fiction have in common?

Answer - they're all unmarked. Uniquely, US web addresses contain no explicit indicator of nationality, and ditto for UK stamps. In both cases there's an easy historical explanation: these are the places where these inventions originated, so they didn't need to distinguish themselves from anyone else. As for LF, it appears to be the only genre of fiction that isn't referred to as a genre. Indeed, people who read and write other genres frequently refer to the other kinds as "genre fiction" specifically to distinguish them from LF. I heard a lot of this at Readercon, and to be honest I was a little taken aback.

The explanation in this case is much harder to come by. What makes LF different from SF, Crime, Romance, etc., in this regard? Here are a few possibilities.

a) As with UK stamps, LF came first. Except that it clearly didn't: the Epic of Gilgamesh would never have made the Booker shortlist. Even bringing things up to more modern times and looking at the roots of what is now called literary fiction around the turn of the 19th century - we can equally see the roots of SF, romance and horror.

b) It's purely a publishing and marketing designation. Certain houses take on certain kinds of fiction, and book buyers like to know which section of the shop to go to. Genre is a useful label for professionals and punters alike. Well sure, but that applies to LF no less than to any other genre. Except that when it's LF, the booksellers don't call it that - they just shelve it under 'Fiction'.

c) LF isn't a genre in the way that the rest are. This is an argument I've heard made, though it's hard to stop it from lurching into an insult that defines LF by characterizing other genres as mechanically formulaic. We hear this kind of assertion at its crudest near the borders, where people are trying to assert their LF credentials - in Atwood and her talking squid, or Pullman claiming that most fantasy is a "shoot 'em up game". Insults to other genres apart, to me it seems ridiculous to assert that LF isn't a genre, for if that were the case how could anyone know when they were reading it? But know they do - even if they are not conscious of the criteria they are deploying to arrive at that perception. The only way I can wrestle sense out of the argument (at the risk of bringing back the insults) is by imagining that what distinguishes LF from the rest is not similarity of form or content but simply quality - that it's a kind of fiction Super League of books that have nothing in common except being very well written. But that notion falls at the first fence, for much LF isn't well written at all - especially if we take good writing to include such fundamentals of fiction as pace, plot, character, etc., and not just the crafting of individual sentences. I have been bored to tears by many dull and formulaic books over the years, and LF has featured prominently in their number. Alternatively, one might suggest that LF is defined by being more experimental, treading new fictional territory - but again, the vast majority of it just isn't - and it would be difficult to sustain an argument that, say, SF has been less experimental.

Well, I'm no doubt preaching to the converted here, but that's precisely why I was taken aback to hear people at Readercon refer to themselves as genre writers - because to do so seemed tantamount to accepting LF as a uniquely - indeed oxymoronically - genreless genre. Not that there was any obvious sense of self-deprecation in their use of the word, but still. (For similar reasons, I've never felt entirely comfortable with the American phrase "person of colour", which to my ears suggests that (so-called) white people have no colour - i.e. are the default. But that's not my call!)

For what it's worth - and I realise this is incidental to your main point - US web addresses end in .us. The unmarked domains you are thinking of are in theory international -

Actually, maybe that's not so off-topic as all that.

Jeff Bezos must be kicking himself that he missed out on Amazon.com.us!

Except that US colleges have addresses just ending in .edu whereas ours end in ac.uk. And is .org really international? If so, why do we have org.uk and the same with .gov and .gov.uk? It may be changing now the Internet is so huge, but originally the US was the unmarked default.

When I tutored on the OU's Start Writing Fiction course, I could guarantee a lively debate on my tutor group forum by suggesting that lit fic was just another genre. :)

My personal view is that if a genre is a type of book, then lit fic has to be counted as a genre. But then I don't assume that a genre book is of lower quality than a literary one. There are good and bad examples of each.

I agree. Though as long as the terms in use are "literary" and "genre", then the value judgement is built right into the terminology.

LF = Fred, GF = Ginger. Does the same things as him, frequently better, except backwards, in high heels, with dragons, without middle-class shagging and angst being the default tedious preoccupation.

Lit-fic is genre fiction minus, not the reverse.

I'm gonna say it: it's usually, though not always, inferior to genre fic, in 'literary' terms as well as entertainment value.

backwards, in high heels, with dragons


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I really like your kinetic/non-kinetic distinction, and would love you to say more about it if you have time to post. I agree that it doesn't map on to the genre/LF distinction, but I also agree it may be connected at one or two removes.

I've always assumed "of colour" to be deliberate in its lack of precision, as a way of encompassing everyone who's not "white" - though having said that I'm not sure how frequently it's applied to people of, for example, Asian or Native American heritage.

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I'm not sure how helpful it is to have a term which means "all non-white people".

It's the kind of term that's going to be most "useful" in a racist society, of course.

Some of Shakespeare's tragedies - Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear - totally wring me out in performance. More than Richard II does; I don't find him so gripping. This seems to me to be what I think you're calling kinetic, but maybe I'm misunderstanding?

I've seen people claim to be writing "literary" novels, which is usually shorthand for "my writing is better than yours." (Most of these, I find, aren't.)

But I thought the publishers' claim to literary novels was to put : A Novel after the title. (In case you weren't certain that this bound bunch of pages in your hand that you pulled off the shelf in the section labeled FICTION might not be a fish.)

I do think there's often something rather defensive about the L word... I'm just surprised to see other writers tacitly encourage it by adopting the G word for their own work.

I think the L word has become so defensive that there might be a kind of reverse snobbery at play? The whole readercon dynamic is kind of puzzling. I've only been twice, very much an outsider trying to see in, so I can't quite quantify it.

You may be right - a kind of "We're professionals getting the books finished on time and not bleating about our capricious muse" deal. On the other hand, I hope we don't get to a point where only genre authors are allowed to call each other that...

Edited at 2013-08-16 03:33 pm (UTC)

1) They call themselves "genre fiction writers" because a) it's a convenient shorthand for "not literary-fiction writers: we do not accept the assumed inherent superiority of literary fiction", b) for the same reason that racial and ethnic minorities may, and do, use with impunity terms that would be the rankest insults from outsiders.

2) "LF isn't a genre in the way that the rest are. This is an argument I've heard made, though it's hard to stop it from lurching into an insult that defines LF by characterizing other genres as mechanically formulaic."

Surely, at least at Readercon, we're past that, since we have Brian Attebery's pellucid distinction among mode, genre, and formula?

Do you think genre writers wouldn't accept the term from outsiders? I was half-joking my comment to sartorias above, which crossed with yours - but maybe I shouldn't have been? Quite possibly I don't hang around with professional fiction writers enough to pick up on these things.

I really like Attebery's distinction - though it's pellucidity at the level of theory doesn't mean it's always easy to place any particular text (hence his use of fuzzy sets). But the people making this argument aren't the ones at Readercon!

"Genre fiction" as a term isn't toxic the way that ethnic epithets are toxic. What I mean is that if a lit-fic author says in a haughty tone, "You write genre fiction; I write real fiction," that's going to be read as an insult, whereas if the genre-fiction writer says, "I write genre fiction, not that boring literary fiction," then the term isn't an insult. In that case it's more trying to treat the term "literary fiction" as the insult.

Living in Singapore, with a large population of people who are bilingual in English and Mandarin despite the fact that, in general, their ancestors spoke not Mandarin but Hokkien or other dialects of Chinese, means that a certain relevant phenomenon comes up very often - sometimes, I will ask what a certain "Chinese" word means, and the people I'm speaking to will protest, "That's not Chinese, that's dialect!" "Chinese" as defined as Mandarin, and all the other variants of Chinese (which obviously, given an army and a navy, would in many cases be considered languages of their own with only as much relationship to Mandarin as Spanish has to Italian) are just dialects. This phenomenon is slightly harder to notice in the US, but it's certainly still there - why is it that the type of English I speak is just considered to be "normal" American English, whereas, say, AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) is a special dialect which has to be studied and analyzed (or, to give a non-racist example, Southerners have a southern accent, and people who are from Long Island but from a lower-class background than I have a New York accent)?

The answer, obviously, is not about who was there first (just as with literary fiction and the other genres, all of these genres developed over the same time period, and sometimes the ones that get called dialect/genre fiction have more in common with the ancestry than the standard language/literary fiction). The answer is very clearly about prestige - what goes unmarked is the language that the elite, the people in power, speak. This seems to me to be a clear analogy with literary fiction. Of course, the interesting thing here is that I seriously doubt that most of the people in power (to the degree that they're reading fiction at all) are mostly reading literary fiction - albeit, I do remember what a big deal was made of the fact that Obama was reading Franzen's Freedom (a book which I actually read; my response to it was that it was exactly why I don't like reading most contemporary literary fiction). But literary fiction is still what children are supposed to study in school, it's what the layman, at least, would expect that English majors focus on (look at the scorn sometimes directed in the press at people who publish papers on popular TV shows or whatever), and it actually still has a level of cachet and association with ideas of prestige in our society that genre fiction does not.

As for the historical vagaries of why this particular genre was the one that was adopted as a signal of the elite, that I don't know enough to say (I suspect offhandedly that one might blame the Modernists, but I can't say if this is really true). But the fact that it was this particular genre that got adopted in that way and thus got to be a signal of eliteness surely does have some element of coincidence to it - even in the early 19th century surely realistic novels were considered dangerous trash! But this again makes it a good analogy for language - Mandarin is the standard not because of any inherent quality that makes it more elite than the other dialect but because it just happened to be the language spoken in Beijing.

The comparison with language is a great one! Of course, we have a similar phenomenon in this country with Received Pronunciation - though none of the UK dialects of English are called anything other than English (albeit "poor" or "ungrammatical" English), except on occasion for Scots, but that's as much a political as a linguistic distinction.

I suppose "those in power" may not always mean "those in political power". Even most royalists wouldn't claim that the queen's reading tastes are by definition elite - indeed, Alan Bennett wrote a novella based around the assumption that she is an unsophisticated reader. I would guess that Obama's reading Franzen did his ratings at least as much good as the author's - and I would lay a small bet that David Cameron has his holiday reading chosen by a focus group. But there are other elites, and I think it's true to say that the Modernists and their literary heirs stormed the ivory towers early, along with the editorships of places like the TLS and NYRB and the reviews pages of the Sunday papers, and that their heirs are still very well entrenched and have done a good job at confusing their particular tastes with Taste.

My own view...

... is that LF, so called, is simply the Utility Group of the literary kennel club. Meaning that if these disparate dogs have no obvious utility, you put 'em there. (To paraphrase Fluellen, both are where you shove the poodles.)

It's actually quite a useful analogy. Heyer? Gundog. Ford? Working Group. Rankin? Hound. Barbara Pym? Pastoral. Milne? Toy. Tom Sharpe? Terrier. And so on.

Edited at 2013-08-17 10:22 am (UTC)

Or, to move from Fluellen to another Celt...

... in the catalogue ye go for men,
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves are clept
All by the name of dogs. The valued file
Distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle,
The housekeeper, the hunter, every one
According to the gift which bounteous nature
Hath in him closed, whereby he does receive
Particular addition, from the bill
That writes them all alike.

'Do NOT mention the Scottish Play'....

Otherwise, 'Whaur's yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?'