Literary vs. Genre

I’ve just read an article in National Review entitled “Genres Without Borders.”  It was written by Otto Penzler, the owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City.  It’s a thumbnail sketch of the history of genre fiction.

According to Mr. Penzler, fiction was just fiction until 1922.  A writer was judged on the merits of his work, regardless of the subject matter. With the publication of The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot, and Ulysses by James Joyce–neither of which is easily accessible to the average reader–critics sprang up to explain what it all meant, and the critical enterprise expanded to include Homer, Chaucer and Shakespeare, authors who heretofore had not required interpretation.

More and more was said about less and less.  As Mr. Penzler puts it, literary critics “filled magazines, books and academia with their collective wisdom, selecting the authors and titles deserving of their attention . . .”  That these books were “tedious and incomprehensible to most readers ideally suited those who mined their pages for the nuggets of genius they were eager to ferret out and explain to the proles.”  Books people actually read (such as detective stories) were ignored or ridiculed.  “Literary” vs. “genre” fiction was born.

Pulitzer Prizes went to books that no one remembers today, while the works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler–still in print and still popular–weren’t even nominated.  Mr. Penzler believes that’s changing, particularly with respect to such mystery writers as Ross MacDonald, Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker and, more recently, Dennis Lehane and P.D. James:  “The lines are blurring between the more ambitious authors in the mystery genre and those who have been defined as authors of literary fiction.”  A novel is judged “on its merits, not on a pre-evaluated definition.”

Mr. Penzler may be right as far as the criticism business goes, but what remains unsaid in the article is the bottom-line mentality prevalent in the publishing industry today.  There’s not much “literary” fiction out there.  As the owner of a successful bookstore, I’m sure he knows that “genre” sells.  I’m not sure Ulysses would find a publisher today.  Those guys “blurring the lines” need to watch their backs–the critics can’t applaud if the books aren’t published.

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