I’ve just published a piece in the September edition of Southern Writers Magazine called “Fiction: Art or Craft?” The first part is reproduced below. I’ll post the rest of it in a few days.
LET’S SAY you’ve decided to write a novel. You sit down at your computer (you’re young, and composing on a computer comes easily), and tap out a few lines of the story that came to you suddenly the night before. (Don’t actually use the word “suddenly” – it’s one of Elmore Leonard’s no-no’s. And try not to end your sentences with prepositions like “before.”) Your fingers move faster and faster, and before you know it you’ve exhausted the thought that inspired you. It’s a gem, but it’s only 87 words.
Still, it’s a great idea, worthy of settings and characters, and dialogue and exposition, and metaphors and allusions, and all the other elements of the novel. Were you a contemporary of Cervantes or Proust, or maybe even Henry James, you would probably just dip your quill or pen into a pot of ink and begin. Nowadays, however, there are decisions to be made first, the most serious of which is “genre” or “literature” – “craft” or “art.”
Some genre novels don’t really have “ideas.” Some do. And a writer who wants to be taken seriously, especially in the marketplace, must decide: Am I going to express my idea in a mystery (or a romance or a thriller), and bind myself to the requirements of the genre and the expectations of its adherents? Or am I going to let it take me where it will, and maybe produce something more?
Writing in The Guardian last year, Anita Mason described the most important distinction between “genre” and “literature:”
Now, if a book slots easily into its genre, it’s because it’s been designed that way by a writer who knows exactly what he or she is doing . . . A genre novel is governed by limitations, and the whole of the writer’s skill is directed towards creating the best possible novel within those limitations. A literary novel is governed by nothing . . . and the whole of the writer’s skill is directed towards creating the best possible novel. This involves, at some point, a surrender to the unknown. (Italics mine)
Ms. Mason cites other distinctions – the “high quality” of literature, its “intelligent structure” and “original thought” – that are less compelling. Good genre fiction can be high quality, well-structured, even original. It’s the writer’s plan, or lack of one, that makes a difference. The choice you make while mulling your idea will have a profound effect on the novel you write. (To be cont’d)