“Genrefication”? Did you just make that up?
Episode 4 of Words To That Effect (listen here) explores the world of popular and literary fiction. One of the ideas that comes up is that of “genrefication”, the concept that the traditional boundaries between “literary” and “genre” (or popular) fiction are breaking down. Literary works are becoming “genrefied”. Authors who would not be classified as, say, horror or science fiction writers are nonetheless publishing what are clearly horror and science fiction novels. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a beautifully-written novel with language as sparse as the ravaged world its two protagonists inhabit. But it is a post-apocalyptic novel drawing strongly on science fiction and horror in particular. Colson Whitehead is a Pulitzer Prize-winning literary novelist, but Zone One is a zombie novel, a topic generally considered off-limits for the literary writer.
Fans, authors, and critics
Does any of this really matter? Well, it tends to be a subject a lot of people have strong opinions on. Many fans of genre fiction resent the idea that some literary authors can seem as if they are “slumming” it, taking the parts of a genre they require with no awareness or appreciation of the tradition they are drawing on. Others take issue with the fact that certain authors will borrow from a tradition, write a novel in a particular genre, but refuse to classify it as such, on the grounds (it seems to fans of the genre) that to do so would be to somehow debase their fiction.
On the other hand, as many would argue, it can be a relief to read a well-crafted piece of literary fiction when the alternative is the inescapable popular culture industry. If it is impossible to turn on the TV or radio, go to the cinema, or use social media without a constant barrage of comic book superheroes, magic and fantasy epics, or repetitive horror tropes, where does that leave you? Oh look, it’s another vampire TV show, another YA dystopian novel clogging up the bookshelves, a superhero sequel in the cinema, and my Twitter feed is full, once again, of arguments about subplots on Game of Thrones. Now I can’t even pick up my favourite author’s latest release without it being some sort of ridiculous science fiction novel!?
There have been lots of arguments in both camps in recent years, but here’s a few to get you started. Joshua Rothman, writing in the New Yorker in 2014 argues for the idea of genrefication. He references two opposing articles, themselves well worth a read. Arthur Krystal’s piece on “Guilty Pleasures”, also in the New Yorker two years previously, and a prompt rebuttal from the author Lev Grossman, in Time Magazine. As Grossman says of critics who try to conveniently remove literary authors from the genre they have written in: “to say that such books ‘transcend’ the genres they’re in is bollocks, of the most bollocky kind”. Finally, a more recent piece by Gady Epstein in The Economist looks at why we still consume so many big-budget blockbusters in an era of such unprecedented choice. As he points out, “Of the thousands of films released worldwide in 2016 (including well over 700 in America alone), the top five performers at the box office were all made by Disney”.
What do you think? Are we witnessing the dying breaths of a refined, literary culture or is this a fascinating new era of literary genre fiction and genrefied literary fiction. Have you read any of the novels or articles mentioned above?
Leave a comment below or join the discussion on Facebook
Fan of the show?
Find out how you can support the show here or go straight to the Words To That Effect Patreon page by clicking the button below