Once upon a time in a far away land a creature called ‘Literature’ existed. It was a noble beast simply consisting of “written works”. Today Literature is an umbrella term for the vast amount of written word on paper that we see in our daily lives. Because its scope is so broad we must now subdivide all this literature into smaller categories. Amazon lists 37 categories in its book section, a trip to your local Blackwells lists even more (bloody educators), a lot of the time this boils down to a necessary need to differentiate: Medical sciences with mathematical and political sciences etc, but when it comes to fiction there are an equal amount of subdivision into category. This manifests as Genre.
Genre is French for ‘kind’, as in ‘type of’ and the publishing world has settled on a few stock types of genre that books are stuffed into: Children’s, Young Adult, Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Comic Books (or the pompously termed Graphic Novel), Romance, Erotic, Classics, Crime, Humour, Historical and many more besides. This is no doubt useful as if you are looking for a book you can say to your local bookseller “I’m looking for something scary to read” to which they will no doubt reply, “Our horror section is just over there”. As opposed to saying “I am looking for some literature please” to which the reply would probably be “You’re in a bookshop dumbass, you’ve arrived.” However, a problem here arises. Last year I was keen to read some spooky books to round off my 50 over christmas as that time of year seems more apt than Hallowe’en for ghost stories. I remembered I wanted to read a book I had seen but forgot the title and the author. So being the good book buyer I am I popped into my bookshop and asked the nice lady “what was that ghost story about the expedition to the arctic?” The woman asked a follow up question to which my reply was a delighted “Yes! that sounds about right.” “I know the one,” she said and walked away from the horror section. A little confused I followed her into the vast separate room for ‘FICTION’. Dubious, I followed her to a shelf where she pulled out Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter and I realised she was indeed absolutely correct. I thanked her for her help, then bought the book.
Why was a ghost story in the fiction section?
Ah yes. Its not a genre book, is it? Its LITERARY FICTION.
The all important GENRE (and make no mistake it is a genre) that somehow has taken over the entire industry and dismisses its fellow genre brethren.
My beef with LITEREREH FERCSHUN is explained anywhere on the internet that will allow me to type something in, but I will explain briefly here. LIBEREBY FIBSHUB is a fiction in itself. Its basically a way of thinking about writing and publishing not a way of writing itself. To my mind it amounts to a pompous predilection for over writing and is a very insular self congratulatory circle of publishers and writers whose output seems specifically designed to win ‘LURRTURRURRRY PRUZURRS’. Yes, I am bitter. I am aware of this. It doesn’t stop this bullshit being true. If its not a great author proclaiming “No-really-this-is-the-end-of-the-novel-no-for-real-this-time-not-like-every-single-other-bastard-time-because-I-am-a-well-cool-and-trendy-man-of-letters”, its some ass winning yet another prize for yet another novel about yet another middle class family doing middle class things or delving into a “dark” family past. Or just having fertility difficulties. In cinema those are called Social Realist. They suffer against blockbusters. Amusingly a similar things happens in publishing, The Hunger Games and Harry Potter outsells literary fiction considerably, and their film counter parts monstrously dwarf their social realist chums. Yet somehow in literature the insular, high-minded notion of LBBBEYEYRY FISHDIUSBDSUN controls the publishing industry. YA and “genre” fiction are good money spinners but not the serious stuff. They aren’t the real writing.
Paxman recently made a statement for the Forward Prize for which he is a judge. The Forward is a prestigious poetry prize that we all would like to win one day. Paxman said in so many words, poets write for poets now. This caused a furore and to Jezza’s credit brought some much needed publicity to the world of poetry so I thank him no end. His statement has been endlessly discredited by the Twitterati et al, particularly the notion of ‘an inquiry’ into a poet’s reason for writing a given poem. Largely I’m inclined to agree but also I don’t. It has a similar issue to prose in this way. Poets have admittedly never really written ‘For The People’ (except maybe the laureates) but I really don’t think they have written for other poets either, well not generally. Poetry and writing in general tends to be a case of the writer writing out an idea, getting something out of you onto paper. I confess the literary fiction and a significant amount of modern poetry I read today does not have this notion at the forefront of its mind, it seems to be more a display of skill that by and large only critics or other writers will understand anyway.
Give me the Hunger Games any day of the week.
My buddy David Hartley tweeted the other day an idea that has been mooted before (though that’s more to do with the notion of an editor really): What if Shakespeare had an agent? What if Shakespeare were published today? Bringing up Shakey these days is sort of similar to comparing people to Hitler in bitch fests in comment threads but it still stands because, without Bill, ‘Literature’ would be very different today. The English language would be very different today. Imagine Shakespeare handing in Midsummer Night’s Dream to his agent or publisher today: “Woah woah woah there, Billy. What’s this? You gave us a history last week, a romance before that and a comedy before that and now you’ve given us a fantasy? Play to your audience Bill, jesus! I don’t know how we’re going to market this. A guy becomes a donkey?! What the hell were you on when you wrote this? This’ll never fly with the adult market, you might get the fantasy dollar. Kids might like it but its never going to fly with the working professional. They’re the buyers Bill! Disposable income, something to read on the tube, discuss with friends, you know? You’re going nowhere unless you’ve got a series going. You were doing great with that Henry VI series, why did you stop that? …Yeah I know he died, but there’s plenty of spin off. And what about that teen romance last year? We could have had the teen market stitched up! Twilight’s finished, we had the teen romance market to ourselves and what did you do? KILLED THEM OFF AT THE END! I’m sorry Bill, we can’t keep publishing you, this is your last one with us. We cannot keep taking the hit on these… What? Who’s King John? Never heard of him. Can you do something with a country house maybe?…”
My point is, genre is sneered at but then completely ignored if the work itself attains a degree of status. A good example is Ian Banks. In every obituary the focus fell on his LFUHGSDFUYGSKUDY FPFHVDFUN not his science fiction ‘Culture’ series. They were mentioned either as a footnote or ignored entirely as part of his legacy, yet the man himself was as much in staunch defence of them as he was the rest of his books. I admit to having not read enough of Ian or Ian M but I can tell you Consider Phlebas was as good as the Wasp Factory and both are excellent. Another good example is George Orwell. As a fan of the Redwall series and Robin Jarvis’ Deptford Mice, especially as a near 30 year old poet, I am criticised, yet the talking animals of Animal Farm are perfectly acceptable and taught in schools. Sci Fi is the reserve of the nerd yet 1984 has informed our culture in every way possible, from TV to political thinking, to town planning, to computer games and advertising, Big Brother is always watching. We even use Eurasia to describe a part of the world now. Cloud Atlas had sci fi and high seas adventure in it. A chapter in ‘Interpretation of Murder’ would not look out of place in an Indiana Jones film. 39 Steps is a proto-James Bond. Hard Times by Dickens can easily be seen as a Sci Fi. Bram Stoker wrote horror. The great poet Shelley’s wife wrote a sci-fi horror. Milton wrote about a battle in heaven, seriously. With like artillery and shit. Dante pretty much has informed everyone’s depiction of hell, monsters and demons since he wrote Inferno extending to Buffy, to Hellraiser, to Stephen King. I could happily go on.
Critical theory on TS Eliot, specifically The Waste Land, says that he did not deferentiate between high and low art. He quoted and combined everything. This also reminds me of something I saw notorious musical genre splicing songwriter and musician Ray Charles say in an interview: “People talk about acid rock and funk jazz, I don’t hear that. I hear good music and bad music.” This ultimately boils down to taste obviously but I subscribe to this notion.
Publishers in particular have us writing for the audience, a market to which they can sell the book. As said earlier of course this is easier for the consumer as there is such a vast array of literature it makes our choices simpler to find what we want to read but the elitism with which the great are praised and all others ignored irks me no end. I am continually on the receiving end of rejection for not just my prose but my poetry. This could, in large part, be because I am not very good and I am willing to accept that but that is never what I am told. I am frequently told my poetry and prose are good, great even (I take it with a pinch of salt), but my novel/collection “isn’t quite right”, “not the right tone”, “too out there” and in one case “too clever for its own good”. That may sound arrogant but I’m not proud of it because these all come with firm a ‘No’. So either they are lying to unnecessarily spare my feelings or its true and the system is worryingly biased. My writing, I admit will not be for everyone but I don’t think the everyone I mean is the same as the everyone they mean. My writing isn’t for publishers or agents because its not difficult enough to be sent for prizes and not simple enough to patronise an audience of high consumption zombies demanding their soylent green. I realise like most things today, literature is a business and must make money for it to continue to produce its work but as EVERYONE surrounding the industry is continually and persistently telling us print is signing its will and looking wanly at its loved ones crowded around its death bed. If we’re so bloody concerned with the future of the printed word and fiction novels as a whole maybe its time to stop being so elitist about what should be sanctified with the Holy white page and hardback and what should be condemned as trash to the fleeting winds of time. Choice has never been more abundant yet sadly neither has been the snobbery or the prejudice.
Once upon a time there was literature. Literature then we call The Classics now. Literature could involve Gods, Monsters, Wars, Invisible Men, Giants, Battleships on the high seas, Sword Fights, Heart ache, love, despair, melancholy, windy moors, distant deserts, ships to the moon, balloons around the world, factories and schools choked with soot, monsters made of dead flesh, evil lords living in castles eating babies, fairys, angels, fire, brimstone, farting, bed swapping, neology, earth shattering visions, gut wrenching poetry, songs, Grecian urns, malevolent Ravens, drug abuse, rape, torture, childhood games, boating weekends, train journeys, being chased on foot by aeroplanes, Bull men and winged men, anything you could imagine simply fell under literature. Now? Seldom any of these meet and if they do, that’s just bad business.
Stick to the histories, Bill. They’ll get the prizes.