Le Guin’s Hypothesis

Ursula K. Le Guin -- Photo by Marian Wood Kolisch

by Ursula K. Le Guin

I keep telling myself that I’m done writing about Literature vs Genre, that that vampire is buried at the crossroads with a stake in its heart and garlic in its coffin. And then it pops up again, undead. Its latest revival is a cheery one in an entertaining article, “Easy Writers,” in the May 28 New Yorker by Arthur Krystal, who discusses the literature/genre divide and while seeming to make light of it does a pretty thorough job of perpetuating it.

He uses Chesterton’s phrase, “good bad books,” for genre novels, and calls reading them a “guilty pleasure” — a phrase that succeeds in being simultaneously self-deprecating, self-congratulatory, and collusive. When I speak of my guilty pleasure, I confess that I know I sin, but I know you sin too, nudge nudge, aren’t we sinners cute?

Mr Krystal gives a good brief discussion of 18th-century disapproval of all novel-reading as guilty pleasure, and is amusingly acute about the dire modernist invention of the “serious” or literary novel, which tossed out all other novels as genre — trivial.

But his only quoted example of the literary novel is Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. Now, I love that interminable four-decker and think it one of the great novels about war. But it was never well known in America, and I wonder how many people have even heard of it by now. If it exemplifies the literary novel, the literary novel is: obscure, unpopular, syntactically complex, ninety years old, and British.

So, then. Is literature the serious stuff you have to read in college, and after that you read for pleasure, which is guilty?

Mr Krystal doesn’t say this directly. But he says nothing about the non-guilty pleasure that both literary and genre novels can afford. And what he says about genre fiction all fits into the familiar modernist mishmash of Puritanism and reverse snobbery.

I don’t want to join the group still huddled together in a corner of a twentieth-century lunchroom smirking over a copy of Amazing Wonder Tales because it’s “bad,” and flipping off the stuffy teacher who wants us to read A Tale of Two Cities because it’s “good.” I don’t want to be there any more.

o0o

 “Skilled genre writers,” Mr Krystal says, “know that a certain level of artificiality must prevail, lest the reasons we turn to their books evaporate. It’s plot we want and plenty of it.”

Who “we,” white man?

Plot is not the reason I turn to novels and is often the least interesting element to me in them. Story is what matters. Plot complicated and extends story; plot is indeed pure artifice. But Mr Krystal seems to say that only genre writers are aware that a certain level of artificiality must prevail in fiction. Does he mean that literary writers don’t use artifice? That they don’t know, just as as surely as genre writers, the absolute, imperative, marvelous artificiality of their art? That Virginia Woolf, so often demonstrably plotless, was artless?

And I question the idea that we “turn to” genre fiction as addicts turn to their needle or their bottle. Genre as Fixfic.

Anybody who reads a lot is, if you like, an addict. The people who put their initials on the fly-leaf of a library copy of a mystery so that they won’t keep checking the same book out over and over are story addicts. So is the ten-year-old with his nose in The Hobbit, oblivious to dinnertime or cataclysm. So is the old woman rereading War and Peace for the eighth time. So is the scholar who studies the Odyssey for forty years. The very quality of story is to hold, to fascinate. Ask the Wedding Guest to stop listening once the Ancient Mariner gets going. He can’t. He’s hooked. Sometimes you get hooked on mere plot, sometimes on mere familiarity and predictability, sometimes you get hooked on great stuff.

o0o

The trouble with the Litfic vs Genre idea is that what looks like a reasonable distinction of varieties of fiction always hides a value judgment: Lit superior, Genre inferior. Sticking in a middle category of Good Bad Books is no help. You might just as well make another one, Bad Good Books, which everybody could fill at their whim — mine would contain a whole lot of Booker Prize winners and, yes, definitely, The Death of Virgil — but it’s just a parlor game.

Some things have to happen before there can be more intelligent discussion of what literature is. And some of them are in fact happening, at last. It’s good to see that Mr Krystal can laugh at Edmund Wilson, if only at a safe distance. English departments have largely given up trying to defend their ivied or ivory towers by shooting down every space ship that approaches. Critics are ever more clearly aware that a lot of literature is happening outside the sacred groves of modernist realism. But still the opposition of literature and genre is maintained; and as long as it is, false categorical value judgment will cling to it, with the false dichotomy of virtuous pleasure and guilty pleasure.

To get out of this boring bind, I propose an hypothesis:

Literature is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.

The value judgment concealed in distinguishing one novel as literature and another as genre vanishes with the distinction.

Every readable novel can give true pleasure. Every novel read by choice is read because it gives true pleasure.

Literature consists of many genres, including mystery, science fiction, fantasy, naturalism, realism, magical realism, graphic, erotic, experimental, psychological, social, political, historical, bildungsroman, romance, western, army life, young adult, thriller, etc., etc…. and the proliferating cross-species and subgenres such as erotic Regency, noir police procedural, or historical thriller with zombies.

Some of these categories are descriptive, some are maintained largely as marketing devices. Some are old, some new, some ephemeral.

Genres exist, forms and types and kinds of fiction exist and need to be understood: but no genre is inherently, categorically superior or inferior.

This makes the Puritan snobbery of “higher” and “lower” pleasures irrelevant, and very hard to defend.

Of course every reader will prefer certain genres and be bored or repelled by others. But anybody who claims that one genre is categorically superior to all others must be ready and able to defend their prejudice. And that involves knowing what the “inferior” genres actually consist of, their nature and their forms of excellence. It involves reading them.

o0o

If we thought of all fictional genres as literature, we’d be done with the time-wasting, ill-natured diatribes and sneers against popular novelists who don’t write by the rules of realism, the banning of imaginative writing from MFA writing courses, the failure of so many English teachers to teach what people actually read, and the endless, silly apologising for actually reading it.

If critics and teachers gave up insisting that one kind of literature is the only one worth reading, it would free up a lot of time for them to think about the different things novels do and how they do it, and above all, to consider why certain individual books in every genre are, have been for centuries, and will continue to be more worth reading than most of the others.

Because there is the real mystery. Why is one book entertaining, another disappointing, another a revelation and a lasting joy? What is quality? What makes a good book good and a bad book bad?

Not its subject. Not its genre. What, then? That’s what good book-talk has always been about.

o0o

We won’t be allowed to knock down the Litfic/Fixfic walls, though, as long as the publishers and booksellers think their business depends on them — capitalizing on the guilty pleasure principle.

But then, how long will the publishers and booksellers last against the massive aggression of the enormous corporations that are now taking over every form of publication in absolute indifference to its content and quality so long as they can sell it as a commodity?

–UKL

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About Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe.
Her most recent BVC ebook is MY LIFE SO FAR, BY PARD, translated from the Feline by UKL. Library of America is publishing Hainish Novels and Stories and a number of her other books.

This entry was posted in Book View Cafe, Genres and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

82 Responses to Le Guin’s Hypothesis

  1. Annie Talbot says:

    Thank you for this. It’s re-formed an argument I’ve been having for decades, that much of the genre fiction I read is every bit as good as “literature”. Your hypothesis goes further, though: that they are all pieces of the same pie is something I’ve never considered.

    As a lover of genre fiction – romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy – I’ve been ridiculed for what I read and write. And, to a certain extent, I’ve participated in that. I’m cringing, now, as I recall my faintly apologetic tone when I tell people what I write.

    No more, though. Because I agree with you. And I’m going to stop perpetuating this belief that literary fiction is somehow more.

    Again, thank you!

    Annie

  2. Sherenne says:

    Thank you for your thoughts on this. As someone who has felt both sides of the story in their addicted heart, this argument gives me the freedom to hold my head up high when reading anything. I shall also apply it to the argument that fantasy art is somehow less than “high” art. )Something that seems to have arisen about the same time as genre novels I believe-I am prepared to be very wrong on this though.)

  3. Mara says:

    I love you.

    Thank you for articulating so passionately and deftly what I have felt since I was a little girl devouring every SF and Fantasy story I could get my hands on. If literature isn’t the transformative power (on me, as a teenager) of the ideas and characters who populate The Left Hand of Darkness, I don’t know what is.

    We must first be very, very sure of the question we ask. It is the one that will be answered.

  4. Pat Mathews says:

    PLEASE don’t suggest that English teachers teach the novels people actually read! I can think of no better way of ruining the pleasure in the book for the students than to have to deal with those tiresome “Questions for discussion” and the intense analysis that deconstructs everything.

    • Mary says:

      It is a mark of Shakespeare’s amazing genius that his works are still palatable to me after reading them in English class without months — or years — to wash the English class taste out of my mouth. There are many books I liked reading before and, once the taste was out, after, but never during and right after English class readings.

    • Shannon says:

      Speak for yourself. I find deconstructing everything intensely pleasurable. But then, I’m an English teacher.

    • Yeah, this is an odd comment on a LeGuin article explicitly discussing and deconstructing literary criticism. Like her generally fabulous books, it’s also interesting and engaging – but it’s something different to the text of, ‘The Left Hand of Darkness,’ or whatever. You can enjoy a book, and you can enjoy discussing it – they’re don’t have to be mutually exclusive activities. Bad teaching can make so – but then again, so can a hostile attitude.

    • SophieK says:

      It’s a shame that so many people feel this way. Of the works I was assigned in high school and college, I liked or disliked them based on my own feelings; I never disliked works because they were assigned and taught. I’ve always felt grateful to be pushed out of my comfort zone, even if I didn’t end up liking the assigned reading; in the cases where I did like it, I was happy to have the opportunity to discuss and learn more about it. Teaching does not kill literature. The reader’s attitude, though, can.

  5. Foxessa says:

    Have never gotten that guilty pleasure thing. I like what I like, which is a huge range of books and other activities and occupations, I don’t like what I don’t like, which is a huge range of books and other activities and occupations. I know why I like and I know why I don’t. Guilt is nowhere to be found one way or another.

    I grew up with the Empress of Instilling Guilt in Order to Manipulate Others Into What She Wanted. I know what guilt is, in other words.

  6. I’m sorry you, Pat and Mary, got a bad break in English lit! Most of us remember hating a book or author — because of a teacher’s incompetence, or we were just too young to “get” the book, or it really was a lousy book. But let’s not throw the good book after the bad teacher. I’m so grateful to teachers I had right through school into grad school who loved their work, loved the books they taught, and showed me how asking the right questions and intelligent analysis of a book can open up whole levels of enjoyment and understanding. Reading isn’t a simple natural thing any more than playing the violin, is it? It’s both a gift and a skill, and it thrives best under good teaching. I only wish we valued the people who teach it, so they too could thrive. . . .

    • Mark Nelson says:

      Thank you, Ursula! As both a novelist and a teacher, I have found some of the most successful books I have taught over the years have been the so called “genre” novels. I even had to create a new class in order to have the chance to dig around in A Wizard of Earthsea and Ender’s Game. Having my own “guilty pleasure genre novel” published this year (The Poet of Pevana, Hadley Rille Books, June 11) actually made the teaching experience that much more intense. The kids got interested in the process of creation and publication, which had a corresponding impact on how we went through our “deconstructionist” units. I cringe when I hear criticisms like that. I am one who believes in breaking things down minutely in order to make closer connections to student experiences. It has worked for me. Having something in print has made what I do in the class room more interesting and productive. When kids ask me about Poets, I tell them first that its a story. I’ll let them put their own tags on it after they have read it…:)

  7. Jennifer Stevenson says:

    Thinking of the ramifications of the term “guilty pleasure” I’m reminded of a play about marital misbehavior, in which G.B. Shaw has a character say, “Pardon me. I may be doing wrong; but I’m doing it in a proper and customary manner. You may be doing right; but youre doing it in an unusual and questionable manner. I am not prepared to put up with that.”

    Perhaps adherents to the hierarchy of culture would feel better if appreciators of low culture always felt properly guilty for it.

    • Stephan says:

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head Jennifer. The ivory tower exists not to house its residents, but to separate them from the unrefined ‘other’, who had better tug their forelock on passing.

      • Carol-Anne Croker says:

        Thanks Ursula, and I agree wholeheartedly with Stephan and his description of the ivory tower. Today many humanities courses premised upon semiotics and deconstruction ‘infect’ far too many supposed ‘creative writing’ programs where to be a reader is not enough, one has to be a critic of a particular kind [read class here]. It is against the whole notion of Universities as places of widening horizons whilst still allowing the development of workplace-valued transferable skills. Long live McLuhan’s the medium is the message and popular literature gets the message out to far more people than the great tomes which win Bookers and Pullitzers. Think of the debates around stem cell research and cloning, US gun-culture and other topical issues that seed the core of Jodi Picoult’s novels as just one example.
        Haven’t the female P.I.s of feminist crime fiction done more to empower young womens career options than all the careers counselling sessions at secondary college?
        Simplification of any discussion to ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ either articulated or implied is intellectually scandalous.

  8. Completely agree. I think all literature is in dialogue with itself down the stream of time. Aristotle certainly didn’t make distinctions between Litfic and Genre when he pointed out that the historian tells us what happened, but the poet tells us what can happen. I think literature is how we practice civilization before we implement it, and that includes every story, from the ones little kids tell each other in the play yard to the reams of fanfic that teens generate to the most highbrow tomes read by literati and no one else.

  9. Bryn says:

    I had a classical boarding school education and I can say unequivocally that Shakespeare, Bronte et al were such a bore (made even more so by the menopausal miscreant that taught it to me; unable to contemplate even the slightest criticism of said works) that it put me off playwrights and novel writers altogether until I learnt the pleasures of GBS, Wilde, RAW and others.

    Firstly, I commend your essay. It surmises the elitism within literature to a tee.

    Secondly, I must confess to being oblivious to your works. I only stumbled across you because I was Wiki’ing PKD and again; I must admit that I have not read his works either as I only know him through celluloid adaptations.

    The reason for my ignorance is this; I have several ideas rattling around in my head for stories and a few years ago I curtailed my reading studies to try and prevent my inner voice becoming even more congested with the heart of others. My reason for posting, other than to admire your written piece, is to ask you this:

    Should I continue my abstinence from the classics (when I use this word; it transcends all genre’s) until such time that I can pull my finger out of my derriere and pen something of my own, or, should I absorb all that I can so that I do not repeat the work of others; less it be in citation and not just some ignorant pastiche by coincidence? ( I already feel a firm grip has been placed on me by Kerouac, RAW and Hunter S Thompson – such is my subversive nature).

    I seek guidance sincerely; I am not a lettered man and I work predominantly in IT (autistic geek to the core). One day I hope to break out of this caste.

  10. Thanks so much for this.

    At about age 10 when I was let loose in the “adult” section of the enormous Pittsburgh, Pa Carnegie library, I had no guidelines, nothing to make me feel guilty about what books I chose to read. My only guide was whether or not I liked the title and the bit of the first chapter I read. I discovered in time that what I liked to read the most (and reread the most) was called genre fiction (historicals, mysteries, science fiction-fantasy), although I reveled in my discovery in college of the ground-breaking work of feminist writers like Left Hand of Darkness and Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest novels.

    Then I discarded my dream of writing the kind of books I liked for the “serious” profession of history, and yet I assertively continued to read the “light” fiction (why is it light-when the historical and science fiction/fantasy genres are dominated by extremely large tomes) for my enjoyment, despite the fact that some of my colleagues-particularly male colleagues, tended to see this as on the par with watching afternoon soap operas. (Which I of course also watched as a child with my mother, and then again when I had a small child and I knew that putting my head in a book would result in a level of neglect of all things domestic that might lead to child endangerment.)

    What I have discovered, taking up that dream of writing genre fiction in my retirement years is the way that the ebook revolution and self-publishing has changed the landscape so quickly. I believe it isn’t the big publishing houses, or the corporations that own them, that are going to effectively break down the distinctions between “literature” and “genre” works, but the reader, who browsing through the shelves on places like Amazon or the Book Cafe will buy what they like, not what they are told they should like, just as I did as a child let loose in that library.

    Mary Louisa
    Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits

  11. Rick York says:

    I may be wrong about this but, it seems to me that the Brits are less hard-nosed about genre/lit distinctions.

    I am a “genre” lover.

    I can remember quite well the first time a mystery novel appeared on the front page of the NYTimes Book Review. The book was one of Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer series. If I remember correctly, the reviewer was John Leonard, who was the newly appointed editor of The Book Review. Leonard tried hard to to “tear down those walls”. By virtue of his position, he broke them down more than any of his predecessors. He reviewed books by Elmore Leonard, Stanislaw Lem and others.

    But, the idiocy continues. I think critics are intent on establishing these ludicrous distinctions to enhance their own standing. They constantly remind me of the unlamented Henry Kissinger’s famous explanation of why academic politics are so vicious: “There’s so little at stake.”

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  13. Novels can ‘speak’ to us for so many reasons and in so many different tongues. And, because as readers, we bring our whole lives to the table when we open a book, it seems not only unforgivably patronizing, but also a denial of the very personal experience that we have as readers to proclaim some work ‘important’ and some work ‘fluff’.

    Depth is where you find it. Period. The rest is just hype.

  14. Liz S. says:

    As a reader, I love the idea of simply saying that literature is literature and decoupling the idea of the good and the bad from genre. I think that as long as human being have access to other human beings, be it in person or over the Internet, the idea that this book is good and that book is bad will persist…and there will remain certain rules for what makes a book good. Story, character, plot and style, to name the four that come to mind immediately. Is that a better distinction and is there a way to both continue having the discussion of why we personally enjoy certain books without falling into the realm of objectivity (or really snide observation that end with a sweet “but that’s just my opinion”)?

    And there’s a difference between treating the canon of dead white men (or women writing as men) as, well, canonical and arguing for a shared cultural literacy. Teaching Dickens in an undergraduate classroom is not done to annoy students or because there is a voice from on high that says he must be taught, but because the professor/adjunct/grad student truly enjoyed reading that book and wants to teach it and to give it to others (I think my idealism and my “I’m a grad student studying English Lit” is showing). And I don’t think limiting my future syllabi to strictly canonical works is a good idea, but I would also argue that having some similarities across classes, having representative works that everyone reads is worthwhile for us as a very large community.

    But, in the end, isn’t that just another, subtler method of judging good and bad?

  15. I was required to come up with a slot for my novel when I was pitching it to agents. It rattled into the “literary fiction” section when it failed to be comfortable anywhere else. I had not heard of the term. Wasn’t all fiction literary? It was explained to me that litfic was the serious stuff. That didn’t sound right, either.

    A good book is one that plucks you out of time.

  16. What a pleasure this was to read itself.

  17. Anna Cowan says:

    I love this topic – it’s so controversial and hits where we love, but is also kinda fun. I think the answer is to level all books as well, but I see it the other way round: when we acknowledge that literary fiction is a genre just like fantasy or romance with its own traditions, tropes, markers, it becomes not better, just different.

    Did you see Lev Grossman’s reply to Krystal’s article? I found it absolutely fascinating: http://entertainment.time.com/2012/05/23/genre-fiction-is-disruptive-technology/

  18. Absolutely.

    Hey, I love some genre conventions (and it’s pretty cool that LeGuin has perhaps even created some – like Orson Scott Card borrowing her ansible), but these days I care way more about who the author is than whether there’s a spaceship or a penguin on the cover. I’d happily read Hammett whether he’s writing a Western or a Detective novel; or Iain Banks whether or not he puts the ‘M’ intitial in. And while SF and Fantasy books take up a fair chunk of my personal library, I’m not going near another Ben Bova or Terry Goodkind. Genre is just one of the tools authors use, like plot, dialogue, character, setting, mood … and some are better at it than others.

    The ‘guilty pleasure’ nonsense can unduly privilege ‘literary’ books, sometimes because underneath their verbosity or hardcover they’re actually not that good, at other times because it makes people afraid to respond honestly. The movie ‘Dead Poets Society’ had the theme, “If you don’t understand what they’re saying, it must be good,” and played on the social fear that you’d better clap loudly when a great name is dropped or people might think you’re stupid or insensitive. I base this largely on the dichotomy found in viewers: only people who never actually read dead poets liked the film.

    But I think this phenomena can be reversed. Since some excellent writers have at times been absurdly dismissed because they happened to be working in ‘genre’, there’s the danger that dodgy genre writers can claim persecution when they’re actually receiving perceptive criticism. At the uni level surely the battle is largely won: SF has been in the syllabus for close to half a century now; Chandler has been rightly and widely acknowledged as a master for at least as long. Yet, for example, my sister is currently doing a Ph.D. on a Fantasy novel, defending its seriousness and relevance, yet the social criticism it contains is shallow, flawed and twee. I suspect the only thing granting its academic status is the genre label, and rather than rate the book on its merits, an undertone of the thesis is defensiveness of anything in this genre. If, as LeGuin persuasively argues, we could dismiss the preoccupation with genre, books like this couldn’t hide behind the label.

    I wonder whether the article LeGuin was reacting to was a bit academically anachronistic. I suggest it relates more to the pleasure of being in an exclusive group – that ‘collusive’ element LeGuin points out early in her article. Since nerd culture, for example, has become mainstream, many nerds yearn for the good old days, when they could relish being in a (not too) persecuted and misunderstood minority, and could actually get a ticket to comicon with a handful of other diehards. Take away our genre and in gaining the status of ‘literary’, we lose the status of the maverick group. Moreover it’s no longer enough to merely throw in a wizard or a warp drive – which ultimately, I reckon, is a good thing. Writers like LeGuin need fear nothing by being compared to non-genre writers. Others have more reason to be fearful.

    • “The ‘guilty pleasure’ nonsense can unduly privilege ‘literary’ books, sometimes because underneath their verbosity or hardcover they’re actually not that good, at other times because it makes people afraid to respond honestly.”

      And quite honestly, if I have to read another self-consciously worded novel about another angst-ridden, bored middle-aged man who resents his job, his life and his wife, I’m going to puke. I have come to believe that a lot of literary fiction is, in its way, as formulaic and predictable as the worst Harlequin Romance novel. All that makes it literary seems to be its long-winded descriptions of banality and its pointedly unhappy non-ending, which seem to have become a genre conventions in their own right.

      Apparently escapism is not literary. But when you realize that the only escape you’ll effect from many badly-written literary fiction novels is to close the book, it’s not all that surprising that most people find themselves ‘untransported’ by them.

  19. Lenore says:

    Indeed. My stepmother, who like most Englishwomen in the 1960’s did not go to university, read extremely worthy, “serious” fiction as a way of “improving” her already terrific mind. She could never understand why my father, with his double first degree from Cambridge, read nothing but thrillers and mystery fiction. She read to turn her mind on and rev it up. He read to decompress and unwind. Both were avid and satisfied readers…..

  20. wendy james says:

    Looks like Parade’s End might be ‘rehabilitated’ shortly – there’s an HBO/BBC adaptation being released this year:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parade%27s_End_%28TV_series%29

    Thanks so much for this. You’ve articulated so clearly something I’ve experienced as both a reader who reads every sort of writing, and as a writer who confuses booksellers and publishers alike in terms of how to ‘position’ the books.

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  22. Lynn says:

    Funny, I’ve never thought of the ‘genre’ books I read as guilty pleasures nor had any inclination to hide in a corner in order to read them. I have met folks who’ve looked down their noses at me when they’ve seen what I was reading but since I usually had a better volcabulary (funny what you can pick up just by reading a book) than they did it didn’t work to well for them.

  23. Paul Connelly says:

    You have to wonder how much longer the “ivory tower” and “literary establishment” will be with us, given that they are grounded in a higher education system that’s changing rapidly (some might say “in a panic”).
    The fearsome Soviet Union didn’t get to the century mark, psychoanalysis went from undeniable truth for all self-respecting members of the intelligentsia to total evaporation in even less time, the free market capitalist End of History is accelerating toward the historical dustbin right now, postmodernism has all but overdosed on academic pretension, and we all know how long the Thousand Year Reich lasted. So there is no reason to believe that self-consciously highbrow literary fiction will be ascendant for a whole lot longer. Especially when it excludes so much fiction of the highest quality out of prejudice and small-mindedness.
    But the need for compelling and artfully told stories will remain, whatever genre they seem to fit into–which is largely a matter of marketing today. Trying to construct an “ungenre” by excluding the fantastic has always been the literary equivalent of painting yourself into a corner–about as likely to lead to something viable as trying to purge all traces of “bourgeois” or “middle class” perspective in order to create a wholly “transgressive” literature. Good literature is better than what these people imagine.

    • Paul, that’s exactly what I was thinking! Many institutions are doomed – and quicker than they think. This whole ‘literary establishment’ thing is about over. The publishers cannot compete with print-on-demand publishing and the academics cannot handle Philip K. Dick who, after battling the literary establishment all his life, in the end simply swept their categories aside.

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  25. Great article Ursula, thanks for putting it so well, especially the parts about wasting time arguing about what is literature and concentrating more on what we get out of books as readers.

    I think what’s really going on with this debate is that some people like one form of writing, while not liking another. That doesn’t matter, that’s normal: we don’t all share the same tastes. The problem comes when someone says “I like this, but don’t like that. But you like that, and don’t like this, therefore you are wrong.”

    Which is something we see elsewhere in life and is, to me, one of the main causes of problems between human beings. I don’t know why people, at times, feel the need to put themselves in a position of authority and/or tell other people that they are inferior just because each of us thinks and sees things differently, but it happens a lot (you only have to look at politicians to know this). I do it myself sometimes but as I have no power or influence etc, nobody notices, thankfully. I think we have to examine our subconscious motivations and try to see what’s going on in our heads and eliminate or at least curtail this sort of bad habit. (And I’m rubbish at practising this, normally my big mouth is open before the brain’s been engaged.)

    Personally, I love every sort of writing but the main points for me are quality, consistency, internal logic, the writing, the imagination, the audacity of the writer to follow their own path no matter what they are writing about. (It’s great to have this all in one book, but 3 out of 6 ain’t bad.) My favourite three authors are Borges, Cormac McCarthy and Laurie Lee, but I also love dime novels, comics, biographies and graphic novels – in short almost anything: genres or naming conventions do not interest me.

    I’m looking for entertainment and the ability to escape from this world and into new ones, in other words, armchair travelling for the imagination.
    Cheers.

  26. Wonderful argument. I’ve often wondered at the awe over anything unidentifiable. As if eluding our understanding somehow makes it more. I enjoy genre and literature. I’ve been amazed over the years as each genre takes its turn at being disregarded as quality, mysteries, romances, fan fiction… and so on. All good story-telling required promises that must be kept – regardless of where they sit on a shelf or which search words we use to find them.

  27. Pat Rothfuss says:

    This is just delightful to read. I’ve made a similar argument in the past, “Everything is genre,” but this make the point so much more clearly….

  28. Literature is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.

    Clearly this is an unassailably true. The only problem is that this is a category that is infinite from the perspective of any individual. Stephen Ramsey, in his excellent 2010 essay “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with a Million Books” estimates that, if you read one book a day from birth, you would need 500 lifetimes to read through the Library of Congress.* So what does this mean for the canon? And the literary critic? And what we all can share? My mother keeps trying to persuade me to read this Ursula LeGuin person; I guess I might one day, when I have a reason to do so. Until that day… so many books, so little time…

    *http://www.playingwithhistory.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/hermeneutics.pdf [86 kB PDF]

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  31. Seeley James says:

    I like the hypothesis, although arguing with academics has rarely done me any good. The market drives what it wants. The mainstream is obvious by revenue and debatable in quality/taste. Literary eddies serve the smaller specialty groups. Great literature comes as often from the mainstream as the eddies.

    Several thousand books were published in 1883. One of them was immensely popular while frowned upon by academics. I loved reading Treasure Island ninety years later. It stood the test of time whether the professors liked it or not. Literary? Adventure Genre? Boy-book? Who cares? NOt Stevenson.

    In an online writer’s group, where I experimented with tenses and POV, I was castigated by a college professor for a first person, present tense short story. He said, “James Joyce set the standard for first person” and later “you can’t break the fourth wall without sounding manipulative”. I responded that Joyce died 70 years ago (before jet airplanes, open heart surgery, nuclear bombs, etc etc) and that the current standard for 1st Person, present tense, 4th wall, etc was Josh Bazell’s 2007 hit, Beat the Reaper. He’d never heard of book or author. Things change.

    I wish the best of luck to those bent on definitions. I only aim to write in a way that entertains people. The more, the merrier, and therefore, better. In my series, On Writing, I recommend writers look at their intent before seeking a market. Is it a hobby to amuse/impress friends, peers and students? Or a profession?

    Peace, Seeley

  32. PA Wilson says:

    Isn’t literary fiction just another genre?

  33. I love this. It is a discussion worth revisiting — and may I say that it is echoed in the fracas going on between those who believe only in the value of traditionally published books versus that of self-published books. The latter category tends to be dominated by “genre” novels, and that contributes to the ghettoization of indie writers.

    My first novel is a political thriller. I’m proud of it and happy with the way it came out — though I admit to being a bit shy that it is so highly entertaining! I must be doing something right, since 50,000 readers have downloaded it to date.

    Thanks for this great post and thanks for all your words.

  34. I’ve published multiple fiction and nonfiction books. Over their course, have attended, keynoted, paneled and spoken to countless writing workshops and books-oriented conferences. Not once–ever–have I witnessed a so-called genre writer picking an argument with a so-called literary writer. Dozens of occasions, I’ve witnessed so-called literary writers insulting, demeaning, generally disrespecting so-called genre writers.

    One would think, if literary elitism were valid, no nigh-predictable one-upsmanship would be necessary, much less a veritable certainty, would it? And yet . . ..

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  37. Alice Dubiel says:

    Thank you for starting an interesting discussion, one I appreciated especially for the writers’ comments. Language is necessarily comprised both of conversation and compostion, whether written or oral. Including space for the compositions of any culture worker is vital to a fair and just society. It’s disappointing the New Yorker continues to promote ideas such as Krystal’s; in this a context, we need to subvert these controlling language choices. The real guilty pleasure in reading comes from the silencing of those who cannot read or who have restricted access to writing. I would like to see a literacy campaign in the US as an antidote to the privilege of those like Krystal.

  38. Is reading a “good bad” genre book a guilty pleasure? Of course not, and thanks Ursula for setting this straight: genre need not be an “inferior” class of books with respect to “literary fiction” – meaning books by Tolstoy or Dickens or more recently, say Tolkien or Steinbeck or Hemingway…Indeed, some genre books are so good that they achieve literary class, like, for example, Phil Dick’s sci-fi novels.

    But I disagree with your hypothesis: not all genre books can be subsumed into literature and we’re done with it. This is mixing apples and oranges – sorry if I must insist, but “genre” is nothing more than a marketing invention of the publishing industry. Publishers find it convenient to classify books by genres so they can estimate probable sales, that’s all. Then if the “bad genre book” happens to be very good (i.e. close to literary value), fine but that’s not really the point, is it?

    Genre is defined by subject matter, length (word count), type of ending (romance always has to end well), and the mechanics of the plot (police procedurals, for example, must follow well-defined rules). Thus genre is produced according to a well-defined recipe and the closer you follow the genre rules, the more likely will you find a publisher ready to publish you.
    Why? Because genre has a known market (for example, romance has the biggest slice of the e-book market and it’s no surprise that self-published authors who “make it” invariably write in the romance genre).
    Literary fiction has no known market. Literary fiction is populated with black swans and as we all know they are very rare birds and appear when you least expect them…So no publisher can guesstimate sales of a literary novel, it’s a shot in the dark. If it “makes it”, then it can make it big…but not always! It can have a “cult” success among a limited crowd of litterati and not be a commercial success at all (that’s how Tolkien started). Then with time, it may expand and become a world-wide best seller (that’s what happened to Tolkien).

    So if you’re not afraid to play the lottery, go for literary fiction. If you want to make a (reasonably) steady income, go for genre! But there’s no inferior or superior: they’re two different products, they look different, read different and the returns are never the same…

  39. Reading the essay reminded me, again, that Ms. LeGuin is a delight to read, whatever form or genre she writes in. She is also living proof of her argument.

  40. Give me a novel from the English or American canon, and I’ll give tell you its genre.

    I note for the curious, that should you be interested in studying for a Ph.D. in English and opt for a qualifying exam in a particular genre, literary fiction will not be one of the options for you to select as a specialization. Nor is literary fiction a descriptor you will see scholars use when discussing books; literary fiction is not a genre, it is a marketing category invented in the 1970s. You will doubtless have noticed that it is not something you see used as a LOC subject heading. Much of what is conventionally described as literary fiction is in fact a proud member of a genre.

    Nor is genre a new concept; it is easily datable to at least the early Greek prose works, works which were described and defined in terms of genre when they were first being produced, as were medieval Irish tales, as were the early novels of Fielding, Richardson, and Smollett, by their authors and their readers. While a reader may think of genre as something like romance, or horror, or SF, there are far more varieties of genre, including bildungsroman, epic, roman à clef, picaresque, epistolary, Gothic, etc. etc.

    As for me, I like good books. I don’t much care where they’re shelved, I just want to read them.

  41. English is not my native language, and where I come from, the word “literature” has always been understood as the extant body of written art, just as “painting” being the extant body of all paintings, and the like.

    I think that there is a more or less continuous range of “suspense of disbelief” required by a particular story (even the most realistic fiction still being about fictional characters and/or events or their interpretation), and the “center of gravity” of literature has already been moving toward the speculative end of the spectrum, slowly but steadily. One just has to look at all the mainstream writers introducing more and more clearly speculative elements into their fiction. This is not surprising in a world where the real things can often force us to suspend our disbelief.

    So please don’t think that you’re fighting a losing battle (as in “[w]e won’t be allowed to knock down the Litfic/Fixfic walls”). The pendulum between the realistic and speculative ends of the range is swinging full force our way. And while some mainstream critics lament the impending “death of the novel,” I want to tell them: “Welcome to the other world!”

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  45. John McKean says:

    Thank you for this well thought through and articulated essay! It seems to have fostered a great literary discussion of it’s own.

    I am concerned about your last point, though. Unfortunately, it’s corollary implies that every form of literature that doesn’t sell as a commodity is in danger of disappearing from our notice/access.

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  47. Eric Reitan says:

    An interesting critical response to Ursula LeGuin’s hypothesis, which I mentioned favorably in a post on my blog, is emerging in the comments on that post. The key argument (offered by a thoughtful YA novelist) is roughly this: Genre fiction, if that term is to mean anything, is fiction written with a set of conventions and expectations in place–and to BE genre fiction, a written work must aim largely to meet those expectations in a satisfying (perhaps new) way, even if it subverts some of the genre’s established tropes. Literary fiction has different aims–in oversimplified terms, it aims to challenge our thinking about the human condition–aims that when they become primary pretty much rule out meeting genre expectations, and so rule out writing a work that is both literary and a genre piece.

    While not yet convinced by this argument, I think it has merit worth considering. For those interested in the argument and my responses as they’ve developed so far, they can be found here.

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