Distinguishing Between Literary and Other Genres

By Nancy Jane Moore

The Yiddish Policeman's UnionMichael Chabon, who makes many critics’ lists of the best authors writing today, is considered a literary writer. He’s certainly an excellent writer: His use of language is exquisite, his characters are complex, and his imagination goes everywhere.

But I’ve got news for all those literary critics: Chabon’s book The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is about as classic a detective novel as I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot of them).

It also has speculative fiction elements and it’s obviously alternate history. Chabon won the Nebula, Hugo, and Sidewise awards for it. But the detective story elements are the strongest. The main character, Meyer Landsman, is a cop whose life is falling apart (complete with an ex-wife who is also his boss). He lives in a dump, drinks too much, and gets obsessive about his work, especially about cases he’s told to leave be. Oh, and he’s damn good at solving mysteries, too.

It’s is beautifully written, of course, but if beautiful writing was the only criteria for literary, I can think of hundreds of books that deserve the label.

I’m not knocking Chabon. He isn’t one of those authors who denies it when he writes a book that fits into a genre besides the literary, like the people Sherwood Smith wrote about in her post here last Sunday. In fact, he shows respect for genre fiction. He was at the Nebula ceremony when he won, and he was not only gracious to the crowd, he gushed about Michael Moorcock, who was being named a grand master.

Nor does he write in the same genre every time, unlike many writers (in all genres, literary included). Each of his books seems to be different.

Gentlemen of the Road is sword and sorcery, but it was serialized in The New York Times Magazine. Gentlemen of the RoadChabon has also written YA fantasy, comics, steampunk, and a Sherlock Holmes story. (I didn’t know about that one until I started looking him up, but I’m going to have to go track that it down.)

And I gather that even his work that fits into the literary genre more neatly has plot and story, like a good science fiction or detective novel. (His latest novel, Telegraph Avenue, is on my “to read” list.)

What I really want to know is how he gets away with all this genre jumping, especially since some of the genres he plays in don’t get no respect.

Yes, he’s good, but I have read other writers just as good who get pigeonholed and can’t seem to get out.

Someone I mentioned this to suggested it was because he started out writing things that fit in the literary genre, so now he gets treated as a literary writer — with the accompanying respect — no matter what he writes.

But if that worked for everyone, maybe Margaret Atwood would be able to quit denying she writes science fiction.

As someone who likes to write in a variety of genres myself, I admit to a certain amount of jealousy here. But I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to write more than one kind of story.

Genre can be a useful guide for readers, but it shouldn’t be a jail for writers.

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Distinguishing Between Literary and Other Genres — 18 Comments

  1. I think it’s genre critics who have been having tantrums over the issue rather than literary ones. As for genre-hopping, if someone is deemed talented/precocious enough and started their career in the much more inclusive “literary” bin, they’re given leeway (and shelved in general fiction).

  2. Good question. As near as I can tell there’s first the fact that he’s male (no, that’s not an automatic boost to the empyrean heights of “lit’ry” but it does help one get taken more seriously by those who consider themselves Literary Gatekeepers, it seems) but he was also a graduate of a prestigious writing program at Irvine, which meant his work was taken notice of by “the right people”–if that corner of the world is “right.”

    I totally agree that there other writers whose prose is as graceful, whose insights into the human condition are at least as good (if not better) but their publications are in venues that are automatically ignored as genre trash by those same gatekeepers. Nobody can read everything, after all–not since, oh, 1830, I venture at a guess.

    • The effect of his maleness had occurred to me. I’ve often suspected that Atwood guards her rep as a literary writer carefully because she’s female and has legitimate fears of being shunted aside.

      It’s true that no one can read everything. But the gatekeepers need to widen their horizons.

  3. Re: Atwood, it’s also possible not to “intentionally” write in a genre, and thus not want to believe you’re writing in a genre. I’m speaking from experience, and in general, not necessarily Atwood since I’ve only read a couple of her books and don’t follow her, so don’t know the specifics of her denials.

    I was in a meeting on the Paramount Pictures lot in LA when the producers asked me if I’d always loved and read science fiction. I was startled, and said no, that I actually didn’t read it much at all.

    “But you write it.”

    “No…” At which point I had a moment’s panic when I wondered if my agent had sent them somebody else’s script.

    But I had written a science fiction script without knowing it. I’d started with a fun “what if” that began with technology (that doesn’t exist right now) going wrong, and took off from there. In this case I looked like an idiot for not knowing that. But I can see it happening easily with writers who don’t even know the genres well enough to know that’s what they’re doing.

    I wrote a fantasy without knowing it, too. Oh, and a paranormal.

    I think I’d better shut up now, before I look like an even bigger idiot.

    Oh. Too late.

  4. I’ve been watching this tussle for decades, and I don’t know that it will ever resolve until we’re all dead and a new model is in place. But I just wanted to say that your casual “even his work that fits into the literary genre more neatly has plot and story” is just the kind of remark that (in my opinion) unfairly adds fuel to the fire.
    There is literary work with great plot and story. There is genre work with little to none. For my money, questions like “how does Chabon manage not to get pigeonholed?” are interesting, but sweeping generalizations don’t do anyone any good.

    • You’re right, Debbie. It was a careless sentence.

      I turned to SF back in the 70s because so much of the literary fiction I read was plotless and pointless agonizing about the miseries of modern life. But in fact, there is plenty of literary fiction these days with good story, plot, and ideas, regardless of whether it has elements from other genres. Ann Patchett is a great example of this — Bel Canto blew me away.

      And, imho, the best SF and fantasy works are drawing on the use of language and other virtues usually attributed to literary fiction. The line is getting very blurry and often depends more on who publishes a writer (and who reviews the book) than anything else.

      I was also being a little vague because I haven’t yet got around to all of Chabon’s work and can’t say from personal knowledge what they are like. But I really want to read Telegraph Avenue and to go back to some of the other books.

  5. I don’t have an answer (though mention of the writing program Chabon attended and “being seen by the right people” rings true).

    However, I do think it might be instructive to take a look at Vonnegut when asking the same question: he was in genre, then he was out, finally he reconciled (while remaining out of genre). (It’s always struck me that Atwood’s denials seemed to be modeled on Vonnegut’s. Perhaps she took a page from his book.)

    Rushdie is another contemporary who could easily have been classed as genre. (On the other hand, no one can deny the marketability of a Fatwah on a writer’s head, so Rushdie may be a special case.)

    Chabon has always impressed me with the fact that he has consciously drawn attention to his genre roots and interests. He promotes genre works with no hesitation, remarks on genre influences. He seems to be a one-man army in this regard, though his coattails don’t seem to be sweeping anyone else along (not his fault and seemingly not for want of trying).