(I seem to be incapable of discussing anything complex without making a series of it, don't I? [g])
Someone in one of the other comment threads was asking about genre – naturally, I can't find the original question at the moment (well, it's late; it's about 4 AM, and I'm just winding up work for the night), but in general terms, the person said she was working on a book that "crossed genres" and people were telling her she shouldn't—that she should pick a specific genre and shape the constraints and structures of her story to fit that genre. Since I rather obviously didn't do that myself, did I have any thoughts on the matter?
Oh, yes, lots. [g] It is, as I say, Rather Late, but let me start with a general philosophical statement regarding genre, and tomorrow, we'll descend to the personal particulars.
I think it might be useful to contemplate what it is that successful fiction (of any kind) does. The most general definition I could come up with is that fiction affords temporary satisfaction to an abiding curiosity.
In other words, we tend to be unendingly curious--mostly about ourselves. That curiosity goes in lots of direction, but you can distinguish several major areas: love, death, the past (what you might call historical definition of present identity), the future, the unknown. A few others, to be sure, but these are the big issues that interest almost everyone. Not surprisingly, they correspond generally with the major "genre" divisions of fiction--romance, mystery, Westerns (which deal very specifically with an American vision of the past) and historical fiction, and sf/f.
That's pretty broad, but I think one has to be either very broad or very specific in this kind of discussion.
Anyway, taking it on faith for a moment that the main genre divisions do deal with areas of intense human curiosity, this means that if you choose to deal with such an area, you begin with a natural advantage--you're already writing about something which holds strong interest for a large number of people. That being so, you need not necessarily write with consummate skill or great artistry in order to temporarily satisfy your readers' curiosity--you must only write intelligibly; the natural interest of your content will sustain the book.
On the other hand, if you choose to write outside these broad areas of interest, or on the fringes of one, or in the intersections of several--then you need something else in order to provide that satisfaction, because you must arouse the curiosity you mean to satisfy, rather than taking it for granted a priori.
The point, of course, is that "necessarily," above. You may write in a pretty mediocre fashion, and still succeed, if you work within the general limits of an accepted genre. You sure as heck don't have to write with medicrity—literary criticism notwithstanding, poor writing really is not a requirement of any genre.
All the tricks of skill--the uniqueness of viewpoint, the elegance of construction, the inventiveness of structure, the subtlety of perception, the freshness of language, are as available to a writer who works smack in the middle of the classic romance genre as to one who wants to explore the nuances of social milieu or the differences between perception and reality. The thing is that the first writer doesn't have to use these tricks in order to attract and satisfy an audience, and the second one does.
Not all writers can use them. However, if a "genre" writer has the skill--and ambition--to do so, then the results are as individual and as striking as they are in the hands of someone working entirely in the "literary" area (some people say "literary" fiction is simply any fiction that doesn't fit in some other recognizable genre; some identify "literary" fiction as "boring" fiction--i.e., something that appears not to address any area they find intrinsically interesting).
Consequently, you get "romances" like GONE WITH THE WIND and ANNA KARENINA, and "Westerns" like LONESOME DOVE; "historicals" like A TALE OF TWO CITIES, and "mysteries" like SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS and NAME OF THE ROSE. The basic genre elements are there--conflicted sexual attraction, social misfit-on-quest, individual caught up in Great Events, who-done-it-and-why--but so is very good writing and sophisticated perception.
And I think it's this that leads to the notion that literary fiction is somehow "better" than genre fiction--there's less of it, and rarity is always valued for its own sake, but also, literary fiction has to demonstrate a high level of visible "artistry" (tricks and tools, let's say) simply in order to be noticed, let alone succeed. Genre fiction can succeed simply on the basis of its content.
Therefore, you tend to see 1) the genre writer who writes clearly and mostly observes the structural conventions of a genre, 2) the strictly "literary" writer, whose main interests are uniqueness and wordplay, and 3) the unique writer who exercises his or her skills in an area of major human interest--but feels free to leave the boundaries; a "genre" writer with literary skills, if you will. I think the third class often ends up being what we eventually call "Literature."
To be continued…