What Genre Paperbacks Can Teach Us About All Literature

1. From the outside, everything looks the same. But it isn't.

"It's all the same" is the kind of statement one isn't supposed to admit to thinking about "literary" works--or anything posh, such as classical music. In my master's program, I got into an argument with a professor who insisted that country music isn't very deep; it all sounds the same and tackles the same topics. I pointed out that to the uninitiated, all classical music seems pretty much the same (which is why the 1812 Overture stands out).

Violins, anyone? Waltzes?

"You're just saying that because you like country music," he teased to which I was able to honestly reply, "No, actually, I don't."

I don't. I simply don't assume that genres that don't interest me--like rap--are not as open to differentiation as genres that do interest me.

The more I read within a genre that interests me--like mysteries or romances--the more differences I find from the quality of writing to the types of plots and settings; there are books with themes; books with strong characters; books that work; books that could work if they got a little editing; horrible books; funny books; clever books, etc. etc. etc. 

The same is true of hoity-toity stuff--only, we don't always admit it.

2. It isn't the premise; it's the treatment.

A "cozy" is not by definition, bad literature. Nor is a superhero graphic novel. The premise, all by itself, does not determine whether something is good or bad.

For example, the premise, "A priest falls in love" can be trite and stupid (Thorn Birds); it can rather delightfully sweet (The Monk Downstairs); it can be gently humorous (episode of Bless Me Father); it can be tragic (Hillerman mystery); it can be weird Jane Austen-time period semi-porn Gothic (The Monk), etc. etc. etc.

3. Without humor, nothing works.

But the treatment that makes the biggest difference is humor.

When I say humor, I don't mean that a story has to be full of jokes or that it has to fulfill a British Monty-Python fetish. I'm fairly sure, even though I've only read 1/3rd of it, that War & Peace meets my criteria.

By humor, I mean, that at some level, the writer appears to know that people can be kind of ridiculous. Within a genre, a bad work can be bad for any number of reasons (poor writing, poor plot, poor characterizations); all bad works within that genre lack humor. They indulge in over-seriousness, which over-seriousness seems to be caused by thinking that it is totally normal for people to wallow in their own self-absorption.

There's a great part in Screwtape Letters where Screwtape warns his nephew, Wormwood about pushing his "patient" too far. Screwtape wants Wormwood to tempt his "patient" into pride, even if that entails being prideful about being humble. However, there is an inherent danger in thinking "By jove, I'm being humble!" The patient might reach the point where he rolls his eyes and goes to bed.

Any piece of literature worries me if I sense that the writer thinks I shouldn't roll my eyes and go to bed.*  Which is why Tess of the D'Urbervilles is truly awful. And why Charles Dickens' work, for all its attendant awfulness, isn't so much. It's a fairly subtle distinction which is far more obvious in genre work but applies equally to so-called Great Works.

*What I'm trying to define here is rather difficult since after all, all writers want their readers to get invested. Another way to define the issue is that I get worried if I think that the writer's ability to write a story or create a character has bled over into the writer's belief that people really are as completely simple OR as precisely complex OR as exactly morbid OR as totally sweet OR as fundamentally pessimistic as the writer has decided that they are. I want the writer to indicate--even if I can't define how the writer has done so--that people may be way more than the writer has managed to capture.

Along the same lines, when I teach argument/persuasion, I instruct my students that even if they don't tackle ALL the opposition's arguments, they need to indicate that they are aware that the topic is more complex that what they have chosen to tackle in four to five pages. I don't expect them to tackle everything. I just want them not to protest that they "know it all" (because protesting that they "know it all" will actually make their argument weaker).

Back to fiction: I have no problem with character "types" (go, genre literature!) since often authors who use types KNOW they are using types and why. It is the "literary" authors who get bogged down into believing, "I have fully defined the human experience!"

Perhaps, what I really mean with my third point is that I expect writers to be humble. Genre authors are kept humble by their chosen profession. Literary authors, unfortunately, can be bamboozled by Screwtape and Wormtongue.

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