A Response to Kevin Myers Article in Yesterday’s Irish Independent

So I started a new blog and almost immediately forgot the password but inspiration struck and I’m back again.

This is a response to Kevin Myers Article “State Support Only lends Madness to Libraries” in yesterday’s (17th August 2011) Irish Independent. I should start by saying I’m not a fan of Myer’s so this post is necessarily biased and it consists mainly of personal opinion.

Part of me almost hopes the man is trolling rather than describing genuine opinions he holds. His article on the Orange Prize for Women’s fiction had me nearly apoplectic but yesterday he talked about things that I’ve been hearing a lot recently.

Despite his main article being a vilification of public libraries in the modern day the idea that struck me most was that literary novels are inherently pretentious, inferior to genre fiction, they don’t sell and are only ever applauded by out-of-touch academics.

The quote that particularly annoyed me was:

I can give you a guided tour of Booker prize winners whose books are unread beyond page 40 or so: pretentious, indulgent, smug, self-regarding, but gushingly reviewed by their peers, who will in due course be gushingly reviewed by those over whom they have themselves ejaculated so warmly.

Sales. That’s the only true measure of a book’s worth. I have little interest in critically regarded but otherwise unknown masterpieces. […] they are the only true and abiding artistic measure.

Now I realise this quote was specifically calculated to annoy people like me. I started writing with the full intention of writing science-fiction, fantasy and anything that’s just a little bit weird. However, despite my plot relying heavily on magic and folklore I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s become a very literary book. I don’t necessarily mean good when I say literary but there’s a lot of social and gender commentary, a lot of playing about with language and imagery and a few themes running throughout. All of this could disappear in subsequent drafts but I’m really enjoying it for the minute.

I know the literary vs. genre debate probably won’t be solved for a good while yet but here are some other blog and forum posts on the debate:

Authors den

The Literature Network: Forums

The Write Power

The main crux of the debate seems to boil down to the idea that literary fiction has an inherently higher quality of writing whereas genre/commercial popular fiction is just plain better. For Myers it’s enjoyable, unpretentious and it makes lots of money. But can art really be defined purely in materialistic terms? And when the genre boundaries become ever more blurred with new hybrids popping up all the time (New Weird, Speculative Fiction, Paranormal Romance) what actually decides if a book’s literary or not?

I read most genres, I intend to write in several (The current project is magic realism, the next is a horror/speculative book, then a sci-fi series that I’ve been toying with)

I don’t intend to answer these questions but the definitions as they stand make me uneasy as does the hatred that both sides of the camp seem to express for each other.

Please feel free to discuss in the comments but I believe that genre books can have literary elements and vice versa and both can sell really well or really poorly. There are countless genre books that sell less than the average literary book but because more genre books are being written and all the heavyweight earners of the industry are genre authors (Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, Dan Brown). I have yet to read any of this years Booker longlist but neither Irish entry last year made pretensions to literary greatness or overt complexity. Both were easy to read, both have sold numerous copies and both are literary rather than genre. I disagree with many of the standing definitions.

Is it right, as Myers seems to be suggesting, to read only what’s popular? Should literature allow itself to be defined by a consumer culture? Or can art be found in all sorts of places? I believe the latter, the definition of art is a personal thing but I don’t believe that books only ever become popular because they’re good (Anyone who’s heard my opinion of Twilight will understand), yes skill is needed in most cases but so is marketing and luck.

Literary fiction is not some club, read only by academics and those too obsessed with lofty heights to notice that they’re going into liquidation, literary fiction is real, it can be just as off the wall as any genre, just as any genre can be as deep as literary. Rather than being completely separate  (I lay the blame for this separation squarely at the feet of marketing) one can merely be an aspect of the other.