genre fiction

Prizeworthy : Literary Fiction Awards

Here we are in the middle of literary awards season. The Nobel, the Booker, the Pulitzer, and here in Canada the Giller, the Governor General’s Awards and many more. (Just in time for Christmas.)

Why are there so many of these awards? And why are most of them for so-called “literary” fiction? There are a few awards for genre fiction, such as the Nebula Award for science fiction and the Golden Dagger Award for crime fiction, but they don’t have the profile of the literary prizes.

I think the answer has to do with a fundamental difference between literary fiction and genre fiction. Genre fiction is self-serve. Everyone knows what to expect from a book labelled “mystery” or “romance” or “science fiction,” but literary fiction is random. It can be about anything or nothing. It’s idiosyncratic and nuanced, full of symbols and allusions, and often ends ambiguously. A degree in creative writing may be useful for reading as well as writing it. Lit-fic is popular among book clubs whose discussions use words like Zeitgeist and oeuvre.

However intimidating, literary fiction has the allure (for some) of the Higher Arts. One cannot swim in this rarefied sea unaided. Readers need expert guidance in the pathless country of lit-fic. Newspapers and mainstream magazines such as Time or Maclean’s used to have book sections, but they are becoming scarce.  More and more, the critics’ seal of approval takes the form of the literary award. Once the annual crop of awards is out, those who wish to be known as “well-read” know exactly which books to buy and read (or at least skim). A recent clever development is the announcement of long-lists and shortlists in the run-up to an award, so the benefits of the awards may be spread among more authors (and their publishers).

But what about self-published literary fiction? Most successful indie authors write and publish genre fiction. Is being “literary” the kiss of death to a self-published book? In the world of indie authors, there are no high-profile awards, backed by financial institutions and bestowed by panels of Eminent Writers. No one is telling the reading public, “This is the indie book everyone should read,” condemning to eternal obscurity many an artfully-written work expressing the anomie of a disaffected protagonist in an indifferent world.


Plot or Character?

What’s more important in a work of fiction — good plot or good characters? If you could have only one, which would it be?

I’ve decided that I prefer good characters. A catchy plot is just an extended idea if the characters who play it out are cardboard cutouts, types without substance. Fully developed, complicated real-people characters can be interesting to read about, even without much of a plot. In other words, I’d rather read a scene in which interesting characters are just chatting than one in which a couple of ciphers are on the run, in peril of their lives from another (evil) cipher.

So why is it that genre fiction with “type” characters is so popular? It seems that most people prefer plot over character, the plots acted out by a variety of types — the tough guy hiding an inner wound, the spunky heroine with a troubled past, the family man with a secret life, the perfect wife coming to terms with a shattered marriage. There are quite a lot of these types, but we see them again and again. I suppose they’re sort of like product brands — as soon as you recognize them you know what to expect. Plot-driven fiction shuffles types around in a variety of patterns like the coloured chips in a kaleidoscope. Small variations produce enough patterns to keep readers happy.

Literary fiction is often called “character-driven.” The writer creates characters with rich, life-like personalities and juxtaposes them in situations that quite often are those of everyday life. The interaction of the characters in these situations produces the plot, which is often subtle and concludes ambiguously.

So why do readers prefer genre fiction to the literary? I suppose it’s because it’s more work to derive satisfaction from the latter, with its need for a greater degree of reader attention to appreciate the subtleties and to make the intuitive leaps. And ambiguous endings are more satisfying to write than to read.

Inevitably, I am drawn into an analogy with food. Reading literary fiction is like making and eating a salad. First you get the materials out of the refrigerator — lettuce, cucumber, green (or red or orange or yellow) pepper and the indispensable tomato. Peeling off a few lettuce leaves, you notice brown spots and rotten bits. You rinse the leaves, washing away the gross stuff, shake off the water and rip them up into bite-size pieces. Then you wash and slice the other ingredients, finally tossing them together. Add your preferred dressing (which you could also prepare from scratch!) and the salad is ready to eat.

Many would avoid all this and reach for a bag of  potato chips. Many prefer the predictable patterns of plot-driven genre fiction to the assemble-it-yourself mosaic of character-driven literary fiction.

But why not have both? There actually are a lot of books that have both well-developed characters and compelling plots. I suspect that they tend to be on the long side (all that showing, don’t you know), and don’t go down quite as easily as pure genre fiction. Reading this kind of book is perhaps like making a  grilled cheese sandwich with a sliced tomato on the side — not quite as much trouble as putting the salad together, but significantly more than ripping open that bag of chips.