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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Trending: Literary Writers Exploring Genre Fiction

I am beginning a new semi-regular series on RA for All today that I am calling "Trending."  If it takes off like the Monday Discussion has, I will give it its own page, but for now I am just going to post "trends" as I see them. [I also have a few semi-regular features on the horror blog which  you can follow here.] If you have suggestions for future topics in any of these features, let me know.  I love reader suggestions.  They help to keep things fresh.

Now on to the trend as promised...

Recently, I cam across this interesting essay by author Kim Wright in The Millions which asks, "Why Are So Many Literary Writers Shifting into Genre?" The set up goes something like this: 

The good ship Literary Fiction has run aground and the survivors are frantically paddling toward the islands of genre. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but there does seem to be a definite trend of literary/mainstream writers turning to romance, thrillers, fantasy, mystery, and YA. Justin Cronin has produced the vampire epic The PassageTom Perrotta is offering The Leftovers, a tale of a futuristic Rapturesque apocalypse. And MacArthur-certified genius Colson Whitehead is writing about zombies. It’s enough to make my historical mystery about Jack the Ripper look downright pedestrian.
What’s going on? Is it a mass sellout, a belated and half-hearted attempt by writers to chase the market? Are they being pushed into genre by their agents and publishers? Are the literary novelists simply ready for a change, perhaps because even the most exalted among them have a minuscule readership compared to genre superstars? Or are two disparate worlds finally merging?
This genre blending problem is an issue I tackle frequently.  In fact, tonight it will be a major topic of discussion in the RA class. Seven months ago, I posted here about the genre blending problem, but here is the most pertinent excerpt:
Some of the best and most popular fiction today is written "between" the genres.  For more on this argument, I suggest you read the chapter entitled, "Trickster in a Suit of Lights" from Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands.  Think about the "hot" books right now.  I cannot go anywhere without hearing about A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness and The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier.  Using the links to read about these books, you will see that they cannot easily fit into a single genre.
Tonight we will be talking about that Chabon article with the RA class again.  In it, he argues that the "best" literature out there is often that which is written between the genres.  The interesting thing is that the book in which this essay appeared came out back in 2008, and now, it is snowballing into a discussion in the mainstream media.

Most public libraries own Maps and Legends and I suggest reading at least this one chapter to better understand the BIGGEST trend in literary fiction--actually all fiction-- right now.

This trend and the reading I have suggested segues perfectly into a larger discussion of genre.  What are genre distinctions good for if the lines are blurring between genres?

This is what Joyce and I will spend most of the semester working out with the students.  But for now the short answer is that genre distinctions are not meant to ghettoize books to certain shelves in the library or bookstore, rather they are simply a cheat sheet to guide you and your readers to their next good read. Now on top of understanding the subtle differences between each of the genres and how they apply to different readers, we also have to be aware of Chabon's "Borderlands," those books and authors who write between the genres.

As I always say, being an RA librarian can be overwhelming, but it is never boring.

I talk about genre as a concept on this blog frequently, and of course in detail as it pertains to horror here.  For those of you who want to see older posts on the topic, use the "genres" tag.  Also, look for more "trending" topics to come.

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