04 February 2008

A Genre Novel—What Was She Sniffing?

Charles McGrath's article in Sunday's New York Times, headlined "Great Literature? Depends Whodunit," offers an amusing incident from British letters and a succinct definition of what sets genre fiction apart from other storytelling forms. McGrath wrote:

In a British court recently, an author said, in effect, that glue-sniffing had made her write a thriller. The author, Joan Brady, is a 68-year-old American who has lived in England for the last several decades and in 1993 became the first woman to win the Whitbread book prize. She received a £115,000 out-of-court settlement after arguing that fumes from the glue and solvents used in the Conker shoe factory next door to her home in Totnes had poisoned the air and made her sick. She suffered nerve damage, she said, and a loss of concentration that caused her to abandon the literary novel she was working on, Cool Wind From the Future, and instead crank out a potboiler called Bleedout. . . .

You also have to conclude that Conker or its lawyers don’t know much about the publishing business--that is, if they really believed that Ms. Brady had suffered from turning to thrillerdom. . . . [Bleedout] has done pretty well, selling some 50,000 copies in Britain alone since it came out in 2005. An author seeking damages would do better, one would have thought, by claiming to have become so addled that she had decided to forsake a certain payday for the vain hope of literary success. . . .

But what’s behind the Brady controversy, of course, is the assumption that genre fiction--mysteries, thrillers, romances, horror stories--is a form of literary slumming. These kinds of books are easier to read, we tend to think, and so they must be easier to write, and to the degree that they’re entertaining, they can’t possibly be “serious.”
McGrath goes on to describe the genre writer's "implicit contract with the reader, which is to deliver on the promise that a particular genre entails--whether it’s a murder solved, a cold war plot thwarted, a horror unmasked, a love requited." He concludes:
Such books are reassuring in a way that some other novels are not.

Does that make them lesser, or just different? Probably both on occasion. But it doesn’t necessarily make them easier or less worthwhile to write.
Now here's a question for the children's-lit field. There are, of course, genre books for young readers: mysteries, science-fiction adventures, sports books, going-to-camp books. But are there children's novels that come with no implicit contracts and expectations to fulfill?

Even the most serious and literary fiction for children is expected to leave readers with a "sense of hope." The young protagonist is supposed to grow and learn valuable lessons about life, at least a little. Does that recurring pattern make children's novels as a whole a sort of genre?

10 comments:

SamRiddleburger said...

Genre books have "contract."

Kidlit books have "contract"

therefore Kidlit books are genre books?

Rather I think even literary fiction carries a contract.
There's a certain genre of literary fiction, for instance, that guarantees despair no matter how hard the novelist has to work to make sure everyone ends up unhappy.

I suppose the anti-novelists were trying to write novels that broke the contracts, but they started a contract of their own:
Character will walk down Rue d'Something street. Repeatedly.

gail said...

If children's literature isn't a genre, what is it?

I would also agree that literary fiction could be said to be a genre.

J. L. Bell said...

Some might argue that children's literature isn't a genre in the sense that every book comes with certain expectations and an implied contract with the readers, but rather a collection of literary works that can be grouped together only on the basis of their young target readership.

But nobody here's doing that.

gail said...

Magazines often define themselves in terms of their market (readership), as do TV shows and movies (in their case viewers, of course). So an argument could be made that there is a precedent for defining children's literature as "a collection of literary works that can be grouped together only on the basis of their young target readership."

Not that I'm suggesting anyone here (or anywhere else) do that.

J. L. Bell said...

I think literary genres have to be defined by more than their audiences. What distinguishes a certain genre from the mass of fiction is an understanding by the reader and author of some tacit contract shaping the story.

In some cases, the contract defines the storytelling mode: science fiction as opposed to magical fantasy or realistic tale. In others, the contract defines the outcome of the story: the heroine will end up with a boyfriend or fiance, the detective will identify the murderer, the knight will complete the quest.

Sometimes we've developed labels for genres: mystery, chick lit, high fantasy. For others labels might be aborning ("school story") or undefined but recognizable (four to five kids, a mix of girls and boys, have a fantastic adventure without leaving the world readers recognize as like their own: Nesbit, Eager, Cooper, Jones, etc.).

The question is whether a children's book that seems to burst genre labels—Holes, maybe—nonetheless comes with definite reviewer and reader expectations that the author must meet.

Novelists for adults can write about crimes that are never solved, families that are never reconciled, characters who never grow. But can children's novelists do the same?

gail said...

I don't think child readers have expectations. No one has told them the books they read must have a sense of hope or teach them something. Reviewers, on the other hand, are another thing. They may not allow a writer to get away with writing a children's book that doesn't meet their expectations.

J. L. Bell said...

I think children have some expectations for their stories, at least by the time they learn to read. They don't like unanswered mysteries, for instance. They want fairy tales to end with "happily ever after." They're disappointed if heroes don't achieve their goals.

On the other hand, there are definitely some expectations that reviewers, teachers, and parents impose on books for youngsters. Children's own stories tend to solve problems with more violence than appears in published picture books, for example.

I'm not sure where the "sense of hope" falls in that divide. Is it a quality adult reviewers insist on, or one that children actually want in order to find a story, even a sad story, satisfying in the end?

gail said...

I didn't know anything about this sense of hope business or the idea that children's books should be instructive when I started writing for children. I was aware that in the nineteenth century children's books were improving, but I didn't realize that there was a school of thought that maintained that they still should be until sometime this past year.

I suspect that my history isn't unusual. Many children's writers fell into writing for children because that's where they "found their material." We may see that change now that so many colleges are offering children's literature courses.

gail said...

Oh, btw, I think a lot of adult readers are unhappy with stories that don't leave them with a sense of hope, too. It's not something specific to children's books. If you've read Cold Mountain, for instance, the end of the last chapter works very well, I think, but I suspect someone was concerned that readers would find it hopeless. And so there is an epilogue that seems tacked on for the sake of readers who need to grasp at some kind of happiness.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that young readers aren't the only ones who want a "sense of hope," or a "happily ever after," or "all the threads tied up." There's a lot of appeal in genre fiction, and some of its qualities do seep into more literary fiction for adults.

But then, as Sam R. said, some adult literary fiction seems to get more respect as it becomes less satisfying in predictable ways.

Children's literature seems to differ in that its critical arbiters seem to judge even its most artistic, literary examples on the basis of how good they leave readers feeling.