Edward Docx is mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it any more. Not, as you might think, at Mr and Mrs Docx, for landing him with such a silly-looking surname, but with Steig Larsson and Dan Brown, bestselling thriller writers, and by extension with genre fiction (thrillers, detective stories, “chick-lit” and so on) as a whole. In an article published in today’s Observer, having first comprehensively lambasted Larsson and Brown as lousy writers even within the limits of their genre, Docx goes on to argue that, in any case, even good genre novels aren’t as good as good “literary” novels, and ya boo sucks to those horrid relativists (and genre novelists) who say that they are. “They (genre writers) can take the money and the sales and all that goes with that. And we can sincerely admire them for doing so. But they should not be allowed to get away with suggesting that these things tell us anything about the intrinsic value or scope of their work.”
I’m not going to waste any time defending Messrs Larsson and Brown, partly because I haven’t actually read any of their books and partly because Brown, at any rate, has developed such a reputation amongst even people who like thrillers as a terrible writer who will happily sacrifice any factual truth on the altar of making his daft plots work that I suspect Docx may well be right on this narrow point. However, as someone who unashamedly prefers genre over literary fiction, I disagree with his wider one. Literary fiction is itself merely a genre of literature, in which, by and large, highly-educated upper-middle class white male speaketh mighty artistic truth unto other highly-educated upper-middle class white male. And lo, what is that truth?
Well, it frequently involves unhappy sexual/family relationships between people, of a kind not a million miles away from the unhappy sexual and family relationships of the writer himself (which will be the subject, after his death, of a biography that sells more than most of his novels did). It also frequently involves central characters who are writers, academics or journalists, those being the only jobs that most literary writers have ever done, and apparentlythe only ones they can imagine either. There may or may not be a plot, but the message of the book will boil down to either “Human beings are basically OK and there is hope” or “Human beings are nasty and there is no hope.” Either way, it won’t tell you anything you couldn’t have learned by reading some history, watching the news or speaking to your granny.
You are supposed to revel in a literary novel’s fine prose style, although to be honest, finding out that some imaginary character has been sleeping with another imaginary character’s wife is going to be much the same experience whatever words you use to describe it, especially since neither of the people concerned actually exist – it’s not like you’re finding out your best friend’s sleeping with your wife. Literary fiction in this sense is a product of the twentieth century, and especially the period since the Second World War. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or George Eliot would not have understood the distinction between literary and genre works. But once the masses became literate enough to have novels written for them, there had to be some means for True Art to maintain its separate status from that kind of fiction.
Of course, genre novels can contain some of the above elements too, especially if they have pretentions to literary status. The saving grace of the genre novel, however, is that it is unabashed about trying to entertain. It doesn’t feel the need to sound clever, be a Great American/British/Whatever Novel, impress you with the author’s deep understanding of human nature. It is also guaranteed to come with a proper plot. Docx clearly feels that genre novels are limited because they have to follow certain conventions – if it’s a detective novel, there has to be a detective, a crime and an investigation, and so on.
But all novels are limited by having to follow a set of conventions of some kind. I’d like to hear of anyone who ever wrote a novel about modern South Africa on the premise that apartheid was a good thing and lived to tell the tale. Can anyone imagine a novel where most of the characters are Jewish and questions of Jewish identity or history don’t come up? These kinds of literary tropes are inescapable, as soon as the most basic decision about the direction of the work is taken. Finally, there is some inconsistency in praising Hilary Mantel and Kazuo Ishiguro, as Docx does, when their best-known novels are works of historical fiction, dare one say, historical romance. Jean Plaidy used to write that. No doubt Ishiguro and Mantel’s books are better, but that’s not because they have the magic label of “literary” on them. They just write better novels.