A periodic column written by award-winning New York editor Michael Seidman

Stet #5

Occasional Thoughts from the Editorial Side

by Michael Seidman

June 2004

It recurs with painful regularity, striking writers of all stripes, all abilities, all interests so randomly and so often one begins to think it is not only chronic but congenital.

If you haven’t suffered with it yet, you will. Someone will email the question to you (as they did to me, one of a numberless number of writers on a mailing so mass it remains just this side of spam); it will probably (though not assuredly) involve a group of category or genre writers; you pick the label, I don’t care.

The question-do you know it yet? OK, here’s a hint: what’s the difference between literary and genre (rarely, though sometimes, commercial) fiction and why do they say such awful things about us. So, it wasn’t a hint, it was the topic, so sue me.

Now, what I’m going to do over the next 700 words or so is give you all the arguments you need to shut these people up because, see, most of them-from either side of the discussion-haven't got the vaguest idea of what they’re talking about.

First: the word genre itself. Everything is a genre, every kind of writing has rules and formulæ and guidelines, even if they aren’t spelled out and spoon-fed to the writer. If that weren’t the case, how would you know if your story is right for The New Yorker or better suited to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine? Because you read the magazines to which you’re interested in submitting, you know what they’re looking for, what defines their stories. So, it’s all genre, it’s all one category or another, and that’s all there is to it. Period.

Genre writers are given to arguing that they write to entertain their market, to offer them escape, that they don’t want to teach or make the reader think or go to a dictionary. (That’s one reason so many category novels tend to be surface stories with no beef.) Jerry Jenkins, one of the co-authors of the bestselling “Left Behind” series put it quite well, and what he said in a Newsweek interview says things I find reprehensible: “Pedestrial writing, then characters—I can handle the criticism,” he says. “I write to pedestrians, I am a pedestrian. I write the best I can. I know I’m never going to be revered as some classic writer. I don’t claim to be C. S. Lewis. The literary-type writers, I admire them. I wish I was smart enough to write a book that’s hard to read, you know?” (Italics added.)

No, I don’t know, but I’ve heard it again and again when the inane argument takes root in some bored imagination yet once again. “A book that’s hard to read?” Is that what so-called literary fiction is? Seems so. Or, have we dumbed down so far that anything beyond Dick and Jane torturing Spot is hard to read? Is Chandler hard to read? He’s considered a classic writer. So’s Hammett. Michael Connelly will be soon, too. What’s hard to read?

Literary fiction, according to one person in the discussion, “is what my agent says doesn’t make money. LOL.” LOL? Am I being told the comment is funny or did this writer find it so and want me to know it because otherwise I wouldn’t? She didn’t say, however, how much she’s making writing non-literary fiction, the stuff that, by her agent’s definition, does make money.

Literary fiction doesn’t have plots, say the genre writers, while the literary writers counter that all category fiction offers is plot. Both are wrong: plot is how things happen (you plot a course on a map, showing how you will get somewhere); well, what’s the book about? Does something happen? Are there changes in the characters, do events make a difference to them? If not, there’s no story. If it does, there is a story. And that’s what they’re really talking about. A dead body, a twisted love affair, sure, those are stories, “plots” if you must; so is a woman trying to get back the title to her house, sold at tax auction to an Iranian, an attempt that leads to chaos and destruction. So’s the story of what happens over the years to a group of people on a small island in the Pacific Northwest, centering on WW II and inter-racial love affairs. The characters in House of Sand and Fog and Snow Falling on Cedars are far more changed by the plot they don’t live through than are any of the characters in successful category series.

Almost out of time: Another argument I heard was that Mickey Spillane said literature is what people read. Well, yeah. However, literature and literary do not mean the same thing. One is what people read, as Spillane said, the other is an approach to writing, one that entails a more careful use of language, a more serious concern about the impact of events on people and of people on events. It is more closely related to life as it is lived. Does that mean it isn’t escape? Not at all. If you are involved in the story, even if you’re troubled by it, you’re escaping—you’re out of your life and into the characters.

Finally: if you don’t like it, don’t read it, don’t write it but don’t denigrate it either. Either one. And remember: Dickens wrote for pennies against a magazine deadline; he didn’t sit down to create literature, we allowed it to enter there. It is about timelessness and making a difference, about anyone, anywhen, knowing the truth of the story. What the story needs, then, is truth.

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About Michael Seidman

MICHAEL SEIDMAN is an editorial consultant working with individuals and publishers. He can be reached at mseidman@aol.com.