Monday, March 19, 2012

We've Come A Long Way, Baby.

I was looking through my basement bookcase for a research book I knew was there. I didn't find it, but I did find Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular by Rust Hills ("WIGSSIP"), which book was one of my husband's college textbooks (although he denies it).
Mr. Hills was the fiction editor at Esquire for many years and wrote The Memoirs of a Fussy Man. Mr. Hills died in 2008 at the age of 82. The original copyright for WIGSSIP is 1977, and the revised edition I have was copyrighted in 1987. Amazon reports a 2000 revision as well.
Mr. Hill didn't write short stories, but he edited them for Esquire for 20 years before WIGSSIP was first published. A lot of what he says in it still holds true. But what I found particularly interesting was his take on genre fiction or "slick fiction." He spends almost 4 pages comparing "slick fiction" with "quality fiction."
In comparing the two forms, Mr. Hill states:
"Slick fiction or "magazine" or "formula" fiction was always distinguished from "quality" fiction or "serious" fiction - that is, literary fiction. The distinction to be made between them is that slick fiction - whether of the "romance" sort or of the "hard-boiled" sort - always partakes of the daydream, while quality fiction - as Jung said of Art - always partakes of the night dream. "
Mr. Rust points to the rise of television as the fall of genre fiction since they both serve as "entertainment." He states that "slick fiction is now not much written, at least in short story form," and applauds its downfall. While that statement may have been true in the late 1970s or even late 1980s, it's not true today.
Duotrope lists over 4,100 publishers in its searchable database. For those who haven't searched it Duotrope allows a writer to search the market for publishers who handle the same type of stories. You search by first entering a "genre". "Literary" isn't a genre. Instead it's "style" or sub-classification. When I search "general" genre and "literary" style, I get approximately 1,300 hits - approximately 1/3 of the possible publishers. Why?
Genre fiction accounts for the majority of the market. When I see I a story labeled "literary" come over the transom at Flash Fiction, I groan a little. Literary, these days, is often synonymous with purple prose and overwrought stories. Good literary works are becoming harder to find. Romance, the genre most maligned by Mr. Hill, seems to be the leader in sales.
What's this all mean?
As a genre writer, I have to admit I cheer a little that genre fiction has such a strangle hold on the market. It could be that Mr. Hill was right and television has fundamentally altered the American perception of "good" writing. It might be that he was wrong too. Whether the story is "literary", "genre" or "slick", most readers report they read for entertainment.
Writing has changed since the rise of Amazon. Well, not so much the writing, but our ability to market our work. Genre labeling doesn't consign you to fame or obscurity. I can tag my work with as many genres as apply, and more readers than every can find it. Genre stories, not literary ones, are the norm.
There's no doubt, writers and readers have come a long way, and that evolution isn't likely to stop any time soon.


Rebecca J. Carlson said...

Hooray! In high school I wanted to burn my AP English text for telling me that commercial genre fiction was a worthless waste of time. Waste of time? People like it! People read it. People BUY it.

I've always wanted to prove that textbook wrong, to write a book with all the fun of commercial fiction but with excellent prose and powerful themes. Happily, many other writers have had the same idea in recent years and we've been enjoying the results.

Nancy DiMauro said...

Thanks for visiting the sire commenting Rebecca.

I think schools emphasize "literary" writing because there are clearer benchmarks. Genre fiction works because people are entertained by it. It's harder to see what makes a good genre book work as a result.

The writing is what matters though. A good story told well is what people want regardless of what space on the bookself it takes up.
It use to be that if your book was shelved in the "wrong" section, it was doomed to fail. TO some extent the death of the "big box" stores and the rise of Amazon are changing that. Cross-genre books are very popular because the writer can use tags to virtually place her book on multiple shelves.