The double-edged sword

Ally Sheedy as Allison Reynolds

In The Breakfast Club, introverted Allison dares rich-girl Claire to say if she’s a virgin. When Claire demurs, Allison says,

It’s kind of a double-edged sword isn’t it? … If you say you haven’t [had sex], you’re a prude. If you say you have, you’re a slut. It’s a trap.

This is how I feel when the question comes up about the distinction between literary and genre fiction. If you write literary novels, you’re a prude. If you write genre books, you’re a slut.

Is it really that simple? Nothing in this world is so simple. Yet, here are some true-life examples from my own experiences:

Prude

While shopping around my first novel, I got a tip that a prestigious national imprint had a new editor seeking fresh manuscripts. I sent mine along, hopeful but also realistic about my chances.

The rejection slip I received was fairly scathing. The editor claimed my book read of a desperate MFA student who doesn’t understand the “real world.” It was fairly derogatory (and oddly personal, considering this editor and I shared a mutual friend). A simple “thanks, no thanks” would have sufficed, but this editor decided it was my turn in the barrel.

Make no mistake: This hoity-toit imprint reeks of MFA aftershave. It’s not a punk-lit imprint. It’s not an edgy alt-lit imprint. It publishes high-minded literary fiction. The author list is upper-middle- to upper-class, blindingly white, and yes, many of them hold an MFA.

And I hold an MFA too, so perhaps the criticism is spot-on—except I wrote the bulk of novel before I set foot in grad school. I didn’t aim for it to be a literary masterpiece. I wanted to write a page-turner. It’s categorized as literary fiction because it’s not mystery, science-fiction, fantasy, romance, Western, thriller, or YA/New Adult. Write a story about a character and his family, and it’s not merely literary, you’re trying to “be literary.” Who knew?

In my novel, the main character has grown up in a town of physicists who design and perfect weapons of mass destruction—this is the actual childhood I experienced. I thought it would be a good read. (It is a good read.) My character is snarky, sarcastic, crude—and at times, he can be a right asshole. The technical background of the novel is, as they say, ripped from the headlines.

This seems pretty real-world to me. I thought I was writing a funny novel with an unusual setting and situation. This editor took it upon herself to declare I’m actually a Raymond Carver-esque hack penning quiet stories of bourgeois desperation. And that I should stop being that writer.

So, there’s the rejection slip telling me to quit being literary, even though that’s a categorization I never asked for. And it came from a literary publishing house. It’s kind of a double-edged sword, isn’t it?

Slut

After Amazon published my second novel, I began to sense a change in the attitudes of many of my writer friends. At first it was slight, like a shift in air movement when a door in the room is opened. Gradually, though, the emotional tension grew to the point it could not be denied.

I wondered if the problem was one of jealousy. My book had been picked up by a large company, but Amazon was not what you would call an A-list publisher (back then, at least—times have changed). And, they only published my book in digital Kindle format. I had to rely on CreateSpace to offer a paperback edition. The advance money was not huge, and the publicity not so widespread. It all seemed pretty modest to me, and I thought my friends would recognize it as such.

My novel is set in an alternate universe where human reproductive biology is tweaked in a rather significant way. This book is obviously science-fiction. Since the protagonist is a thirteen-year-old girl, it neatly fits into the YA slot as well.

And I’m comfortable with those categorizations. I grew up reading Asimov, Bradbury, Silverberg, and other science-fiction writers of the Golden and Silver Ages who laid so much groundwork for the genre. More importantly, I wanted to write another page-turner, a real unputdownable book. From the Amazon reviews, I think I succeeded.

The tip-off for the issue with my friends was when my wife asked one of them if she’d read my new book. The answer was a murmured, “I would never read a book like that.” This from a person I counted as a friend, and had known for ten years.

Before this, I’d heard her repeat the trope that all genre fiction is formula, as mindless as baking a cake from a box of mix. I always let it go, for the sake of harmony. Now it was being thrown in my face.

The funny thing is, one Amazon editor told me she felt in hindsight my science-fiction YA novel was not a good fit for their imprint. They were more interested in “accessible” genre fiction for their readers, and that my work was—yep—too literary. It’s a trap.

Tease

When Claire refuses to reveal if she’s a virgin, bad-boy Bender suspects she’s a tease:

Sex is your weapon. You said it yourself. You use it to get respect.

Between being a literary author and a genre writer, there’s a third way: The literary-genre writer. These are the teases. They write genre fiction, but make it literary to get respect. And, often they do.

Examples of teases are Haruki Murakami, China Miéville, Cormac McCarthy, and Margaret Atwood. Much of their work is patently genre, but they are received and analyzed with the same awe and respect reserved for literary novelists.

The knee-jerk reaction is to say these writers prove it’s possible to write literary-genre fiction. I don’t think that’s true at all, though. It only proves that authors accepted into the literary realm get to have it both ways: They avoid the stigma of genre fiction while incorporating the high-stake dramatic possibilities genre fiction offers.

Consider another literary-genre writer: Kurt Vonnegut. He wrote science-fiction, but his books are rarely shelved in that section. Hell, he even wrote a diatribe about how bad science-fiction writing is (Eliot Rosewater’s drunken “science-fiction writers couldn’t write for sour apples” screed). Yet, Vonnegut is rarely, if ever, permitted into the same circle as Atwood or McCarthy. There’s something “common” about Vonnegut. Only at the end of his life was he cautiously allowed into the literary world. Some still say he doesn’t belong there.

I remain unconvinced it’s the sophistication of a novel itself that moves it into the upper literary tiers. I can point to plenty of books supposedly in the literary strata that are not exceedingly well-written or insightful. Something other than an airy quality is the deciding factor.

The success of a handful of literary-genre writers doesn’t open doors, it only creates a new double-edged trap. An author who pens a literary-style novel can claim it’s literary. See, he added his book to the “Literary Fiction” section on Amazon! But does it mean he’s a member of the literary world? Not at all. There’s something else holding him back.

The trap

The literary/genre distinction purports to explain every aspect of a story: Its relevance, its significance, its quality, its audience, even the goals of the writer when they sat down to write it. Nothing in this world is so simple.

There’s a smell about the literary/genre divide. It smells like class. Literary is upper-class, and pulpy genre is for the proletariat. This roughly corresponds to the highbrow/lowbrow classifications. We even have a gradation for the striving petty bourgeoisie, middlebrow.

(Even calling a novel “middlebrow” is treated with disdain—a lowbrow attempt to raise a genre book to a higher status. It’s easy to fall down the literary/genre ladder, but difficult to ascend.)

I definitely believe the Marxist notion of class exists, both abroad and here in the United States. What I don’t believe is that a work of fiction is “of a class.” Books are utilized as a marker of class—tools to express one’s status. Distinctions like literary vs. genre communicate to members of each class which books they should be utilizing…I mean, reading.

Amazon says new Kindle replicates experience of holding real book cover in public

This is not the most original thought, but is it really that simple? Nothing in this world is so simple. And I don’t want it to be simple. As with food, the best reading diet is varied, eclectic, and personal.

Note the real damage here. If a writer writes the books he or she wants to write, and puts their heart and soul into making it the highest-quality they can for their readers, all that hard work is instantly deflated by the literary/genre prude/slut highbrow/lowbrow labels.

And if a writer introduces genre conventions into their literary work, they’re a sell-out—a prude tarting it up for cheap attention. And if the author of a genre novel tries to achieve a kind of elegance with their prose and style, they’re overreaching—a slut putting on a church dress. You use it to get respect. We’re punishing people for being ambitious.

I’ve said it elsewhere: People will judge a book by its cover, its publisher, the author’s name, the number of pages, the title, the price, the infernal literary/genre label, its reviews, the number of stars on Amazon—everything but the words between the covers. You know, the stuff that matters.

Sarah Dessen & the Internet’s new literary feud

Sarah Dessen
Sarah Dessen
(Larry D. Moore, CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Last week a dust-up swirled on Twitter that grew to a Category 5 hurricane. Young Adult author Sarah Dessen learned her name was mentioned in a small-town university newspaper. The article was a feature piece on the university’s successful campus-wide reading program. One of the program’s student committee members—a junior at the time—told the newspaper

“She’s fine for teen girls,” the 2017 Northern graduate said. “But definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”

(Although I share the student’s last name and my father hails from the same state as the university, I’m not related to the student. Trust me: There are a lot of Nelsons in South Dakota.)

Miffed, Sarah Dessen took her disgruntlement to her Twitter account, where she shared with her over 268,000 followers:

Authors are real people. We put our heart and soul into the stories we write often because it is literally how we survive in this world. I’m having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good.

What ensued is a now-familiar pattern on the Internet: mob outrage followed by mob backlash followed by apologies followed by meta-analysis of what transpired (which includes this post, I suppose).

In the initial burst of Twitter outrage, the student’s remarks were construed as demeaning YA fiction, demeaning teenage girls, internalized misogyny, promoting abuse toward women, and worse. Her social media accounts were tracked down and she was hounded offline. She was even snubbed by other big-name authors she may have read and possibly admired. One of them attacked her by name in the newspaper’s comment section.

The authors’ attacks were amplified a thousand-fold by their supportive followers on Twitter, which only served to energize the authors’ continued denunciations and self-righteousness. Remember, most of the authors involved write YA, a genre whose subject matter centers around solitary young people being kicked around by those in power.

The backlash probably started on Twitter, but picked up strength when online commentary outlets voiced their incredulous disbelief at the mob mentality. The backdraft circled onto Dessen and her prominent supporters, leading them to delete their old tweets and issue apologies.

(This narrative is better covered by places like Vulture and Slate. For the gory blow-by-blow details, I suggest starting there.)

The story has more or less died down now. The media outlets have updated their reports to include these apologies. The door is closing on the story. Time to move on.

The transitive logic underpinning the entire affair is remarkable. A single college student opined that books by a certain author are not suitable for a college-level reading program. From a single paragraph in a tiny university’s newspaper (current enrollment: 3,622) sprang a hornet’s nest of vicious conclusions. The logic magnified an innocuous criticism of a single YA author to an attack on all YA fiction and its readers. Thus, the logic went, if you’re a reader of YA fiction, it’s a personal attack on you. From there the maelstrom spiraled off into more sinister territory.

It’s confirmed: One’s tastes and reading habits may now interpreted as a systematic attack on the underprivileged and powerless. Before the incident faded off, there were tweets (now deleted) declaring the college student wielded more power than Dessen—after all, the student was on a committee at a tiny Midwestern school. Imagine if she had dared to write a bad Amazon review.

The muted blandness of the authors’ apologies are no match to the heights of the original vitriol or the depths of the condescension. Some of the apologies read like the calculated boilerplate of a publicist or press agent. Some of the apologies suggest the problem is not with the authors’ own attitudes or sensitivities, but that the college student wasn’t more powerful and thereby deserving of attack. I could spend another thousand words attempting to reconstruct how the hell our culture reached this point. And yet, here we are.

Would these authors have trained the same level of indignation on a professional critic with, say, the New York Times or USA Today? I doubt it. There’s a lot at stake there. A lone reader in a flyover state? (“People have strange and inflated ideas about their taste level.”) Different story.

“For the man led a mob”

What’s at play here is the rise of the superauthor: Bestselling novelists who also maintain major media platforms—interactive web sites, message boards, podcasts, and social media feeds with hundreds of thousands of followers. They’re not merely authors, they’re brands. Many of these YA authors have crafted an online persona of a confidant and sympathizing mentor. You don’t merely read their books, you hear from them everyday. You see their vacation photos and hear about their pets. You share their ups and downs in the real world.

Utilizing the tidal hydropower of the platform to take down amateur critics is a new twist. G. K. Chesterton noted Dickens could not be ignored or dismissed “for the man led a mob.” Imagine if Dickens had Twitter.

Literary feuds are the stuff of legend, but they almost always involve authors, editors, and/or professional critics. We’re now seeing a new-style of literary feud in the Internet Age: author versus reader. This won’t be the last time writers hit back at reader criticism with the support of the multitudes behind them.

Judy Blume
Judy Blume

(This is not so far-fetched. In private channels, I’ve witnessed writers outraged over a bad Amazon review asking other writers what they know about the reader. I’ve never seen the anger escape those private channels, though.)

Successful YA writers are often adored by their fans for bringing magic and solace to a gray, heartless world. Classic YA writers like Judy Blume have shined a much-needed beacon for generations of young people who are struggling and desperate. Of course she’s adored. (I read Judy Blume when I was young. I thought she was wonderful too.)

But I simply cannot imagine Judy Blume engaging with the behavior on display last week. She’s a human being, a real person with quirks and faults, but she puts readers first—not only her readers, but readers of all stripes. Would Judy Blume have responded “I love you” to someone who posted worldwide “Fuck that fucking bitch” about a college-aged reader? I don’t see it.

Readers of any taste are comrades-in-arms with authors—this is doubly true in an age of Netflix, video games, and big-budget film. Fiction is increasingly perceived as losing relevance, if not irrelevant entirely. Of course negative reviews sting (I’ve suffered them too) but I hope I’ll never take for granted the grace of a reader devoting their time and energy to read my work. The college student’s remarks demonstrate she’s a passionate reader. It’s too bad none of the authors involved noticed that before launching their crusade.

That’s why I can’t let go of this line from Dessen’s original message:

Authors are real people.

As are readers.