I confess: I don’t spend much time thinking about or worrying about genre fiction (i.e. mysteries, romances). I’m a literary writer, I’m an “artiste,” my role model is Shakespeare* (why not shoot for the stars?). I absolutely have nothing against genre fiction, but it isn’t what I write, so why contemplate it beyond a quick glance at the bestseller list? But in a convergence of events, I’ve decided that perhaps I might benefit by taking a closer look at what genre fiction.
First, we’ve been discussing plotting in my graduate novel workshop at Johns Hopkins University. “A novel is about ‘what happens next,’” I keep saying. “This is why people read novels, to find out what happens next. A novel is a series of linked events and scenes that have consequences that lead to more consequences.” Well, who better meets this requirement of creating suspense and tension than tightly paced, action-packed genre fiction? John Grisham’s readers are not going to hang around wading through aimless but lovely pages of prose.
Speaking of John Grisham, I came across this recent interview with him in which he calls himself an entertainer: “I don’t care if I’m remembered or not. It’s pure entertainment.” (Thanks to Buzz, Balls & Hype for the link.)
Yes…and even literary fiction needs to entertain in a certain sense. What happens to an Important Book that is slow and tedious? Unless we’ve been assigned to read it, it most likely will get closed and pushed aside. And why not? Life is short, and books—even when challenging—must be interesting and keep our attention. Calling that quality “entertaining” is not demeaning.
And then I met mystery/action writer Austin S. Camacho and heard his impassioned and thought-provoking speech in defense of genre fiction, which he has graciously agreed to share with us. While you may not agree with everything he says, I hope you’ll start thinking a bit more about the contributions genre fiction might offer in our greater, shared endeavor of how best to tell our stories. I know I have. (You can read more about my meeting with Austin in this recent post.)
* Note: Shakespeare may have been a genre writer in his time! Certainly he was considered "popular."
In Defense of Genre Fiction
My name is Austin S. Camacho, and I write detective novels and adventure thrillers. I am also an avid reader. I don’t want to come across as a reverse snob, but I really prefer good genre fiction to most literary fiction.
There is certainly lots of bad genre fiction out there, stuff that’s pointless explosions, sex or gore. There is also bad literary work, stuff that comes down to pointless navel-gazing, dull, overly academic and plot- free. Some might say this describes the majority of literary fiction.
All good fiction grows from interesting, well-developed characters. Fiction is, after all, little more than gossip – but gossip about people whose feelings we don’t have to worry about hurting since they aren’t real. The story is good when we care what happens to those people. One perceived difference between literary work and genre work is that literary fiction is primarily focused on the characters and their internal monologue. One could say that genre fiction is harder to write, because in mystery or thriller or romance novels one not only has to create good characters but they have to do something. The action is important, but it can’t be allowed to overshadow or overwhelm characterization. Sample any of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective novels for proof.
Another reason that writing genre fiction can be more challenging is that each genre has its own conventions that have to be recognized. To make a poetic analogy, literary fiction can be like free verse, whereas genre fiction is more like writing a sonnet or a haiku. Yet within that structure we have the freedom to do just about anything. Consider Louis L’Amour’s stories. Yes, they’re westerns and proud of it. But they are also almost all stories about people who learn to put their fears aside and leap into the unknown.
Those conventions empower genre fiction to attract a specific audience. Marketing people love that because when you submit a good horror, romance or science fiction novel they know what to do with it. In fact, I suspect that a lot of authors think they have a mainstream book on their hands until it reaches the marketing department or some agent explains the facts of publishing life to them. Sadly, if a book can’t be slotted into a category it’s twice as hard to bring it to market. So writing in a clear genre may increase your chances of being published.
Perhaps the biggest difference between literary and genre work is that generally speaking, genre fiction is written to be fun to read. Literary fiction often feels like work. It’s the stuff they make us swallow in school and, forgive me, but it’s the stuff that makes people stop reading when they get out of school. There’s a reason that genre is often referred to as “popular” fiction. It’s what people like. If we are to become a nation of readers again, it will have to be the future.
I thought about ending there, but I considered the recent words of my host, Leslie. She is right that all that I look for in good genre fiction can also be found in good literary fiction. John Updike’s Rabbit Run is certainly literary. It is also NOT dull or pompous or overly academic. It has a strong, rich plot and there’s lots of action. And I am saddened by my belief that if he entered the scene today as an unknown, that series of novels might not find a publisher. ~~Austin S. Camacho
About: Austin S. Camacho is the author of four detective novels in the Hannibal Jones series - Blood and Bone, Collateral Damage, The Troubleshooter, and Damaged Goods, plus two action adventure novels, The Payback Assignment and The Orion Assignment. Active in several writers’ organizations, Camacho is a past president of the Maryland Writers Association, and teaches writing at Anne Arundel Community College. After a career as a military news reporter on the American Forces Network, Camacho is now a public affairs specialist for the Defense Department. Camacho lives in Springfield, Virginia with his lovely wife Denise and Princess the Wonder Cat. For more information, please check out his web site. You may read more at Austin’s blog.