Why Edward Docx is wrong about genre fiction

Posted by on December 12th, 2010

Oh – is it that time again? Time for the literary vs genre debate to rear its head? You might think we would all be weary of it by now, but perhaps not. This time it’s the turn of Edward Docx, writing in the Observer, to explain why genre fiction is not as good as literary fiction. His article is entitled ‘Are Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown a match for literary fiction?’ and you can read it here.

It’s worth exploring Docx’s particular argument to see what’s wrong with it. It centres on what he sees as the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction:

…even good genre (not Larsson or Brown) is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material. That’s the way writing works and lots of people who don’t write novels don’t seem to get this: if you need a detective, if you need your hero to shoot the badass CIA chief, if you need faux-feminist shopping jokes, then great; but the correlative of these decisions is a curtailment in other areas. If you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise. Lots of decisions are already made.

Okay, so what Docx appears to be invoking here is the novel as something akin to Borges’s garden of forking paths. We start with an infinite number of choices open to us about how to proceed. His argument appears to be that genre fiction is constrained: that there are some paths a crime novel, for example, must necessarily take in order to be considered crime, and this inherently limits what the form may achieve in comparison to literary fiction, where all paths are open.

At first glance, that seems reasonably compelling. Let’s comprehensively demolish it.

1) It simply isn’t true that literary fiction is unconstrained or that all story options are open to it. For example, the conventions of genre fiction aren’t open to it. On this conception, yes, a crime novel might need to follow certain paths to be considered as crime, but, by the same token, literary fiction cannot follow those paths and retain its identity as literary fiction. So when you set out to write literary fiction, “lots of decisions have already been made” too, in terms of what you can’t include without it becoming a genre novel instead.

2) Docx assumes that people set out to write in a particular genre. This is, of course, sometimes true, but some people also write what they want to and then find genre labels imposed on their books retrospectively. In the latter case, his point about genre fiction simply doesn’t apply. The author would have made decisions freely, not had them imposed on the book in advance. It’s not entirely clear to me how Docx proposes to tell the difference just from reading the book itself, and his argument implies that learning the author’s intentions afterwards would mysteriously alter the merit of the novel.

3) This leads into the final point: that Docx’s argument does not compare like with like. He is effectively comparing a completed genre novel with the infinite possibilities he (incorrectly) imagines open to an unwritten literary novel. In reality, we judge completed works, and every story has been entirely constrained by the act of writing it down. Every novel is a single, set route through this garden of paths. It is ludicrous to judge a book by the choices open to the author before the book is written, rather than by the choices made while it is. We judge a novel by the scenery the author chooses to show us, not by what they might have shown us instead.

The rest of the article is a greatest hits for this sort of discussion. We get our old friend, the burger vs fine dining analogy (honestly, the literary equivalent of Godwins Law). It’s a decent enough distinction, but I’d argue it applies more to ‘writing as pure entertainment’ versus ‘writing as literature’, and it’s not clear that genre and literary fiction map neatly onto that distinction without a fair bit of question-begging. We also get poor or average crime fiction contrasted with the best of literary fiction. We even get some fair-enough dissection of Lee Child, who admittedly does say some bullishly dumb things on occasion (although Nick Mamatas skewered that particular quote far more deliciously here).

We also get this:

We need to be clear-eyed here because although there is much written about this subject, there is also much theatricality to the debate.

Well, yes.

This entry was posted on Sunday, December 12th, 2010 at 12:43 pm and is filed under General, Rant. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

 

22 Responses to “Why Edward Docx is wrong about genre fiction”

  1. John Self Says:

    I tweeted the link to Docx’s piece this morning feeling myself to be more or less in agreement with it (in general terms, that is, as I haven’t read any Stieg Larsson). However I have to acknowledge the merit of your points, in particular the second and third ones. Docx assumes that the writer sits down and thinks, “Right, I’m going to write a detective novel” or whatever, when presumably most writers simply sit down (or stop tweeting) and think, “Right, I’m going to write a novel.”

    On reflection, I think my urge in posting a link to the article came not so much from agreement with Docx and disagreement with Lee Child.

  2. John Self Says:

    “as disagreement with Lee Child,” that should be…

  3. Sophia McDougall Says:

    Am I going to have to break out the Genre-Bashing Flowchart again? Because it sounds that way.

    This is a good post and you should feel good.

    He is effectively comparing a completed genre novel with the infinite possibilities he (incorrectly) imagines open to an unwritten literary novel

    I particularly agree that a writer does not necessarily know or care what genre they’re writing in when they start out. I certainly didn’t. I just wanted to write A Book.

    But I’d add that just as it’s true that a genre author can plumb the same depths as a literary one, it’s not necessarily true that the pathways of genre aren’t open to literary authors — often they do take them, and thus the boundaries are blurred further and the division between Genre (bad) and Literary (good) becomes even more artificial and useless. Margaret Atwood frequently writes sci-fi, though it doesn’t get labelled as such and she used to jump around hooting that it wasn’t sci-fi because it didn’t feature talking squid from outer space (I think she may finally have stopped doing this?) Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is set in a dystopian future and features bands of crazy roving cannibals much like something out of Firefly or Mad Max. A S Byatt wrote Possession, which she labelled “a Romance” and which also featured a number of thriller tropes. And even in her other works she has a fondness for unexpectedly blowing shit up and dramatically killing people off, etc.

    Even Docx seems to suddenly get scared he’s arguing literary fiction out of being able to do something worthwhile and notes that of course literary authors can write thrillers e.g Crime and Punishment. Well, er… yeah?

    Finally — “Docx”? Really?

  4. Marc Nash Says:

    Re your point 1, what you say is surely an indictment of how books are published, promoted, and sold? You’re right, most writers probably don’t know the book they have garnered the material for until the process of writing it, but if it’s pigeonholed by marketing folk in such a way that diminishes the work, or partially takes it away from the writer, then that is the fault of the writer and the deal they have struck with the devil of commerce? I guess we can’t have it both ways.

    I think your literature versus entertainment is a more useful axis, or one I often conceive of, books that seek to engage with the world and books that seek to provide some escapism from it. Myself, I only plump for the former, but there is absolutely room for both books to exist side by side quite happily, without either looking down their nose at the other. Does China Mieville not inject certain literary values into his genre work? Did Paul Auster’s debut novel not revolve around noir tropes, even though it has been pronounced definitively literary? Kafka and Burroughs were just writing fiction, not literary, not fantasy/Science Fiction.

    I think we not only diminish the writers by such spurious divisions, but the readers as well. 3 for 2 offers, front table display and the like drive everything. It is all commerce and has absolutely nil to do with literature.

    As a writer, I’m just led by the material. I write experimental literary fiction, but my current WIP is a genre novel, so go figure…

    Thanks for your rebuttal of the Docx argument. Can’t book lovers just love one another and get on? Do readers even care all that much about this naval gazing between writers and literary critics? Probably not.

  5. Mark Barrett Says:

    I agree with your point that the author is favoring the potential of the literary form over the requirements of any particular genre. This argument falls on its face, however, when one contemplates the requirements (limitations) of literary fiction, and particularly the tendency to write not from the heart but the self-conscious and desperately competitive intellectual brain. The result is a kind of literary authorial masturbation that aspires to Melville but generally comes to rest on a psychotherapist’s couch.

    The answer to the debate is as its always been: the goal is truth in both art and entertainment. If you can’t tell the truth no matter how adventurous you are in your art, then you’ve failed. If you can tell the truth no matter how constrained you are in your genre, then you’ve succeeded.

    A final point. Nobody ever told a painter that constraining their choice of colors was a mistake or a capitulation to commerce. It’s not the range of your palette, it’s what you do with it.

  6. stevemosby Says:

    Thanks for the comments everybody.

    Regarding my first point, I’m aware it’s a bit spurious and that I’m probably conflating necessary conditions for something being regarded as a genre novel with those conditions being sufficient. That said, it does seem to me that Docx is saying ‘anything goes’ when you set out to write literary fiction. From the terms of his argument, certain routes must be out of bounds though. I’m aware this is a silly and trivial point to make, but we are where we are.

    In reality, as Sophia says, these labels are fuzzy and arguable anyway. I could have added to point 2 that not only are genre labels applied retrospectively to a work, but there is often debate about which label to apply. We all know that’s the case, and it appears to me to sink Docx’s argument. For example, it seems entirely possible that someone might sit down, decide to write a dystopian science fiction novel, and produce The Road. I’m not sure how that initial constraint is supposed to make the slightest difference to the overall quality of the completed fiction.

  7. Alex Says:

    So-called Literary Fiction is itself constrained: by the imperative to be somehow relevant, to reveal ‘truths’ about the world (when in fact all fiction, especially ‘Lit Fic’, reveals more about the writer than anything elsw), most often to stick rigidly to some dictum of ‘realism’ or for any fantasy to have a ‘function’ (see Magic Realism) rather than to exist for its own sake.

    It’s a big mess of neuroses, of self-consciousness, of repression that masquerades under the banner of gentility and progressiveness. Very Guardian, very English in that sense. It’s a denial of the innate joys of storytelling in favour of some contrived sense of purpose and value and peer approval. They’re still favouring the Modernists’ parochial, elitist ideas of mass culture and high culture, patronising and divisive concepts that are still utterly irrelevant. Stuffy idiots.

  8. jim graham Says:

    check out @drmabuse quoting docx over at twitter – #docx

  9. FARfetched Says:

    it does seem to me that Docx is saying ‘anything goes’ when you set out to write literary fiction.

    That fits well my definition of literary fiction as a series of well-crafted scenes, linked by nothing resembling a plot.

    Another way of looking at it: it’s OK to start writing a story with no clear idea of where it’s going at first — that’s how my current WIP (serialized on my blog) started. But sooner or later, you either add structure, plot, and theme; or you have literary fiction.

    Perhaps what Docx (not a format I’d trust my work to, BTW) is protesting, is the pigeonholing of authors. You publish a sci-fi/horror/romance novel, and you’re forever a sci-fi/horror/romance author. Literary authors may write books that go nowhere and make no point, but at least they don’t have the crossover issues.

  10. JKTrowling Says:

    Aside from your already killer arguments, I like the fact that he’s trying to compare the sizes of two infinite sets. You see, he’s approaching it as a literary problem, when in fact it’s just maths.

    However, I will overlook all these on the grounds that he has demonstrated the superiority of Sci-Fi over all other genres. I mean, the characters don’t even have to be carbon-based…

  11. stevemosby Says:

    All good points, thank you. I should say, reading that article, I only see Docx make one solid argument in favour of his conclusion, so I limited myself to discussing that. Everything else seems unsupported, so I didn’t see the point in addressing it. But it goes without saying there is a hell of a lot more to the debate than what I’ve said, and various bloggers are taking him to task far more elaborately than I am.

    I’d point to Chuck Wendig (http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2010/12/12/get-genre-out-of-the-ghetto/) and Nick Mamatas (http://nihilistic-kid.livejournal.com/1569876.html) who have both written good posts detailing their problems with Docx’s article..

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  13. Vincent Eaton Says:

    A work of art (or in this discussion, the literary novel) most often encourages the reader to ask questions of himself, examining, if you will, the state of one’s ‘soul’. It has an internal pull, whereas much genre writing is an external push. Hence the use of the term “deeper” when it comes to literary writing. I alternative, liking the Ying & Yang of both, but being touched more by the literary yet zinged by the well-paced surface thrills of certain genres.

  14. stevemosby Says:

    Vincent – I sort of agree with you, although one problem is that generalising about what literary fiction or genre fiction often do, or aim to do, ignores the cases where they don’t, or where books do both, and so on.

    I’ll nail my colours to the mast here. I think a more useful distinction is one along the lines of ‘escapism versus engagement’, as raised by Marc in point 4. I would probably use the term ‘literature’ for the latter – a term that is distinct from ‘literary fiction’ – and say great art is art that enables us to see the world anew. In a sense, it teaches us something. It causes us to think and question ourselves and the world around us (not just our own souls, but also – forgive me – the soul of our society). We read the book and then we see examples of it everywhere; it becomes a prism through which we are forced to see the world.

    It’s a working definition, perhaps, but one that doesn’t seem to me to divide neatly along genre/literary lines, or even neatly at all, as it’s not clear to me why a page-turning, apparently simple piece of entertainment can’t also turn out to be profoundly engaging (a sugared pill, if you like). It’s also not pejorative – and another reason I disagree with Docx’s conclusion is that I think his question is meaningless. Just because we value two pieces in different ways, that does not prove one of those ways is inherently more valuable.

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  18. Vincent Eaton Says:

    Steve — I think, at bottom, in the end, when all is said and done, we are dealing with imposed marketing terms. Groupings traditional booksellers always need so they can push product for customers when they enter a store. Then variations that don’t fit established genres get sliced and diced even further (paranormal romances, et al) and one ends up just simplifying and hanging onto that old nut: There’s only good writing and bad writing. Evelyn Waugh was a master stylist of the 20th century, but I could put Raymond Chandler right up there next to him and I think he holds his own ground nicely. Thing is, there’s lots and lots of crappola out there, always has been, literary and otherwise. One is always grateful for coming upon A Voice with an Individual Perspective, and this reader then says, Lead on…wherever the story may lead.

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  20. stevemosby Says:

    Vincent – agreed.

    And this:

    “Thing is, there’s lots and lots of crappola out there, always has been, literary and otherwise. One is always grateful for coming upon A Voice with an Individual Perspective, and this reader then says, Lead on…wherever the story may lead.”

    is a sentiment I think we can all get behind.

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  22. Jack Hughes Says:

    Hadn’t heard of Edward Docx until his article….should i have? Skimmed previous responses which seem pretty much attuned to my view…”shut up until you know what you.re talking about”..he sets up two targets, Dan Brown and Stieg Larssen and uses them to shoot down ALL genre fiction….pretty much throwing out Baby and Bathwater at same time. Of Dan Brown i am totally ignorant except of the Arch(er) scorn in which he is held by the literati. but he seems to be closer to Conspiracies than Thrillers? Regarding Larssen i have read 1/3 of Millenium, but i do know this one big fact…..that he was primarily a crusading anti-fascist journalist and NOT a novelist… so maybe his lack of style (as opposed to substance?) could be forgiven ? Sure, Mankell is a better writer (beleive me, i do know the differencee…Orwell taught me, then Miller and Greene) but he’s had more practice.

    What really hacks me off, though, is not even the Brown/Larssen thing but the implicit dismissal of Science Fiction along with all the other Genres without which i could probably live (although, isn’t the dynastic novel as typefied by Zola and Galsworthy a Genre….?) Has the poor guy never read Ray Bradbury ? or Harlan Ellison or Cordwainer Smith….yes, admittedly, some of the practioners don’t write that well but these three at minimum do. Totally recommended, though Ellison, like William Burroughs can be a bit stomach turning. “BEATS”…”genre” or “school”…..? Discuss, likewise ” Kitchen Sink” and ” Magic Realism”…….. My ” Last Words Anywhere”; Crime and Punishment isn’t a THRILLER, just: thrilling. Do read it before ” The Calligripher ” Do read…what you want to…cheers

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