Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Quick And Dirty Way To Look At Genre

I had a great dinner this evening with a newbie writer and friend at Gloria's, a Salvadorean restaurant in Dallas.

We spent a lot of time discussing writing in the abstract, something I rarely do.

In the course of the discussion, I found myself talking about genre fiction. I said something I don't believe I've ever said here on this blog.

The purpose of all fiction is to evoke emotion in the reader. One of the things that differentiates one genre from another is the specific emotion the reader expects to experience. For instance, horror evokes terror, mysteries evoke curiosity, thrillers evoke excitement and romance evokes a warm, sexy feeling.

Last winter, Nathan Bransford wrote a terrific post titled "What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?" He reran it this summer here.

In that post, Nathan said, "genre novels are really about how a character interacts with the outer world. The things that happen are pretty much on the surface, and thus the reader can sit back and watch and see what happens...In literary fiction the plot usually happens beneath the surface, in the minds and hearts of the characters. Things may happen on the surface, but what is really important are the thoughts, desires, and motivations of the characters as well as the underlying social and cultural threads that act upon them."

When I first read Nathan's definition, I thought it was a very workable one. For me, recognizing literary fiction has always been akin to Justice Potter Stewart's remark about hard core pornography: "I know it when I see it."

Since then, I've realized I would add to Nathan's definition by saying that literary fiction is free of the constraints that genre fiction is under in terms of the specific emotion expected from the novel. In literary fiction, the writer is free to select any shade or hue from the emotional palette that s/he chooses.

One of the classic errors newbie writers make is focussing too much attention on details like events or descriptions and neglecting emotions. I'm not sure why this is, but I do know a novel that does not evoke emotions in me leaves me cold and unsatisfied.

Just one woman's opinion.


Mike Keyton said...

Thank you. I liked that.

Maya Reynolds said...

Hi, Mike: It's good to hear from you again.



Katie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katie said...

I thought your last comment about newbie writers often leaving out emotion to be interesting. I have never heard that before. Me... in my newbie-ness, I seem to have the opposite problem. Lots of vivid emotion, and not enough "happening" around it! *sigh*

Maya Reynolds said...

Katie: I frequently critique chapters in which the writer goes on and on about things that happen without attaching any meaning or emotion to the events. It's uninteresting and as dry as day old toast.

While you don't want that old "gothic" style of overwriting with lots of heavy emotion, readers expect a certain "feeling tone" from a specific genre. Think of how cheated you would feel if you read a thriller with no thrill????

The Anti-Wife said...

Perhaps this is why I like literary fiction. I really enjoy delving into the emotions and motivations of the characters. I like knowing why they act as they do.

Maya Reynolds said...

AW: For the most part, I agree with you--although I can think of some books I've abandoned midway because I got weary of the Hamlet-like angst over what seems like nothing to me. I start praying for someone to do something...anything...just to get off the dime.

The Anti-Wife said...

Very good point and I agree completely. It can get monotonous if carried to extremes.