Hey readers! Got an interesting one for you today. Sort of a call-back, almost, to last week’s post on “pulp” not being a stand-in for “fun.” Once again, brought up by an online discussion I saw in a reading sphere.
Oh, and the cover image there will make sense. Just bear with me for a bit.
This is a discussion that I suspect many of you have heard repeatedly if you’ve hung out in certain reading spheres, but a poster had dropped in to ask what the difference was between “genre” and “literary” as he’d seen both used often. They also pointed out that genre seemed to be used as a derogatory term, while literary was used as a form of praise, and wanted to know what they could do as a new reader to identify these “literary” books so they could get the best experience.
That poor soul, right? Okay look, I’ll level with all of you readers here: The division between them is largely nothing. Nothing but pretentiousness on the part of the reader or, in some cases, the author. We’ll get more into this here in a little bit, and along with a really neat example that just kind of shows exactly how foolish the whole debate is, but up front, and in reality … “Literary” is 99.9% hindsight. Those books that are written up-front as “literary works” tend to be overblown masses of text because the author went in with the goal of producing some overblown level of “literary prose.”
Wow, listen to those lighters being held up to torches. I call it like it is folks. Also, I know who’s lighting those torches: The same people that get uppity and snooty about “literary” versus “genre.” Because they hold what some of the people in the resultant discussion did, that only “literary” is worth reading, and that it’s “different” from everything else in a way that makes it superior.
How? Well, let’s start with the definition that was offered by these defenders of “literary” virtue. They explained to this poor poster that “genre” was a story that was just focused on cookie-cutter elements. As they put it, it was fiction that was heavily dependent specific narrative devices, had a niche market, and would not be of interest outside that market because of those narrative devices. It was further declared that genre boiled down to driven by plot and formula according to stereotype.
Meanwhile, they explained that “literary” works were those that ascended beyond cliche and genre to tackle interesting topics, explore new things, and be enticing to those readers outside of genre.
Look, I’ll warrant that there are books out there that are written for various markets (that’s the bookseller’s side). And there are definitely books that are pushed out quickly to make someone a fast buck … But this explanation of “genre” and “literary” just didn’t sit well with me at all. For starters, it’s impossibly vague (which, if I’m perfectly honest, is how a lot of “genre VS literary” debates seem to be) while at the same time casting an incredibly wide and shallow net.
Basically, any time this discussion comes up, and these talking points are raised, I’m reminded of the ents in The Lord of the Rings taking hours and hours to decide that Merry and Pippin are not orcs. People spending far, far too long trying to gauge if something is “literary” or not based off of unclear, broad definitions that start a lot to boil down to “well, whether or not I like it.”
Again, it’s entirely possible to write a book (or create a story) that is entirely 100% unoriginal. That’s a thing you can do. But where I really rubbed wrong by a lot of these literary/genre assertions is that they seem to approach any work that isn’t immediately overblown with the dismissive brand of “genre.” And once they’ve done that, everything within that work’s pages is stripped of value. Because genre doesn’t have value to these folks. Not past entertainment. New concepts? Nope, can’t have ’em. That’s the realm of literary work, folks. Genre is all stereotypes and cliches! Can’t be new!
Worse, this moniker is given before any of these folks actually pick up something or peer between its pages. Or, they do take a quick look … but only enough of one to reaffirm what they already want to expect. “It’s genre, folks, nothing worth your time here unless you just want by-the-numbers entertainment.”
Now look, I could do a deep dive into this. I could sit here and talk about gatekeeping, superiority complexes, or any other number of things. But I’m not. Instead, I wanted to share an observation I noted yesterday that demonstrates exactly why this approach just doesn’t work. And for that, I’m going to go ahead and bring out one of my most anticipated upcoming games. Yeah, a game, not a book, just roll with it.
Borderlands 3. Which comes out in three months for the console folks and some PC folks, and then next year for the rest of the PC folks.
Now, at first glance, Borderlands 3 doesn’t appear to be particularly complex. It’s a looter-shooter, after all. Or rather, the looter shooter. With a graphic novel style visual effect, the core loop of the game is basically pick a character, and loot guns to get better guns. Use those guns to take on tougher enemies, get even bigger guns, repeat. If you’re curious, you can get a good taste of the insanity with this recent trailer here.
So yeah, pretty much a fun excuse to play with crazy shooting elements in a colorful, madcap setting, right? Nothing unique or interesting or new, just entertainment. Purely genre, then, if it were a book.
Except … it actually is exploring some interesting ideas, the first and foremost of them being its antagonist pair, the Calypso twins, and their cult, the Children of the Vault. It’s not shown off in the trailer I linked above, but you know how the Calypso Twins organized their cult of followers, or even got them in the first place?
Twitter. Okay, not our Twitter, but this future universe’s version of Twitter. And Twitch. And all the other streaming services out there.
That’s right. If you watch the gameplay they’ve shown off so far and see these two Twins, they are livestreaming personalities. They’re talking about when their next streaming session is, and reminding people to like and subscribe so that they can see their latest status post, and they’ve used and are using that to fund a crazy cult of violent followers.
Actually, it’s even more complicated than that. They found the crazy violent folks (in the form of bandits on Pandora, the series’ main setting) and then brought them together through their “voice” on these streaming services. Which they’ve then used to attract more followers, and more followers, until as the trailer points out, they’ve got over 10 billion people watching. Watching and hanging on their every word, then acting on what they’ve heard.
Wait, hold up. Isn’t that eerily similar to a lot of twitter mobs and online streaming controversy that goes on today? Just … taken up a few notches? Perhaps, you could say, explored in a new direction that we as a society haven’t quite gotten to just yet, but is possible?
But it doesn’t even stop there. What does that say, then, when mixed with the cover art obviously being a bizarre parody of Roman Catholic “Sacred Heart” imagery? Are the creators comparing the Children of the Vault (the Calypso Twins’ followers) to an organized religion that we’re familiar with? But they’re a twitter mob! Livestream followers! That’s not a religion!
Or is it? Is this story suggesting that livestreaming, twitter, and this new form of social media has become a “new religion?” Or could be?
Hold up. These sound like the types of questions, concepts, and new idea explorations that “literary” works are supposed to bring up. Not “genre” fiction, which Borderlands 3 so clearly “is!”
Hence why this whole “literary” VS “genre” divide just needs to shove off. Borderlands 3, while being a crazy, madcap shoot-and-loot I can’t wait to play (once it’s on Steam with the rest of my Borderlands collection, of course) is still going some interesting new places with its story, characters, and ideas. If “literary” fiction is the type of storytelling that tackles new ideas and concepts, then Borderlands 3 must be “literary” because everything we’ve seen so far shows it to be asking some interesting questions about social media and how people view it, as well as then extrapolating forward where this kind of behavior could lead.
On a side note, one of the “requirements” of literary Sci-Fi I see tossed out quite a bit is ‘the work must extrapolate on a social idea and move forward to see how it affects people.” So by that definition, Borderlands 3 is “Literary Sci-Fi,” folks.
Now, I say that for two reasons. First is to ruffle the feathers of the literary folks, because again, most of the stuff they say I find fairly senseless and along the lines of “We have decided you are not orcs.” Despite the definitions, the real meaning of “literary” vs “genre” is more of a gatekeeping movement of keeping things out rather than actually setting any closely followed “rules.”
Second is to show that good ideas, themes, and explorations can be found anywhere. Borderlands 3 is absolutely not a deep dive into philosophy or sociology. Not any further than they would need to tell a good joke, at least. But just because they’re not diving headfirst and deeply into it doesn’t mean that they can’t explore new topics in interesting and new ways, and maybe even raise a few questions for the player in the process.
Books are the same way. Just because a story is a fantasy romp across an ancient kingdom doesn’t mean it cannot have new ideas, present new concepts, or raise questions for a reader to grapple with. It doesn’t mean it will either, but that’s not the same as “never will.”
So look, in closing, don’t worry about whether or not the book you’re reading is “literary” or “genre.” Just worry about whether or not you enjoyed reading it. Odds are, if you enjoyed it, it made you think or asked questions or did something to make you wonder or ponder on something. Are there books that are better than that at others? Sure. But that might not be what you are looking for or need.
While you’re at it, don’t forget that these markers of “literary” can come from anywhere. Any story can explore new ideas or new concepts. Sands, the fact that Borderlands 3, a game that created and defined the looter-shooter genre, can raise such interesting questions about social media mobs and habits, should show that well enough. Interesting, thought-provoking concepts, experimentation, and development can come from anywhere.
So don’t feel like you have to put that book you just picked up off of the shelf down because it’s “genre” and therefore won’t deliver interesting questions or ideas. Give it a shot. Maybe you’ll like it, maybe not. Because that’s the real codifier: good book or bad. And that? It’s very subjective.
But you’ll never find out which it is for you if you dismiss it out of hand.