Beach read. Trashy novel. Call it what you will, genre fiction has always been considered second-rate next to its literary cousins. But if the value of a story lies in its ability to touch people, to help them make sense of their world, should style really trump substance?
At extreme ends of the spectrum, literary fiction and genre fiction seem to be staring in opposite directions. With literary fiction, It’s all about looking inward. Characters tend to think rather than do, and navel-gazing is de rigueur. (Indeed, literary fiction has plenty of strict genre rules of its own, but That’s a topic for another day.) With genre fiction, the focus is outward, on the action. We don’t necessarily need James Bond to indulge in a long, philosophical analysis of why he’s going to chase the bad guy. It’s enough that he does?with an abundance of style and cool gadgets, of course.
Plenty of books fall somewhere in the middle of those extremes, but for the most part, literary fiction gets the nod as the good stuff?the stories with a purpose and, therefore, a greater artistic value. But what, exactly, is that purpose? To make readers think about big questions, like social justice or the futility of war? There’s no reason plot-driven books can’t do the same, and many of them do it remarkably well.
One good example is a writer who’s now considered a literary bastion: Charles Dickens. If you want action, he’s your man. Not that David Copperfield ever got quite as physical as, say, Jason Bourne. But Dickens? characters fought, schemed, stole, and even murdered. There’s no shortage of straight-on plot or buffoonery in his books either, and his characters are often caricatures of the broadest kind. In fact, no less a figure than Oscar Wilde ?sharply criticized Dickens? sentimental lapses.?
And Dickens isn’t the only one whose literary greatness was once considered little better than pop fiction. Back in 1896, Grant Allen slammed Henry Fielding’s writing as ?boisterously vulgar and human,? saying it lacked ?inner meaning.? Today, Fielding’s Tom Jones is a classic (and was even released as part of the Oxford University Press’s Oxford World’s Classics collection).
Modern genre writers face much the same battle. You can bet that mass-market authors like John Grisham and Danielle Steel aren’t going to be shortlisted for the Pulitzer. Yet clearly their stories?and the stories of similar authors?resonate with people. As this Forbes list reveals, the top-earning authors in the world (for the 12 months ending June 1, 2010) fall firmly in the category of popular fiction. Without exception, they write in one of these genres: thriller, horror, romance, suspense, fantasy, or mystery.
There’s much to be said for crafting an eloquent turn of phrase or exploring a character’s deepest motives. But sometimes in the end it really does come down to the story, the core truth that makes us laugh or cry or think, no matter how simply it may be told. And there’s nothing second-rate about that.