chapter  13
On Mapping Genre: Literary Fiction/Genre Fiction and Globalization Processes
Pages 15

On 29 March 2014, the Oxford Literary Festival hosted a debate on the motion “Genre fiction is no different from literary fiction,” featuring four prominent novelists-Gaynor Arnold, Elizabeth Edmondson, Anita Mason, and Juliet McKenna. Their interventions were published throughout April in The Guardian. Despite different emphases, they made remarkably similar points: that “good writing” shines forth from the text irrespective of generic placements; that especially literary critics and to some degree marketing gurus are responsible for pigeonholing novels into genres, not authors; and that “genre fiction” is a broad church while “literary fiction” is a nebulous phrase. It was apparent that despite conviction in normative discernment and “literariness,” the phrase literary fiction has become emptied of meaning. Each of the authors had a reasonable grasp of what “genre fiction” consists in, and was able to understand “literary fiction” as not being that-or as being a matter of taste and convention that at times overlaps with much that passes as “genre fiction” and at other times repudiates “genre fiction” wholesale. At no point was it clear what these authors understood as “literary fiction,” except by negation from “genre fiction” or by vague assertions contra “genre fiction.” For this situation, of course, the debating authors were not responsible; the terms of the debate had put them in a corner. They had to assume that the phrases genre fiction and literary fiction have a preconceived, mutually definitive, and adversarial relationship. Manufacturing debates and controversies based on this assumption has become a fairly familiar pastime in the culture columns and review sections of news media. Not long before the Oxford Literary Festival debate, in 2012, a somewhat more colorful debate along these lines unfolded, in The New Yorker, Time, and elsewhere, between defender-of-literature-and-the-canon Arthur Krystal (2012a; 2012b) and champions-of-genre-fiction Lev Grossman (2012) and others. Unlike the authors mentioned above, Krystal believed he did have a clear sense of what is worth calling literature and what isn’t (and was to expound on it since: see Krystal 2014); however, at the time both sides felt they were talking at cross purposes, or rather, each side felt the other was missing the point. That too had something to do with the unquestioned assumption that genre fiction and literary fiction are mutually defined at odds with each other.