The Triumph of Genre

In a Crikey report published earlier this week, Guy Rundle lamented the fall from grace of the Man Booker Prize. Rundle compared the prize’s first jury in 1969, consisting of the standard-bearers of high literary culture, and its current jury, headed by Stella Rimington, a former spy chief who’s gone on to writing spy novels, and comprised in the main of names associated in one way or another with genre fiction. He concluded that this year’s Booker, with its emphasis on “readability”, signalled the death of a certain kind of culture:

“What was that culture? It was, for want of a better term, one ruled by the notion of ‘reflexive humanism’ - that modernity posed a series of existential challenges to us, personal, ethical, political, and that the novel was not only a way of thinking those things out, it was a form that experimented with new ways of thinking about how that thinking might occur, i.e. not wild aleatoric experiment, but innovation in form produced and producing innovation in content. That is not only a manner by which the novel matters, it is, these days, the only way by which the novel matters.”

Is the highbrow literary novel dead? Joe Fassler, writer of an essay on the subject in The Atlantic magazine, seems to think so. Fassler argues that literary fiction is being cannibalised by genre fiction.

Fassler’s essay traces a brief but compelling history of the rise, and rise, of genre fiction. The origins of the shift, writes Fassler, are the publication in 2003 and 2004 of two McSweeney’s anthologies of genre fiction by a mixture of genre bestsellers and highbrow auteurs. But there’s a broader shift going on, too, writes Fassler, which he sums up as follows: daily life resembles science fiction more than ever; pop culture is at least as important an influence on writers now as literary culture; literary tastes are more global than ever; stories with mythic dimensions are timeless; and genre is more lucrative, while financial returns on literary fiction are diminishing.

Despite all the gloom and doom, the latest ebook sales figures indicate that that sales of fiction ebook titles is way ahead of every other book category. And of all the different kinds of fiction, literary fiction, here defined as a genre, outsells all the other genres. The figures may be masking a grimmer truth, however, as literary fiction also includes, in this case, sales of classic titles that are no longer under copyright.

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