I've spent some energy before wondering what precisely makes literature different from genre fiction, and vice versa. I think we can say with some certainty that they really are different modes - or, perhaps more accurately, different states - of fiction. However, although many examples exist that can purely distinguish between these modes, there are many times when the lines between them blur to a lack of recognition.
It is this gray zone that is fiercely debated. Being a reader and writer primarily of genre (viz. fantasy), I see this almost entirely from the side of other fans and creators of genre (whose blogs and forums I read). And the main thing I see there is anger: visceral diatribes and furious condemnations. A recent rant by Sam Sykes typifies the kind of furor I see the entire community raising against the mainstream: Fuck off and die, it all essentially says. Genre enthusiasts seem primarily concerned that (1) literary types demean their chosen practice, but also that (2) genre material is stolen or ripped-off to produce work that is then called "literature."
I don't know about the first claim – I don't read the kind of blogs, journals, or papers that would expose me to the evidence – but the second is thoroughly evident. I was really annoyed when I had to pick out Margaret Atwood's "The Year of the Flood" from the Literature section of Chapters, rather than the Science Fiction shelves. Genre fans similarly complain about the assimilation of Cormac McCarthy and other writers, who are perceived as being genre writers whose works are "pillaged" by the literary establishment. As Daniel Abraham writes in a response to Sykes' post, "All of our best stuff it appropriated... Your post would be more accurate if... mainstream were sneaking into the apartment and stealing genre's panties."
This comment raises an important question: is genre only clothing? I think this is what genre writers and readers want to believe: that, fundamentally, genre and literary fiction deal with the same set of essential bodies – i.e., the same philosophical foundations and spiritual themes. And I think this is without doubt true: no work of genre fiction is free of speculation or ideology, whether those ideas are expressed explicitly or subconsciously; pretensions exist and take form by volition of our will. And what we call "literary" is, effectively, only the "realistic" style, and acquires no special virtues purely because of its realism. I think we can all agree that there are just as many hollow realistic works as vapid fantastic adventures.
But the kind of thematic maturity and complexity that deserves (according to my superb and irrefutable aesthetic sense) the label "art," is not to be had by every writer, or even every work by any single writer. I consider Jeff VanderMeer's "Shriek: An Afterword" to be thoroughly literary, insofar as it deals fundamentally with problems of knowledge, censorship, and truth; but his work "Finch," a book from the same series, lacks the depth of the previous book. It is, as we might say if we are feeling crass, "just genre;" but in truth, what we're saying is, "it's not as good as..."
The problem for genre writers – the thing that makes them huff and puff – is that the stuff that is "appropriated" by the cult of the literary is the stuff that, beneath its genre trappings, is in fact thoroughly constituted of grand ideas. It is, in short, the very best that genre has to offer; and because of this, I can only conclude that those who complain about the genre/literary divide are writers whose thematic contributions to the field of literature are inconsequential, the readers whose own philosophical depth is shallow, and those who in general blame their personal inconsequentiality on their aesthetic choices - rather than seeing in those choices a preference for the inconsequential.
I don't think this is unduly harsh. There are just as many "mainstream" writers – the kind that might luckily be dubbed "literary" because of their "realist" bent – that don't contribute to literary canon as there are writers of genre whose work is philosophically mediocre. Will history remember Jodi Picoult any more than Robert Jordan? I've forgotten Jordan already, and I've never picked up "My Sister's Keeper..."
In a follow-up comment to his post, Sykes says, "We need to be comfortable with who we are ourselves and stop drunkenly calling [literary fiction] up about it." I agree. The quality of a book, just as of all works of art, is independent of its style. It is unfortunate that the realist style is the one that has been most confused with literary artwork; but for those of us who are comfortable seeing things for what they are, the labels at the book store soon cease to matter. For the same reason, it's important that genre writers stop whining when literary stories dressed in fantastic clothes draw the attention of the literary elite. It's what's beneath that counts.
For the record? I love the inconsequential and the rabidly pulp. Sometimes, too, I need a little depth. But being able to distinguish between them is important to my intellectual well-being, and I know that the difference does not reside in leather armour versus leather jackets.
FYI: "Literature, Genre Fiction, and Standards of Criticism" by James Harold was considered in the writing of this drivel.
Now let's rawk.