Joyce carol Oates provided the article/essay to “On Writing Horror” entitled “The Madness of Art” and engages in the discussion of genre and literary differences in stories.
Oates writes: “Perhaps, to transcend categories others have invented for us, we have to be both dead – long dead – and “classics.”” She continues: “In literature, the canonization of “classics” has resulted in the relative demotion of other writers and other kinds of writing; the elevation of “mainstream” and predominantly “realistic” writing has created a false topology in which numerous genres are perceived as inferior to, or at least significantly different from, the mainstream. If Edgar Allan Poe were alive and writing today, he would very likely not be accorded the acclaim given the putative “serious literary writer,” but would be taxonomized as a “horror writer.” Yet talent, not excluding genius, may flourish in any genre, provided it is not stigmatized by that deadly label “genre.””
I could not agree more with what Oates is saying here. Too long have writers been held prisoner by some unseen and constantly changing literary police who determine (pass judgment) what is acceptable for the masses to read and be proud of doing so and what is pulp. And pulp is a polite way to say trash or filth.
The hypocrisy is evident in films. Attach an “accepted” name like Scorsese or Spielberg to a movie and make it about gangsters or soldiers or businessmen and any amount of violence and gore is accepted. It’s artistic, it helps tell the story. Consider some of the scenes in “Goodfellas” or “Scarface” or “Saving Private Ryan.”
But put that violence in a “horror” movie like “The Thing” or “Day of the Dead” and critics, pundits and “experts” will laud the fare as “exploitative” or “grotesque.” Removing a face with a chainsaw is okay in a normal gangster movie, but doing the exact same thing and setting your movie in a backwoods Texas rural house and suddenly the rules change. Suddenly it becomes over the top. Why?
Fear. Fear that these folks who are the “in” or accepted crowd will be found out to not be geniuses, but simply story tellers of tales in the real world. The difference between what is real or accepted and what is surreal or supernatural seems to be one of the sticking points. Again from Oates: “Speaking as a writer predisposed to reading and frequently to writing what I call “Gothic” work, I should say that this so-called genre fascinates me because it is so powerful a vehicle of truth-telling, and because there is no wilder region for the exercise of the pure imagination.”
Again, Oates and I are in agreement. What is fiction? Good fiction I mean? It is truly counterintuitive: it is seeking truth by exercising the imagination and creating fantasy. Truth is not only found in the domain of the canon, the literary, or the celebrated. Truth can be found everywhere.
My definition of literary removes all the pretense and bombastic garbage usually associated with the word. Literary works are genre works that found a popular following and remained relevant for more than a generation. That's it, that's all. With every definition there are exceptions, but most of the “literary” fiction out there is just a fancy way to try and remove the stink of its genre roots.
Don’t believe me? “Romeo and Juliet” is a romance. So is “Dracula” and all that Jane Eyre stuff. Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol,” maybe the most often used story framework in history, is a ghost story that horror can claim as its own. Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is a tale of horror. “Gulliver’s Travels” is a fantasy story. I could go on, but you see my point.
Only today do we have novels being published that garner no public following yet get credited as being “literary.” The modern canon makers are digging in to make a last stand to protect some higher calling, some literary bend to stories “they” like and accept.
But the modern reader is not cooperating. Good writing, good storytelling is universal. The subject matter is secondary. If a story captures the imagination, whether it’s about class warfare in Victorian England or trying to survive a zombie apocalypse, then it should be considered literary.
Once more from Oates: “Gothic fiction is the freedom of the imagination, the triumph of the unconscious. Its radical premise is that, out of utterly plausible and psychologically realistic situations, profound and intransigent truths will emerge. And it is entertaining; it is unashamed to be entertaining.”
And there is nothing wrong with that.