Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Comedy is to the Oscars as Genre Fiction is to Literary Awards

Watching that very funny musical/comedy number done by Will Farrell, John C. Reilly and Jack Black at the Oscars, it occurred to me that the way popular movies (not just comedies) get ignored at the Oscars, is similar to how genre fiction gets ignored by the literary so-called elite. Okay, there are exceptions some years at the Oscars, like Titanic, but generally most popular movies get ignored. Where were the nominations for Casino Royale this year?

The literary world holds even fewer exceptions. Stephen King winning Distinguished Contribution To American Letters at the National Book Awards is one. But the controvery caused by granting him that award proves my point. Genre fiction gets no respect. If you haven't read Stephen King's acceptance speech, you should.

Recognizing this parallel to the Oscars "comedies are excluded" number, I planned to do a tirade-type post complaining (once again) that genre fiction -- and the genres written by women for women in particular (e.g. romance, women's fiction, chick lit, cozy mysteries) -- "don't get no respect", but over the past 48 hours I mellowed and started to see things differently. In fact, I ended up changing my mind about the theme of this post all together. (And maybe growing a little in the process. Awwww. See? A character arc, even in my blog post. Am I a genre writer or what?)

So what caused my change of heart? I suppose what it boils down to is I'm glad we live in a world that still honors and supports creative pursuits not embraced by the mainstream. I'm glad that edgier, avante guard, experimental, controversial, slower paced, offensive to some, alternative art still gets produced/published/shown in galleries/recorded whatever. The world would be a very bland place if our only art and entertainment options were loved by all and hated by none.

And maybe mainstream entertainment doesn't need awards and critical praise. Work embraced by the mainstream gets other rewards -- public acclaim, money, fans. The creators of popular work get both the satisfaction of creating their art and of knowing that others enjoy it. I suppose we can let the non-mainstream folks take home the awards and glowing reviews.

Writers of literary fiction like to complain that genre fiction is taking up too many places in publication schedules, too much space on bookstore shelves, (ref. that ridiculous NYT column written by Maureen Dowd a few weeks go), but writers of literary fiction don't have much to complain about from where I sit. If publishers were only interested in money, they wouldn't publish any literary fiction. Hollywood, on the other hand, has all but stopped producing interesting/risky films such that an independent film industry had to step in to fill in the void. So far, the major publishing houses haven't followed suit. They haven't moved away from literary fiction just because Nora Roberts and Stephen King and Jennifer Weiner sell better, increasing the odds that debut writers writing in similar genres wil sell well, too.

And if it takes a somewhat snobbishly-biased reviewing and award system to support the "different" "riskier" books, the books less certain to sell well, maybe I'm all for it. I love literary fiction and would hate it if those reading choices were no longer readily available in my book store.

I only wish the system didn't have to turn its collective nose up, quite so obviously, at genre fiction.

But I don't think we writers of genre fiction should whine about this. (And this is coming from someone who has whined about it to her friends and family -- a lot.) Sure, the fiction I write is unlikely to ever get reviewed in the "best" places. My books will never be nominated for the Giller, or the Governor General's Award or the Booker. They won't be picked as Oprah books or be defended on Canada Reads. Even if my books become bestsellers (dare I dream?), I'm unlikely to get invited to speak at a PEN luncheon or do a reading at Harbourfront. If I join the Writers Union of Canada I'll probably get sneered at when I tell my fellow union members what I write. (This based on an author I know's experience at a union party at Margaret Atwood's house and another's experience at a Word on the Street event in Vancouver last year.)

But I'm starting to realize that the only problem with all this, is that I let it bother me.

Jack, Will, John. Take note. Your comedy work doesn't get much respect, but people love it. Love that.

12 comments:

Kimber said...

In business, we always ask the question "do you want to win awards or do you want to make money?" The two are often mutually exclusive. Edgy marketing, for example, doesn't really sell product (try even to find the product in the award winning ads).

Molly O'Keefe said...

Excellent article - Maureen. You should shop that puppy around -- so good.

And of course you and Stephen King are totally right.

Sinead M said...

Great post, Maureen, and loved, loved, loved Stephen King's acceptance speech.
But I've loved him since his on writing book.
To me genre has never mattered. We're all story tellers, no differentiation, just a different way of approaching our stories, but then again, I'm never going to be a literary award winner...

Molly O'Keefe said...

I'm not sure if I've mentioned this...but I love Friday Night Lights. Friday Night Lights is to me what Battlestar Gallactica is to you two nerds....

of course the same character in the past month has been caught taking steroids, led a walk out of all the black football players and now his girlfriend is bipolar and is off her meds... what's not to love about that????!!!!!

Josette said...

Maureen,
Great blog, and thanks for drawing my attention to Stephen King's acceptance speech. I have scoured used bookstores for his book On Writing, and now have my own large print edition. It's a book I refer to a lot.
genre, genre -- where would we be without it?

Amy Ruttan said...

Reading Stephen King's acceptance speech just confirmed my admiration and respect for him.

I just recently read my first Stephen King, growing up in a strict pentecostal home during my child hood disallowed me to read Stephen King, thank goodness that's not the case anymore.

I think I rather have people really enjoy and love my stories than be awarded top literary awards. I've never really heard half the people who won the Giller etc., I enjoy the writers that can tell a good stories, some are considered literary, some not.

Christine said...

Bravo Maureen! I've been a fan of Stephen King since I was twelve. You're both right that it's sad there is such a distinction between genre and literary fiction. I write stories I want to tell, and maybe someone will want to read them. Stephen King's On Writing is very much in the same vein as that speech. Gives people a new perspective on him.

Joanne Rendell said...

i just tried to say this over on the chicklit writers listserv. but you say it so much better!!

Lauren Baratz-Logsted said...

Excellent post, Maureen! I would add, though, that I'd love to see more parity between men and women, meaning that when men like Tom Perrotta or Chris Moore mine certain subjects it gets called suburban satire or somesuch, and even gets categorized as literary fiction, while when women mine the very same subjects they get sneered at for writing Chick-Lit.

Maureen McGowan said...

That's so true, Lauren. Same can be said for Nick Hornby. I mean he's a good writer, but so are so many female writers who get lumped into chick lit.

Libby said...

Very thoughtful, Maureen. Couldn't agree more. I don't think any of us begrudge lit fic writers success. We just dislike it when they begrudge us -- commercial fiction writers -- respect. Thanks for posting the link to the Stephen King speech. I want to share it with my daughter but had forgotten where it was! Libby

kathie said...

Awesome post Maureen. It's an odd distinction--genre's and the way they're segmented away into what amounts to "good literature" and "mind candy." For me it all has its place, but I suppose people always feel the need to claim there's as better, more sophisticated, deeper, whatever makes someone feel grand. Here's to finding a place for it all! Great site too...I'll def. link to it and your personal site!

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