The Write Room Cafe

The Write Room Cafe
Kevin Lynn Helmick

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Shakespeare Was A Genre Writer- Guest Blog with Proffesor Josh Mark on genre vs literary

Author and Proffessor Josh Mark stopped in The Write Room Cafe, Sunday morning for a cup and a dark corner to contemplate the boundries of writing fiction.

"Morning Josh, what's on your mind?"

`Shakespeare Was A Genre Writer'

"Yes, of course, I'll be right back that for ya."

There is this wonderful passage in the Cornell Woolrich novel, I Married A Dead Man, which I believe refutes the bigoted `literary' claim that genre fiction is not truly `literature'. For those who don't know, Cornell Woolrich (who also wrote under the name William Irish) was a well-known and highly successful writer of `genre fiction', crime novels in the 1940's and beyond. His story, It Had To Be Murder, was the basis for the famous Alfred Hitchcock film Rear Window and many of his stories, or plots derived from them, have served to provide writers with ideas from 1938 to the present. It would seem, then, that Woolrich should be regarded as a `writer' and not as a `genre writer' and, further, neither should `genre writing' be counted as less than `literature'.  As a human who has spent much of his life in the academic world, I have heard from fellow professors, countless times, that there is a definite distinction between `literature' and `fiction' with particular disdain accorded to `genre fiction'. Yet, when pressed on the question of what makes one piece `fiction' and another piece `literature' I have never received a satisfactory answer from any of these professionals.  Cornell Woolrich's work was, then, and is, today, considered `genre fiction' as it falls into the category of `noir crime fiction' but it is so much more than any label can hope to define. This is true of so much `crime fiction' or `YA fiction' or `horror fiction' that I think it's time we re-evaluated these tags we give to pieces of writing and try to approach them honestly and without labels.  The whole of this Woolrich novel is brilliant but this one passage stopped me cold when I first read it and I had to stare into space for a while thinking on it in the exact same way I have done when reading Shakespeare or Plato or any of the other greats. It goes like this:

"What makes you stop, when you have stopped, just where you have stopped? What is it, what? Is it something, or is it nothing? Why not a yard short, why not a yard more? Why just there where you are, and nowhere else?

Some say: It's just blind chance, and if you hadn't stopped there, you would have stopped at the next place. Your story would have been different then. You weave your own story as you go along.

But others say: You could not have stopped any place else but this even if you had wanted to. It was decreed, it was ordered, you were meant to stop at this spot and no other. Your story is there waiting for you, it has been waiting for you there a hundred years, long before you were born, and you cannot change a comma of it. Everything you do, you have to do. You are the twig, and the water you float on swept you here. You are the leaf and the breeze you were borne on blew you here. This is your story, and you cannot escape it; you are only the player, not the stage manager. Or so some say."

Not only is the passage beautifully written, it asks a central truth about human existence: Do we have control over our choices or are those choices dictated for us by some higher power? Whether that `power' is Fate or God or simply the sum total of all of our other choices or our upbringing, are we really free, in any given moment, to choose to turn right instead of left? Did we actually choose to become who we are today or was that choice dictated long before this moment by some factor far removed from our own freewill?

In the novel I Married A Dead Man, just before Woolrich writes this passage, the scene is this: A young girl has been deserted by her lover in a strange city. She's pregnant, which is why he's left her, and all she has is something like seventeen cents in her pocket and the train ticket back to her home town he bought for her. She gets on the train, tired and depressed, hopeless because she's returning home in disgrace, and lugs her suitcase down the aisle of the car. Worn out, she finally just stops, puts down the suitcase, and sits on it directly across from a young couple. That moment, when she stops there, defines the rest of her life.

Isn't this true for all of us at one point or another? It's the simplest thing, or seemingly the simplest, which leads to the greatest and most important times of our lives and which, actually, can come to define us. Who is to say, then, that genre fiction is not `literature'? What is literature but the story of what it means to be a human being? However one chooses to tell that story, it is a story we all need to hear repeated from time to time.  It lets us know that we're not alone.  I don't believe there should be any such designations as `crime fiction' or `noir fiction' or `YA fiction' if, by so designating a piece of work, one may then smugly dismiss it as `not literature' and, therefore, not worth reading.  The poets of today speak to us through the radio and off CDs in our stereos and, just because Springsteen or Gerard Way are not included in a college literature book, does not make the impact of their work any less. We should expand our understanding, and definition, of `literature' to include the totality of what goes to helping us all be more human and stop defining and trying to devalue those works which don't neatly fit the accepted understanding of what is `literary' work. Before he became `Shakespeare', Will was just a guy who wrote plays to entertain and, along the way, enlightened people to what it is to be a human being. So called `genre fiction' provides us with precisely the same experience.


  1. Here's an easy demarcation: genre fiction makes money, lit fiction only gets you "prestige" and as the union said when it got voted in at Harvard when I worked there, "You can't eat prestige."

  2. Oh, Amis is doing okay. And Barnes. And McEwan. And the bloke whose specs were nicked!

  3. Thanks for stopping in Josh, I agree that most of the basic elements, of suspense, drama in today's books, tv, plays, were constructed by Shakespeare first. He was playwrite first and in his time, and literary icon later. Which kinda supports my theory, that literature isn't written, it becomes

  4. This is incredible. Several good points in this post and I was truly enraptured by the passage of text from the novel. Personally, I do not judge writing as being greater than another based solely on their genre. However, I have met many who do.

  5. I love this debate, probably because it seems there will be no definitive answer. I recently did part of an interview (some of it here) in which the interviewer asked me about the genre vs. literature thing. Here's my response (a good one from me, I think; surprising):

    Q: Do you think of what you do as “genre” writing and if so or if not, do you see a difference (and what is it) between writing termed genre and writing termed literary?

    A: In common use “genre” equates fiction created to entertain while “literary” refers to fiction created to enlighten. Here’s where the dispute originates, in that the differences are with intent rather than the end product. When something cannot be judged 100% objectively, there’s going to be disagreement. Hell, that’s why conceptual art, you know, Duchamp’s R. Mutt urinal and such, is so polarizing. Some people would call The Fountain trash. Others would call it art. The fact is, it’s both. Genre and literary are not mutually exclusive.

    Genre refers to tangible measures like content, setting, plot, etc. Literary refers to the way in which those tangibles are executed. For example, a novel that people of the first distinction might call literary, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, is most definitely literary. But, like everything, it has a genre as well: domestic fiction or environmental fiction (or any number of other categories). Following that logic, two books could share genre, but not necessarily both be literary. Stephen King’s It is horror and so is Mark Z. Danielwski’s House of Leaves, but only the latter could be called literary.

    By the way Kevin, looking forward to reading with you in St. Louis in a couple of weeks.

  6. Me too Caleb, stoked about that.

    This was great guest blog by Josh. I was asked recently (live on air by the way) where do I draw the line for genre, and it caught me off a bit, seemed like a really fuckin stupid question because I see great genre crossing over into literature all the time. Yeah, genre usualy has pretty identifiable formulas, and begining, middle build, and a nice compfy ending with no room for interpretations. But I wrote somewhere once, and I think it was in Seabstian Cross, that literature is not written, it becomes.
    I feel that's true, the best literary usual starts out as something else.
    I thought it was pretty cool at the time I wrote it. Ya know, one of those moments for a writer when ya sit back and say, hey...that's not, terrible. That's kinda like...literary or sumpin.