Front Page, Musings

Weekly Musing: Genre Beef

East Coast vs. West Coast. Hatfields and McCoys. Republican vs. Democrat. North vs. South. All famous feuds. Another kind of feud, less known, is Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction. Apparently as a writer you must pick one or the other. Like any good feud each side believes their side is the correct one.

Bollocks. I’m not one for conflict. Absolutely hate it and try to avoid either being directly involved in and I get massively uncomfortable when I see people arguing. So to learn that there is this apparent battle between Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction greatly puzzles me. I don’t understand why anyone thinks one is inherently better than the other is. Granted Literary Fiction has been around a lot longer although there are examples of Genre Fiction with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and many others. But being able to say “First!” doesn’t mean it is better. It simply means it was well, first.

Before I go any further let’s briefly define Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction. Literary Fiction is fiction which holds literary merit in that it involves social criticism, political criticism, or commentary on the human condition. In other words, it is serious literature examining reality rather than providing an escape. Think of all the books you were forced to read in high school and college. On the flip side Genre Fiction is fiction aimed at the general population and is broadly considered escapism. This is the type of stuff not forced upon students because it’s not serious enough. But just like Literary Fiction having elements of Genre Fiction creeping onto the pages, there are countless examples of Genre Fiction with heavy Literary Fiction elements. Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Side of Darkness, The Ends of the Earth by William Golding, and Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende are but a few examples.

hope it is as obvious to you as it is to me how inherently snobby and rather dumb these definitions are. And I’m sure it obvious why these two have beef. There’s this notion those who write Literary Fiction are smarter, better educated, and better writers because they write Serious Stuff. Plebs need not bother. Those who write Genre Fiction are frivolous, write fluff for the masses, and must be worse writers because they don’t write complex, emotionally fraught work.

As a writer and a reader, why does there need to be this distance? Plenty of Genre Fiction books could definitely be considered literary not only because of the beauty of the prose, but also because of exploring themes supposedly only owned by Literary Fiction. Sci-fi and Fantasy often explore themes of humanity, right and wrong, gender roles, stereotypes, rights of the individual, etc. Historical Fiction teaches us not only teaches about the past, but also shows us gender roles, human rights, and how people try to fight societal norms. Women’s Fiction explores issues an entire gender typically faces such as discrimination, how does one define what a woman is or is not, and finding strength from within. I’ve read Mysteries which while primarily focused on whodunit, also spoke about racial differences and classism. I’m confident many other genres also explore serious issues.

So why is there this rivalry? What is it accomplishing? One thing that bugs me personally is trying to shove people into boxes, labels, whatever because it’s easier for them to know how to act rather than treating each person as an individual. Why can’t people just read and enjoy what they want without judgment? Why can’t writers just write whatever suits our fancy without a giant label on it?

Because human beings love those labels and the publishing industry is run by humans. Genre labels help readers figure out what they want to read. They help publishers determine how to market a book. Labels help libraries and book retailers know where to shelve a book. Labels aren’t necessarily bad, but when people start poo-pooing one genre over another than it’s just silly.

At the end of the day it’s perfectly fine for a book to just be a book but let’s reexamine the archaic assumption only Literary Fiction is serious and therefore better and Genre Fiction is fluff to be looked down upon. Not to sound all lovey dovey but can’t the two just get along? Our genre doesn’t detract from we write because we have stories to tell. We all have the desire to share with the world those stories regardless if our motivation is escapism or enlightenment.

Book Reviews

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: Drinking From a Bitter Cup by Angela Jackson-Brown

Drinking From a Bitter Cup by Angela Jackson-Brown is the author’s debut novel that came out in 2014. Set in the late ’70s/early ’80s in Louisville, KY before switching to rural Alabama, the story is about Sylvia Butler. The story begins when she is 10 years old and living in Louisville with her mentally ill and alcoholic mother. They are poor and Sylvia has no friends except her mother, a neighbor, Miss Cora, and her mother’s sometimes-boyfriend Uncle Ray. Her life is incredibly rough yet it isn’t lacking in love and Sylvia thrives academically.

Unfortunately Sylvia’s life is about to become more difficult as her mother’s mental illness is accelerated by an unexpected death. Shortly thereafter her mother gives up completely and kills herself by overdosing on sleeping pills. A few days after her mother dies Sylvia is introduced to her father whom she only has seen through a picture her mother kept tucked away. Her father had no idea Sylvia existed until contacted by Miss Cora per the instructions Sylvia’s mother left behind.

The day after the funeral Sylvia is whisked away to Alabama and is immediately resented by her father’s wife. Mother Viv, as she makes Sylvia refer to her, is so angry with her father for cheating on her that instead of hashing it out with her husband, she takes it out on Sylvia. Her father does his best to get to know and love Sylvia and for the first time in her life, she has an extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins, in addition to financial stability. With the exception of Mother Viv, her life improves drastically. But this brief period doesn’t last as tragedy once again strikes Sylvia with even more horrible consequences.

In addition to the prose, the strength of Drinking From a Bitter Cup is Sylvia. She is a smart, brave, and compassionate person. One of those people that you don’t want anything bad to happen to because they don’t deserve it. And yet the bad keeps getting piled onto Sylvia. She doesn’t need any more tests in life because by the time the book ends, she’s already gone through a lifetime of them. From the start you immediately root for her and just want to hug her and keep her close. It’s also clear she is a realist and has learned early on to rely mostly on herself. It doesn’t help that many of the adults around her hurt her in some way.

Ms. Jackson-Brown does a solid job developing all the characters including the two main villains of Mother Viv and Uncle Charles. While they are horrible people, one more so than the other, they aren’t not written as one-dimensional. It’s hard to empathize with them and they are the kind of people you’d like to scream at for being cruel to a child.

I also liked how the author brings ups such complicated issues such as untreated mental illness, poverty, death, religious belief, and various forms of abuse. Because of its setting both in time and place, those issues are a reminder to the reader that society still struggles with how to handle those issues. In some areas we’ve gotten better and more understanding, but in others we’re still failing.

One thing I thought was interesting was Ms. Jackson-Brown’s usage of symbolism. The big symbol in the book is The Wizard of Oz movie. Sylvia and her mother both loved it and the themes in the movie help support what happens in the book. From the idea of what is home to what is family to reality vs. fantasy are all touched upon. For example, one of Sylvia’s favorite memories of her mother is how they would dress up as characters from the movie and act scenes out at home. Yet those happy times of living in a fantasy world are contrasted with harsh realities of Sylvia’s mother’s depression.

Another symbol, one that is more explicitly discussed between characters, is her mother’s bed. Her mother tells her it’s where she was conceived and it’s also where her mother died. Once Sylvia inherits it becomes the scene of a lot of horrible, ugly tragedy. Yet somehow it is looked upon as a place where Sylvia will also conceive her own children and comfort them at night. I wasn’t completely onboard with that connection because it does stand for the extreme dichotomies in Sylvia’s life.

While I enjoyed the book, the one thing I didn’t care for was the ending. It’s rushed and although at least one of the villains gets it in the end, for once I’m not completely okay with a book ending on ambiguity. Normally I like open endings since I enjoy speculating and life rarely has clean, definitive endings. In Drinking From a Bitter Cup it is definitely left up to the reader to decide if Sylvia’s rosy outlook, almost bordering on delusional, on life is justified. I’m of the opinion it isn’t and I can see the cycle being repeated. I guess that’s why I have a problem with it. It saddens me to think of this very special person being stuck when she has kind of personality to break it. The ending also disappoints me because the author uses a plot device I cannot stand and think is cheap and overused. I can’t state what it is since that gives away part of the ending.

Drinking From a Bitter Cup is one of those books that is incredibly difficult to read because it pulls out of the reader all kinds of emotions. Overall I give it 4 pencils out of 5. It’s very gut-wrenching and one to be read with a box of Kleenex nearby.