Monday, June 20, 2005

Novel Wars: Art vs. Craft

Just about every day here on the internet, I stumble across a discussion where "literary" writers and "genre" writers debate whether writing "well" is more noble a goal than writing "to sell". I believe both sides are wasting a great deal of time and energy that might be devoted to writing some good books for me to read.

This is a full-service blog, so for those of you who are not writers (and for those who do write but who lead very sheltered lives), I will explain.

"Literary" writers insist that they're writing for art's sake. They worry about whether people will understand their work, and they're offended when anyone suggests that book sales (or lack of them, which is more to the point in any discussion of today's literary novels) are in any way indicators of genius. In fact, it's almost a badge of honor for authors when their literary novels get glowing reviews but sell very few copies. "I'm afraid it's quite literary," they'll sniff over a huge pile of unsold hardcovers. "I'm not surprised it didn't sell."

And in the opposite corner we have the "popular fiction" writers. Stephen King and John Grisham and Nora Roberts, to name a few. Yes, I'm talking about the people who write the books you buy at airports. Especially those ubiquitous, cranked-out-by-the-truckload romance novels.

Whoops! I wasn't supposed to say that. Romance writers will tell you they don't "crank out" their novels, but carefully craft them. Yeah, well sometimes they are crafted rather quickly, if you ask me. They have to be, to keep up with demand. And often the books are poorly edited. Not that the romance-hungry public isn't usually pretty forgiving about that. It's the stories they care about and pay good money for, so a poorly structured sentence here or there isn't exactly a deal-breaker for the average consumer.

If you think I'm being critical, note this: I write romance. Proudly. And I'm not criticizing, I'm trying to make a point. If we pretend that writing romance novels is gifting the world with art, we are not elevating the genre, but making it look ridiculous. Let's be realistic about what we're doing and why: This is entertainment, people. We write romance for fun and for money. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Take a quick quiz: Who's the more talented musician, Eric Clapton or Itzhak Perlman? It depends on whether you're more into hot guitar licks or soaring violin melodies, doesn't it? And what tastes better, premium chocolate-almond ice cream or broiled lobster tail with clarified butter? Again, a matter of personal preference. So which is the better writer: the brilliant college professor who labors for ten years over a single esoteric novel, or the fun-loving woman who banged out in three months the rollicking read you tuck into your beach bag?

I don't get why fiction writers are fighting over this stuff. What prize are they hoping to gain? What does it matter if literary writers think romance writers are hacks? And what's the big deal if romance writers think literary writers are snobs?

Wouldn't it be great if writers would stop flinging mud at each other and get on with the business (or the art, if you prefer) of writing?


Anonymous said...

I have never understood why there has to be a war, either. I mean, I remember when Chick Lit was first getting hot, selling big, and here come the literary writers to snub their noses at it and call it trash. Well, you know, there are jeans and there are merino slacks and there are vintage Yves St. Laurent palazzo pants--they're all outerwear for one's lower body, but they serve different purposes and cost different prices and some will keep their value far longer than others, but they're all pants and we can enjoy them all according to their purposes. And, truth be told, we'll probably want to wear those jeans EVERY DAY, and save the good stuff for special occasions, so by that rationale, we need MORE jeans and fewer vintage haute couture to be manufactured.

I do believe that some books stand the test of time and prove to be classics or "art". Others are transient, provide one pleasure, and you move on. So, what. AS long as the reader enjoys the book, the writer has succeeded.

The Bible will always be a bestseller. It's spiritual art. But a Christian romance novel can encourage a sad person, give hope to a despairing one, or just give two hours of a rather nice time to a reader. I think that's all worthy.

Robin Lee Hatcher said...

Wow, Brenda. You and I were really on the same page today! Except in my two posts (genre musings and genre musings, part deux), I was talking mostly about this same sort of struggle for Christian writers (CBA vs. ABA, literary vs. genre).

Excellent thoughts you've shared.


Anonymous said...

I like what Mir just said.
and I will take Itzhak Perlman any day! and chocolate ice cream, hold the Almonds, thank you,
hey where's Chris I thought he would have been over here by now,

Brenda Coulter said...

I don't think we should bother Chris. He's busy reading that romance novel.

I liked what Mir had to say, too.

Robin, I started to write, "Great minds..." but then I realized I'm probably not in the same class as you. ;-) Thanks for visiting my blog.

Anonymous said...

How do you know for sure that he will read it?

Shesawriter said...


Brilliant take on this subject.

1. "Lit--tra--chure" is in the eye of the beholder.
2. Good books sell like hot cakes.
3. Bad books sell like hot cakes.
4. Good books don't sell like hot cakes.
5. Bad books don't sell like hot cakes.

In short, WRITING (be it romance, "Lit--tra--chure", Pulp, Horror ... whatever) is too subjective for anyone to mount an imaginary high horse. What's more, no one will ever win this age-old argument. It's as endless as the figure eight.


Brenda Coulter said...

Note to "Anonymous", whose comment I have just deleted:

You might try removing the profanity and posting again.

And by the way, my ego is not so fragile that I need every commenter here to tell me I'm right. I don't automatically delete comments that don't flatter me. But I do wonder about an individual who quotes rude comments about me from another blog without adding any words of his or her own. It just looks an awful lot like somebody's trying to start a blog war, and I don't play those games.

Anonymous said...

In my experience of reading there are good writers as well as not so good writers being published by major publishers as well as minor or unheard of publishers and in a variety of genres. The bookstores don't truly do some of the genres justice by lumping everything but a few sections under fiction and literature. Everyone has their own tastes some more intellectual than others and same for writing styles. I think the quality of an author's work should be allowed to speak for itself rather than judging based on cover art or genre reputation.