Genre Writers Continue to Be Very Self-Conscious About Being Genre Writers

05/28/2010 2:06 PM |


  • “Merde. I am but two-thirds of a real character.”

Christian Lorentzen over at the Daily Transom notes something of a challenge coming out of this week’s Book Expo America. Specifically from Lee Child, author of something called the “Jack Reacher novels,” who says:

If you asked a genre writer to write a book in the style of Martin Amis, anyone of us could write a good imitation of one of his books. Could he write one of our books? I don’t think so.

Ok, obviously (as Mr. Lorentzen notes) Amis did write a passable imitation of a crime novel, 1999’s Night Train, but that’s not really the point. The idea that writing a (good) book is just some tradesman’s skill, like making a chair, gets at the heart of genre fiction’s inadequacy: great art has no blueprint.

Now, before everyone freaks out, I am not an enemy of genre fiction, and I really enjoy reading it (from Georges Simenon to Henning Mankell to those ones with the ancient Roman private eye), but I honestly think there’s a good reason genre writers tend to make such silly, self-conscious claims about “genre” vs. “literary” writing. Genre, by my working definition anyway, is about the skillful execution of a formula, an artful pattern that adheres to an unspoken (but understood) contract between reader and writer. And when it’s good, it’s really fucking good.

So when Mr. Child rolls up his writerly sleeves to flex his muscles about writing “a good imitation” he reveals a deeply flawed idea about “writing as art.” Because great writing (and all great art) is a thing unto itself, a discrete coherence that cannot be imitated (in fact, the very idea of “imitation” in this context is nonsensical, and is an end to the conversation rather than a beginning). Art is a lonely truth, necessary and total, itself only.

Anyway, I look forward to Mr. Child’s literary novel, Some Information.