author Tony Thomas shares his thoughts on the romance genre versus literary school of writing.
Real current literary theory, as opposed to what us middle-aged crones learned in the fifties or sixties, points out that the difference between "literature" and "genre" fiction is something that was constructed at a certain stage. Literature once principally consisted of non-fiction including, histories, religious writings, speeches of politicians and "statesmen" (they were all men back then) and perhaps some epic poetry. Novels of all kinds were considered trashy and immoral and a waste of time and even dangerous for the young and the female.
At a certain point, the ruling classes began to feel that religion was losing its sway over the middle classes and plebian intellectuals. The study of works of fiction and poetry and drama that were edifying -- that is, perpetuated societal values -- was put forward as an addition to the education of the young to replace what the demise of the old time religion had vacated.
Jane Tompkins presents one aspect of this problem in her wonderful book Sensational Designs. She centers on the writing of women "sentimental" writers in the 1850s who were the first writers of true block buster novels. Susan Warner's The Wide Wide World sold about one-half million copies in the immediate years after it was published, and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's cabin more than a million copies (after it was first serialized) being the most outstanding examples.
Hawthorne never sold more than twelve thousand copies, and that was the Scarlet Letter because of the custom house essay that drew attention and because of a national political scandal, not the literary aspects. Moby Dick -- one of the best and my favorite books -- never sold more than one hundred copies after it was first printed!!
Yet, traditional English classes don't tell you about Susan Warner and other women who wrote these books that millions read. Books were definitely not read by just one person. The pattern at the time was that many people belonged to private libraries where books were rented out like videos are today and when they were bought, they were typically read alone to the whole family by the father or mother as evening entertainment. Because they were popular.
In our graduate program at FIU about five or six yuears ago, Jim Hall, a
professor who was a long time academic poet struck gold writing thrillers.
He had a course on best sellers -- a literature course dissecting them.
While I write literary fiction, I think writers who write sci fi, fantasy, thrillers, mystery, other genres have to be treated with the same kind of respect and are part of the same general field as "literary" writers. I also believe that they may have more impact on reality, culture, and society because they provide what real people read. Literary fiction doesn't really matter, because everyone I know outside the creative writing sphere, including English literature professors and scholars, people with advanced degrees in other arts, world famous scientists etc, read the genre novels; the mysteries, the true crime, the fantasy books.
Literary writers should be addressing what they are doing wrong that the other writers are doing right, because the purpose of writing is to communicate to real live folks.
Tony Thomas was born in NYC in 1947 and grew up in Hartford, CT. As an adult, he has lived in Washington, D. C., NYC, San Francisco and Oakland, CA., Houston (two days), Atlanta, Renton and Seattle WA., Homestead, North Miami and currently resides in North Miami Beach, FL. He is proud to be a supporter of the Socialist Workers Party.
Article Copyright © 1998 Tony Thomas. All rights reserved. Published by permission of the author.
This page last updated 7-12-98.