East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Art for art’s sake


Not necessarily the 10cc song of the same title, but maybe… who knows? I stumbled today on a discussion in which one of the individuals involved claimed genre fiction can’t be as good as literary fiction, because if it’s good it can’t be genre fiction. I oversimplify, but that was basically the gist of the argument, with a twist – genre writing can’t be good because of the way in which it is produced, because of the authorial intent, if you will.

Now the obvious implication of this reasoning is, the moment I sit here and I say to myself , for instance,

now I’ll write me a ghost story

my story automatically looses the opportunity of being good, in a “literary fiction” sort of good. It’s flawed simply because I decided upon a certain form, and contents, that can be slotted into a genre. Mind you, it still exists the odd possibility that the story will turn out so good it will actually be literature, but it’s highly unlikely, and should it happen, it will be despite my intentions.

Now I find the proponents of this “genre is always rubbish” theory of literary criticism as insufferable as those that aim at “giving dignity to genre fiction” – an attitude that implies that genre fiction does not have a dignity in and by itself, but needs an external agent to bestow it. Both are, in my humble opinion, gimmicks to justify the existence of the critic, and part of a game of one-upmanship against the authors, that are downgraded in both visions to mere mechanical factors in the creation of a work that only the critic can interpret and dignify.

Interestingly (and infuriatingly) enough, in fact, this form of approach to stories at the same time deprives the author of any control over their work (once you invoke the genre, your path is set and the outcome sealed), and at the same time, presumes the critic does know a priori what the author’s intentions where when they sat at the keyboard, and sees the quality of the finished work as solely dependent on the author’s choice of tools.

Because, and I hope this is clear, the tropes, clichés and conventions of a certain genre are merely tools, no more and no less than the keyboard and the writing software, or the pen and the paper. We use them, not the other way around, and indeed relying to much on the conventions of a certain genre can be bad, but the quality of the story is not the one-way result of the tools used.

Now when I hear this kind of reasoning, my first impulse is to unleash my Cossack raiders upon the literature faculties and departments of the university in my country, to kill and burn and pillage. Such ridiculous justification of what’s basically a snobbish prejudice (“if I like it it can’t be popular fiction”) do usually come, in fact, accompanied with a degree in letters (or, god help us all, philosophy) and possibly a research paper on the works of Lovecraft, or Howard or Tolkien.

And the other weird aspect of the theory is – what the hell does an author think when sitting down to write literature? Is a sort of zen emptiness required? Are we supposed to just sit here and say to ourselves

now I’ll write some stuff

to be on the road to a literary Olympus?

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

4 thoughts on “Art for art’s sake

  1. So ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Dracula’ suck because they’re horror stories, ‘Moby Dick’ sucks because it’s a sea story, and “All Quiet on The Western Front” sucks because its a war story.

    Therefore Shelley, Stoker, Melville and Remarque are nothing but second rate hacks.


    So I’ll guess that the person who put this idea forward teaches at a University, most likely because if he/she had to make a living in the real world they’d starve.

    Note: yeah, I know, not all college professors are shitbirds, but these days, it seems a really high percentage of them are.


    • Ah, but that’s the beauty of this way of thinking – Dracula’s not a horror story because it’s good, and Bram Stoker either never wanted to scare his readers or he got it right by mistake.
      Irritating, uh?
      But you got it right – the guy’s a uni teacher. Probably couldn’t write himself out of a paper bag.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As long as he has tenure he doesn’t need to how to write himself out of a paper bag.


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