A very thoughtful essay questioning the distinction between genre versus literature, using Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel as an example. Well worth the read.
It’s hard to talk in a clear-headed way about genre. Almost everyone can agree that, over the past few years, the rise of the young-adult genre has highlighted a big change in book culture. For reasons that aren’t fully explicable (Netflix? Tumblr? Kindles? Postmodernism?), it’s no longer taken for granted that important novels must be, in some sense, above, beyond, or “meta” about their genre. A process of genrefication is occurring.
That’s where the agreement ends, however. If anything, a divide has opened up. The old guard looks down on genre fiction with indifference; the new arrivals—the genrefiers—are eager to change the neighborhood, seeing in genre a revitalizing force. Partisans argue about the relative merits of “literary fiction” and “genre fiction.” (In 2012, Arthur Krystal, writing in this magazine, argued for literary fiction’s superiority; he fielded a pro-genre-fiction riposte from Lev Grossman, in Time.) And yet confusion reigns in this debate, which feels strangely vague and misformulated. It remains unclear exactly what the terms “literary fiction” and “genre fiction” mean. A book like “Station Eleven” is both a literary novel and a genre novel; the same goes for “Jane Eyre” and “Crime and Punishment.” How can two contrasting categories overlap so much? Genres themselves fall into genres: there are period genres (Victorian literature), subject genres (detective fiction), form genres (the short story), style genres (minimalism), market genres (“chick-lit”), mode genres (satire), and so on. How are different kinds of genres supposed to be compared? (“Literary fiction” and “genre fiction,” one senses, aren’t really comparable categories.) What is it, exactly, about genre that is unliterary—and what is it in “the literary” that resists genre? The debate goes round and round, magnetic and circular—a lovers’ quarrel among literati.