When it comes to scholarship and teaching, there is one area where film schools are considerably more advanced than English departments: their comfort level with genre.
Cinema programs, USC’s in particular, regularly offer classes devoted to melodrama, comedy, musical, noir (actually a style rather than a separate genre), and horror. Media professors acknowledge various conventions to storytelling and how each approach is considered worthy under its own terms.
English departments, on the other hand, overly rely on the simplistic distinction between literature and non-literature — that is, between so-called “good” and “poor” writing.
We can do better
This literary binary is vague in that it leads people to believe that authors should strive toward one level of success, and their work either makes the cut or it doesn’t. Novels such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Sherlock Holmes series are considered classics rather than their more specific titles of science fiction, horror, and crime, respectively, because people generally acknowledge their quality. The implication of this philosophy is that a story must rise above the conventions of its genre to be deemed worthy of the honorary title “literature.”
Movies are regularly distinguished by their appropriate genres such as thrillers, dramas, or sci-fi without some overarching binary of film verses non-film. Even an “indie” flick has become its own genre, its conventions involving a more intimate and focused story with a smaller cast since lower budgets can’t afford the trappings of a biblical epic. On the literature side, the modern equivalent of the indie film is “literary fiction.”
The best definition of “literary” (the category that most journals publish) is simply “non-genre.” When ordinary readers (i.e. those outside of writing circles) ask about my first novel The Last Night, they have no idea what I mean by “literary fiction.” After all, they haven’t seen that section at their local bookstore. I then have to double back and clarify that the story is character-driven, which implies that other genres lack compelling characters. “Drama” would be a more appropriate distinction, even if that term relates more to the theatre.
Fortunately, there’s hope for evolution among the literati.
Granta takes the lead
The UK’s respected literary journal Granta is causing a stir in this department by publishing an issue entirely devoted to horror. The problem many people have with horror is that they think of lowbrow, slasher films without considering how the genre also includes deeper, psychological terrors, which make for more compelling conflicts anyway. Published just in time for Halloween, contributors include Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Mark Doty, and Stephen King.
I think horror is more than a genre; it’s a way of dealing with the world. We’re horrified by violence, by death, by the things which we consider beyond the pale. And, of course, that which frightens us. When you expand the notion of horror like this it’s an emotion that drives many of our best storytellers, not just those who work in the genre of horror.
An emotional way of dealing with the world sure sounds like the goal of literary fiction — or should I say literature in general. By these terms, the success of a story is not determined by its conventions, but rather by the emotional connection to a truth through dramatic means.
I’m pleased to see a journal pay tribute to such a popular breed that is given short shrift among so-called “serious” readers. In the future, maybe more English departments will take a clue from Granta and film schools by offering classes that explore the literary conventions that compel readers of mystery, horror, and science fiction. And who knows? Professors might even learn something new about literature.