Isaac Bashevis Singer, a winner of the Nobel prize for literature, said, “a good writer is basically a story teller, not a scholar or redeemer of mankind, ” and, “a story for me means a plot where there are some surprises. Because that is how life is—full of surprises.” He thought the relationship between a man and a woman a key element in writing.
I don’t believe writers and readers started the great divide between what is literary and what is genre. Dead authors featured in literature courses offered by universities wrote mysteries and thrillers. Mystery and romance writers today polish their writing as well as their plots. Who keeps this division alive? While I was a graduate student studying for a MA, I would have guessed it was the faculty of the English Department.
Robert Parker, author of the Spenser series, was a professor in that department, and Gary Goshgarian, who sometimes writes under the pen name Gary Braver, is a professor and writes science fiction and thrillers. However, the scholarly contingent of the faculty dominated what students studied. Literature was reduced to its smallest elements—symbols, images, and words.
Since I couldn’t work up enthusiasm for Thomas Pynchon and other twentieth century writers who espoused internal monologues (I have yet to have a personal epiphany involving such a monologue), I had to study for my final exam James Fenimore Cooper or Jonathan Edwards. Our early American literature professor wanted us to see Natty Bumppo as one of the earliest American heroes continuing in an unbroken chain down to latter day heroic representatives in the department. I couldn’t work up the right degree of admiration and devotion. Also, I couldn’t get past Natty’s name. Frankly, I have little time for the Puritan element in religion and Jonathan Edwards’s prose wasn’t the best I’ve ever read but my choices were limited. Benjamin Franklin wrote in the eighteenth century but he wasn’t a choice.
As a reader, I know genre writers can write great literature and literary writers can write exciting mysteries. Mysteries and thrillers without a touch of romance can be dry or mostly a brain tease. Love is never far from its opposite, hate, or its close relative, jealousy. A woman, the oldest daughter and frequently forced to care for her siblings, might marry a sick man so she can continue in her role as care giver. Suppose a healthy male finds her physically attractive and wants to protect her, is she going to kill her sick husband for the chance at a more lusty relationship? Cheat on a man or a woman and you can inspire the most primitive rage. Jealousy and envy can quickly eclipse the emotions of the kindest person. Will eliminating the rival rekindle a lost love?
Love and hate are so intimately linked that the possibilities for murder and mayhem swallowing up tender feelings are endless. Conflict in parent-child relationships carry over into romantic relationships producing violence, and the paranormal when the parent is dead.
What a pity we have to pigeon-hole stories when they can connect at so many levels, link together the sublime and the ridiculous, and explore the emotions of so many strangers.
Seriously, does anyone still believe genre writers are all plot and no character? Why can’t writers of genre be considered “good” writers and given equal respect?