‘Genre Fiction’ is the stuff that fits more or less neatly into categories: spy stories, science fiction, and above (or below) all, detective stories. It has been a pejorative term; ‘genre’ fiction as opposed to ‘literary’ fiction. Genre fiction is usually, perhaps always, plot driven: there is a tellable story and we want to know what happens next, whereas in literary fiction such things as character development and abstract ideas are what matter and the plot is just a useful framework. Virginia Woolf is, in this respect if no other, a typical ‘literary’ novelist. In one of her best-known novels, ‘To the Lighthouse’, a family and friends on a seaside holiday plan a trip to the eponymous nautical erection, but it rains and the trip is put off. Later the weather clears up and, in the last pages, they finally make it. Gosh. But that is vulgarly sensational compared to the work of Anita Brookner, who about thirty years ago, to everyone’s astonishment including her own, won the Booker prize for a novel in which absolutely nothing at all happens.
So is there a general rule that the less that ‘happens’ in it, the more ‘Literary’ the novel? I don’t think so. Iris Murdoch, for instance, wrote literary rather than genre novels, but in many of them rather a lot happens, some of it quite sensational. And there are, and probably always have been, ‘Genre’ novels that somehow contrive to have ‘Literary merit’. (Really, what a load of old crap actually: there are good books and there are bad books. Or rather, there are books one enjoys and books one doesn’t.) But going along with that idea for the moment, there is, for instance, John Le Carré. He writes spy stories, but there is more to them than ‘just’ the story: they engage with moral issues, they consider the personalities of their protagonists, they can be taken seriously, they can be called ‘Literary’ novels. And P.D. James’s popular detective stories featuring the poet-sleuth Adam Dalgleish are most certainly literary. It’s no anomaly that P.D. James was for many years president of the Society of Authors. So do we read such books ‘On two levels’? The exciting story taking care of our infantile wish to know ‘what happens next’, while our ‘higher’ faculties engage themselves with the more ‘serious’ parts? Surely not: is it not all of a piece; is there anything wrong with wanting a ripping yarn with, or rather as part of, our culture? Somehow I am reminded of the German novelist Stefan Zweig, who when his wife complained at breakfast ‘You only want me for sex’, peered over his newspaper to say ‘But what’s so only?’