They're having a small debate on The Guardian book blog about genre vs literary fiction.
“The ongoing, endless war between ‘literary’ fiction and ‘genre’ fiction has well-defined lines in the sand. Genre's foot soldiers think that literary fiction is a collection of meaningless but prettily drawn pictures of the human condition. The literary guard consider genre fiction to be crass, commercial, whizz-bang potboilers. Or so it goes...”
It's easy to pick on bad genre fiction – so easy, in fact, that it's been elevated to an art form in the area of classic “B” movies and trashy pulp novels. “Bad” literary fiction is a bit harder to suss out because, let's face it, one person's dud novel is the darling of at least a hundred if not a thousand critics.
For myself, the division between “good” literary fiction and “bad” literary fiction comes when the main character is so tied down by their own neurosis and/or situation that NOTHING CHANGES. The story rolls along because the main character(s) can't make any choices (or their choices don't have any effect) that would break them out of their pre-determined misery.
Thus, here are the three worst books I've ever read, in no particular order (again, completely subjective and I apologize if any of them are on your Top Ten list): Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.
In The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago nobly, resignedly, patiently marches on from the ominous foreshadowing in the beginning of the book, all the way to the depressing end... and you, as a reader, are left with the feeling that it was all inevitable and hopeless. That and Hemingway's short, choppy writing drove me crazy.
In Anna Karenina, by the time she threw herself under a train, my only thought was, Oh thank god that's over with. There was a significant chunk of book left but I'm quite sure I didn't read any farther.
And dear Wuthering Heights. How are we supposed to care that Heathcliff and Cathy screwed up their lives and decided to make everyone around them pay for it? I can't believe nobody offed the miserable bastard - it would have made a much more satisfying story. The only reason I finished the book was to see how he finally died.
I lose patience with “literary” fiction when the author hasn't convinced me that the characters' happiness is out of their control due to extenuating circumstances. I understand the author's right to write such a story. I just don't have the desire to read such a story. And Emily Bronte, I am sure, wrote Wuthering Heights as a huge, infuriating joke on serious readers everywhere.
@frustratedartist made a similar comment about James Joyce's Ulysses, and what I think is a great observation:
I think the thing is that we have a divided brain. The emotional half of our brain hankers after stories: Boy meets girl, there are obstacles, love conquers all. Man gets put in prison for a crime he didn't commit. He eventually escapes and takes revenge on his framers... A man goes out on a long journey. Lots of stuff happens to him. He comes back home and sorts his life out.
The other half of our brain rejects this “1 Present characters. 2 Introduce a problem. 3 Allow problem to worsen. 4 Find satisfying resolution.” approach as being too simplistic. This half demands food for thought: multi-layered complexity, ideas, sentences that only one person in the world could write, scintillating language, a non-linear narrative, maybe. Something to challenge the mind.
I think most readers are, in fact, more forgiving of poor writing than they are of a boring story. Harry Potter, The DaVinci Code, and the Twilight series will bear out proof of this, however much the literati may decry it.
Good books should be allowed to have both a good story and good writing. If the plot can keep you endlessly fascinated, and the writing ranges from solidly invisible to occasionally stunning, then it's a good book and needn't be burdened with a ‘genre’ or ‘literary tag’. Right?