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Tripartite division of fiction

Tue 26 Oct 2010 by mskala Tags used:

I was reading the Wikipedia article on "genre fiction" recently (and it's pretty bad, so I won't link or recommend it), when it occurred to me that maybe we see the same division in fiction that we see in music.

There are basically three kinds of music. There's Music with a capital M, the kind that gets taught in the Music departments of universities; I've heard it called "art music" and "serious music," both of which have built-in value judgments, and I've heard some credible claims that at the moment the most value-neutral term is "erudite music," but that's obviously value-laden too, and the very fact it's hard to name this category without sounding like a snob, is a big clue to the definition of the category. It's clear that Music with a capital M is a legitimate art form; but it's not accessible in the same way as the next category: popular music, which (and again I'll sound snobby by saying this) is the music that people actually listen to. And then there's traditional or folk music; I've heard that defined as music for which the author is unknown, but that definition has problems. If I find out who wrote a song, does it magically stop being folk? In a world where good records of things are generally kept, does that mean no more folk music can ever be created? I prefer the definition that folk music is music that at least appears to be made by ordinary people - folks - for their own entertainment, instead of being made by professionals. This division into three categories usually works pretty well. You can reliably figure out which category any given music is in; there's some overlap among the categories but not enough to render them useless; and nearly all music fits into one of the three.

Can we use equivalent categories for fiction? It seems to me that the "literary" or "genre" distinction for fiction parallels the "erudite" or "popular" distinction for music. We've got scholars in universities studying Literary fiction with a capital L and mostly turning up their noses at genre fiction - but genre fiction is the fiction people actually read. Then if the analogy holds, there should be a third category, the fiction equivalent of folk or traditional music. Is it fairy tales, flowing from the definition of traditional music as old music without an author attribution? Is it fan-fiction, flowing from the definition of music made by ordinary people?


The overlap in fiction seems more of a problem than with music. Balzac and Dickens were hugely popular. Maybe authors migrate from one category to the other when they pass through the Pearly Gates, but I don't think that has happened, or will happen, to Elvis (assuming he is not still alive). And there is the third category: I guess Homer is folk literature along with the anonymous porn novellas I used to find in university toilets, typed on yellow paper.

As someone who would much, much, much rather listen to hours of Mauricio Kagel than to any long or short period of Michael Jackson (to name two chaps who died a few months apart) I find it a bit hard to be told that I am not "people actually". There is snobbish exclusivity that excludes the minority and doesn't mean very much in practice; and there is popular exclusivity that excludes a minority, and is often effectively cruel. Ask any high-school kid with off the wall tastes in music. Axel - 2010-10-26 11:17
Err... The first "minority" should read "majority". Axel - 2010-10-26 11:19
I think in his own time Dickens would definitely have fallen into the popular category, and only been taken seriously after he was rich and popular. It's only more recently that his work has been considered Art Literature on its own merits. Shakespeare might be an even better example; and the same kind of migration between those same categories has happened a whole lot in music. Much of today's "serious" Music is just the popular music of a few hundred years ago. I suppose one argument for that being okay is that a lot of other popular music from the same eras is now long-forgotten. Anything people (or academics) still listen to from 300 years ago is probably the very best of whatever was popular in that era, just to have been able to survive so long. It remains to be seen whether that'll happen for Elvis, but I have my hopes.

As for snobbery: it's true there's a lot of snobbery in all three directions. I probably revealed some of my own biases by the slant I put on my descriptions. The fact I write "genre fiction" myself probably also colours my judgment of criticism directed at both it and anything analogous to it. Matt - 2010-10-26 11:33
Steve C
I sent you an email. Just confirming it didn't get eaten by your spam filter. Steve C - 2010-10-26 12:42
The Academy has always been about separating the sacrosanct wheat from the popular chaff. It's an institutional bureaucracy so it doest is work slowly. As always, the heathens have their own manifestation of culture, and it just sort of pushes in at the margins between popular and high-art, breaking the frames and pages that define the categories. Thus, all cultural ephemera develop a tripartite nature as the forces of authority try to feed nationalist fervor by selecting from among the popular works those considered as cannon, while the true artists of any age seek seclusion and diligently ply their craft apace their heathen gods.

Art for breakfast! Art for lunch! Art for dinner!
Semper DaDa Owen - 2010-10-26 13:02

For one thing, fairy tales are a bad example anyway, as those are usually professional works, nothing "folksy" about it. A better example of literature written by folks for their own enjoyment would be fan fiction, the musical equivalent would be filk.

Also, "serious" literature used to be "ordinary" originally, as various others here have pointedly pointed out already. The same is not true for music. Ordinary music only becomes serious after Carl Orff does a reinterpretation of it, whereas the serious music of today has a tradition of professionality. As does pop music, under a different economic model. (As an aside, pop music is supposed to refer to the acoustic equivalent of pop art, not what sells best at the moment, as is commonly implied.)

And serious study of literature must of course involve historic examples, as most modern works are somehow derived from them, allude to them, or have parallels to them. Literature has traditions too. (And pulp fiction, sadly, is paid per line, not for quality. And that low expection, despite its exceptions, is projected to the genres that have sprung from it.)

What is common, however, is the distiction of snobs and anti-snobs, that is derived from the music they listen to and literature they read, and more importantly the music they don't listen to and the books they don't read. def0 - 2010-10-26 16:05
Written fairy tales may be professional works, but the oral tradition of parents or guardians telling stories to their charges - even when those stories are remembered from previously-read books is certainly a folk tradition; and many of those "professional" works are based on existing oral tradition. And, in the opposite direction, fan fic is usually to some degree imitating published commercial genre fiction, so you can't call it pure folk.

There is no doubt these categories are blurry, and there's interchange and borrowing between them. That does not mean the categories don't exist or aren't useful. There are adult humans who want to be called neither "man" nor "woman," too; that doesn't mean those words must be completely discarded from all discourse, unless you're taking a really extreme activist position on the subject.

Fan fiction is not necessarily as imitative of whatever it appears to imitate, as we might think. See tvtropes's entry on "Fanon"; a lot of the traditions of any given fanfic community come from within that community instead of from anything in the genre-fiction works the community is nominally imitating. It really looks very much like the folk music tradition, to me.

I'd classify filk as part of folk music, but not the only part. Note that the word "filk" is consciously derived from "folk." Matt - 2010-10-26 17:14
To misquote Wittgenstein, classification is Hell. Axel - 2010-10-26 22:52
Another way to look at the differences in the realm of music is which medium carries the canonical work:
in "Art" music, it's the score;
in "popular" music, it's the recording;
in "folk" music, there is no canon-bearer, except for tradition and human memory.

This doesn't quite fit your division between what is studied, what is listened to, and what is...performed by folks. Cernael - 2010-10-29 03:19
By that classification, is jazz a type of folk? Matt - 2010-10-29 09:52
Varies, I think. On one hand, there's the Fake Book - an authorative score-based bible of jazz standards. On the other hand, lots of modern jazz is (I think) tied up in the recording paradigm. On the third hand, there's the great emphasis on improvisation, which I guess is what you're referring to. Cernael - 2010-10-29 09:59

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