Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Conspiracy theories

by Rick Blechta

I’d be willing to bet that nearly everyone has a pet conspiracy theory. Did the US government actually engineer the terrorist attack that brought down the World Trade Center? Did an alien spacecraft really crash at Area 51? Is there a mysterious group called the Illuminati controlling the world’s governments? Was Princess Di murdered at the request of the royal family? Were the pyramids actually constructed to store grain?

Many of conspiracy theories are interesting to explore; others seem just plain crazy (jet contrails as a way of enslaving mankind, anyone?). There are some, though, that are compellingly explained to the point where you may start to believe them.

I have come up with one for those of us who write (and read) genre fiction. I think it’s pretty well known by now that far more genre fiction is purchased and read than Literature (definitely with a capital “L”). Now, publishers are always complaining about how much money they lose which is why they can no longer give reasonable advances or fund promotional support. But I suspect they say this most often to genre fiction authors (as explained below). At the same time, they keep pursuing those writers who produce literary fiction. Yes, many are excellent, some superlative, and some authors works sell like gangbusters. However, many disappear without a trace.

Look at all the big literary awards (Pulitzer, Man Booker, Giller, etc.) and you will never see lowly genre fiction represented. Is this because there are no excellent writers working in these fields? I don’t believe so. The issue is with the juries selecting the books to be finalists in these competitions. They wouldn’t admit any genre fiction to a short list even if faced with the working end of a ten-foot cattle prod. How come?

Here’s my conspiracy theory. Publishers gather great cachet by having a genuine “literary sensation” among their authors. It’s a big deal for one of them to receive a Man Booker Prize. It will sell a lot of books. Among the big awards, there is also great cachet accrued to have all these important authors vying for their prizes. Sponsors also benefit from having their brand attached to prestigious prizes.

Now take away these awards. Pretend they don’t exist. What are the chances many of the shortlisted books would be noticed by very many readers? Slim, I would think. The whole industry built around literary fiction would start to crumble. They need these awards to make it all viable.

On the other hand, as long as it’s reviewed and gets a bit of publicity, the top writers of genre fiction will do much better. Why? Because more people buy and read these books. It is not odd to see someone at a book store’s cash register with a stack of books penned by a new favourite author. You won’t run across too many people who do that with an author of Literature.

So why do the best of these authors get the cold shoulder from the big literary awards? Because letting them in would start a free-for-all and many of the “serious writers of literary fiction” would see themselves pushed to the side.

In closing, I will admit I’m positing a pretty extreme theory, but you have to admit it does make some sense. Those involved in serious literature have a vested interest to see that this branch of publishing (do I dare call it a genre?)   remains viable. To be most viable, it has to be separate from every other kind of writing. Crime fiction — and all the other genres — need not apply.

Throw all that’s written into one big pot, give it a stir, and what would happen to sales? Hmmm... It would be interesting to find out.

Okay,  I now throw this question open to the floor. Whaddaya all think?


Vicki Delany said...

I think the answer is simpler, Rick. The emperor has no clothes. To admit that genre fiction just might have merit is to begin to notice that some Literature does not.

Donis Casey said...

It's human nature to want to create some sort of exclusion for the hoi polloi so the self-annointed elite can feel good about themselves. As a conspiracy, it's much less scary than some of the others you mentioned. I have a relative who shall remain unnamed who actually does believe the illuminati are running the world.

Rick Blechta said...


They aren't?