In a post at the Guardian's Books blog, Stuart Kelly argues that we have reached the end of the "genre wars" in criticism, although this has not yet fully registered with publishers and booksellers, who still cling to increasingly "irrelevant" distinctions among genres.
Although I can't disagree with Kelly that few literary critics would want to "dismiss genre writing solely on the basis that it is genre writing," the very fact that "genre" is no longer a barrier to critical respectability (to the extent it ever was) makes his reasoning when accounting for the persistence of genre categories all the more peculiar.
According to Kelly, "if there is a major shift it probably has more to do with the waning of the FR Leavis idea of what constitutes the canon." Thus, it would seem, publishers and booksellers are still unduly influenced by F.R. Leavis and his preference for "social realism." For them, "literary fiction" and "social realism" are synonymous terms, so not only do genre writers get shortchanged, but also literary writers who aren't social realists.
Or at least I think this is Kelly's argument, since finally it just doesn't make any sense. F.R. Leavis no longer holds sway among critics but he does among the marketers who decide how books will be displayed at Barnes & Noble (or Waterstone's)? Publishers make their decisions by consulting The Great Tradition?
Ultimately, Kelly seems more intent on discrediting social realism than in making any useful points about genre fiction. Indeed, the burden of his analysis seems to be that fiction can be divided into social realism and everything else, with all the prestige attached to the term "literary" still going to the former. If Kelly wants to maintain that more adventurous kinds of ostensibly "literary fiction" are often neglected (by publishers and critics alike), I'm with him, but his defense of genre fiction in particular, it seems to me, isn't well advanced by his specific critique of the limitations of social realism.
"Naive realism is no longer the default setting for literary fiction," he asserts, since
The idea of character as psychoanalysable, intact "self", of narrative as a sequence of events, or the liberal assumption that people are, deep down, identical (CS Lewis's unchanging human heart) have all been thrown into disarray, and rightly so.
While this is hardly a novel observation, it is nevertheless largely correct, if incomplete. (The most significant reason that realism has lost credibility is that we no longer have the same trust in the capacity of language to "represent" the world transparently.) Yet it would be difficult to claim that genre fiction itself avoids these same problems. I can think of very little genre fiction that does not center around characters with "intact" selves (some genres, such as crime fiction, depend on characters who are "psychoanalysable"), feature stories that are essentially a "sequence of events" (often strictly linear), or assume continuity in human identity. In my opinion, Kelly is confusing "realism," which is a problem of representation broadly conceived, with the literary strategies that might be used to achieve it. Realism may or may not rest on the kind of conventional assumptions Kelly identifies. Genre fiction almost always does.
If genre fiction still doesn't always quite get the respect many people think it deserves, it can't be because there remains a widespread bias in favor of social realism. I might argue that it has to do with certain assumptions about style, assumptions that genre writers can certainly meet by writing well, and about form--assumptions that are more difficult to meet because genre fiction has a harder time escaping entrenched conventions of story and character.