Why Genre Fiction Is Better Than Mainstream Fiction
Mainstream literary linear-narrative fiction is a genre. It just happens to be the privileged genre. Privilege is where you don't have to defend your existence, and wherein your tropes and idiosyncrasies are taken as normative rather than highlighted as Other, as exotic. It is the no-genre genre, often written in what has been called the no-style style: that bland form straightforward linear prose that is storytelling stripped down to plot without digression, cinematic description without interesting lighting, and characterization more often based on type than idiosyncrasy (although "the eccentric best friend" is such a cliché that it's become a literary trope on its own). Even when mainstream literally fiction is written in a more poetic style, rather than the no-style style it is identifiable by those other characteristics.
Here's another salvo: The quality of writing and storytelling, overall, is often much better in "genre fiction," story per story, than is the case in literary "realistic" fiction. One may place numerous examples side by side and, barring personal taste regarding what you find exciting to read, just on the quality of writing alone many examples of genre novels are better-written than many in the mainstream. Writing that has substance as well as style. There is contemporary science fiction writing that is far more original in terms of style and narrative experiment than anything on the literary best-seller list.
Ignoring for the moment that "realism" in the novel is itself a construct, itself contested as a construct, itself subject to fashions of style and trends of subject matter: in fact the conventions of the Romantic/Victorian "realistic" novel were exactly what such writers as Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and even E.M. Forster rebelled against. That was at the root of the Modernist literary rebellion, after all. When Woolf used interior monologue and stream-of-consciousness in her fiction, it is precisely a reaction against the stifling mannerisms of the staid literary novel. As much as I think Willa Cather did in fact write one or two examples of the Great American Novel (I would nominate some of Stephen King's less supernatural fiction as well); as much as I agree that Jane Austen, Henry James, and Edith Wharton were great stylists who brought to life characters that we all still care about; as much as I agree that Victor Hugo was a great, great writer of fiction which he intended to be realistic in its depiction of natural and psychological life, real dialogue, and characters true in motivation to the psychology of real people: as much as all of that is true, once you've absorbed the literary innovations of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and, yes, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Samuel Beckett, you can't go back. You can't stuff those horses back in their barns.
What most critics of the contemporary literary novel do is pay lip-service to the artistic greatness of those older Moderns, while in practice rolling back every new idea they brought to the writer's table. The literary novel these days owes more to Henry James and Jane Austen, or Nathaniel Hawthorne, than any other writers. Even writers such as Mark Twain are considered to be genre writers, and not taken seriously as Authors; which is proven by the typical reverence paid to Huckleberry Finn as one of the Great American Novels, but looking askance at most of the rest of Twain's explorations, such as Letters from the Earth.
In response to critics who like to dismiss this literary-critical dispute as having been settled long ago, I retort that obviously it's not, else the Critics of the Literary Novel wouldn't feel a need to keep setting up straw men to knock down, on the on the topic genre quality. Those self-anointed Critics who would present themselves as the gatekeepers of literary merit and literary taste are fond of building canons, of lists of Great Books, and debating what works should be included in The Canon, and which should be rejected. Meanwhile the average voracious reader just keeps reading whatever they can get their hands on; as always.
Literature remains an artifice. It is art, but it is also artifice. It is made by artists, but also by artisans. It is a made thing, like a sculpture, a painting, a beautiful building. (Music and dance are a bit different, as artforms, because they also involve time. Duration is part of their performance, and they must be performed.) Literature is neither inherently natural or realistic: "naturalism" is itself artifice.
Some of the rise of no-style no-genre fiction can be blamed, and has been, on the increasing professionalization of literature: the authors and critics who make their living by working in academia, or in hosting and teaching writer's workshops, make up a de facto professional class. Writers exist outside the professional-writer mainstream, of course. And it can be argued that writing styles, genres, and indeed approach, stretch across all other boundaries between writers. But professionalism does have an influence on writing style. Robert Bly lamented as early as the 1970s that writer's workshops (which even he taught; you gotta pay the bills) had generated a stylistic (no-style?) sameness among so many poets, in terms of both approach and content. How many MFA programs in writing are there now? Several hundred, scattered around the nation and world? Lots of people write; more than ever. That's only a bad thing if there are more imitators of the sameness than not.
As to the quality of genre fiction writing, I find writers like Gregory Benford, a physicist who writes "hard science fiction," i.e. SF based on speculative science from astrophysics to biology, to be stylists of a high order. Sometimes it's as though the writing style is part of the experience, which style at its best ought to be, enhancing the reading by getting you deeper into the ideas organically. Not telling you about the ideas, but embodying them. Other hard SF writers who have stylistic chops include Kate Wilhelm, Greg Bear, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, and several others I could name. The point here is that SF is not just about the ideas, it's about exploring the ideas in a literary way, with prose that involves the reader. The language envelops and immerses one rather than just being a tale told. On the fantasy side of the speculative fiction genre, great stylists include Patricia Mckillop, Neil Gaiman, and of course J.R.R. Tolkien, whose works helped establish the modern genre.
I would add Charles Williams, a friend of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, one of The Inklings, whose "spiritual fantasy" novel are amazing works of fantastic fiction. In Descent Into Hell, one of his characters is gradually losing his mind in a kind of spiritual/psychological damnation, and the way Williams describes his inner world is compelling and frightening. His novel All Hallow's Eve is a masterpiece, beginning when the protagonist and hero of the novel has just died, and finds herself in an astral version of her beloved city. Throughout this novel, Williams' prose is amazing, perfectly tuned to the emotional pitch of the characters yet original and strange.
I could go with several examples. Suffice to say, one of the reasons I read speculative fiction is because it is a literature of ideas, yet if those ideas were told in the no-style style, they would be dry and boring indeed. The storytelling matters greatly.
I have few grand conclusions to offer, and I know the salvos I have shot across the bows of mainstream literary criticism will be greeted equally with derision and agreement. I do believe it's more than just a matter of taste and preference, though. I believe that it matters how you tell a story. And I further believe that the manner of the telling should reflect what is being told. That is the whole point of literary style, it seems to me.