The genre war
The war between Genrists and Literaturists is literature’s Hundred Years War: a seemingly endless conflict with shifting allegiances, sporadic battles and a dispute over territory that constantly changes. Generally, though, it is a polite war, doing little damage to bystanders and passing livestock.
The latest clash has been a series of articles initiated by an entertaining piece in The New Yorker by Arthur Krystal, Easy Writers, with a gracious riposte from Lev Grossman in Time Entertainment (though with the less snappy title, Literary Revolution in the Supermarket Aisle: Genre Fiction Is Disruptive Technology). It is a debate that does evoke passion and I am sure there are other discussions, lively and informed, happening in online, in print, at book clubs and around dinner tables.
Now, one way to deal with the argument is to say, as a few bloggers have done, that this is all nonsense; a book’s a book, it’s all literature and each book should be judged on its merits – which response is nothing more than having an opinion without going to the trouble of having to think about it. Of course it matters, if for no other reason (and there are many) that we should once in a while think about what we get – or don’t get – from all the reading we do.
Now, those who claim (like Grossman) that literary fiction is just another genre do not add anything particularly to the debate. Genre fiction is literature defined by a thematic environment and carries with it certain constraints, whether they be constraints of expectation, structure, style or plot. Literary fiction carries no such constraints. Being free to take whatever form it chooses is one of the hallmarks of literary fiction – and one of the things which makes it so valuable and one of the reasons why it fails so often. That doesn’t make literary fiction either better or worse, just different.
Grossman considers this to be a ‘conceit’ and freedom from convention to be just another convention. It seems a shallow, semantic argument that would be worthy of many of the modernists he doesn’t seem to hold in very high regard. It’s like claiming that the absence of something is in fact the presence of something; the presence of absence; which is just the type of silly pseudo-intellectual game playing that does populate some fiction on both sides of the battlefield.
The smugness of the Harrison quote Grossman uses (“The sooner literary fiction recognizes & accepts its generic identity, the sooner it can get help.”) reeks of the same self-satisfaction that some Literaturists would use to put down genre fiction. Help for what? Not always succeeding? For not getting it right? For the times it is pretentious when it seeks to be beautiful? Does it need help because it doesn’t aim high enough? Or hit the target each time? I’m sure that Grossman doesn’t subscribe to the opinion that all literary fiction is elitist and pretentious and is therefore bollocks but there are many who do.
Why shouldn’t we have literature that consciously seeks to do other than tell a story? Literature that delves into our consciousness, explores our philosophies, our beliefs and our conception of who we are and what our place is? Or that tries to use language to reveal things that are elusive, intangible, that lie at the edges of our perception, ghosts on the hinterland of awareness that we try to coax into form by words? Should the novel be exempt as a tool for doing this? Even if it does fail from time to time. That’s only to be expected. It’s a tricky business looking for meaning.
At this point, it may appear that I am taking issue with Mr Grossman. If so, it is because I am sufficiently on his side to want to find any chinks in his armour and patch them up.
Grossman was quick to pick up on Krystal’s assertion that genre fiction was escapist and right to point out that it is a critical cliché. Unfortunately, he would have done better to pursue Marjorie Nicholson’s assertion, quoted by Krystal, that ‘readers who seek out mystery novels are looking to escape not from life but from the “pluperfect tenses of the psychical novel”’. Much of the truth of the genre war lies there. Instead, Grossman resorts to the strategy of trying to find measure for measure in an effort to give genre fiction some depth.
‘Personally I don’t think it’s anywhere near that simple. If that’s true, then what kind of escape do you find in George R.R. Martin’s Westeros? Or in the grim, rain-soaked Britain of Kate Atkinson? Or in Suzanne Collins’ brutal, subjugated Panem? What kind of cocktails are those? They make you forget your own problems, sure, but they replace them with a whole new set of problems, even more dire (hopefully) than the ones you left behind.
There’s more than escapism going on here. Why do we seek out these hard places for our fantasy vacations? Because on some level, we recognize and claim those disasters as our own. We seek out hard places precisely because our lives are hard. When you read genre fiction, you leave behind the problems of reality — but only to re-encounter those problems in transfigured form, in an unfamiliar guise, one that helps you understand them more completely, and feel them more deeply. Genre fiction isn’t just generic pap. You don’t read it to escape your problems, you read it to find a new way to come to terms with them.’
The truth is that life’s travails as shown by Martin and Collins are not like those in our lives. The brutality, coarseness and hardship, as presented by both Martin and Collins, are so simplistic, artificial and removed that they are unlikely to have any correlation with our real problems. We seek out those caricatured ‘hard places’ because they are capable of giving us sensation without danger. They are as safe as Hansel and Gretel are to us. Neither Martin nor Collins are particularly good examples of excellence and there are some. In defending genre fiction, it is wise not to choose the wrong weapons.
Nonetheless, Grossman is right – genre fiction isn’t necessarily mere escapism; but when it is, that’s perfectly fine. We all need respite from even our most worthy endeavours, and reading genre fiction is hardly a shameful way to gain it. Unless, of course, that’s all we read. If so, that’s not a fault with the genre but with the reader.
To limit genre fiction to an escape is to miss its place alongside literary fiction, complementing it as an equal: it helps make literary fiction concrete. It can take the literary fiction’s explorations and place them in the every day to make them familiar. Literary fiction takes the ordinary and finds truth in it. Genre fiction takes truth and shows it as ordinary. Gospels and parables, if you like.
Grossman’s on the side of the angels but his tactics are all wrong. He concedes that Krystal may be right about certain quality differences, then tries to balance the scales: ‘Even if you grant that the standards for writing and characterization in genre fiction are lower than in literary fiction, the standards for plotting are far, far higher.’
Such comparisons not only miss the real point but his examples are contentious.
‘But plot is an extraordinarily powerful tool for creating emotion in readers… Look at George R.R. Martin: no literary novelist now writing could orchestrate a plot the way he does. Even if you grant that the standards for writing and characterization in genre fiction are lower than in literary fiction, the standards for plotting are far, far higher.’
Is plot a powerful tool for creating emotion? How can its impact be separated from writing and characterization? Furthermore, Grossman confuses complexity of plot with the multi-threading plots. Martin’s plot is complex in design; a tetris structure, multiple, inter-locking – and often clichéd – plots nestled one inside another like a Babushka doll.
There’s a passage in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods that sums up why we need both the meta-truths of literary fiction and the human truths more often found in genre fiction: “We need individual stories. Without individuals we see only numbers: a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, ‘casualties may rise to a million’. With individual stories, statistics become people…”
Neither type is always as good as it should be. There is some truly awful literary fiction. It is ponderous and pretentious when it should be profound; it explores the ability of language some times beyond its own resources, leaving language gasping for breath when it should be fresh and invigorating.
On the other hand, not all genre literature is second-rate. In fact, I’d venture to say that at any given time, the percentage of truly good books of literary fiction is probably less than the percentage of truly good books within genre fiction. It’s easier to write a genre novel not because the craft required is easier but because it is much harder to delve into the human soul than to tickle it – and it’s easier to sound like a pompous twit when you’re trying your hardest to fathom the mysteries of the universe or the even deeper mysteries of the human soul.
Let me repeat that bit about craft. Genre fiction is not necessarily easier to write than literary fiction. Grossman is right about the skill and craft it takes to write good genre fiction.
None of this pre-supposes that genre fiction cannot achieve, within its form, what literary fiction sets out to do. It is rare, but it can happen. Hilary Mantel’s historical fiction – surely a genre? – Wolf Hall not only did it but won the Man Booker prize. It would be hard to find a literary novel with the same erudition, political dissection and psychological examination as Eco’s The Name of The Rose but in form it is a murder mystery. That’s why I was surprised to find mention of Pullman as a writer of genre fiction in Grossman’s article. His Dark Materials is not described more accurately by the tag genre fiction than it is by the tag literary fiction. It never occurred to me reading it many years ago that 1984 was anything but literary fiction and to call it otherwise serves no one but the marketing department.
Just as genre fiction can be literary, so too, can literary fiction be as entertaining and accessible as genre fiction. Take Marquez’s Love in The Time of Cholera, for example. It is as much an effortless delight to read as any piece of genre fiction but as profound as any book in the canon of literary fiction.
Which is why Grossman’s concern about literary critics appropriating genre fiction that ‘transcends’ its genre puzzles me. The fact that these exceptional genre works exists validates his contention – and mine – that genre per se does not completely constrain a work. It is possible for genre fiction to operate on the same level as literary fiction.
Of course, there is the question whether specific genres are as capable. The major battles seem to revolve around thrillers, science fiction and fantasy but there are many other genres: all the different species of the romance genre, steampunk, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, westerns and any others one might favour. It would be interesting if the Literaturists were to sit on the sidelines and catch their breath and let the champions of the different genre parties go at it for a while. I suspect the ensuing debate would be rather like genre fiction’s Homage to Catalonia; the fragmentation of the literary left field.
Of course, it is possible that the war has nothing at all to do with the books and everything to do with the readers. In which case, I’m going to find a very deep trench and a nice long book.