I am, not to mince words, a voracious reader. (I’m not as fast a reader as I’d like, so voraciousness only gets me so far, but that’s another discussion.) My reading appetites are fairly diverse—I spend time with a good deal of nonfiction material (politics, history, science, philosophy, etc.)—but I’ve never stopped enjoying fiction, either.

A look at what’s published and read these days, however, and especially how it’s received in the culture, reveals some odd disconnects.

Within the realm of fiction, my personal tastes remain as omnivorously wide-ranging as without. I can and do enjoy historical fiction, mysteries, fantasy, political thrillers, comedy/satire, and more. Give me Ken Follett or Robert Harris, Max Collins or Sara Paretsky, Neil Gaiman or J.R.R. Tolkien, John Le Carré or David Ignatius, Stephen Fry or James Morrow, and I’m a happy man. I’m a particular fan of science fiction—from Isaac Asimov and Stephen Baxter through Joe Haldeman, Ken Macleod, and Clifford Simak to Vernor Vinge and Connie Willis, all these and many, many more line my shelves.

I don’t so much enjoy westerns, horror, or romance, but that’s just a matter of personal taste. On the other hand, I’ve been known to dip into the occasional literary classic, both older and of twentieth-century vintage:  Austen, Twain, Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Harper Lee.

There are some really fascinating combinations of the genres already mentioned as well, from historical mysteries to alternate-history thrillers to science-fictional comedy—David Liss, Harry Turtledove, Douglas Adams all have given me hours of enjoyment. And for the ultimate genre-bender, alternate-history-comedy-political-satire-SF-fantasy-mystery-with-a-literary-twist, there’s the inimitable and insanely imaginative Jasper Fforde and his “Thursday Next” series.

But. Contemporary “mainstream” literary fiction? Keep that stuff the hell away from me.

You may notice that virtually everything I’ve mentioned enjoying falls into one “genre” or another, or some hybrid thereof. But the genre that (purportedly) transcends and thus defies genre, in the eyes of critics and marketers alike, is contemporary litfic. The work of writers like John Cheever, John Updike, Jonathan Franzen… Raymond Carver, Annie Proulx, Michael Cunningham, Andre Dubus III…

…is by my lights all but unreadable. (I’ve tried.) In fact, I’d say pretty much anything that’s won the National Book Award, especially within, oh, the last fifty years, is almost guaranteed to be crap. (And I’d extend that to Jincy Willett’s admittedly cleverly named Winner of the National Book Award, too.)

In its long form, it’s tedious. In its short form, it’s pointless. Litfic’s specialty is endless variations on the theme that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Indeed, those are almost its boundaries, although it does sometimes expand far enough to observe that all families are dysfunctional. All too often it seems like memoir disguised as fiction.

It focuses obsessively on the quotidian, the trivial, the here-and-now, the present day. Although it aspires to intellectual status, it is in that sense profoundly anti-intellectual, as it all too readily props up the uncritical attitude with which far too many people already approach life:  they take the world for granted as they found it, accepting circumstances that are contingent and transient as if they’re normative and eternal. It could encourage critical thinking and imagination; instead it shows people going through the motions, executing familiar patterns of behavior as if there are no alternatives.

It often claims to be character-driven, but its characters have a tendency to both begin and end a story in the middle of the air, suffering but not actually undergoing any meaningful growth, learning little or nothing from their experiences. It frequently demonstrates a dismissive attitude toward plot, as if seeking to avoid any sense of artifice, of fiction as a deliberate construction… although that effort is immediately lost given its obsession with symbolism, with metaphor, with “writerly” prose. It privileges style over content. Its only acceptable settings are limited to the bounds of realism, with “realistic” defined as “mundane”; it shies away from exploring big ideas, from throwing open the gates of the imagination.

Yet somehow, this is the fiction that is considered “serious” and “respectable.”

A few authors have managed to evade this trap, achieving critical recognition while delving into the more interesting possibilities of genre. It seems to have been more common abroad—Borges, Eco, Calvino spring to mind—but there are home-grown examples as well. Michael Chabon has done it, as has Jonathan Lethem to some extent.

(Even Lethem, though, feels the tug of respectability. In 1998 in the Village Voice he published a lengthy essay decrying what he considered science fiction’s retreat into genre identity (since the days of the 1960s-’70s New Wave), and thus its failure to be “recognized” as “literature.” Even while describing the mainstream hardly more charitably than I have here, with all its flaws, he still yearned for its seal of approval.

Let us note, by the way, that approval from the literary Establishment and a different shelf in the bookstore do not bring more sales. Indeed, what Lethem called “the rocky realms of midlist, out-of-category fiction” often bring fewer readers. Nor do they promise greater creative freedom; in fact rather the opposite, as I’ve been describing. Yet still the siren call of critical recognition is powerful… even though the only value that attaches to that recognition seems to flow from the very fact that it has been withheld.)

I maintain that science fiction is at the true heart of the fictional experience, that it is the genre that truly defies genre, the one that best explores the human impact of cultural change. And in a world inextricably transformed and constantly mediated by science and technology, what could be more relevant? As Gregory Benford has written,

[SF is] hostile to such fashions in criticism, for it values its empirical ground. … [It] give[s] us worlds which are not to be taken as metaphors, but as real. We are asked to participate in wrenchingly strange events, not merely watch them for clues to what they’re really talking about. SF pursues a “realism of the future” and so does not take its surrealism neat, unlike much avant-garde work which is easily confused with it. …

The best journeys can go to fresh places, not merely return us to ourselves.

I am not a professional scholar, writer, or critic, but I recognize that what I am saying here (while unconventional) is not exactly new. Perhaps most notably, B.R. Myers’ 2001 essay “A Reader’s Manifesto” in the pages of The Atlantic laid out much the same complaint:

Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be “genre fiction”—at best an excellent “read” or a “page turner,” but never literature with a capital L. … Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand, is now considered to be “literary fiction”—not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance.

The dualism of literary versus genre has all but routed the old trinity of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow … Everything is “in,” in other words, as long as it keeps the reader at a respectfully admiring distance.

He went on to theorize about the reasons that this perplexing transition had taken place over the previous generation or two, with more detailed (and telling) examples from the work of individual writers than I’m inclined to delve into here. He made a very convincing case. And Myers’ piece unsurprisingly generated a considerable hue and cry at the time, largely negative, from the guardians of the gates of literature.

Things have not improved in the intervening years. Still today, in The Atlantic itself, you can find Matt Yglesias writing (in response to the recent kerfuffle over inauthentic memoirs),

…contemporary fiction is pretty sharply bifurcated between crappy “genre” fiction and literary fiction that often seems very artsy-fartsy.

or Megan McArdle offering, with only slightly greater diplomacy,

Since the modernists, all contemporary literary fiction–including narrative fiction–has focused less on certain aspects of telling a story. I understand that some cognitive scientists theorize that the reason we enjoy stories so much is that they activate the parts of our brain that deal with social cognition and learning. The reason that genre fiction, even though it is usually not a masterpiece of prose styling, can be so absorbing is that it provides this function. …[But] for people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a bodice ripper, memoir fills that space.

(There is always crap to be found, of course:  Sturgeon’s Law applies, but it does so both in- and outside the boundaries of genre. And for myself, I do not understand the appeal of memoir; it suffers all the same shortcomings as litfic, while withholding even the possibility of a coherent plot.)

I do not hope to make the same sort of splash that Myers did, much less to change how the literary or publishing establishments operate. I merely offer a cri de coeur. It seems that the lunatics have taken over the asylum, that they have barred the gates and declared the grounds privileged territory, that they have thrown over the walls nearly all the aspects of fiction that drove people to consume and create it through all of human history… and in exchange for this service they expect to be rewarded.

I suspect that many people who read contemporary litfic do so only because they think they should, because it’s what they’ve been told is “good.” I suspect that many people who read genre fiction harbor a secret or not-so-secret sense of guilt over it, for enjoying something ostensibly disrespectable. And I suspect that quite a lot of people read nothing at all, rather than subject themselves to either of these alternatives.

I wish that more book reviews and marketing blurbs would do a better job of clarifying what books are actually interesting to read, for people who want to read something that stirs their minds and imaginations more than yesterday’s breakfast. And I wish that the writers who do create such work, who build compelling stories around distinctive characters—who explore big ideas and humanist themes, such as the conviction that the universe is knowable; that striving to know it is a noble cause; that rationalism can prevail over superstition; that our problems can be solved, or at least put in perspective; that intelligent life in general and humanity in particular are worthy enterprises deserving of dignity and respect—that such writers would receive both the critical and the commercial recognition commensurate with their merit.

I’ll almost certainly be offering the occasional book review here in the days to come, and I just wanted to let people know where I was coming from.

Until then, you can keep your Michael Ondaatje. I’ll be enjoying the latest from Jack McDevitt or John Scalzi, thank you very much.

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7 Responses to “What I read: the curse and blessing of genre”
  1. Hmm it seems like your website ate my first comment (it was extremely long) so I guess I’ll just sum it
    up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly
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  2. Andrew says:

    It surely is interesting to see both these things come together under so many shapes and forms! Curse and Blessing , in nearly anything …

  3. I stay on top of my incoming comments, so one will never go entirely unread! Knowing how much you enjoy suspense novels, I’m astonished you didn’t discover the joys of LeCarré years ago. I’ve been a fan since college, thanks entirely to a generous RA who urged me to borrow his copy of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. (Which is well worth revisiting, if you never finished it.)

    He’s not one to read for action, no… his novels are more psychological suspense than action-adventure, but he’s wonderful at it. He’s like Robert Ludlum, except with actual believable plots and characters. Smart, sophisticated politics, too.

  4. phil from new york says:

    I’m getting around to posting this comment so late that no one will read it, but what the hell. I did want to say a word about John Le Carré, since you mentioned him. Coincidentally, I just finished reading a well-preserved paperback version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and am now reading a well-worn, yellowed paperback of Smiley’s People (both courtesy of your dad’s substantial collection of paperbacks). I guess one can keep learning even at my advanced age of 60, because for the past 40-plus years, I was under the delusion that most of the Le Carré spy novels weren’t terribly readable. So I can attest that one can live and learn.

    I suppose I can blame that mistaken impression on the James Bond phenomenon of my youth. I discovered the spy novel genre in 1963 after I saw Goldfinger. At the tender age of 15, I had never heard of James Bond or Ian Fleming before I saw the movie. But after I watched Sean Connery bring this guy James Bond to life, I was hooked. Over the next year or so, I read nearly every James Bond novel. To me at that impressionable age, Bond/Fleming was the holy writ of spy novels. I remember buying Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold in the mid-60s and putting it aside after reading only a chapter or two. It just didn’t have enough action for me. And so began my prejudice against Le Carré novels. (I did take time out to read The Little Drummer Girl in the ’80s because it was said to be faster paced than the Smiley stuff.)

    Thankfully, I’ve learned the error of my ways. I am enjoying the Smiley novels immensely, especially in this post-Cold-War world. And I can’t help but visualize Sir Alec Guinness as the very un-Bond-like spymaster George Smiley. The great British actor was wonderful as Smiley in the PBS adaptations of Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People that aired a generation ago.

  5. Chris, what I like most about blogworld (and there’s a whole lot I don’t like–the “public diary” thing, where people just blather on about their favorite band and what they had for breakfast and how much they hate baby carrots) is just this opportunity–for critics and writers actually to talk to each other. It’s a semiprivate (because, let’s face it, hardly anybody reads our blogs) arena in which we can bat around ideas and agree and disagree with one another without getting all self-conscious and pompous about it, which would be unavoidable in a New York Review of Books face-off.

    This is only the second time I’ve jumped into the fray, since (1) I’m not well-known enough to get much negative criticism, and (2) when it does happen it’s usually uninteresting, because there’s no underlying aesthetic principle. Wouldn’t it be great, though, if Updike Himself spoke up, and Proulx, and all the (living) rest? I mean, fat chance, but still, one can hope. Anyway, I hope you like Siege. Happy hols!

  6. Hey, a comment from one of the actual authors mentioned! I’m surprised (but then Google is an amazing thing, isn’t it?) and gratified (especially at your civility in response to my criticism).

    I’ll readily admit that I haven’t read WOTNBA, merely dipped in and skimmed a bit, but the whole psychologically-unhealthy-relationship-between-sisters thing really didn’t grab me, although the writing style was certainly admirably clever. IOW, based on first impressions I deemed it more like than unlike many of the other books I mentioned.

    OTOH, I can’t help but be charmed by your amusing and very elegantly designed web site (linked above), not to mention this good-humored message, so perhaps I should give your writing another shot. I’ll also make a point of checking out Farrell’s book, which does sound fascinating—thanks for the recommendation!

  7. Though saddened that you lumped me in with a bunch I don’t admire either, I very much enjoyed reading this. (I’m a big fan of The Reader’s Manifesto.) Also of Calvino–Cosmicomics being one of my favorite books of all time. Still, what’s quotidian and trivial about Cheever? I mean the short stories. (I’ll give you the rest.) Anyway, I, too, find most recent so-called literary fiction joyless. What I do, as a reader, is rummage happily through the out-of-print. Have you read The Siege of Krishnapur, by Farrell? If it’s in print, it’s only barely–I had to get it used; it won the Booker Prize a few decades ago, but nobody talks about it now, and it’s just fabulous. On the basis of this essay, I can guarantee you’d like it.

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