Apparently, it’s that time of the year again, for we’re having our semi-annual genre versus literary fiction debate. Oh yes, and science fiction is still dying of exhaustion as well, though that’s material for another post.
This time around, the debate is kicked off by Arthur Krystal, critic at the New Yorker, who already kicked off the last debate of that sort back in May in a post where he talked about Ford Madox Ford as if he were still relevant and read by anybody save scholars of English literature. Though that was before the BBC in its infinite wisdom (they must’ve run out of Austen, Bronte and Dickens novels to adapt) turned one of Ford’s works, Parade’s End, into the sort of nostalgia dripping costume drama that is popular these days (praise for the adaption here and here – it sounds utterly horrible and hundreds of fanfic writers will be so disappointed to hear Benedict Cumberbatch uttering that he stands for chastity and monogamy), and thus sent the novels it’s based on rocketing up the UK bestseller charts.
But we’re not talking about Arthur Krystal’s preference for Ford Madox Ford here, but about his latest volley in the neverending genre versus literature discussion, namely this New Yorker article with the deceptive headline “It’s Genre Fiction. Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That”. Why is the headline deceptive? Because Arthur Krystal proceeds to tell us just what exactly is wrong with genre fiction or rather with the people who’d prefer to do away with the old boundary lines between literature and genre.
In many ways, this article seems to be a somewhat belated response to Lev Grossman’s and Ursula K. LeGuin’s responses to Krystal’s original article back in May. Indeed, Krystal spends four paragraph’s reiterating Grossman’s points, before proceeding to tell us why Grossman is wrong, wrong, wrong. Methinks we have a classic literary grudgematch in the making here, Lev Grossman versus Arthur Krystal. I fully expect Lev Grossman’s response in a few days.
To sum it up, Grossman’s main point, repeated across various articles on the matter, is that genre fiction is revitalizing literary fiction, because a new generation of hybrid writers are combining engaging plotting, which according to Grossman is the big strength of genre fiction, with a beautiful and lyrical use of language, which is the big strength of literary fiction. Now Krystal responds that plenty of literary fiction actually does have a plot. This is about the only point where I agree with him, since the plotless but beautifully written literary novel in which the middle aged ennui-ridden protagonist contemplates his navel in evocative metaphors is pretty much a cliché. Yes, such novels exist, but plenty of literary novels do not match that cliché and never have.
But if it’s not plot or the lack of it, then what does distinguish literary from genre fiction? Arthur Krystal has an answer for us. He writes:
A good mystery or thriller isn’t set off from an accomplished literary novel by plotting, but by the writer’s sensibility, his purpose in writing, and the choices he makes to communicate that purpose. There may be a struggle to express what’s difficult to convey, and perhaps we’ll struggle a bit to understand what we’re reading.
No such difficulty informs true genre fiction; and the fact that some genre writers write better than some of their literary counterparts doesn’t automatically consecrate their books.
So Arthur Krystal sees the difference between literary and genre fiction in some vaguely defined “sensibility”. And because he cannot properly define what that sensibility is, Krystal digs up that ancient chestnut that literary fiction is different (and by implication superior), because it is more difficult to understand, whereas genre fiction is simplicistic. And just in case we didn’t get it the first time around, Krystal tells us just what exactly he thinks of genre fiction:
What I’m trying to say is that “genre” is not a bad word, although perhaps the better word for novels that taxonomically register as genre is simply “commercial.” Born to sell, these novels stick to the trite-and-true, relying on stock characters whose thoughts spool out in Lifetime platitudes. There will be exceptions, as there are in every field, but, for the most part, the standard genre or commercial novel isn’t going to break the sea frozen inside us. If this sounds condescending, so be it. Commercial novels, in general, whether they’re thrillers or romance or science fiction, employ language that is at best undistinguished and at worst characterized by a jejune mentality and a tendency to state the obvious.
So genre fiction is trite, formulaic, full of platitudes and stock characters. Now where have I heard that before? Oh right, in every other takedown of commercial genre fiction, including sometimes by people who are writers of genre fiction themselves. Oh, the books my friends and I write are deep and meaningful, it’s those other books that are the commercial trash full of stock characters and platitudes.
As for the bit about standard genre fiction not breaking the sea frozen inside us (which is a reference to a quote by Franz Kafka, who probably would have agreed with Krystal), the thing is that different people have different frozen seas inside of them and those frozen seas need different axes or rather books to break them. A book that moves one reader deeply may leave the next utterly cold. What is more, a book must not necessarily be high literature to break the frozen sea inside us. In fact, it must not necessarily be particularly good. If I think back on the books that moved me deeply, that gave me new insight into myself and the human condition in general, quite a few of them were genre novels. And even more shockingly, some of them were not even particularly good. When I was a teenager, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and The End of Eternity were not just axes that hacked a couple of holes into my inner ice, they were an icebreaker that plowed through my personal frozen sea like nobody’s business. Meanwhile, none of the Nobel Prize winners they made me read in school at around the same time had a similar effect. It’s not just due to having been a teenager with underdeveloped literary tastes either. Only this year, I found myself deeply affected by a space opera series that was neither particularly plausible nor particularly well written and yet it somehow managed to convey a few truths that I have rarely seen conveyed elsewhere and it made me think about it for much longer than those books should have merited. And just in case anybody thinks that the only reason why not so great genre novels are affecting me so deeply is that I haven’t read enough quality fiction, reading Thomas Pynchon in university had a similar effect on me.
The truth is that the effects fiction, whether genre or literary, has differs from person to person, as all of those poor souls whom my teenaged self urged to read Asimov with an eager “You must read this. It will change your life and explain so much.” can probably attest. For of course, Asimov didn’t change their lives and indeed did nothing but bore them to death, though most of them were too polite to mention it. Because they were different people and the books that affected them were quite different from those that affected me.
But back to Arthur Krystal and the final gem of condescension he offers:
Great writers hit us over the head because they present characters whose imaginary lives have real consequences (at least while we’re reading about them), and because they see the world in much the way we do: complicated by surface and subterranean feelings, by ambiguity and misapprehension, and by the misalliance of consciousness and perception. Writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know are not going to write horror tales or police procedurals.
Now I have found plenty of characters whose imaginary lives have real consequences in genre fiction and plenty of writers who saw the world as a messy and complicated place. Because the qualities that Krystal lists are the hallmark of great writers and great writers are found on all sides of the genre fence.
Of course, writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know (this one refers to a quote by Blaise Pascal BTW) may not choose to explore those reasons in horror fiction or police procedurals (though some of them do). But they might well decide to write romance, which is after all the genre designed to explore just that question.