Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Thoughts On Genre 2: On Literary Fiction, As If There Could Be Any Other Kind

Here's the finished version, finally ready to print. I might be bold and print it large on good paper for a change.

Well, that title's a little off unless we define 'fiction' as referring specifically to prose fiction. That said, yeah, I mean it. The notion that there really is no real fiction outside of the world defined by magazines such as the New Yorker or Granta or the small press literary magazines like (ahem) Monday Night is indefensible. To claim that popular fiction is outside the scope of interest of a serious writer...

(A series of profanities alternating with vicious and complicated physical threats, punctuated by the sound of battered fists pounding wallboard.)

Oh, it drives me nuts. The thing is, is that the current conception of 'literary fiction' is one that has been shaped to a great degree by its need to distinguish itself from genre fiction -- which turns out to include virtually all popular fiction, which effectively means dramatic fiction.

I've got to say something here. I'm not going to be able to write about literary fiction with the same confidence with which I address so-called genre fiction. That's because I'm less interested in it -- its rewards can be deep, but its scope is narrow.

But can I defend my claim that 'literary fiction' is a genre?

If you accept my definition of genre fiction, then yes.

Does it have a label? Yep.

Does it have a self-identified readership and a market to serve them? Yes, indeed. They may not go to conventions -- but if you want to go looking for them you can find the Cheever T-shirts.

Does it have a set of traditional forms? Oh, hell yeah. The stereotypical example of this type of fiction would describe an individual engaged in routine activities coming to an emotional epiphany. To say that this describes all literary fiction is horseshit, of course.

But as a genre literary fiction tries as hard as it can to be all bread and no circus -- because the circus is low-class. (And if you think that the desire to define oneself as having literary tastes isn't a class issue you're nuts.) This strikes me as a weakness in any form -- when you start defining yourself by what you ain't instead of by what you is. And while literary fiction acknowledges the presence of drama in life it would prefer to show how people react to it rather than show the moment when the drama occurs. (Just as dramatic fiction can be cheesy, literary fiction can have a dry bran-muffin quality.)

And does it have a body of jargon associated with it? Well, if I describe something as a 'New Yorker-type story' you've got some idea of what I mean. Epiphany. Denouement. Yeah, I think we got us some jargon.

Interestingly, there seems to be a bit of a divide between academically-approved fiction, which is chasing after postmodernism and multiculturalism (the first an interesting blend of insight and nonsense, the second of great importance and utility when regarded from the perspective of inclusionism, a pain in the bee-hind when used as an excuse for the rejection of works of proven value). Literary fiction takes a lot of its leads from academia but it still is intended to be read -- which is anathema to current cultural theory. Academic literature has a strong bias for works which require analysis, which are tough enough to support hours of classroom discussion and pages and pages of critical writing.

Let me be clear. You wanna give me a Thurber, a Jamaica Kincaid, a Yannick Murphy? Great! Bring 'em on! My objections to literary fiction (like my objections to science fiction) are based on the culture that defines the genre, not the works done in it.

It's the self-righteous parochialism of many readers, writers, and critics that makes 'literary fiction' a term of abuse in some circles, some of which I frequent. The phrase itself seems to cast all work outside the charmed circle into the subliterate depths. When you run statements like this --

Michael Chabon has spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it.

The reason this statement is so offensive is that it implies that genre fiction is at a dead end. Never mind that genre fiction is a very, very broad term. Never mind that the vast majority of short form fiction, especially novellas and novelettes, is genre fiction. Never mind the steadily increasing importance of genre fiction in popular culture. Never mind the influences that genre has outside of fiction, extending into music, fashion, design, and on and on...

Genre fiction must be dead; serious writers have buried it.

It's very frustrating for those of us who are aware of the vital literary tradition that has been part of genre fiction from the beginning and which is currently thriving. The best genre writers have always been aware of and influenced by the larger literary tradition -- and they are a valid part of that tradition.

I have to say, this statement was probably made for effect, since later on the writer (Ruth Franklin, in Slate.) also states --

With The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon has finally made the only use of genre fiction that a talented writer should: Rather than forcing his own extraordinarily capacious imagination into its stuffy confines, he makes the genre—more precisely, genres—expand to take him in.

She's absolutely right -- but her statement applies to the extraordinarily stuffy confines of literary fiction as much as it does to any other genre. Hell, it applies to any given art form. It's a truism, but it's not a bad thing to state a truism every once in a while.

But there's something weird happening in the literary world. The kind of broad reading that I've practiced all my life seems to be popping up in some fairly elevated circles -- there's a volume of H.P. Lovecraft in the Library of America collection. The third volume of Clarke Ashton Smith's collected stories has an introduction by Michael Dirda.

I'm not entirely convinced that this is altogether appropriate -- much as I love and have been influenced by the Weird Tales writers, Lovecraft's prose is dreadful and the fun of Smith's is that it goes past purple and well into ultraviolet -- but I can only approve of anything that breaks down the barriers between genres, that allows readers and writers more freedom and more access to works and traditions that will bring them pleasure. In the words of a murderous phrasemongering tyrant, "Let a thousand flowers blossom."

The various tropes, methods, and forms developed in the trenches of genre fiction are tools that can be very useful. However there is one aspect of genre fiction that really is too specialized to be widely useful. I'll be talking about that one tomorrow.

Next time I'll talk about what I like about genre and how it's inspired my own writing. Specialization can be a curse but it does have its benefits...

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