Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Once More Into the Breach

I am regretting this already. It isn’t as if we haven’t had this conversation a near-infinite number of times before. We all know our parts: Someone shouts that good literature is good literature, even if it has a spaceship on the cover. Someone else reminds us that “literary fiction” is also a construct, also a genre. Yet another person posits that the conversation is all about jealousy, really, with the genre writers being jealous of the awards and respect given to the literary writers, and the literary writers being jealous of the genre writers’ sales. We each agree that the idea of a downtrodden orphan being the Chosen One, most powerful magician of his age, and destined to defeat the Dark Lord is unrealistic, as is the story of the paunchy, balding, middle-aged lit professor who hooks up with the hottest grad student on campus on his way to being awarded the Nobel Prize for that brilliant novel he had been typing away on for the last three decades, but we point at each other when we say it. Our own tropes are just fine, thankyouverymuch, and creative also.

And let’s be honest now. We all also know that it’s never the “literary” writers and critics and fans who get exercised over this, who complain that as soon as someone from our ranks is deemed good, then they’re no longer considered a science fiction or fantasy writer, but a futurist or a magical realist. They’re not the ones pointing out that while it is terrific that Colson Whitehead wrote a really smart novel with zombies in it (Zone One), that Hamlet stole its plot from a pulpy revenge story, and also has a ghost, and the idea of the “literary” novel that was a mimetic expression of day to day life is a very recent one, so would you lot please just shut up, read some Kelly Link, and give China Miéville a Booker already.

It is a truth that ought to be universally acknowledged that all fiction is a work of fantasy. It’s right there in the name – the Oxford English Dictionary defines “fiction” as “the species of literature which is concerned with the narration of imaginary events and the portraiture of imaginary characters.” Imaginary. Made up. Fantasy. Now, yes, of course, there is a difference in imagining a story that takes place in a suburban house and one that takes place on a generation ship, but it’s smaller than one might think, and has nothing to do with the quality of the eventual fiction created.

So why does it matter, truly, this genre vs. literary divide, if it even still exists in a world where the most popular books ever are about a boy wizard, where in our back pocket is a single device that holds thousands of songs, is a functional computer, upon which we can watch E.T. phone home, and then do so ourselves? Is there any useful reason to maintain the distinction between mimetic and speculative fiction, other than to make it easier on the marketing people who have to decide where to shelve the books?

I keep returning to the thought that these conventions, these labels, matter only in so far as they are good to think with, and the more I think about them, the more I come to think that, in most cases, they aren’t. That there can be books where the zombies are zombies, and books where the zombies are metaphors, and books where the zombies are both, and that we as readers, and writers, and critics, ought to trust those books – rather than any of the labels that get put on them - to tell us how they ought to be read.

In the end, I think the debate will continue. I think that people like categories, that we crave simplicity, and we want to be able to explain things in a one or two sentence elevator pitch. I think that we are creatures of habit, and of comfort zones, and that it takes a certain amount of intellectual courage to try something new, to entertain the thought that a book about the friendship between four women might address the numinous, or that a book about robots might address the concept of humanity, and that both have the possibility of doing so in profound ways. And yes, I think the books and writers who are most likely to be given credit for breaking down the barriers between literary and genre will be books and writers who are also thought to be good, because everyone wants to claim talent for their own. But I also think we all ought to consider carefully whether that wall truly exists in the first place.


  1. With all the information we allow ourselves to be barraged with, all the shifts in order (turn on any news channel right now) - we find solace in entering a book store, comic shop or library. A world where everything is categorised and has its place - a dream of unshakeable hegemony that writers continually contribute to.

    What a wonderful blog entry you have here x

  2. I believe the most important reason for the existence of the divide is, as you have said, "to make it easier on the marketing people." Still, marketing seldom works on vacuum. There's something else, and perhaps it's the need to belong to a group, a clan, a tribe. Being a genre reader may help many to build an identity.

    I was almost saying that this is particularly true for teenagers and young adults when I realised how much of a prejudice that was. The prejudice that reinforces the wall and makes genre unsuitable for respectable adults.

    Then I thought of how those things worked for me when I was a kid. I wore my badges with pride - catholic, U2 fan, bookworm, socialist. I believed they defined me, and most of all they excluded what was not-me.

    I still wear my badges with pride (some of them still the same, some of them quite different). I still believe they define most of me. The difference is that then I was defined by the intersection of the groups they represented; now I'm the sum of them.

    Breaking the wall between "genre" and "literary" will only work if every other wall is torn apart too. It means to accept, e.g., that "romance" novels, from Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts to Harlequin Books (and the "literary" Brontë and Sagan) are tributary to the same stream as our favourite genre.

    1. Romance is a particularly interesting example. Helen Cooper's amazing book, The English Romance in Time, very clearly demonstrates how the works of both Tolkien and Roberts have their roots in the same stories, and that is is the Romance that is the beginning of the modern fantastic.

      Leaving aside the issue of badges and group identification (which I leave aside not because I think it is unimportant, but because I think it is, just a different kind of important), I am all for as few barriers in literature as possible.