Thursday, March 12, 2015

When the popular kids sit at the genre table

"Hogwarts or West Point" photo by US Army, used under cc licence (CC by 2.0)

There have been several kerfuffles on the internet of late about the town/gown split between genre and literary fiction. The most recent has been remarks by Kazuo Ishiguro on his latest, THE BURIED GIANT and Ursula K. Le Guin's response to the sense that Ishiguro was being patronizing about the genre elements in his novel.

In this opinion piece for Esquire, Stephan Marche seems to be firmly on the side of genre fiction: The very title of the article is "How Genre Fiction Became More Important Than Literary Fiction", after all. And I read it with interest.

I am not one who likes false dichotomies. I read widely. Classics, literary fiction, SF, Fantasy, YA, thrillers, non-fiction, biographies. You name it, I'll read it. But my home base, if you will, is genre fiction. It's what I gravitated to as a strong young reader in the 1970s, after outgrowing the children's section of our neighborhood library. It's still what I love to read. It's what I choose to write.

So reading Marche's pronouncement
"Resistance to genre, among literary writers, has given way to eagerness to exploit its riches."
 made me realize this this was not a position of respect, but one of co-option. 

 And there is still the not-so-subtle snobby put down:
"The boundaries between high and low are increasingly meaningless for audiences."
As if all things genre were automatically considered 'low' entertainment and all things literary, 'high'.

I think this attitude is unfortunate and contributes to the divide that still seems to rule the world of letters. Here's the thing, Shakespeare's plays were considered the 'low' entertainment of its day. And yet, today, we look at works like The Tempest as part of high literary cannon. At its heart, it is a fantasy story. If you will, an urban fantasy story. 

There is nothing inherently better about a work of literary fiction, just as there is nothing inherently worse about a work of genre fiction. To assess genre work on a metric of literary merit is to compare apples to the color orange.

It does not compute.

Marche also says:
"The great gift of literary realism has always been its characteristic ability to capture the shifting weather of inner life, but the mechanisms of that inner life and whose inner lives are under discussion have become as generic as any vampire book: These are books about privileged people with relatively small problems."
Here we see that less-than-subtle classicism again.  'Generic as any vampire book.' So if there is a vampire in the story, it automatically becomes equivalent to any other book with vampires in it. Which means that Bram Stoker's Dracula is the same book as Twilight and should be judged according to the same criteria.

I'm not here to tell you which has literary merit and which does not. That's not my job. I'm one writer. One reader. But I will tell you that genre conventions are not something to appropriate into literary work simply because
"The book war is over. The aliens, dragons, and detectives won."
Rather, those conventions, characters, situations, and ideas are a fertile ground for a writer's imagination to push a story past its typical boundaries.  As a writer, I will incorporate the best of what I know to tell the story that I need to tell. I hope that is what all writers do, regardless of what they write.

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