Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Old Genre Fiction Puzzler

“Somewhere in its history,” Lev Grossman writes, “reading novels has gotten all tangled up with questions of social status, and accepting the kinds of pleasure that genre novels offer us has become — how perverse are we? — a source of shame” ( ). He produces this “gem” in the middle of an essay on the ways in which genre fiction acts disruptively towards modern literary fiction. And while what Grossman says is undeniably true, it also demonstrates a really frightening ignorance towards the origins of the novel.

“Somewhere in its history?” Try always. Try the prose romances written by women in the seventeenth century that were obviously not literature because they weren't poetry. Try Daniel Defoe and his uneasy relationship with “real-life” crime literature. Try Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding sniping at one another about what, exactly, the novel was supposed to be.

It's this last that's particularly instructive. Both Richardson and Fielding were invested in inventing “the modern novel,” despite the fact that neither of them really did so. Richardson's novels were morally sententious, painfully realistic (to the degree that Pamela can be considered realistic, which is certainly arguable), and (sorry) boring. So really, if Grossman wants someone to point his finger at for the way we think of literary fiction: serious, stylistically ambitious, and coded with a kind of moral valence, it's Richardson who deserves to take the brunt of that blame.

Fielding, on the other hand, wrote in a tradition that was much closer to the romances that were the novel's true origins. His work had a picaresque, postmodernist quality. Nonetheless, casting him as a kind of anti-hero of the novel's development is stupid. He was just as invested as Richardson in making himself the “father of the novel” (which had so many forgotten mothers...), and therefore in codifying literary genre.

What does this mean for the novel today? It means that we are still doing what we always do. We always want to ask ourselves, “But is it art?” Maybe that's not a bad question. Grossman lists authors like Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, and Catherynne Valente to demonstrate that art abounds in the genre fiction ghetto. And I'm not inclined to disagree. Novels like American Gods or Deathless are art, whether they are slapped with a genre fiction label or not.

But I do see a difference between literary and genre fiction. Practically, there's a difference in the ways these things are produced and sold. There's no MFA mill for genre fiction writers, which means that their understanding of conventions and the creative process is distinctively different from that of literary fiction writers.

For the reader, however, I believe the main distinction is one of investment. A reader who picks up a mystery, a sci fi romp, a romance, has different expectations than a reader of literary fiction. They aren't preparing themselves to seriously engage with the prose in order to appreciate it, they're preparing for the payoff. If the payoff takes too long, they put the book down.

And literary fiction could absolutely benefit from a stronger “philosophy of the payoff.” Too many modern writers seem to feel they need to beat the audience with sticks and leave them bleeding in order to demonstrate their “seriousness.” But there's still a value to something that makes readers sit down and suspend their desire for immediate gratification and comprehension. There's value to a novel that demands study.*

And, finally, I think that Grossman's article demands a greater transparency. The reader has a right to ask whether he is responding to the reception of his literary works, which could perhaps best be classified as fantasy fiction, and demanding a larger share of the “art” pie. Merely excising the personal from the critical does not in itself equate distance. Grossman should be open and honest about what the stakes are here for him personally.

*Please don't point me towards the Tolkien scholars. The fact that a thing can be studied does not mean it needs to be studied.

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