One of the debates currently roiling the section of the blogosphere devoted to science fiction is the one regarding the relative standing of genre and literary fiction--a now-ancient argument into which Arthur Krystal's essay in the New Yorker back in May, and a follow-up this past month, have breathed new life.
Krystal's position is the traditional one, that literary fiction is superior to genre fiction; the former art, the latter easy entertainment. In the later piece he concedes that the term genre should not be regarded as an epithet, that literary authors do sometimes work "with" rather than "in" genre, and that quality "comes in different forms" (there being well-written genre fiction and badly written literature)--but without diminishing the divide, or compromising the value judgment accorded to it.
This standard is inconsistent, and unsatisfying, not least because of what these two labels happen to entail.
A genre is a body of work unified by a certain commonality of tropes and concerns, and a sense of tradition among both the writers and their audience. This self-awareness is likely to be reflected in such works getting their own sections in bookshops and libraries, the emergence of organizations for self-identified genre writers and genre fans, and the appearance of specialized publishers connecting the two.
The term literature is essentially an honorific applied to especially worthy works of fiction. In general terms the expectation is that work of this kind will innovate significantly, or provide something aesthetically or intellectually or dramatically richer than the "trite-and-true," as Arthur Krystal puts it.
The two definitions are not mutually exclusive. There is no good reason why a work cannot be "genre," and at the same time, a piece of literature. A work's employing certain well-established tropes, or recognizing a popular tradition, does not rule out its rising above the "trite-and-true" to offer the sense of "felt life" by which Krystal sets so much store. (M. John Harrison's The Centauri Device, for instance, deals brilliantly with concerns hardly specific to the space opera--just as Shakespeare's Hamlet is a revenge tragedy of the sort that was such a pop theater entertainment in its day, and at the same time much, much more.1)
However, obvious as this is, few seem to understand it. The most likely reason seems to be the simplistic equation of genre with formula in the minds of many critics (Krystal included, it would seem).
It is, of course, indisputable that genres do have formulas--but it is not true that all genre work is formulaic. At a minimum, those founding works that establish a formula cannot be looked at that way. (Can one seriously speak of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest as a mere formula novel, any more than they would Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice--a work massively imitated for the past two centuries?) There are also indisputable genre works that do not lend themselves to transformation into a formula. (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is a classic spy novel that has not spawned legions of imitations, for reasons which should be immediately obvious to anyone familiar with it.)
Again, this seems simple enough. Yet, it may be that what has been regarded as "literature" for the last century has raised the bar of "non-formulaic" out of reach even of such works. After all, from the Modernists forward literary critics have favored authors who emphasize character over plot or idea; who are conspicuously stylish rather than merely skillful, especially when they opt for narrative modes which present stories in ambiguous, subjectivity-emphasizing ways rather than opting for clarity-prizing straightforwardness. The result is that anyone telling an intelligible story--let alone the kind of story that most people would want to read--runs the risk of not seeming "literary" at all.
Clearly, this is taking it very, very far--and I, for one, think that on the whole literature has been the poorer for this view.
1. Indeed, an argument can be made that virtually the entire canon of literature consists of "genre" work of this sort.
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