Monday, November 12, 2012

Of Genre Fiction and Literary Fiction

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 certain 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 recognize 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.)

A second, reinforcing explanation is the existence of conflicting ideas about what makes a book worthwhile enough to be considered literature--with the uncertainty most directly affecting recent works, given the absence of received opinion, and the uncertainty about what will manage to endure (to continue appearing like stand-outs) over time. Nonetheless, at any given time certain kinds of accomplishment, certain techniques, certain themes are celebrated, and others denigrated. The tendency among highbrows in recent decades has been to reward authors who favor 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; who engage with matters of epistemological uncertainty and identity rather than the material aspects of life, and the quotidian (generally, as judged from a genteel middle class standpoint) over the unusual and extraordinary.

It needs hardly be repeated here that the results of these attitudes have been unfavorable to science fiction, even in comparison with other popular genres. Nor does it need to be repeated that this is unsurprising, given that science fiction has historically emphasized the presentation of exotic content in straightforward, accessible ways over the ostentatiously unconventional presentation of the mundane--nearly the inverse of what has been celebrated as "literary" in its era. I have at times wondered if the disregard has not brought science fiction advantages as well as disadvantages (there are costs to being too "respectable"), but there is no doubt in my mind that contemporary literature has been the poorer for it.

1. Indeed, an argument can be made that virtually the entire canon of literature consists of "genre" work of this sort.

Postmodernism and Self-Censorship
A Note on Literary Technique in an Age of Muddle
Of Postmodernism and Conservatism
The Debate Continues . . . (As Paul Kincaid Answers)
More Reactions to Paul Kincaid
New and Noteworthy (Spielberg's Early TV Work, The Dark Knight Returns' 25th, Niall Harrison at the Strange Horizons Blog)
New and Noteworthy (Ian Sales and the Hugos, SHIELD TV series, "Geeks" on Big Bang)
Paul Kincaid and Last Year's Best
Review: The Centauri Device, by M. John Harrison


psikeyhackr said...

How much of the genre fiction is not science fiction? It is as though the reader of sci-fi does not know what science fiction is.

Kurt Vonnegut commented on this in 1965 and Joanna Russ in 1975. Real science fiction is not mindless entertaining junk.

And it is better if it has good real science.

Nader said...

Hi Nickole. Thanks for writing.

The usual response of those who draw a hard and fast line between literature and genre is to look at, for instance, Kurt Vonnegut, or George Orwell, and say "That's not science fiction." (Arthur Krystal's phrasing is that these writers work with genre rather than in it.)

Of course, this does not make much sense - which is why I offered that distinction between genre and formula.

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