Defending genre fiction

How not to defend genre fiction and a call to eschew the aim of literary respectability.

Due to the peculariaties of my biography and literary interests I have read many defenses of genres and minority art forms or literatures over the years. They all tend to fall into the same traps. Lev Grossman’s opinion piece for the Wall St. Journal does a decent job of avoiding some of these traps, but still not quite as deftly as I would personally prefer.

Generally the core problem with such defenses is that they seek for respectability — literary respectability. They usually do this by:

1. Pointing out examples in their field that are unusually well-crafted and share strong similarities with literay fiction. Lev Grossman does this when he mentions George R. R. Martin and Sussana Clarke* (and Neil Gaiman). Gene Wolf’s work also often gets deployed in this same way.

2. Acknowledging the field’s lowbrow roots but then pointing out how the field is maturing (and usually the maturation = more works that have the marks of literary realism [see #1]).

3. Weakly throwing up hands and pointing out that people like to be entertained and read a good story and what’s the harm of that.

There is some merit to each of those approaches, but they all fall down in that they, fundamentally, defer to literary fiction (or rather literary realism) and the sub-genres it has deemed acceptable (including magic realism).

Grossman tries to do better than this by pointing to the fantastic roots of fiction and by observing that all works of fiction are, well, fiction. Both good points, but also obvious ones that don’t carry much weight with those that worship at the altar of literary realism or are inimical to the whole notion of narrative fiction itself. For example, Grossman writes: “When it comes to novels, fantasy is the rule, not the exception. If anything, it is realist literature that pretends to be real.” Very true. But that does nothing to address the attitude that literary realism is the highest form of such pretending and that it gets closer to revealing whatever it is that we expect literature to reveal (character? truth? life? reality?).

The thing is that the proponents of literary realism** assert the superiority of the form (and you’ll see a couple of examples of that in the comments section to Grossman’s opinion piece), but are actually rather hard-pressed to prove it. Indeed, much of literary theory of the past 50 years seriously undermines it. And yet it in terms of critical and cultural activity (prizes, syllabi, criticism, academic appointments, anthologies, class offerings, best of lists), it remains the highbrow power in narrative fiction and other genres and minor literatures are excpected to defer to it and position themselves in relation to it. Genre writers can be gentrified by literary realists by proving their commitment to literary tropes and style. But, of course, only a few are let in to the club and, sadly, those who are the most on the edges too often feel the need to draw lines between them and their less gentrified cousins. Which then, often, leads to a petulant or resentful keening from the genres and the minor literatures. A “why not us too?”

I say stop it. Just stop it.

Don’t do so by, as certain genre writers have, decrying it as elitist or morally bankrupt. Do it by showing what you can do that other genres can’t (and I think that literary realism is a genre among genres and should be treated as such). Or by showing how you can do it in ways that they can’t. Let me give one brief example: I would submit that a really thoughtful, honed idea sci-fi short story is of equal literary value to a really good piece of epiphanic, honed literary realism. Both do very different things with the form. But they can be equally important, artistic, entertaining, revealing — whatever you want to assign to the function of reading fiction.

Another example: I think The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a failed genre novel. I found much of the reaction to it amusing because it betrayed the literary realists lack of awareness of the field of post-apocalyptic and horror fiction***.

There’s more I should say: about pulp fiction and plot vs. prose; about the recent slumming in the genres by literary authors; about the reaching for literary acclaim by genre authors; about the market and academia; about cultural signifiers and the beautiful shame of fandom. But I’ll leave with this simple thought: I don’t. You don’t. We don’t — need no literary respectability.

* Now don’t get me wrong. Both A Song of Ice and Fire and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell are major favs of mine.

** Now don’t get me wrong. I also love literary realism. I’m one of those annoying people who loves the novels of Henry James and Tolstoy and Cather and Marilynne Robinson and has actually read Ulysses all the way through, etc.

*** Michael Chabon’s review of The Road (excerpt only unless you login; it’s also found in his essay collection) and his reading of it as a horror novel redeemed it somewhat in my eyes.

6 thoughts on “Defending genre fiction”

  1. Thank you for that last sentence. This post is a very well thought out answer for the response that I’d hoped you have.


  2. “…and his reading of it as a horror novel redeemed somewhat in my eyes.” Redeemed *him* or redeemed *it*?

    I totally agree about the genre fiction, particularly science fiction, which I think is actually the dominant literary form of the 20th century that will last into the far future. We definitely don’t need no stinking litfic respectability. Instead litfic should come learn how it’s done. =)

  3. Ah, good catch. That should be an “it” and not a “him.” I have no opinion on whether or not Cormac McCarthy needs to be redeemed. I may have one, though, after I read Blood Meridian (which is on my short list of stuff-to-read).

  4. It’s remarkable to me that we continue to talk about literature in ways that suggest that all the different literary genres should share the same artistic agenda, purposes, and/or values. William, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you suggest that different genres–surprise!–are suited for doing different things, and largely for different audiences (though obviously as individuals we may fall into one or more of those audiences). Purposes, agendas, and strengths/weaknesses of specific genres can (and should) certainly be discussed and critiqued on their own terms, but hierarchizing among genres–or using the standards of one genre to judge (or justify) another–are all largely pointless endeavors.

    Two major bases for genre criticism that I’m aware of are (a) formal characteristics, and (b) audience/market/community dynamics. The first includes (for example) Northrop Frye’s characterizations on the basis of the nature of the hero. Of the two, I tend to prefer the second, as aligning more closely to the way genres really work as I see it–though the first can also be a fascinating way of thinking about the different varieties of approaches one can take to fundamental issues of storytelling. For a while, though, I’ve been thinking about a (possibly) different, third way of looking at and categorizing genres: that is, from the perspective of the specific desire they seek to arouse/satisfy. Thus, horror would be characterized as attempting to arouse and catharize fear; fantasy as attempting largely to arouse a sense of wonder; etc. Obviously, this is incomplete as it stands, but I think there’s promise to an approach that attempts to describe genres in terms that might help explain why different genres tend to appeal to different people.

    Taking off in a different direction: Probably the two best defenses of fantasy as a genre on its own grounds, independent of other genres, are (a) Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” and (b) Brian Attebery’s book, Strategies of Fantasy. Attebery’s work in particular provides some interesting contrasts between the values of fantasy and values of traditional realistic fiction–though he tries too hard in some places, including an attempt to justify fantasy on postmodern grounds that falls to some extent into the trap you’ve described above (and ultimately fails to convince, in my opinion). He’s at his best in describing what modern fantasy does that’s different from other literary forms, such as its ecological awareness/orientation.

    Fun stuff.

  5. I totally agree with you on (b), Jonathan, and am intrigued by your tentative steps towards a third option.

    I also would like to track down Attebery’s book — it sounds right up my alley.

  6. It occurs to me (belatedly) that my “new approach” may in fact be as old as Aristotle, with his attempts to describe/define genres in terms of the affect they create in their audiences. Which, if anything, makes me even more interested in the idea…

    Sometimes I think that in terms of literary criticism, I’m the equivalent of those clueless people who come up to writers at parties and tell them, “Hey, I have a great idea for a story you could write!” Lots of ideas for projects some other me might undertake who had actually gone into academia instead of wimping out partway through…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *