What Orhan Pamuk doesn’t understand about genre fiction

How by privileging his reading experiences and preferences, Pamuk shows in The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist that he doesn’t actually understand genre fiction.

The cover of Orhan Pamuk's The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, featuring a woman in a black dress lounging on a green couch holding a closed bookOrhan Pamuk’s The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist* is similar to Stephen King’s On Writing in that it presents itself as a distillation of a famous author’s thoughts on fiction (although Pamuk talks as much or even more about the reading of fiction as the writing of it) but what is presented as universally obvious and true ends up actually being about the particular experiences, biases and preoccupations of the famous author. Whether or not one finds value from the book depends largely on how much one’s own experiences, biases and preoccupations match up with the famous author.

For all that he uses as primary examples a lot of 19th and early 20th century novels that I really like, Pamuk and I were not a great match. But this post is not about that personal argument, rather it’s a look at how in trying to privilege the novels that have spoken to him, Pamuk shows that he doesn’t actually understand genre fiction, especially science fiction.

Things start well enough. Early on he writes:

Historical novels, fantastic novels, science fiction novels, philosophical novels, romances, and many other books that blend these various types are actually, just like so-called realist novels, based on everyday observations of life in the period in which they were written. (47-48)

This is good. This acknowledges that authors of genre fiction use one of the same key tactics as those of works of literary realism (and he even uses “so-called”!): observation. Details get taken from life and then worked into the fiction that the author is written. Those details are often transmuted. But not necessarily as radically or as often in literary realism as in genre fiction, especially science fiction (he doesn’t say what the difference between “fantastic novels” and “science fiction novels” is).

Later in the book, though, things go off the rails, especially in the last chapter where Pamuk introduces his concept of “the center”, which he says every great novel has — that, in fact, determines whether a novel is literary or not. I can’t really explain what Pamuk means by the center because he doesn’t really explain it himself — doesn’t seem to really even know what it is. It’s more of a “I know it when I see it” kind of thing. The most succinct explanation he provides is:

The center of a novel is a profound opinion or insight about life, a deeply embedded point of mystery, whether real or imagined. Novelist write in order to investigate this locus, to discover its implications, and we are aware that novels are read in the same spirit. When we first imagine a novel, we may consciously think of this secret center and know that we are writing for its sake—but sometimes we may be unaware of it. (153)

I have no problem if Pamuk wants to describe novels in this way. My issue is that he then uses this construct — one which is entirely idiosyncratic to him and isn’t well-defined — as a bludgeon against genre fiction.

For example:

Let us try to describe the insufficiency we feel when we read a novel, when we think via the medium of a novel. As we get further and further into story, as we joyfully lose our way in the forest of details and incidents, its world seem far more substantial than real life. One reason for this is the relationship between the secret center of the novel and the most basic aspects of life—a relationship that empowers novels to provide a greater feeling of authenticity than life itself. Another reason is that novels are built with everyday, universal, human sensations. Yet another reason is that in novels—and this is generally also true of genre novels, such as crime fiction, romances, science fiction, and erotic novels—we find the sensations and experiences that are missing in our own life. (123-124)

Pamuk ties this “secret center” to authenticity — in fact, an authenticity that is so authentic it’s more authentic than real life — and then claims that genre fiction lacks this type of center. That they are about the inauthentic experience of heightened sensation and exceptional experience. Or to put it in the way it more often is in these tired literary vs. genre debates: genre fiction’s only use is escapism from everyday life.

But wait—there’s more! Pamuk double down on his claim that works of genre fiction have no center, although he does do the inevitable carving out of exceptions for the (Lem and Dick for SF; plus a bonus of Patricia Highsmith and John Le Carre; although, what? No Le Guin?):

Both writing and reading a novel require us to integrate all the material that comes from life and from our imagination—the subject, the story, the protagonists, and the details of our personal world-with this light and this center. The ambiguity of their location is never a bad thing; on the contrary, it is a quality we readers demand, for if the center is too obvious and the light too strong, the meaning of the novel is immediately revealed and the act of reading feel repetitive. Reading genre novels—science fiction, crime novels, period fantasies, romance novels—we never ask ourselves the questions Borges asked while reading Moby-Dick: What is the real subject? Where is the center? The center of these novels is precisely where we found it before, while reading novels of the same type. Only the adventures, the scenery, the main characters, and the murderers are different. In the genre novel, the profound theme that the narrative must structurally imply remains the same from one book to the next. Apart from the works of a few creative writers like Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick in science fiction, Patricia Highsmith in thrillers and murder mysteries, and John Le Carre in espionage fiction, genre novels do not inspire us with any urge to seek the center at all. It is for this reason that writers of such novels add a new element of suspense and intrigue to their story every few pages. On the other hand, because we are not drained by the constant effort of asking basic question about the meaning of life, we feel comfortable and safe when reading genre novels.

In fact, the reason we read such novels is to feel the peace and security of being at home, where everything is familiar and in its accustomed place. The reason we turn to literary novels, great novels, where we search for guidance and wisdom that might confer meaning on life, is that we fail to feel at home in the world. (159-160)

Notice the equivalent of literary with great and “such novels” with familiar. Notice the assigning of genre novels to the tidy domestic sphere and of literary novels to travel—to the seeker, the wanderer—to the wisdom that creates meaning out of failing to feel at home in the world. Notice how the achievements of entire fields are boiled down to one or two supposed outliers. Most of all, notice how the work of reading and the byproduct of such reading—the conversations, arguments, fan fictions, fan art, original fictional works written in dialogue with—are brushed aside because Pamuk claims we feel “comfortable and safe when reading genre novels.” I suppose here is where I should insert all sorts of caveats: “well, yes, let us acknowledge there are, indeed, works that are derivative” or “it’s true that many genre readers only seek the familiar”. But even if that’s true, turning the number of exceptions from one or two into ten or twenty or five hundred is to accept Pamuk’s terms of definition.

No, what Pamuk gets wrong—what many critics of genre fiction get wrong—is to mistake what they learned to read for in literary novels (where they find “the center”) for all there is to be found in fiction. “What is the real subject?” asks Pamuk. Well, in genre fiction it may or may not be found in theme or characterization or prose. It instead may be found in world building and setting. Or reconfiguration of standard tropes. Or character relationships. Or across novels in a series. Or on a level of variation of plot, character, setting, etc. that is unique or fresh or particularly effective but only to readers who know the standard tropes well enough. It’s not just that reading tastes differ—there’s also the fact that both the pleasures and the thing that challenges and the journey that’s dangerous sometimes (maybe even often) happens on a level that only the connoisseur can appreciate. This is not a defect on their part (although it could be in some instances). Rather it’s a mode of reading. I suppose one could argue that it shouldn’t take a connoisseur to find the pleasures, virtues, meanings, wisdom in a work. But all the works that Pamuk points to in his book also require learning how to read them. Just because a certain type of reading work has been codified by education and the family practices of the middle class, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Reading literary fiction for light and center requires become an active reader, a connoisseur. It’s just that such connoisseurship is respectable (because the 19th-21st literary novel is [was?] respectable to the bourgeoisie).

Now, it may seem hypocritical for me to champion genre fiction when what I tend to most write and talk about is non-core genre fiction. But what makes novels that combine literary elements with genre elements great is not that they achieve more than solidly genre novels (although some might do just that). What makes such novels great is that they activate tropes and wrestle with concerns and deploy prose and characterization in ways that feel more abundant and complete to those of us who grew up reading both literary and genre fiction. But those heady delights shouldn’t lead us (me) to proclaim that as the superior way just as the way Pamuk being steeped in late 19th century/early 19th century novels shouldn’t lead him to mistake their particular delights and strengths for the entirety of the value to be gained from fiction. What’s more: the reader we currently are doesn’t have to be the reader we always are. The best way to experience the delights of other modes of reading is to sample from wide array of fiction that is available. And the best way to identify the flavors you might be missing is to talk to other connoisseurs about what the like and why the like it. There’s a vast array of delights on offer. Wisdom is great, but can be found in so many types of fiction. Who needs the center?

*Quotes are from Orhan Pamuk, The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, trans. by Nazim Dikbas. Harvard University Press, 2010.

Walter Mosley’s case for genre

WHM uses Walter Mosley’s recent column on genre fiction to again take up the issue of genre fiction vs. literary fiction.

Earlier this month, Walter Mosley wrote a case for genre for Tor.com.

He wrote:

Alternative fiction is not comfortable, not expected. There are heroes, yes, but the world they bring us stinks of change and betrays all the faith that we once had in the sky above our heads and the ground below our feet.

This is what I call realistic fiction; the kind of writing that prepares us for the necessary mutations brought about in society from an ever changing technological world.”

I’m not sure that all speculative fiction does that. Some of it is backward looking — nostalgic, a reminder of virtues that if not widely held were more widely valid in the past: things like honor and courage. But just because that type of fiction exists, doesn’t mean that Mosley is wrong: the core of both science fiction and fantasy are engaging in speculation (thus the term speculative fiction [a term that is not loved by all, but one that I find useful]) and one can’t do so, I don’t think, without engaging with where are, where we have been and where we are going as a society. And, of course, literary fiction can be nostalgic as well.

And I think what Mosley is saying is that to engage in the fantastical, the speculative is to remind us that we can imagine other lives, other worlds, other timelines, other technologies than these. If literary realism gives us a snapshot of time, attempting in so doing to provide some sort of psychological portrait of a segment of society, speculative fiction gives us moving pictures. A dynamic view. Motion. Change (a world that stinks of change, according to Mosley).

I posted about this issue last year when Lev Grossman defended genre in the Wall St. Journal. What I like about Mosley’s post is that he doesn’t engage in any of the three weak defenses that we often see. He also speaks not just of achievements but also potential. I think this is also good. No literature ever fully arrives — that’s why we keep writing and reading.

In that previous post, I made the point that genre fiction should be defended “by showing what you can do that other genres can’t.”

I’d like to amend that statement:

I think that the onus here is on literary realism (and I do like how Mosley twists that term and claims the terms realistic fiction and alternative fiction for genre fiction) to prove what it does that other genres of fiction can’t. That is, the default position shouldn’t be literary realism, which is, after all, just a blip on the timeline of storytelling. It also can’t be an argument of degree (it does this,  but better) because the argument that genre fiction ignores poetic prose or characterization or that it doesn’t experiment with structure or style or point of view is no longer true. In other words, I think we should treat genre fiction like everything that happened in the field of literature (the turn towards theory, the debates over canon, the hi-lowbrow collision) actually happened. And then we woke up from that fever dream and realized, hey, we still have all these novels and people reading them and maybe the genre lines don’t matter as much as the fact that fiction is being written and published and read.


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.