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.