Monday, August 1, 2011

Genre respect and the NYT

It's an ongoing issue that genre fiction--mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, horror--is somehow less important than so-called "literary" fiction. That involves forgetting that in many cases the disposable genre fiction of yesterday (Jules Verne, HG Wells, Edgar Allen Poe, HP Lovecraft, Louis L'Amour, Jack London, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler) has become the acknowledged classics of today.

Still, it's frustrating to still see this play out right in front of me, as it did last month in the New York Times. I won't use the authors' names here, because it's not important; it's not hard to figure out if you feel the need, but it's utterly beside the point. To me, what's important is how this "corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals" (props to Spiro Agnew) pronounces and supports its judgment.

Here are two excerpts from the literary novel's review:

"So does the new novel deliver? I’m not so sure...the author seems a bit lost, adrift in unfamiliar waters, and the book feels less like a second novel than it does another try at a first."

"There is only so much we can read this way before we are overwhelmed by the desire to drop the pretense."

And here are two from the review of the genre novel:

"[The author's] novel has the stylized quality of books by Angela Carter like The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, and it displays similar pyrotechnics."

"Yet in a highwire act of her own, [the author] still raises the novel above the ordinary through her ability to convey the richness of the [characters’] emotional lives, coupled with impressive writing."

Clearly the first review was less than positive, while the second was close to a rave. Now, the kicker: which book got the three-page excerpt also published in the New York Times? That's right, after their reviewer says "There is only so much we can read this way before we are overwhelmed by the desire to drop the pretense," the Times decides to put that to the test.

As I said, I mean no disrespect to either writer. I do mean disrespect to this constant shafting of the genre in which I work, in which a lot of people do great work that readers actually want to read. How do I know? You don't get David Foster Wallace conventions; you do get Terry Pratchett ones.

But perversely I also enjoy this lack of respect. Like Superman and Lex Luthor, or Batman and the Joker, your hero is measured against the strength and cunning of the villain opposing him/her. And when you get right down to it, the Literary Establishment is actually a lot like Lex Luthor: powerful, entrenched, sophisticated, and--most delightfully--fundamentally threatened by those aliens in their brightly colored costumes.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go put on my cape and long underwear.


tony isbell said...

Alex, I SO agree with this! Two quick points (which are often made in this type of debate)

1.(Most)Mainstream reviewers somehow fail to recognize that ALL fiction is in some type of genre. "Literary" fiction is a genre as surely as sf or horror or whatever.
And frankly, it's usually the most boring. I read genre fiction because I freaking LIVE "psychological realism" every day of my life. I like to get away from it now and then.

2. As Theodore Sturgeon observed, "90% of science fiction is crap; but then, 90% of EVERYTHING is crap."

Nice post.

Tony Isbell

Deborah Blake said...

Tony--I love that T.S. quote :-)

Alex--there has been even more furor than usual about the anti-genre prejudice, because someone somewhere (I was writing, so I didn't pay much attention!) said recently that romance novels caused improper behavior. Good grief.

I like my reading to be escapist and fun. If I wanted reality, I'd look out my window...

Great blog post, as usual.

Ramblings from the Edge said...

One thing I have noticed about 'genre' novels vs 'literary' is this...When there is a literary novel I may cry, I may laugh...but at the end of the novel I am generally depressed. While I may have the same responses to a genre novel, at the end I am looking to see when the author has a new release or if there are any novels by the author I have missed. In short the literary novels hit a realistic note that brings out the angst of life, whereas the 'genre' novels at the end of the day are pure enjoyment...and sometimes cause deep thought about the same issues without causing heartbreaking sobs.

Anonymous said...

There's a great example of this in stuff that is clearly fantasy, but has somehow managed to get itself into the "pure" fiction category. Christopher Moore is a brilliant example, and so too is Matt Ruff's Sewer Gas and Electric, and a huge chunk of Vonnegut as well.

These are admittedly fine writers in their own right. Personally, I don't care for Vonnegut or Ruff, but Moore's stuff is sick and funny. Well worth reading if you've never read them. However, I think that if Moore were in the fantasy racks, where frankly he belongs, he wouldn't be getting the same respect from reviewers he gets now.

Personally, I think some of this intellectual bashing is just bitterness on the parts of the reviewers. They have their degrees in literature, and are all bitter and angry that the reading public read what they see as garbage instead of what they've been indoctrinated to see as great writing by their English professors.

Unknown said...

Oh, GAH! Now I have a visual of you in a cape and long underwear. I was with you 'til then, nodding and agreeing.

I'm wondering how much good writing has been overlooked because it's labeled romance. It's not a genre I care for (at all), but I imagine that there are similar woes there as well.