The Sunday Salon: Genre Fiction and Feelings

You know, I could try to make a witty prelude to this, but this happens so much that it’s just exhausting, so I’ll just cut right to it—somebody else wrote about why “literary fiction” is inherently superior to “genre fiction”. (Presume sarcastic quotation marks around said semantically meaningless phrases throughout this post.) This month’s (well, last month’s, hush your face) somebody is Arthur Krystal in The New Yorker’s “It’s Genre Fiction. Not That There’s Anything Wrong With It!”. The usual arguments (genre fiction is formulaic, genre fiction is commercial, genre fiction isn’t written as well) and the usual flaws (defining genre in subjective terms, all the better to “rescue” certain worthy genre fiction) are all there, and I like to think we, as blogger and reader, have been over this material time and again. But towards the end of his piece, Krystal brings up a qualifier I’ve never seen before—he believes that literary fiction inherently affects the reader more profoundly.

Here’s Krystal in his own words:

What I’m trying to say is that “genre” is not a bad word, although perhaps the better word for novels that taxonomically register as genre is simply “commercial.” Born to sell, these novels stick to the trite-and-true, relying on stock characters whose thoughts spool out in Lifetime platitudes. There will be exceptions, as there are in every field, but, for the most part, the standard genre or commercial novel isn’t going to break the sea frozen inside us. If this sounds condescending, so be it. Commercial novels, in general, whether they’re thrillers or romance or science fiction, employ language that is at best undistinguished and at worst characterized by a jejune mentality and a tendency to state the obvious. Which is not to say that some literary novels, as more than a few readers pointed out to me, do not contain a surfeit of decorative description, elaborate psychologizing, and gleams of self-conscious irony. To which I say: so what?

One reads Conrad and James and Joyce not simply for their way with words but for the amount of felt life in their books. Great writers hit us over the head because they present characters whose imaginary lives have real consequences (at least while we’re reading about them), and because they see the world in much the way we do: complicated by surface and subterranean feelings, by ambiguity and misapprehension, and by the misalliance of consciousness and perception. Writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know are not going to write horror tales or police procedurals. Why say otherwise? Elmore Leonard, Ross Thomas, and the wonderful George MacDonald Fraser craft stories that every discerning reader can enjoy to the hilt—but make no mistake: good commercial fiction is inferior to good literary fiction in the same way that Santa Claus is inferior to Wotan. One brings us fun or frightening gifts, the other requires—and repays—observance.

As an initial aside, I’d like to note how Krystal gives himself an escape valve here with “well, there are always exceptions”; earlier in the piece, he pulls the familiar “This muffin is so good it’s actually a bagel!” trick, claiming that 1984 doesn’t count science fiction, or The Honorable Schoolboy as detective fiction because they’re so deep. Bwuh? This attitude is part of the reason I define genre by setting, rather than any less objective criteria—you can’t weasel your way out of that. And for a piece whose title tells the reader that there’s nothing wrong with genre fiction, it’s mostly about its supposed failings and the merits of literary fiction. I mean, the idea that a writer who wants to probe the condition of the human soul would surely never touch horror or detective fiction is incredibly patronizing.

But Krystal’s claim that genre fiction can’t “break the sea frozen inside of us” (a beautiful phrase borrowed from Kafka) is both baffling and infuriating to me. Firstly, his previous reframing of good genre fiction as secretly literary fiction allows him to define any book that breaks said frozen sea as literary fiction, allowing him to dismiss “actual” genre fiction, which is a bit of semantic gymnastics I am forced to begrudgingly respect. But secondly and more importantly, it erases any transcendent moments a reader has felt reading genre fiction and tells them, essentially, that they’re reading wrong—they should be experiencing such deep moments with “real” literature, not silly books with dragons and spies and eldritch horrors in them. It reminds me a bit of Chris Claremont’s approach to Marvel fandom:

Rarely will you find among fans, comic or SF, a magnificent physical specimen of humanity,” he lamented. “Because if you’re that good mentally or physically, you don’t need the fantasy—the reality’s good enough. It’s people who need the fantasy who indulge in it, and people who need the fantasy are usually lacking something.” (232-233)

And so, according to this line of thinking, I should have never wept over Sirius Black’s death as a teenage girl (the devaluation of teenage girls’ consumption of culture is something we’ll get to later). I should have never grimaced and teared up in horror at the world of Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy and how it reflected ours. I should have never found tender, fragile, redemptive hope in the story of Eärendil and Elwing or found myself stirred by the long arc of Galadriel’s redemption. I should have never found myself fiercely proud of Sansa Stark. As a responsible, adult reader, I simply shouldn’t feel deeply and significantly about these books because it’s not “real” literature. In the words of the Interent, I’m doing it wrong.

I mean, as if the fuzziness of defining the damn things wasn’t infuriating enough, taking the privileging to an entirely different level by privileging certain readings and reactions is just repulsive to me. I can’t believe I have to say this, but every reader is allowed their reaction to a text. Some people don’t like The Lord of the Rings; I don’t get to tell ‘em they’re doing the whole “reading books” thing wrong. C’mon, people. Let’s just love some books.

My show is running this weekend! I had hideous nerves the first half of opening night, but they subsided, and I hope I can keep them down. It’s never really happened to me before. I turn in the first draft of my senior thesis on Tuesday and present later this month. Yikes! I’ve not gotten much personal reading done, but I did read Native Son and Bread Givers yesterday for class, so there’s movement on that front.

The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) Small Beer Press offers several of their books as free downloads, including Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What do you make of this fresh new argument against genre fiction?

27 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Genre Fiction and Feelings

  1. I’m so bored of the intellectual laziness of pieces like Krystal’s. It’s No True Scotsman at its best. But as much as I have zero energy left to engage with them, reading smart responses like yours is still extremely satisfying. So thank you for writing it :P

  2. Just, ugh. Incredibly interesting that (at least in the piece you quoted) the only literary writers worth reading are dudes. I just clicked through to the New Yorker site and I see that he also had to take down Agatha Christie, because, you know, why not. I’m sick of old white dudes telling me how I should feel about books and what the “right” way to read is. I’m just queering reading by enjoying genre fiction, nbd. ;)

  3. “break the frozen sea inside us” is a good line, but it isn’t Krystal’s. He’s referencing a Kafka quote, which in its entirety goes:

    “I believe we should read only those books that bite and sting us. If a book we are reading does not rouse us with a blow to the head, then why read it? Because it will make us happy, you tell me? My God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy we could, if necessary, write ourselves. What we need are books that affect us like some really grievous misfortune, like the death of one whom we loved more than ourselves, as if we were banished to distant forests, away from everybody, like a suicide; a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

    (not trying to be a know-it-all, just wanted to make sure this jag didn’t get credit for quoting someone else)

  4. I read that article too and thought of you at once! I’m glad you took the time to write such a thoughtful response. I truly do understand the impulse to lionize one’s own particular tastes above other people’s, but I wish they would recognize sometimes that that’s what it is. There’s not any real standard that says liking one thing is better/more valid than liking another thing. If you’re making an argument that a particular book has nasty messages, that’s one thing; but saying that ALL BOOKS with certain characteristics are inherently worse than ALL BOOKS with a different set of characteristics is silly.

    • All because you just don’t get fantasy, man. Can’t we just braid each other’s hair and talk about books that move us? I will turn this infuriating discussion into a Duran Duran slumber party if it’s the last thing I do.

  5. I do love free downloads, but unfortunately neither the Vertigo Comics nor the Nightshade Books links are working for me. Am I too late or are the links simply broken?

  6. I applaud your continued and heroic efforts to challenge this “genre fiction/literary fiction” false dichotomy.

    ” I mean, the idea that a writer who wants to probe the condition of the human soul would surely never touch horror or detective fiction is incredibly patronizing.”

    It’s also so blatantly absurd and demonstrably false. What is Heart of Darkness but a horror story, after all?

    “Firstly, his previous reframing of good genre fiction as secretly literary fiction allows him to define any book that breaks said frozen sea as literary fiction, allowing him to dismiss “actual” genre fiction, which is a bit of semantic gymnastics I am forced to begrudgingly respect.”

    That’s more generous than I would be: I cannot remotely respect such obsequious, slimy intellectual cowardice as this. It’s moving the goal posts to suit your argument, and by doing so, he automatically loses. It’s like Godwin’s law: as soon as you try and say a work of obvious “genre fiction” (as they describe it) as “not really genre fiction,” you’ve lost the argument.

  7. “Literary fiction” is just another genre, like mystery fiction or science fiction, romance or westerns. To pretend otherwise is a failure to admit the emperor has no clothes and is also a bit mad.

  8. So in a nutshell, he’s making his argument that genre fiction is inferior to “literary” fiction by taking excellent novels and disqualifying them as genre fiction. There are no logical fallacies there, are there? Ugh.

  9. Heh, well it’s a typical dismissive argument in structure. Find ways to make it easy to disqualify people with oppossing views by denying them critical reading abilities – check. Take everything you like and re-classify it – check. I get cynically admiring his argument, because circular arguments that build in ways to deny any opposition, without having to introduce any new arguments, are neat – horrible, but structurally very effective weapons for repelling all arguments and making your opponents feel small. Of course you’ve got to be a total ass or a fanatic to use them, but I’m sure that doesn’t bother Krystal:P

  10. Taking out certain works to say they’re literary is so… lazy. Your comments are very good, but of Krystal’s it’s surely just a rant against what he doesn’t like.

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