Pingback: The Sunday Salon: My First Blogoversary « The Literary Omnivore
Wow. This is quite impressive. I am reading this instead of finals…ah the miracles of procrastination. I LOVE LEVIATHAN. Where’s your review of Behemoth? Because I think that review should consist of OMGLOVEHEARTACTIONLOVEBADASS!!!111one
One question…why is Beowulf under nonfiction?
Ain’t it grand?
My review of Behemoth is scheduled for the 20th; might be bumped back for a review copy of something I got (those reviews supersede stuff I buy/rent on my own). It basically consists of “One time, Deryn Sharp punched me in the face. It was awesome.”
Because it’s got a Dewey Decimal System classification, and I sort of agree with that–we tend to look at it scholarly instead of as a rip-roaring yarn. I don’t do the same with graphic novels.
I’m afraid I’ve pretty much copied you and put up an alphabetized directory. Credit where credit is due: you get a ton of views and comments because you have it worked out to a science.
I don’t think it’s copying if I’m using library classifications, heh. But a review directory is a must for a book blog, I feel.
I only have perhaps a third of your total reviews, and mine are generally less lengthy, so it’s not been an issue before. I know there’s a whole bookblogging world out there, so I feel I should get involved – although I’m surprised how much time is spent on fantasy, scifi, and genre fiction.
You mean the good stuff? 🙂
I actually really loathe the term “genre fiction” (and its botched semantics) and the privileging of “literary fiction” (an equally loathed term, as it’s redundant—most “literary fiction” is actually in the genres of contemporary or historical fiction) over it; I’ve got a whole rant about the subject here.
I imagine it’s more prevalent because we can read whatever we want; while I tend towards omnivorousness, there are other book blogs that focus only on one genre.
Genre fiction is just convenient shorthand for the phenomenon where a great many books of generally poor quality are published for an audience whose expectations are very specific – there’s not really any other good way to express that. I am thinking specifically of romance, scifi, and fantasy in this way, because while other genres exist and have their following, those three are unusually broad and have articulated their own specific set of rules and tropes. This is also why a book can be considered a good work of fantasy, even though it would be considered terrible if critiqued on its own. A good example might be something like Terry Goodkind’s “Sword of Truth” series, which is terrible yet considered to be a very good fantasy book – expectations are lower for general quality in such genre fiction, because the elements of innovation, heroism, and atmosphere are all considered more important than general quality of writing or characterization.
This is not to say, of course, that there aren’t good works of genre fiction. By the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (fantasy) and Dune (scifi) don’t come around every day, and frankly even the best of these genre works are only middling works of literature. Recognizing their status as genre fiction recognizes that the standards by which they are judged are different – it’s not a bad thing, and ignoring it isn’t a good thing.
It is definitely true that there’s some ghettoization. To some extent, that’s meritorious and based in fact, but it has to be admitted that there are some good works that end up denigrated for their pigeonholing. But that’s true about any category, particularly one as functionally powerful as genre fiction, which indicate a different set of priorities in their label.
I don’t really consider historical fiction to be genre fiction, and so there’s a problem there of the awkwardness of the term and what I perceive as a distinction between “genre” (a broad classification of a book) and “genre fiction” (one of several highly articulated audiences). I think you adequately proved that anyway in your video.
Then why on earth is “genre fiction”—a phrase that, quite technically, refers to all fiction, since no piece of fiction is without genre—the term used to refer to this, rather than a phrase that indicates that this genre is simply prone to formulaic and/or poorly written books? As it stands, “genre fiction” casts a judgment on every book in that genre, which is exactly what I loathe about it. The very term dismisses these genres out of hand, just as you do when you say that “the best of these genre works are only middling works of literature”. (I think I already know your stance on The Lord of the Rings, then, heh.)
By subjecting speculative fiction to different (and much lower) standards, you don’t allow yourself to see them as capable of producing great literature. By subjecting all fiction to the same high standards, you’ll find that these genres are just as capable of producing great literature. We simply have to look harder to find them. It’s Sturgeon’s Law, pure and simple; 90% of everything is crap.
I don’t think the ghettoization of any genre is meritorious; it’s laziness on our parts as readers and as critics. For instance, I personally find the mystery genre dull, predictable, and boring. But that doesn’t mean that I think the genre is incapable of producing a great work of literature—simply that I haven’t encountered it yet.
I agree that “genre fiction” is a confusing term, and I wish there was a better one at hand. But I don’t think you’ll ever escape the problem of blanket condemnation of scifi and fantasy and romance, both because of the partial justness of that condemnation (they’re articulated and insular communities with different expectations) and the basic problem of any label’s tendency to genericize its constituency.
Do you disagree that the best of genre fiction is usually only middling as literature? You give The Lord of the Rings as an example – I’ll agree that this particular book (trilogy? haha!) is superb as literature, in no small part thanks to Tolkien’s erudition and extraordinary research (“Theoden” is Anglo-Saxon for a “leader”) that hearkens back to England’s mythic roots and finds resonances in medieval interpretations of the same to lend verisimilitude to far-flung fantasy, but it is almost alone in this respect. This is just the nature of the beast. With modern fantasy, you have a community that demands certain things and authors that deliver, and their standards are different. This isn’t necessarily “bad,” but because the audience is enormously skewed towards certain demographics, and because the values in literature they prize are different than those prized by the larger cognoscenti, and because it’s a very modern and very insular movement, then the results are going to be very different from mainstream and traditional literature. Recognizing that is not lazy, it’s actually the opposite: any work of art needs to be judged in context!
I generally consider genre fiction under both sets of standards, particularly when recommending it to someone. When my wife asked me about “Game of Thrones” by George R. R. Martin, the current darling of fantasy, then I asked myself (a) is this good fantasy? and (b) is this a good book? The answer was definitely affirmative for the former, but the latter was much more muddled. Ultimately, I recommended it to her, albeit without the enthusiasm with which I had recommended David Foster Wallace or Michael Chabon. If I took your advice about abandoning special consideration for fantasy, I would probably recommend almost none of it – even though I actually love it (good fantasy: Tad Williams, Stephen R. Donaldson, and so on).
Consider The Once and Future King, which I believe I saw you’ve read. This could be considered fantasy. Yet it is widely recognized as good literature (especially for young adults) because of the clever way it works through anachronism as a sort of early magical realism (i.e. the fascist ants) and its handling of Arthurian legend, as well as for a bunch of other reasons it’s probably not necessary to list for you. It’s well-written, interesting, has complex characterization and marvelous dramatic arcs, and so it’s a good work of literature. I would accordingly probably not call it fantasy, or even worry about that aspect of things when recommending it to someone. I would just recommend it, because it wasn’t written and shouldn’t be considered as belonging to that special enclave of expectations that is the fantasy genre.
Now, if I had to classify it, then I guess I probably would slap the “fantasy” label on it. But again this bumps up against the problem of semantics here: there really just needs to be a better term for that special sort of genre fiction qua genre fiction.
By the way, as to mystery books, I would recommend Borges’ Ficciones. It is marvelous.
Oh, we never will; it’s too entrenched. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong, and the idea that dismissing the genre is just very much rubs me the wrong way. Recognizing that the audiences are specific beasts is fine; thinking that that’s a reason to dismiss the genre is not.
Oh, I absolutely disagree that the best of “genre fiction” is middling when compared to other fiction. The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire absolutely blow works of “non-genre fiction” out of the water.
I don’t disagree that the audiences for these genres have certain expectations and a certain culture, but I think that’s true for any genre. Books need to be judged in context—to each other. What I’m disagreeing with is limiting that context. If I were to apply this attitude towards other works, I would never be able to compare disparate works across time and space, because they come out of different traditions and thus, in this definition, are not part of each other’s contexts.
Your example proves my point here—because you find The Once and Future King a good piece of literature, you don’t want to call it fantasy and thus “insult” it. Incidentally, I found it dull and patronizing; but fantasy is fantasy, and I would never say it’s not part of my most beloved of genres. You’re complicating this by incorporating the audience, I feel. It’s a very valid avenue to explore, of course, but I’m just talking about the genre as descriptive of the setting and the world, not the story and certainly not the quality of literature.
Ultimately, I think we’ll have to agree to disagree or else talk in circles, but I’ve appreciated this chance to see the logic behind the argument, although I certainly don’t agree with it.
I’ll give him a shot!
I guess we will agree to disagree, then.
Thanks again for your admirable willingness to tolerate my copycatting of your blog’s traits. I subscribed to your RSS, so I may bother you again someday.
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