Here We Go Again: Literary v. Genre

Oh goody, it’s a new essay from The New Yorker about the difference between genre and literary fiction! Good thing too, because it had been so long since I was last reminded of the distinction — I might have forgotten I was writing inferior stuff, so thanks, Arthur Krystal. I really needed that.

The essay is mostly what you’d expect (1984 isn’t science fiction, right?), and the logic doesn’t line up beginning to end. But there are some cringe-inducing moments.

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.

Which is worse, Lifetime platitudes or over-wrought metaphors? You decide!

It gets even funnier when he goes on and tries to suggest some kind of universal thawing that occurs when people read the literary giants.

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.

Joseph Conrad — whom I’ve never read — is a problematic example given the racist overtones of Heart of Darkness. I’ve only read one of Henry James’s stories and it was a long time ago, but I wasn’t impressed. But James Joyce — of course he’d be mentioned in such an article. He is the God of the modernists, God of the academic literary world, God of The New Yorker and the rest of literature’s supposed “last stand” against the onslaught of the masses. (This sounds ridiculous, but I did once hear the staff of an academic lit mag describe themselves in similar terms, so…) But so what? I’m glad, I guess, that James Joyce can thaw the icy seas of Krystal’s heart. But I absolutely can’t stand it when people suggest I have to like James Joyce too, or else I’m uncultured, uneducated, a “mere” genre reader.

James Joyce is at least half the reason I didn’t go for my MFA, albeit indirectly. By senior year of college I was tired of reading quiet epiphany stories revolving around failed middle class marriages coming apart at the seams while the characters ran off to have messy affairs and sneak the occasional hit of their teenage child’s pot supply. And the quiet epiphany story that currently has such a strong love for the failed middle class marriage coinciding with the mid-life crisis — that “trite-and-true” story began with James Joyce’s “The Dead.” And it just keeps going.

But that’s fine. I just decided to step off that train (and like I said, it wasn’t the whole reason I didn’t go). Krystal can read and enjoy all the Joyce he wants. He can continue to like Joyce and his cohorts more than those commercial novels. Whatever floats his boat.

What I hate is when someone decides it’s time to step out and declare that their tastes and perspective are more important than mine — or yours. I don’t presume to think that everyone who reads Catherynne Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales is going to experience a total shift in the way they think of gender roles and the importance of subtext in the stories we tell. Not everyone will be dazzled by the poetic language or floored by the depth of the world she creates (one that is, if you ask me, “complicated by surface and subterranean feelings”). And that’s fine. That’s why we keep writing and reading new books, and why we need so many different ones — they’re not going to read the same way to all people.

Here’s a fact: the literary canon has been in the hands of white middle to upper class men for centuries. Not everyone who reads books is a white middle/upper class man. Not all white middle/upper class men are the same anyway. Ergo, there is no such thing as universality. Some people would like to believe there is, that there’s some kind of literary quality not influenced by personal tastes, experiences, history, and tradition. But that’s not how the world works. The only thing that’s universal is story itself: the telling of tales to reveal truths and bring us together.

Why isn’t that enough?

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3 thoughts on “Here We Go Again: Literary v. Genre

  1. Oh, this made me so mad I can hardly think of a response. That man, in my humble opinion, just made himself look like an ignorant snobby asshole. To proclaim that anyone with a deeper message wouldn’t consider writing it in any format other than literary fiction is just… idiotic. That whole article reads like public masturbation. Forgive me, but dude’s just stroking himself.

    1. Lura Slowinski

      Actually, that’s why I didn’t get my MFA: couldn’t stand all the ego stroking (which is certainly not representative of everyone who loves literature, but sadly there do seem to be many like this in academia). Krystal presumes to speak for all writers across all genres in this piece, and it’s infuriating. And yes, he does come off as clueless in addition to snobby. There’s no good science fiction because 1984 isn’t sf. Probably, to him, Frankenstein isn’t horror. This is just ignorance.

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