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Friday, October 26, 2012

"Trite-and-True," but It's Not What He Thinks

It's about time for another "genre novels v. literary novels" spat, and Arthur Krystal provides it in an essay for The New Yorker that argues "genre" fiction cannot be as good as "literary" fiction.

There are the usual problems with his thesis. For one thing, literary fiction is a genre; implying that it is not is like arguing that some people don't speak with accents. For another, the boundaries between genres are not always as rigid as people think.  The biggest issue, however, is that Krystal relies on the No True Scotsman fallacy:
[I]t’s not plotting that distinguishes literary from genre fiction. After all, literary fiction can be plotted just as vigorously as genre fiction (though it doesn’t have to be). There’s no narrative energy lacking in Richard Russo, Richard Powers, Jonathan Franzen, David Mitchell, Denis Johnson, Annie Proulx, Gish Jen, Jhumpa Lahiri, and so on. A good mystery or thriller isn’t set off from an accomplished literary novel by plotting, but by the writer’s sensibility, his purpose in writing, and the choices he makes to communicate that purpose. There may be a struggle to express what’s difficult to convey, and perhaps we’ll struggle a bit to understand what we’re reading. No such difficulty informs true genre fiction; and the fact that some genre writers write better than some of their literary counterparts doesn’t automatically consecrate their books. . . . Genre, served straight up, has its limitations, and there’s no reason to pretend otherwise.
Krystal appears to be arguing that if a mystery novel has more than just good plotting, it no longer belongs in the genre category (again, all books fall into one genre or another, but for simplicity's sake I will use the term as Krystal does).  He makes this explicit when he talks about highly praised genre novels:
It seems to me that Chabon, Egan, and Ishiguro don’t so much work in genre as with genre, and “All the Pretty Horses” is no more a western than “1984” is science fiction. Nor can we in good conscience call John Le Carré’s “The Honorable Schoolboy” or Richard Price’s “Lush Life” genre novels.
Why can't we?  Because they are great?  That's an absurd way to classify genre novels -- science fiction or westerns or mysteries that are not too good to be called science fiction or westerns or mysteries. (I'm afraid to ask what he thinks about romances.  But then I am confident he would never call Pride and Prejudice a romance.)

I could give examples of genre books that are far more than just their excellent plotting (Neuromancer, The Name of the Rose, Jane Eyre), that are considered masterpieces.  I could also point to genre books that "transcend" their genre the way Krystal would have it, like Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events, by subverting tropes and making the reader work, but which aren't actually that good (that's why the series has been lingering on my "What I'm Reading" list -- I see what Snicket is trying to do, but he can't sustain it).  It wouldn't matter, though, because by Krystal's definition great books cannot be genre.

Towards the end, Krystal writes:
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.
 Here's the thing -- most literary novels aren't going to break that frozen sea either (and different books will break that sea for different people).  Only a tiny fraction of books last beyond their generation, let alone make it into the canon.  It seems foolish to further reduce that fraction by eliminating entire genres.


  1. COMPLETELY agree. It's such snobbery. I love some literary fiction, but plenty of it is pretentious, melodramatic, self-indulgent, predictable garbage. And a lot of it is sexist.

    1984 is decidedly science fiction. It's also dystopian fiction. Why can't it be both of those things and literature?

    Look, this feels like an American problem. It has to be WORK to be valid. I fully admit I have some plebeian tastes in fiction, theater, and film. But then, almost everybody agrees with me that Shakespeare is amazing, and Shakespeare is profoundly plebeian, as well as being - shudder - drama. Some Americans just look at Shakespeare as stuffy because they read it in school rather than going to interesting theater productions of it - and Shakespeare was meant to be acted, not read.

    Why does there have to be a hierarchy? And why the rush to classify anything excellent as literature - you're completely right about that, too.

    This dude needs to go watch some Die Hard and My Cousin Vinny and take a break from being all judgy-pants.

  2. Your comment about good literature having to be WORK is a good one. Maybe the problem is that too many of us put novels into two categories -- books that are good for us and that we had to read in school but which are hard and boring, and books that are fun to read but trashy. Krystal's attitude to genre makes sense under this schema.