Just when you think you’re out, they drag you back in. I really didn’t want to write anything else about literary and genre fiction for a while, but then I saw this piece
by novelist Edward Docx on the failings on genre fiction. This kind of thing has been hashed and rehashed too many times, mostly to no good purpose. I really shouldn’t rise to Mr Docx’s bait, but I can’t help myself. My excuse is that while it’s a lazy and trite little piece of mischief, Mr Docx does hit on a couple of truths. As for the rest, not only does he use the tired, dishonest method of using the failings of a couple of bestselling authors -- in this case Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson -- to dismiss an entire genre, he also drags up the old high v. low art argument but fails to support his case. We get some anatomisation of ‘bad’ genre writing, but nothing to explain why literary fiction is so superior:
I'd love to end this piece by dealing with the fallacies of relativism, exposing the other misconceptions surrounding both genre and literary fiction (class needs tackling) and then round the whole thing off with a series of extracts from any number of fine contemporary novelists whom I love – Franzen, Coetzee, Hollinghurst, Amis, Mantel, Proux, Ishiguro, Roth – to illustrate again the happy, rich and textured difference. But there's simply not enough space.
Back when I was a university lecturer, clever but lazy students would sometimes try this Fermat’s Last Theorem gambit in their essays: an automatic D-. Actually, I’m glad he didn’t tackle class. Don’t get me started on class, the English publishing industry, and the stultification of the English literary novel. I don’t have enough time.
Mr Docx does though, make a useful point about how the conventions of genre fiction can cause a kind of thinning of the prose:
...even good genre (not Larsson or Brown) is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material. That's the way writing works and lots of people who don't write novels don't seem to get this: if you need a detective, if you need your hero to shoot the badass CIA chief, if you need faux-feminist shopping jokes, then great; but the correlative of these decisions is a curtailment in other areas. If you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise. Lots of decisions are already made.
Or rather, he makes half a point, because this is really a rather nice description of bad genre writing: following the tramlines of convention, furnishing the plot with tropes and images from the used furniture store, cliched characterisation. James Wood, in How Fiction Works
, makes a far better fist of this kind of argument:
...the complaint that realism is no more than a grammar or set of rules that obscures life is generally a better description of le Carré or P.D. James than it is of Flaubert or George Eliot or Isherwood: when a style decomposes, flattens itself down into a genre, then indeed it does become a set of mannerism and often pretty lifeless techniques. The efficiency of the thriller genre takes just what it needs from the much less efficient Flaubert or Isherwood, and throws away what made those writers truly alive.
But this, of course, is precisely what any genre writer with any kind of self-awareness and ambition should be struggling against. Bad genre writers pander to the expectations of their readers; good genre writers subvert those expectations; great genre writers, like Philip K Dick, J.G. Ballard, or John Crowley, transcend them, completely rewriting conventions or using them for their own ends. And while there may not be any genre writers who can match, sentence for sentence, literary writers at the top of their game -- Saul Bellow, say, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez -- there are certainly a good number who can match the middle ranks of their literary counterparts. Who aren’t content with utilitarian prose and (quoting Wood again) “selection of detail [that] is merely the quorum necessary to convince the reader that this is ‘real’, that ‘it really happened’”, but want to bring life to their pages by selecting the best possible words in the best possible order. It would have been useful if Mr Docx had quoted from those writers, and explained why he thought them still not up to the mark. But that would have involved actual thought rather than reflex derision.
We’ve been on the receiving end of criticism or condemnation of too many people who, like Mr Docx, simply haven’t read widely enough. It makes us defensive. It raises our hackles. Which brings me to Mr Docx’s other useful point, which is that many genre writers aren’t content with popularity (although some of us aren’t content for the opposite reason): they are jealous of the critical acclaim won by literary fiction, and so tend to dismiss its values.
Science-fiction writers and fans aren’t immune to this: when an outsider points out legitimate faults in some piece of SF, they have a tendency to misuse Sturgeon’s Law by asserting that 90% of everything is crap, or claiming some kind exceptionalism – SF writers are allowed to skimp on characterisation because they have to build entire worlds. And so on, and so on, none of it especially useful. Of course, the flip side of genre defensiveness are pieces like Mr Docx’s, in which literary writers complain that they don’t get no respect, bad is driving out good, and only the true cognoscenti appreciate them. Under the skin, writers of all kinds are rather more similar than Mr Docx can ever bring himself to admit.