13 Oct 2001 15:57

Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them.
---Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners, p. 84, as quoted by Frederick Crews, The Critics Bear it Away, pp. 143--144
Novels seem to have evolved independently three times --- in classical antiquity, in China (thence to Japan), and in early modern Europe (spurred by the rediscovery of the antique ones?). Is that it? Were these really independent developments?

<rant> In a fit of pique, this entry used to read "Why doesn't anyone write good ones anymore?" --- but of course people do, and not just in science fiction and mysteries. We'll get back to genre fiction in a moment, but first let me prove my bona fides by enthusing about some recent respectable fiction.

Patrick O'Brian's novels of Aubrey and Maturin are about as good as the art gets. (I re-read the series once yearly.) Knowledge of Angels left me stunned and dazed; so, in a very different way, did Byatt's Possession and Angels and Insects. Andrea Barrett's Ship Fever is very impressive, especially the title novella, which, despite what the blurb (and reviewers) will tell you, is almost the only story in the collection involving 19th century science. (Many of them do however belong to the not-a-genre of scientist-fiction.) Richard Power's The Gold-Bug Variations is a bravura performance, with prose almost as dense and slow-reading as pure math; it took me months to read a few hundred pages, and I enjoyed all of them. (It's also scientist-fiction.) Iain Banks's Whit, or Isis Amongst the Unsaved is hilarious and even moving. I also cherish a devotion to older novelists who're recognized as mainstream: Anatole France, for instance, and Ivan Turgenev. (I find Fathers and Sons more moving than I can convey, so I shan't try; but I realize this had something to do with a what was happening to me the first time I read it.) Dickens does very little for me, but Conrad is as a god. So there.

Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about the genres. (I confine myself to fiction in English, the only language over which I have mastery enough to render literary judgements, but my understanding is that what follows is true, mutatis mutandis, of other living European languages.) There are about half-a-dozen genres of fiction recognized by publishers, book-sellers, reviewers and readers. In no particular order, these are: science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, crime, romance, adventure/thrillers, westerns and porn. (Mysteries and crime are arguably a single category, and some would add historical fiction. Westerns seem to confined exclusively to the USA, not even of interest to Canadians.) Genres are not just distinctions of subject-matter; they also include traditions about how the matter should be treated, and some traditions about form as well. The rump of prose fiction is called "mainstream"; it is a residual category, defined by not getting a special label and treatment from the book trade. It has significantly higher standing both within the book trade and among the educated classes at large, and is used to claim intellectual and aesthetic distinction. (I have with my own two ears heard professional litterateurs say that, after all, engineers read science fiction because they can't appreciate subtle, refined constructions in prose.) Being myself an ivory tower academic intellectual snob, I should by all rights disdain genre fiction as, at best, a folly of my mis-spent youth, but actually I find myself reading more of it, in proportion, as time goes on. Like any self-respecting intellectual snob, I've cooked up a justification for this.

The first point to note is that membership in a genre has no logical connection, one way or the other, to literary merit, for almost any value of "literary merit" one choses to specify. Surprisingly many people don't see this. The excellent and admirable critic Robert Alter, for instance, in his defense of the reading and studying the traditionally-literary over other varieties of prose, The Pleasures of Reading, conflates works of literary merit, which he defines in a sensible way (saying that literature is "remarkable for its densely layered communication, its capacity to open up multifarious connections and multiple interpretations to the recipient of the communication, and for the pleasure it produces in making the instrument of communication a satisfying aesthetic object --- or more precisely, the pleasure it gives us as we experience the nice interplay between the verbal aesthetic form and the complex meanings conveyed": p. 28) with works in the mainstream category. Now it might be the case that genre novels hardly ever have literary merit, or are much less likely to have it than mainstream works, but he doesn't see the need to show this. Otherwise one can perfectly well agree with him about things which make fiction worth reading (and I do, largely) while disagreeing with him about where to find it. In the immortal words of Theodore Sturgeon: "Of course ninety percent of science fiction is crap; ninety percent of everything is crap." The question is always about the residue which isn't crap, and anyone familiar with both the mainstream and (say) science fiction or mysteries would be hard-put to argue that either the residue is smaller in the genres, or that the quality of what's in the residue is, on average, worse. (We'll get back to the size of the residue.) It may even be easier to find high-quality science fiction, fantasy and mystery than it is to find high-quality mainstream novels, though I admit that may just be practice on my part.

(I would, incidentally, argue that there are several kinds of literary merit --- that "has at least as much literary merit as" is a preordering and not a partial ordering. This opens an obvious line of defense for the genres, but I don't know that they match the different sorts of literary merit well --- or what all the kinds of merit are, come to that.)

Second, if we define genres (as the historians of science would say) internally, by the distinctions of subject-matter and traditions, as opposed to the external criteria of the book trade, then most of the mainstream can be easily divided into genres. Herewith a by no means exhaustive list of examples, described in deliberately slighting and dismissive terms. Scientist-fiction, Arrowsmith and its ilk, about the research life and the creative travails of scientists. (We either think these are unintentionally hilarious, or receive and even write them with painful earnestness.) Cultivated people confronting middle age, sex and existential angst (not necessarily that order), unto which have been sacrificed, besides untold trees, many hours when John Updike could have penned light verse, or books like The Coup. Campus satire. Novels which show us how scheming and evil ordinary people really are behind their facades. Novels which show us how empty and pointless ordinary lives really are behind their facades. Novels which show us how empty and pointless extraordinary lives with lots of fucking and drugs are. Novels about persons who in middle age return home to come to terms with their pasts. The Westerner confronting the rest of the world, and the dark heart of the West too. The non-Westerner confronting the dark heart of the West. And so on.

Third, taking genre in this internalist sense, there are noticable variations in the size and quality of the literarily meritorious fraction from one genre to the next. Principally this takes the form of Sturgeon's Law being a generous over-estimate. "Adventure" fiction/technothrillers, for instance (think action movies in prose, and, as they're marketed almost exclusively at men, the "dual" to romance novels) are very nearly the worst commerically viable fiction in existence; large swathes of pornography (not the stuff with aspirations but the mere mastrubatory aids) are much better written than this stuff is at its best. They are tied in the scales of my antipathy, however, with the novels about a novelist's creative struggles, especially when the novelist-character is, like the novelist-author, a professor of Creative Writing. (The novelist-novels have better grammar and vocabulary, but the stuff-blowing-up books are more likely to contain a plot-like substance as a major ingredient.)

Fourth, this variation in quality isn't intrinsic in the subject matter (except maybe for the novelist-novels). Take men's adventure stories, for instance. Once upon a time this matter gave us some of the finest story-telling ever, namely Homer. He started, you will recall, with a war-buddy story, and followed up with a sequel about a hero who's never at a loss and makes a fair number of gratuitous booty stops on the way to a bit of carnage which it'd take John Woo at his finest to bring to life. (That there was no one author to the Homeric epics is irrelevant.)

Fifth, external, not to say whimsical, forces often pick the genre in which a work or an author is conventionally put. I defy anyone to give good internalist reasons for declaring that Borges and Calvino wrote Literature, while Avram Davidson and Ray Bradbury did not. (The latter two are exhibits A and B for declaring "magical realism" a pan-American phenomenon --- another rant for another time.) But an externalist one is evident: Borges and Calvino had to be translated into English, and the translators were not about to lose caste by dealing with fantasy, the loss of caste itself having roots in nineteenth and early twentieth century social history.

Sixth, in a well-functioning genre, one which is performing up to Sturgeon's law, it pays to have absorbed the traditions which go with the subject. (The traditions are the reason why that matter is crap only ninety percent of the time.) There's a fair degree of successful cross-over between science fiction and fantasy, and between fantasy and horror, for natural reasons. (There's even some, though less, between SF and mysteries, which hasn't an obvious explanation.) In general, however, cross-overs are failures. John Updike, for instance, has written at least two novels which, as science fiction, are on the level of summer movies --- not because he can't write good novels, but because he's not mastered the traditions of SF, and pulls howlers worthy of the pulps. Similarly, Gore Vidal's Live from Golgotha is in the running for most cliched and least supportable time-travel novel, but the Vidalian wit redeems it. I could go on in this vein, but while writing this I've run across John Clute doing the job for me, so I'll just link.

In fact, I sense the point of diminishing returns to this rant rapidly approaching (if not long since passed), so I'll try to sum up. There is no reason to think that mainstream novels are typically better books, in any non-question-begging sense, than genre novels. There are unrecognized but strong genres among mainstream novels, some of which are as appalling as the worst of the recognized genres. Even if one is a literary and intellectual snob of the deepest dye, there is no reason to disdain the recognized genres. The only respect in which such fiction is inarguably inferior is cover art. </rant>