Another Day, Another Hilarious Article About Genre Fiction

Actually, a series of back and forth articles about genre versus literary fiction, played out across the New Yorker and Time, but I’ll focus on the last one, by Arthur Krystal.  It is a very strange article, since for some reason Krystal seems to want to convince the reader that he really doesn’t think “genre” fiction is inferior to “literary” fiction, really he doesn’t, even as he says things like “we don’t expect excellence in writing” in genre fiction (and what do you mean, “we” Kemo Sabi?), or that genre novels “stick to the trite-and-true, relying on stock characters whose thoughts spool out in Lifetime platitudes.”  If you really think genre fiction is inferior, just say it, loud and proud – plenty do.  Of course, if the best you can muster to differentiate the sides of the imaginary bright line is talk of “escapism” and “guilty pleasures”, maybe a firm stand isn’t that great of an idea.

I don’t really understand this obsession with guilty pleasures anyway.  You’re a grown-ass man – if you find something pleasurable, just own it, as long as it ain’t hurting anyone (and reading a book rarely does, outside of necronomicons and the like) – no need to be wracked with guilt over it.  The problem is, I get the sense that a lot of the people talking about guilty pleasures are guilty not so much because they think the product they are consuming is inferior, but because they really think literature should be painful.  These people are free to scourge themselves with stuff that is unpleasant to read all they want, but I don’t know why they keep telling me about it.

Krystal sort of wanders into a swamp when he starts talking about literary fiction being set apart by “the writer’s sensibility, his purpose in writing, and the choices he makes to communicate that purpose.”  That might have  been a nice jumping-off place for a point, if he had one, but instead of trying to convince us of the rather startling proposition that genre writers don’t have a purpose in writing, or don’t make choices to communicate it (or perhaps that they have some particular set of purposes they can choose from that don’t overlap with those of literary writers), he just sort of dribbles off with something about a (possible) “struggle to express what’s difficult to convey”, which doesn’t, apparently exist in “true” genre  fiction.  The fuzziness about the fact that literary fiction may or may not be conveying something difficult to comprehend makes it seem like a poor choice for defining the class.  The fact that it is blindingly obvious that genre fiction is constantly conveying all sorts of things that are not necessarily easy to comprehend is the other problem with the notion, of course.

I guess another idea is that various genres have conventions, and that these are limitations of the form.  But a) since when do limitations of the form make something inferior?  And b) is he really unaware of conventions of literary fiction?  Of course, if one points out genre fiction that doesn’t follow an expected convention, we come back to that “true” word that keeps popping up as a descriptor, that handy way of saying “Oh, well that one doesn’t count”.  The weird notion that genre fiction is defined by the use of stock characters (and I guess that literary fiction eschews them utterly) doesn’t even warrant consideration.  I’d say he’s just falling into the trap of defining genre fiction as “the sort of thing I don’t like”, except that in other paragraphs he points out things he calls genre fiction with excellent, original characters, and seems to realize he’s doing so.

I worry, when I read article like this, that the authors of them are simply unable to see excellence in writing unless it is jumping up and down on the page saying “Look at me!  I’m excellent!”  It is kind of sad to think of people who spend so much time thinking about writing missing so much in the written word.

~ by smwilliams on November 21, 2012.