Sunday, December 12, 2010

Poor ole literary fiction

Edward Docx has a piece in The Guardian today which "argues that even good genre fiction doesn't bear comparison with works of true literary merit". His targets are primarily Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown which is really the low-hanging fruit but Docx of course is going after the whole genre idea. He at least is very clear about the reason which is that all genres are "by definition a constrained form of writing" and he's absolutely right because that is in fact what makes a genre a genre just as a fruit, say, contains seeds or a train by definition travels on a predetermined track. You could say this is a kind of straw-man argument and point out that "literary fiction" is itself a genre in the sense that it is also constrained (middle-class life dramas told in mostly straight-forward but "elegant" prose with of course small wings of magic realism for fantasy-that-dare-not-speak-its-name, historical (he mentions Mantel and Roth) for variety, experimental for imaginative approaches, etc). Now I'll admit his snide comments on Lee Child's statement are somewhat funny (even if I think the reason he mentions Crime and Punishment as a thriller is because he doesn't actually know what a thriller is) and that most genre fiction is purely a way to pass time at best - but then isn't most literary fiction also a way to pass time for people who don't want to read about gunfights, vampires or unsolved murders? And certainly some such readers believe the mere presence of gunfights etc means that the story is of less value than one about a middle-class life drama. Because sometimes those genre stories can deal more effectively with certain subjects or ideas or emotions than "literary" fiction - in fact at some point the genre story is literary rather than just output of the publishing business. My guess is that Docx doesn't want to deal with work on such a case-by-case basis and it's hard to blame him completely - I'd guess that in the romance section of my bookstore is something of value but there's no way I'm spending the time to sift through it. (And I have to wonder about Docx including Robert Harris among Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel - on this side of the Atlantic I get the impression that Harris is considered of a higher level - if nothign else I thought his Imperium much more substantial than Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety which I'm comparing only because they're both historical novels by writers mentioned in this article.) Roger Ebert often says something to the effect that he doesn't care what a film is about but how it is about it. Sure a genre is more than the story but also how it's told - from my experience thrillers or mysteries tend towards a blunt, terse style while some SF and fantasy can use a more lush even long-winded style even to the point of a broad vocabulary that most "literary" writes would be afraid to use. But Docx would just as soon not deal with any of this.