Literary Revolution in the Supermarket Aisle: Genre Fiction Is Disruptive Technology

How science fiction, fantasy, romance, mysteries and all the rest will take over the world

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(Lev Grossman writes about books here on Wednesdays. Subscribe to his RSS feed.)

This post is by way of a reply to Arthur Krystal’s “Easy Writers,” a thoroughly thought-provoking piece about the relationship between genre fiction and literary fiction that ran in the New Yorker this week. I was happy to see the New Yorker weighing in on this, because I think it’s an important part of what’s going on in fiction right now. I think about it a lot. So naturally if anybody says anything about it anywhere, the world urgently requires my response.

[I want to be clear, by the way, that this is a response in the sense of a (probably one-sided) critical conversation. There’s been some umbrage in the genre world about this piece, but my feeling is, we’re all readers in good faith here, and this isn’t going to be one of those pieces where I accuse somebody of “not getting it” and so on. Krystal’s piece is smart, serious and highly literate, and I disagreed with it in places, and I truly admired it in others. But either way it didn’t piss me off.]

What Krystal does in “Easy Writers” is introduce the idea that the distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction has, of late, gotten less clear. “Writers we once thought of as guilty pleasures,” he says, “are being granted literary status.” Which is true. The likes of Chandler, Hammett, (Edgar Rice) Burroughs, Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick have been admitted to the Library of America. Stephen King has been recognized by the National Book Foundation. Fish are roosting in the trees, all is topsy turvy, etc.

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Like a good detective, Krystal heads into this disorderly situation, critical flashlight in hand, examines the evidence, and essentially concludes that the Old Order still stands: literary fiction and genre fiction are in fact distinct, and should be, and the former is generally superior to the latter. He allows that comparisons between literary fiction and genre fiction “needn’t be invidious,” but he basically sticks with the received wisdom. I hope he wouldn’t disagree too much with that crude summary.

Personally, I think the situation is more complicated than Krystal makes it out to be. God knows, I’m not going to clear it up, but I am going to try to re-disorder the issue a little. Because the shades of grey here, they are many.

The questions that Krystal raises and then answers in the piece are, a) whether or not there’s a fundamental difference between literary fiction and genre fiction, and b) if there is, then what the hell is it? Krystal and I are together in voting yes on a). But on b) we part ways.

So let’s go over the grounds on which Krystal’s conclusions rest. First and foremost, he relies on the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction as being one between works of art, on the one hand, and escapism on the other.

Being as how Krystal busts genre writers for using clichés in their prose, I think it’s only fair play to scold him a little for relying so heavily what has become a critical cliché. In my experience at least, to dismiss genre fiction as escapism is to seriously under-think what happens when someone opens a genre novel. According to the escapist theory, people read genre fiction to leave behind the cares and sorrows of reality — a genre novel is, in Krystal’s words, “a narrative cocktail that helps us temporarily forget the narratives of our own humdrum lives.” It’s like we’re sucking on a literary pacifier: genre readers “simply want the comfort of a familiar voice recounting a story they that they hadn’t quite heard before.” Calgon, take me away! (<— Old-person humor.)

Personally I don’t think it’s anywhere near that simple. If that’s true, then what kind of escape do you find in George R.R. Martin’s Westeros? Or in the grim, rain-soaked Britain of Kate Atkinson? Or in Suzanne Collins’ brutal, subjugated Panem? What kind of cocktails are those? They make you forget your own problems, sure, but they replace them with a whole new set of problems, even more dire (hopefully) than the ones you left behind.

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There’s more than escapism going on here. Why do we seek out these hard places for our fantasy vacations?  Because on some level, we recognize and claim those disasters as our own. We seek out hard places precisely because our lives are hard. When you read genre fiction, you leave behind the problems of reality — but only to re-encounter those problems in transfigured form, in an unfamiliar guise, one that helps you understand them more completely, and feel them more deeply. Genre fiction isn’t just generic pap. You don’t read it to escape your problems, you read it to find a new way to come to terms with them.

Krystal also dwells quite a bit on the quality of the writing in genre novels: “the prose may be uneven,” he writes, “and the observations about life and society predictable.” And so on. Again, I don’t quite agree. I would argue that what he’s describing there isn’t genre fiction. What he’s describing sounds more like shitty genre fiction. The writing in good genre fiction is not at all uneven. It’s not easy to find a sentence out of place in Tana French, or to find a work of literary fiction that sparks and snaps at you like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. God knows there’s plenty of bad writing in literary fiction, too, but Krystal never talks about that. The badness tends to be a different kind of badness — slow, earnest, lugubrious prose, or too-clever and self-conscious prose — but bad it nonetheless is. You wouldn’t want to judge literary fiction on the basis of its mediocrities. So why judge genre fiction that way?

But to give us an example of what he’s talking about, Krystal quotes the opening paragraphs of two novels, both set on trains: Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. It’s an excellent, highly instructive comparison, though I don’t read it the same way Krystal does. He describes Christie’s prose as “practical, no-nonsense, bordering on cliché, with a faint didactic hum. The scene is set, a tone is established, and nothing, one feels, will come between us and the story.” It’s praise, but it’s pretty faint. He goes on, further down the page: “Readers who require more must look either to other kinds of novels or to those genre writers who care deeply about their sentences.”

But the funny thing is, seeing it there next to Ford’s, I couldn’t help but think what a masterly opening that passage from Orient Express is — how taut and clean and pregnant with possibility it is. Anybody who thinks that what Christie does there is easy has never tried to do it. Christie’s writing is artless, it flows quickly through the mind, but to create that effect of artlessness requires an extraordinary amount of art. Smoothness and clarity are not things that occur naturally in prose, they require a great deal of grinding and polishing. They don’t happen by accident. She cared about those sentences, deeply.

Of course, she’s still doing something very different from Ford Madox Ford. But is it trivial? It’s commonly thought that ease and clarity disqualify a novel from literary greatness, but — and I realize I’m an outlier on this issue — I don’t think that should be the case at all. As Krystal points out elsewhere, difficulty in fiction was largely an innovation of modernism — it was one of the period’s stylistic’s signatures. But as such it’s not a permanent feature of the literary landscape. Before modernism there were great books that read easily (Dickens, Turgenev, Austen). There have been great ones since then, too.

But the heart of Krystal’s argument, as I see it, is less about style than it is about plot. When we read genre fiction, Krystal writes, “it’s plot we want and plenty of it.” In Christie’s books, he says, nothing comes between us and the story. But what exactly does plot do? If nothing comes between us and the story, what exactly are we left with? Krystal alludes to, and honors, the power of story at the end of the essay — “if the story moves, we, almost involuntarily, move with it” — but he doesn’t appear to be willing to grant that a great story can mean somethingNot the way literary fiction does.

This, most fundamentally, is where I disagree with Krystal. It’s hard to talk about what plot does, but that’s not the fault of genre fiction. If anything it’s because criticism has failed the genre novel. Most of the critical vocabulary we have for talking about books is geared to dealing with dense, difficult texts like the ones the modernists wrote. It’s designed for close-reading, for translating thick, worked prose into critical insights, sentence by sentence and quote by quote, not for the long view that plot requires. But plot is an extraordinarily powerful tool for creating emotion in readers. It can be used crudely, but it’s also capable of fine nuance and even intellectual power, even in the absence of serious, Fordian prose. The emotions and ideas plot evokes can be huge and dramatic but also complex and subtle and intimate. The things that writers like Raymond Chandler or Philip Pullman or Joe Abercrombie do with plot are utterly exquisite. I often find that the complexity of the narratives in genre fiction makes the narratives in literary novels look almost amateur by comparison. Look at George R.R. Martin: no literary novelist now writing could orchestrate a plot the way he does. Even if you grant that the standards for writing and characterization in genre fiction are lower than in literary fiction, the standards for plotting are far, far higher.

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True, some plots happen in Westeros, and some happen in London. Some plots are plausible and some plots are not. But that is not, ultimately, the point. Tyrion Lannister isn’t real, but then again neither is Mrs. Dalloway. Stories are stories, and their relative proximity to reality is not germane. What’s germane are the ideas and emotions that those stories create in those who read them. Fiction is never real, but feelings always are.

I think this is a point that novelists have been picking up on, of late. Blue-chip literary writers — finding that after years of deprivation under the modernist regime their stores of plot devices are sadly depleted — have been frantically borrowing from genre fiction, which is where plot has been safely stockpiled for all these decades. There’s a vast blurry middle ground in between genre fiction and literary fiction that’s notably absent from Krystal’s essay. Cormac McCarthy now writes about serial killers and post-apocalyptic worlds. Michael Chabon writes about alternate realities and hard-boiled detectives. Philip Roth writes alternate history. Kazuo Ishiguro writes about clones. Colson Whitehead writes about zombies. Kate Atkinson writes mysteries. Jennifer Egan writes science fiction, as does Haruki Murakami (and as did David Foster Wallace). And on and on. (The borrowing happens the other way, too: writers like Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, Catherynne Valente, John Green, Susanna Clarke, Richard Price and China Miéville, to name a very few, are gleefully importing literary techniques into genre novels, to marvelous effect.) Krystal brings up Gary Shteyngart and his  love of Zardoz (not the movie, oddly, but the novelisation thereof), but what he doesn’t mention is that Shteyngart’s last novel, Super Sad True Love Story, is science fiction. These days, I find, literary novelists are much more interested in plot and much less interested in plausibility, or in realism, than literary critics are.

(And to say that such books “transcend” the genres they’re in is bollocks, of the most bollocky kind. As soon as a novel becomes moving or important or great, critics try to surgically extract it from its genre, lest our carefully constructed hierarchies collapse in the presence of such a taxonomical anomaly.)

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Although — Krystal might say, I don’t know, I’m just extrapolating here — there’s plot and then there’s plot. The plots in genre novels are of a different kind, after all, constrained as they are by conventions. But conventions aren’t the iron cage they’re made out to be. Sonnets are bound by conventions too, but that doesn’t stop them from being great, and wildly various. Conventions are more like the rules of chess: a small set of constraints that produces near-infinite complexity. They’re not restrictive, they’re generative. And they flop both ways: genre fiction transgresses its conventions more frequently, I think, than Krystal allows for. Watchmen violates almost every convention of superhero comics that there is, but it never ceases to be a superhero comic — in fact it’s one of the greatest superhero comics ever written.

And all this is to imply that literary fiction is, by contrast, free from formulas and conventions. It’s one of the curious conceits of literary fiction, one of the ways that it tries to separate itself from genre fiction, that it invokes a kind of doctrine of literary exceptionalism whereby it’s considered free from or above convention. But that is itself a convention, and I’m pretty sure literary fiction actually has the usual number of them. In other words — and here’s the real nightmare, horror-movie reveal, wait for it — literary fiction is itself a genre, just like mysteries or westerns or fantasy. (I can’t resist quoting M. John Harrison here: “The sooner literary fiction recognises & accepts its generic identity, the sooner it can get help.”)

“Apparently, we’re still judged by the books we read,” Krystal writes, “and perhaps we should be.” But I’m not sure I agree. Somewhere in its history, reading novels has gotten all tangled up with questions of social status, and accepting the kinds of pleasure that genre novels offer us has become — how perverse are we? — a source of shame. What is it, exactly, that those pleasures are guilty of? Novels aren’t status symbols, or they shouldn’t be. Maybe it’s the last vestiges of our Puritan heritage: if it’s not hard work, it’s sinful. Maybe it’s just that we’re self-loathing capitalists, and anything associated with commerce, as genre fiction is, is automatically tainted and disqualified from having any aesthetic value. Either way our attitude toward genre fiction smacks of mass cultural neurosis. I don’t argue — as some critics do — that literary fiction and genre fiction are merging. They have their own generic identies, their own distinct sets of conventions, and to smoosh them together would be to sacrifice some of our precious literary biodiversity. But I’ve become very suspicious of their arrangement in a hierarchy, one above the other.

Something nagged at me while I was reading Krystal’s piece, something familiar, and I’ve finally figured out what it is: it’s another New Yorker piece, from a few weeks ago, a profile of Clayton Christensen, the Harvard business professor who first applied the word “disruptive” to technology. Christensen had observed that in many industries, established companies based on high-end, sophisticated technologies tend to become complacent. They consider themselves invulnerable, or at best they look for challenges from even-higher-end technologies. But they’re looking in the wrong places, and what in fact happens is that they are disrupted from below: crude, low-end technologies develop at the bottom of the marketplace, then evolve to the point where they take over their markets and displace the established high-end companies, who never saw it coming.

I’m beginning to wonder if something like that is happening in contemporary fiction. We expect literary revolutions to come from above, from the literary end of the spectrum — the difficult, the avant-garde, the high-end, the densely written. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on. Instead we’re getting a revolution from below, coming up from the supermarket aisles. Genre fiction is the technology that will disrupt the literary novel as we know it.

I’m not saying that — if such a thing should happen — it would make the literary novel worthless. God no. One of the great things about the literary world is that it’s an expanding pie; it’s not either/or, it’s both/and. Literature is not bunk — as Raymond Chandler put it —and genre fiction is not a vice — as Edmund Wilson had it. They’re all just books, and good books are treasures beyond price, and vive la difference.

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