Lev Grossman, book critic and technology writer for TIME, defends genre fiction today in his weekly book column, which he wrote in response to Arthur Krystal’s New Yorker piece “Easy Writers.” In “Literary Revolution in the Supermarket Aisle: Genre Fiction Is Disruptive Technology,” Grossman begins by agreeing with Krystal that there is a distinction between literary and genre fiction, and then takes Krystal to task for characterizing as overly relying upon cliché while simultaneously invoking the biggest cliché of all: that genre fiction is escapism.1
The two big points I take away from Grossman’s piece, points I have commented on myself when I talk this issue with friends, is that (1) genre fiction writers have made plot their art form and that the best of them far surpass anything done in literary fiction, and (2) the borders between literary and genre fiction are increasingly blurring as literary fiction writers draw from genre fiction and genre fiction writers draw from literary fiction.2 To give you a flavor of what Grossman argues and how he does so, here’s a few passages:
On Krystal’s charge of escapism:
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.”
On the subject of plot:
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.
And, finally, on the blurring of boundaries between literary and genre fiction:
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.
There’s far more to the essay that what I’ve quoted above. Go read it. It’s well worth your time whether you’re a fan of literary fiction, genre fictions, or both.
- Krystal relies upon a number of other commonplaces of the topic: genre fiction is poorly written, it is superficial in its presentation of society and the human condition, etc. Grossman responds, “What he’s describing sounds more like shitty genre fiction. […]. 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?” [↩]
- He also touches upon my favorite rant: “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.” [↩]