October 26th, 2012


It's a Genre Debate, Insert Seinfeld Reference.

Genre, served straight up, has its limitations, and there’s no reason to pretend otherwise. Indeed, it’s these very limitations that attract us. When we open a mystery, we expect certain themes to be addressed and we enjoy intelligent variations on these themes. But one of the things we don’t expect is excellence in writing, although if you believe, as Grossman does, that the opening of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is an example of “masterly” writing, then you and I are not splashing in the same shoals of language.

At the New Yorker, Arthur Krystal is trying on the old hat that is Literary Fiction vs Genre Fiction and it reads fairly much as you imagine it would.

An old, old debate, it mostly falls to a series of comparisons between the big releases of genres and literary fiction (because, you know, literary fiction isn't a genre as well, and we shouldn't suggest that it struggles with its own limitations, no). Ursula Le Guin gets name checked, though none of her books are mentioned; talking about the Left Hand of Darkness is probably not that wise in this context anyhow. But Krystal name drops Cormac McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jennifer Egan, Michael Chabon, Donna Tartt and Jonathan Lethem, as if he just strolled into a bookstore and found whatever it was that was selling well, and compares them to Agatha Christie, Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler and more. There's not actual time spent comparing the literary value of any of the authors I just mentioned--well, okay, a little time on Christie--so you're free to move them around to the various groups that you want and to imagine which genre they belong in.

The problem with Kyrstal's argument is that it's fairly shallow because he writes about it without any depth, any attention to craft or technique, or style or theme. Neither is he able to quantify his choices, either. He cannot explain to the reader why the opening of Christie's Murder on the Orient Express isn't a masterpiece when Grossman claims that it is. Granted, I don't think it is, either, but I think that because it's a matter-of-fact, stylistically empty, flat paragraph of prose. However, having not read the rest of the book (I know very little of Christie's work), I can't say if it becomes a great start, or not. The opening of To Kill a Mockingbird isn't anything special until you have read the entirety of the book and you realise how Jem broke his arm. But, you know, this is me, discussing actual works, not just comparing them to whatever I feel like. If I was to further compare, I might point out that Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road is awful, a pale imitation of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Mouser stories, but without the fine writing, nor the detailed, excellent character study, or even the humour. And lets not talk about his Sherlock Holmes piece, the Final Solution. That was just embarrassing--to Arthur Conan Doyle and Holocaust survivors. But I otherwise love Chabon: the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Wonder Boys are great novels, Werewolves in Their Youth a strong collection, and The Yiddish Policeman's Union has some of his best prose. My girlfriend bought me a signed first edition of his latest novel for my birthday.

But there I go again, actually discussing the content of books, the way things are written. You'd almost accuse me of having knowledge of multiple genres. A knowledge that might suggest that there is no inherent value in one 'type' of book over another.

If you want to compare books from different genres, that's fine. It's an enjoyable exercise to discuss work--well, I reckon it is, anyhow--but if you're going to do it, at least begin from a point of view that all fiction belongs to a genre, that all genres, outside being a marketing tool, have a history, a set of definitions, expectations, and rules. This includes literary fiction as much as it does crime, romance, and science fiction. No work of fiction is genre free, ever. Then, secondly, don't use commercial success as a mark of a truly excellent book, regardless of its genre. What you find on the shelf put out by mainstream publishers is not the pinnacle of literary achievement, though by no means is it the dregs--but to fully understand a genre, any genre, you have to go beyond what is put out there for you by, say, the New York Times bestseller list and awards like the Pulitzer and Booker, and you need to look at the depth and dearth of work that exists in all genres. Then you can then start making judgments and opinions, and begin saying which is worth more time and less.

Or, you might not, having become well read at this point.