18 March 2004

Genre and Pleasure

After reading Gary K. Wolfe's essay on the history and nature of genre fiction in Conjunctions: 39, The New Wave Fabulists, I looked for an article he cited by Emma Straub, who, in a literary theory class at Oberlin, was assigned Stephen King's Salem's Lot, which caused many of her classmates to cry foul. The novel is entertaining enough to read, the class said, but it's certainly not good literature.

For Ms. Straub, this was a surprise. Her father, after all, is Peter Straub, who happens to have collaborated with Stephen King on two novels.

Emma Straub decided to use her resources to ask a number of prominent genre writers and critics to comment on her experience in the class. The responses, and her thoughtful reflections on them, were published in an online magazine called The Spook.

I very much wanted to read this article, but, alas, The Spook seems to have lived up to its name and evaporated.

Some quality time with the Google search engine, though, brought me to David J. Schow's website, where he has quite helpfully posted a copy of the article, titled "Symposium on the Nature of Genre and Pleasure in the 21st Century".

The respondants are (in alphabetical order) John Clute, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, David Schow, Peter Straub, and Gary K. Wolfe.

Here are choice bits from each of them, though I highly recommend reading the entire piece (as well as Emma Straub's poetry):
Stephen King: And what is GENRE? It's nothing but an English professor's steak-knife, a tool to cut slices off the roast--a bit of the naturalistic tale here, a bit of surrealism there, a horror tale or mystery cut off the butt end. Fame is a by-product, nothing but effluent from the particular fuel I happen to burn. It's an annoyance. Your classmates might be surprised to hear it (and might not believe it), but the work's what matters. I WOULD DO THIS FOR NOTHING, and continue to do it until all the fuel in the tank is burned. And what would I do then? Nothing but die happy, beautiful. Nothing but die happy.

Neil Gaiman: Enjoyment or lack of enjoyment is a lousy litmus test for a good book. Off the top of my head, my tests for a good book would be a bunch of questions like:

1) How good is the writing? Is there a pleasure to be taken in the way the words are put together?

2) Has the author taken me somewhere I couldn't have gone on my own?

3) Am I a different person now, because I read that book?

There are great works of horror that do that, and great works of detective fiction, and great works of romantic fiction. Many books won't deliver that kind of stuff -- the best you can hope for is a few hours away from your own life.

Peter Straub: Visceral emotion has a good part in the gravity of decent works of horror literature, but even more important, I think, is its connection to other emotions seldom reckoned with in horror's closest literary relatives, mystery and fantasy. For a long time now, I have been interested in horror's ready openness to feelings like loss, grief, sorrow, uncertainty, and dislocation. These emotional conditions are uncomfortable and powerful, and people often wish to deny or repress them. We wish to be optimistic, even while circumstances inform us that optimism is shallow and insufficient.

David J. Schow: Horror as a legitimate genre will always be retarded by its worst examples. The way out for writers is to survive in a genre -- nearly every writer starts out writing "generic" fiction of one sort or another -- long enough to accumulate an audience that comes not for the subject matter, but to hear that voice speak.

Gary K. Wolfe: Another problem with horror in particular, as I've said more than once before, is that it's a bad idea for a genre. No other genre is actually named for its intended emotional impact on the reader or viewer (it would be like calling romance "swoon fiction"). I think the very concept of the genre tends to mitigate against taking it very seriously for many readers, since it suggests it's a genre only designed for effects.

John Clute: A central way of defining crap in a genre work is to ask yourself if the work in question is governed by a structure of rules, or if it itself governs the rules. A Star Wars novel can be precisely described in terms of its adherence to a priori rules, adherence to the bible that the Star Wars owners insist be followed to the letter by any serf hired to plough their fields. A fantasy (say) by Michael Swanwick, (say The Iron Dragon's Daughter), will penetrate the web of rules and break through into a vision of the nature of the world that has been enabled by the kind of story he has ransacked.

Emma Straub: There are different avenues of pleasure one can stroll down, the gut-wrenching lock-your-doors sort, and the intellectual, Nabokovian acrostic sort--although isn't the conquering of that too a physical feeling of satisfaction, of elation? If we give weight to one over the other, how do we choose the heavier? This is entirely self-destructive and counter-productive. The act of reading is meant to be enjoyable, not a juggling match of lead balls.
There's plenty to quibble with and squawk at in the article, of course, but the value of it, I think, is in the range of voices it allows. Some other voices would round it out well -- for instance, does the fact that all the authors polled are men matter? How did the class respond to these ideas?

A more important question might be: Does any of this matter at all? Stephen King sells more books than any academically sanctioned literary writer does, so how could this discussion possibly affect him, except for his own sense of his value to the world and his chance at winning the lottery of posterity? Some writers survive by having their works assigned in courses, whereas King's books survive because people actually go out and buy them of their own free will. Literary theory is lovely when it echoes through the halls of academe, but, really, what good is it to anybody else? Why, pray tell, should any of us care what a bunch of overanxious undergraduates think of popular literature?

I think Neil Gaiman's questions about any book are ones which help answer the questions I posed, as does John Clute's distinction between works that adhere to a priori rules and works that penetrate those rules to break through into a new vision. For such works to find publication and an audience, an environment needs to be created in which vision and originality are encouraged and supported. Because of such an environment, a writer like Faulkner has survived. Because of such an environment, Gertrude Stein has found an audience through the years. Countless writers have been rescued from obscurity and oblivion, and delivered to readers who would otherwise miss them, because writers and critics have been able to ennunciate criteria for valuing what those writers were up to.

The bestselling authors don't need help, but we should stand up against anyone who condemns an entire type of writing, because by doing so we create space for writers of value who might otherwise be lost, and we learn to think about what it is, exactly, that we ourselves have learned to value. We don't need movements, and we certainly don't need rules (unless to break them), but we do need standards of judgment, even if they're all different -- a quantum theory of literature rather than a monolithic one.

Despite what Emma Straub says, there is not one purpose to reading, there are many -- perhaps as many as there are books to be read. If we want to wrench ourselves toward greater humanity, not all reading should be fun. Some reading should be disturbing, difficult, painful, terrifying in all it suggests about us and our world, horrifying in the psychic spaces it brings us to. Some reading should be comforting, beautiful, light.

David Schow's point is a useful one, too: We should be seeking out writers not because of any label smacked on them, but because theirs is a voice worth listening to. Let our writers be sirens and shamans and wolves howling at the moon, not lumps of product placed by brand and expiration date on a shelf.

Addendum (3/19/04): If you want more thoughts on this subject, be sure to read what Cheryl Morgan has to say.

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