08 January 2004

Genre Fiction Don't Get No Respect

I happened to be looking at some old (well, old in Internet time, which means more than 24 hours old) postings on Terry Teachout's weblog, and discovered something he'd written about Stephen King at the National Book Awards ceremony:
[King] said (repeatedly) that he didn't write for money, that genre fiction deserved to be taken seriously, and that the judges of the National Book Awards had an obligation to read the best-selling books that are shaping American popular culture (I'm paraphrasing from memory, but that was the gist of his complaint). 'Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and literary fiction,' he declared, and to that end he supplied us with a long reading list of popular novelists whom he commended to our attention, among them Elmore Leonard and John Grisham. (He also mentioned Patrick O'Brian.)
Teachout follows this up with a later post in which he writes:
But while the noir novelists scarcely deserve to be ranked among America's best and most significant writers, their harsh tales are infinitely more readable than the chokingly tedious output of a thousand American writers of impeccably correct reputation, and I venture to guess that people will still be turning the pages of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice and Cornell Woolrich's I Married a Dead Man long after the likes of Toni Morrison and Allan Gurganus are remembered only by aging professors of literary theory who wonder why nobody signs up for their classes any more.

Does that put me in Stephen King's camp? I think not. I don't think The Long Goodbye is as good a book as The Great Gatsby, and I believe the difference between the two books is hugely important. But I also don't think it's absurd to compare them, and I probably re-read one as often as the other.

The point is that I accept the existence of hierarchies of quality without feeling oppressed by them. I have plenty of room in my life for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler, for Aaron Copland and Louis Armstrong, for George Balanchine and Fred Astaire, and I love them all without confusing their relative merits, much less jumping to the conclusion that all merits are relative.
[The first paragraph is from a review of The Library of America's Crime Novels : American Noir.]

In response, A.C. Douglas writes:
I would only point out to Mr. Teachout ... that the distinction (or, rather, lack of it) is not between The Long Goodbye and The Great Gatsby; not between Armstrong and Copland; not between Astaire and Balanchine, but between, say, any Stephen King or John Grisham opus and anything by, say, Fitzgerald or Hemingway; between (insert name of punk rock group or C&W opus here) and, say, Copland or Ives; between Riverdance or (insert name of dance number from any current Broadway musical here) and, say, Balanchine or Graham. In short, not the distinction between the popular and the exclusive, but the distinction between trash and art.
(To be fair, Douglas is not writing directly about this subject in his post, but rather is taking exception to various laments about the death of high culture, to which Teachout himself took exception, and Douglas responded.)

I noticed all this for a few reasons. I couldn't care less that Stephen King won a National Book Award. He won the same award (Lifetime Achievement, I believe) that Ray Bradbury and Oprah won before him. The winners in the past have included some good books and some bad books, as awards tend to do. Time will tell what cultural artifacts, if any, matter from our epoch. For now, all we can do is enjoy what we enjoy and, if we're of a didactic bent, try to say why.

Critics, and all well-read people, for that matter, should make distinctions between works, because it can matter. Some writers are difficult and deserve to be championed so that people who might not have the inclination or stamina to stay with them might give them a second chance. If you tell me, "This book is important," I'm much more likely to try to keep reading it than if I just happen to pick it up myself. I doubt I would have read any of Samuel Delany's books if I hadn't seen people say he was a genius. The first couple I read left me cold. I didn't give up, though, and eventually I came to see what all the fuss was about. He is a genius. Some of his writing takes work, but it's work well rewarded. I'd read Delany over 99% of other fiction any day, simply because my brain gets more from the experience.

I've read some of Jim Thompson's book, including The Killer Inside Me and I've read some of Patricia Highsmith's book and stories. Both would be considered "trash" of a certain sort, though both often aimed to be slightly higher than trash. I prefer Highsmith to Thompson, but I wouldn't confuse either with Dostoyevsky. The fact is, the literary world could live without Highsmith or Thompson, but literature would be a vastly emptier domain without Dostoyevsky. Why? He does everything the best mystery writers do, and more. (I would also suggest that William Gaddis is superior to Highsmith. He shares some of Highsmith's concerns -- forgery being one of them -- but his work engulfs all of reality, rather than simply reflecting it. His books are considerably harder to read, even for particularly erudite readers, but they're also infinitely more rewarding.)

It's the more that matters. Delany seems to me to be one of the great writers of the 20th Century because he, too, does more. More than other SF writers and more than most mainstream writers. And he does it in ways different from any other writer who has ever put words on paper. There are plenty of writers who don't necessarily offer "more" in the sense of creating huge imaginative universes the way Dostoyevsky, Gaddis, and Delany do, but who do things so differently that what they write gives us new ways to look at the act of living -- Carol Emshwiller comes to mind immediately, also M. John Harrison -- and so they seem to me to be in the highest, or near the highest, realms of literature.

What I dislike about Teachout's comments are his assumption that genre is necessarily a limitation. Genre is a marketing category. Yes, it can be a limitation, and most genre writers accept it as such (consciously or unconsciously, I'm not sure), but the only real limitations are talent and vision (or, more accurately, the only limit is how well a writer mixes talent with vision and communicates this synergy to readers). For most of his career, Delany has been labelled a science fiction, fantasy, or pornography writer, and his books still generally get stocked on those shelves in bookstores. To say that his work is therefore somehow "below" the other great American writers, though, is absurd, and can only result from a bias against genre. Such a bias has a corollary among readers who are genre chauvinists, who insist that SF is somehow superior to all other forms of writing, and that it must heed certain formulas (the readers who say Isaac Asimov is a greater writer than either Dostoyevsky or Delany) -- such readers tend to hate Delany because he consciously includes various structuralist and post-structuralist theories within his books. If the books were not successful as fiction, the presence of various philosophies and theories wouldn't matter -- a bad novel is a bad novel, regardless of intent -- but the books are successful as fiction in any way a literate and well-informed reader defines it, and they are also successful as thought experiments, which is where the philosophy and ideas come in. You don't have to agree with them -- plenty of readers loathe Dostoyevsky's theology, for instance -- to admit that they add something valuable to the work.

Ultimately, any sort of differentiation of literatures is going to be elitist, but I don't think that's a bad thing. The elite means the best, and trying to define the best may be quixotic, but it's a valuable quest because of the discussions it arouses, as well as the passions. Strict relativists and egalitarians may find such discussions uncomfortable, but saying "Shakespeare and Danielle Steele both have pleased lots of readers, so therefore they're equal, and really it's all just personal opinion anyway" does nothing to help us become better, more discerning readers, readers who are capable of appreciating the more subtle and complex possibilities of literature. Let's celebrate the greatest accomplishments, even the ones we don't personally find exciting.