Compulsory Genres

In writing about Brian Evenson's book about Raymond Carver, I noted that both Evenson and I first read Carver right around the time we first read Kafka and Beckett, and we did so without knowledge of the contemporary American fiction writers he's often set alongside (e.g. Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff, etc.). Later, I gained that context and, consequently, the context I'd originally brought faded, which is one reason why Brian's book so effectively brought Carver back to me — which is to say, it brought a way of reading Carver back to me. I don't mind the American writers Carver typically gets grouped with, but I'd be lying if I said their work really excites me. Kafka and Beckett, on the other hand, are among a very small group of 20th century writers whose work I am in awe of, work that I feel utterly incapable of writing about analytically, work that I can only point to and say, "That. Whatever great literature is, it must surely be that."

Now, Carver is no Kafka or Beckett, not by a long shot (which is not a slam; he's no Shakespeare, either!), but reading his work with the lens of Kafka and Beckett allows me to appreciate it in a way I simply can't if I think of it as cousin to work by American writers who are farther from Kafka and Beckett, and whose writing lacks most of the features I get excited about with fiction. From the other side of things, I first got excited by Kafka and Beckett as a young teenager because I was able to perceive them as doing something like the science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories that first got me excited about reading and writing.

I got to thinking about Brian Evenson's discussion of the Carver-Kafka-Beckett lens when I read Victoria Nelson's introduction to a new selection of Robert Aickman's stories published by New York Review of Books Classics, Compulsory Games. I've written about Aickman at some length, both here, in discussing his great story "The Stains", and at Electric Literature, where I wrote an overview of his work in October 2016. He's a writer I come back to again and again with pleasure and wonder, and because his work is so strange, I'm fascinated by how we talk about Aickman, the lenses we find clearest, the pigeonholes we try to plug his work into.

Robert Aickman
A few people I've talked to have strongly disliked Nelson's introduction, which didn't exactly surprise me, but did disappoint me, because I think it offers some sharp insights and presents much to think about. (Consider just how much of this piece by Anwen Crawford for The New Yorker relies on Nelson for its analysis...) The objections I've heard to the introduction are that it tries to separate Aickman's work from the genre of horror or fantasy fiction in a way that comes perilously close to saying that his stories "transcend their genre", a formulation pretty much guaranteed to come off as condescending and snooty. There is, indeed, some of that in Nelson's introduction, whether she intended it or not. She laments that Aickman has been primarily appreciated by readers of horror and fantasy rather than more broadly: "Superlatively written and psychologically acute, these sophisticated modernist tales," she writes, "merit a much higher ranking in the literary canon than the genre ghetto they currently occupy [...] Aickman's centenary in 2014 was an occasion celebrated almost exclusively in the fantasy fandom world. The few nods it received in the mainstream press (sample headline, from The Guardian: "Cult Horror Stories Resurrected for Centenary") were hardly likely to attract the more literary reader. Nor were the gentle children's fantasy covers gracing the Faber reissues, found only under 'Horror/Fantasy' in that same bookstore."

I don't entirely agree with some of Nelson's choice of words, which I'll explain in a moment, but I agree with her general idea: reading Aickman as only a horror writer or fantasy writer is like reading Raymond Carver only as a "dirty realist" or "minimalist". Though I was commissioned to write the Electric Literature piece to celebrate a horror writer at Halloween, I ignored the mission. The purpose of my essay is quite undisguised:
It is among aficionados of esoteric horror stories that Robert Aickman’s name is best known. But Aickman himself preferred other labels — he associated the horror story with sadomasochism, a goal different from his own. Even if we define “the horror story” more broadly, however, focusing on Aickman only as a horror writer does a disservice to the range and originality of his work. Further, such a focus sets up expectations that may warp how the stories are read. It is one thing to start reading expecting a horror story; it is another to start reading expecting an Aickman story.
The “strange stories” label also helps us place Aickman in a broader lineage: not just that of great writers of terror and the supernatural, but also of great writers for whom there is no one label or even a recognized tradition. Though it is certainly accurate to say that Aickman’s work often falls into the realm of the ghost story, we will understand his achievement better if we think of him among such unsettling writers as Franz Kafka, Elizabeth Bowen, Paul Bowles, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, and even — particularly in his approach to story structure — Anton Chekhov.
I (over)quote myself here because, while I'm sure somebody hated the essay, I only ever heard praise for those paragraphs, with various people saying how much the evocation of names like Bowen and Bowles felt appropriate — whereas every time I've praised Nelson's introduction to people who read genrefied horror and fantasy fiction, I've gotten fierce pushback. I expect I may have gotten a pass because the people I was in conversation with know I would never intentionally do the "transcending genre" schtick — after all, I've not only read quite a bit of genrefied horror and fantasy fiction, and published reviews and essays about it, but I've written the stuff myself, I've been part of fan communities, some of my best friends... etc. etc. I'm on record in multiple places saying my theory of genres is basically Delanyesque: a genre description should not be evaluative (good novels, bad novels, and ugly novels are still novels), and for me a genre is a way of organizing expectations so as to invoke particular reading strategies and create interpretive communities. More content-based approaches, or approaches that create genre hierarchies, lead to the sorts of problems Nelson's introduction briefly stumbles over.

It's easy to read the sentences I quoted from Nelson as suggesting that if something is "superlatively written", "psychologically acute", "sophisticated", and "modernist" then it should be hauled out of the genre pits, brushed off, and presented to polite society as the treasure it is, never to return to its grimy origins. (I'm going to leave "modernist" alone for a moment, because it's one of my areas of scholarship and if I started writing about how that label is used, I'd write 4,000 words just trying to settle some terms before going on to complicate them...) Nelson argues that the stories deserve more attention, which yes, absolutely, I think we can all agree on that; but she does so with a high culture/low culture framework that ultimately feels a bit clumsy, getting awfully close to the attitude Robert Conquest versified long ago: "'SF's no good,' they bellow till we're deaf. / 'But this looks good.' – 'Well then, it's not SF.'". I'd be surprised if Nelson really believes that — after all, she wrote The Secret Life of Puppets, which I read years ago and honestly remember little of now except how impressed I was by it, and which Neil Gaiman (no snoot!) called "A wonderful, unlikely, necessary book which links high and low and pop culture, the sacred and the profane, into a magnificent webwork of pattern and gnosis—it is erudite, irreverent, and profound." My suspicion is that Nelson knew she was writing a piece for the highly-regarded NYRB Classics series, which presupposes a certain audience, and in justifying Aickman's work to that audience within the very limited space of an introduction, she wrote a few sentences too blunt for fine and detailed work.

But I still think Nelson's introduction is one of the best things I've read about Aickman, certainly one of the best guides to what makes his stories special and valuable. There's nothing in it that will be a great surprise or shock of insight to an experienced Aickman reader, but it really is a clear, sympathetic explication.

(Pardon a tangent: This isn't a review of Compulsory Games, but I feel compelled to state: Even if, unlike me, you hate Victoria Nelson's introduction, the book itself is essential. Nelson edited it to complement rather than duplicate the four Faber paperbacks, so it's not a "best of" collection. Compulsory Games includes mostly stories from Tales of Love and Death, Intrusions, The Strangers, and, from other collections, a couple strays not included in the Faber paperbacks. Unless you want the more expensive [but beautiful] Tartarus Press editions, there's no easy way to get these stories otherwise, and many of them are marvels. It's worth the price just for "Wood" alone, a story with one of the strangest of Aickman's many strange conclusions.)

All of which is just to say: It matters what frames we use to create reading strategies, and particularly to create rubrics of value from those strategies. To read Raymond Carver within the family tree of Kafka and Beckett is to read Raymond Carver in a way that is different from reading him within the family tree of Ann Beattie and Tobias Wolff, just as reading Robert Aickman as a horror writer is different from reading him as something other than a horror writer. I proposed reading Aickman alongside Kafka, Elizabeth Bowen, Paul Bowles, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, and Chekhov not because I disdain horror fiction, but because those comparisons make Aickman's fiction come alive for me in a way reading him alongside genre horror writers does not. (And, to bring Carver and Beckett back in: I would also argue that there's a direct line from Chekhov to Beckett, particularly in the plays, but that's a discussion for another time, a time when I spend thousands of words singing the praises of one of the great books about Chekhov, Richard Gilman's Chekhov's Plays.) (I'm also not interested in appropriative moves like, "Flannery O'Connor was really a horror writer!", which returns to a genre-as-evaluation mode, this time with horror as a superior genre to literary fiction. That's just infantile.)

Generally, an ability to shift lenses for reading can be useful for interpretation and appreciation, but sometimes the inability to shift lenses limits our ability to see all that a writer has to offer. I think that's been the case with Aickman until recently. In some different ways, it's also been the case with James Purdy. After writing my recent post about some of his stories, I wondered if "Brawith" had ever been collected in a horror anthology. There's no easy way to find out, but the ISFDB has plenty of horror listings, so I put Purdy's name in, sure that even if "Brawith" was never on a horror/fantasy editor's radar, at least some of his fiction would be, and ... no results. As far as the ISFDB knows, Purdy's name has never appeared in a genre anthology. This shouldn't be surprising, given how marginalized Purdy has been everywhere (especially within the hallowed halls of academically-acceptable literary fiction), but I was surprised nonetheless, because his weirdness is of a sort that ought to appeal, for instance, to readers of Robert Aickman.

Consider: When William Grimes wrote a profile of Purdy for the NY Times in 2013, they headlined it "James Purdy, a Fabulist Haunting the Fringes", and Jon Michaud's tribute to Purdy at the New Yorker's Page Turner blog got titled "The Strange, Unsettling Fiction of James Purdy". This is rather the opposite of the headline for the Page Turner piece on Aickman, which declares his stories "Eerily Familiar". From headlines alone, which writer would you think writes horror fiction?

I would not argue that Purdy ought to be classified as a horror writer per se, but I do think some of the reading strategies that readers of horror fiction develop would lead to productive readings of much of his fiction. (Were he still alive, stories like "Brawith" could appear in a venue like Shadows and Tall Trees and get nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award.) (The reasons for Purdy's marginalization — despite reviews of almost all of his books in major venues and support from literary tastemakers like Gore Vidal and Susan Sontag — are complex, and say more about mainstream tastes than about Purdy. This isn't the place to go into all that, but Daniel Green has written the most incisive account I've read of what he calls "Purdy’s alienation from the dominant literary culture".)

I'm looking forward to August, when NYRB Classics releases a book I did some work on, Moderan by David R. Bunch, because I will be curious to see how this utterly unique book is received by readers today. It's been out of print for decades, and it was mostly ignored when it was first published. There was a time in the 1960s and 1970s when some of the most original, even avant-garde, American fiction was being published as science fiction — work by R.A. Lafferty, Thomas Disch, Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany, James Tiptree, Pamela Zoline, Gene Wolfe, etc. — and Bunch is especially original even within that group. My guess is that he got published regularly because his stories were very short, so they were great for editors looking for material to fill out a couple pages in a magazine, even as they knew that every time a Bunch story was published, they were likely to get at least one letter from an aggrieved reader who wanted to know how they could justify publishing such babbling nonsense. But Judith Merril and Cele Goldsmith in particular really valued his work, as did more adventurous SF readers. He published in literary journals, too, but never got any notice that I've been able to see from even the more radical corners of the lit world. Thus, I'm thrilled (and a bit scared) to observe what happens now that he's joining the prestigious NYRB line. What lenses will prove useful in (re)valuing Bunch? We shall see...

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