Thursday, September 24, 2009

Genre vs. Mainstream Fiction: a critique of criticism

As genres, science fiction and mystery/suspense have suffered a great deal of adversity in this century. They have been dismissed, variously, as “trash,” as “second-class literature,” as “entertainment for juveniles and juvenile minds”; they are the victims of such base canards as “Science fiction is a lot of nonsense about rocket ships and bug-eyed monsters” and “The mystery is a mindless celebration of death and despair.” The struggle of one is the struggle of the other: to abolish these ridiculous labels, to command acceptance as serious art forms, to prove to the world-at-large that work of quality and significance can be and is being done by writers who have chosen these fields—not been forced into them because of limited talent and limited vision.

It is the writers of mystery/suspense and science fiction, of course, who best understand this common cause. While some of them in each genre may be indifferent to the work of their counterparts, there is an almost universal respect for the professional of their respective endeavors. (Good writing is good writing, after all, no matter what the subject matter, style, theme, intent, or vision. And bad writing is no more prevalent in one field than in the other; in fact, it is my opinion that, on the whole, there is less of it in science fiction and mystery/suspense than in other categories and even in the so-called “mainstream” of fiction.)

This respect and kinship between the writers of the two genres is evident in the remarkable number who work, frequently or occasionally, in BOTH fields with considerable success. Every year, prominent figures in one category publish first-rate stories and novels in the other. Some of these are wholly mystery/suspense or wholly science fiction; and some of them are an amalgam of the two—the crime story as seen through the eye of the SF writer, the SF extrapolation as envisioned by the mystery writer.

—Bill Pronzini, from the “Introduction” to Dark Sins, Dark Dreams: Crime in Science Fiction, edited by Barry N. Malzberg and Bill Pronzini.

The mystery and science fiction . . . two genres born as discrete categories in America almost a hundred years apart but from the advent of the pulp magazines following rather parallel courses. Two genres which have yet to win full academic acceptance (although they are getting closer for reasons which give no credit to the academy). but whose best practitioners—Chandler, Hammett, Woolrich, Bester, Knight, Silverberg—have always done work to equal or surpass the best work done anywhere. There are quite a few stories which are fusions of the genres, among which we hope we have found some distinguished examples.

Genre fiction by definition operates with parameters, plays by certain rules. In the mystery it is crime, in science fiction it is an extrapolated technology or social system, in both (if the work is to successfully meet the criteria of the genre) the plot must turn on these central elements. Certain writers, Raymond Chandler being the most notable example, chafed at the restrictions; others like Alfred Bester gloried in them exactly as J. S. Bach found the greatest freedom within the tightest limitations of those ancient forms, the canon and the fugue. In specificity, in rigor, is the greatest freedom perhaps: one can thus at least attempt an argument that the most important fiction of our time is being done within these two genres.

—Barry N. Malzberg, from the “Afterword” to the same anthology

This is perhaps one of the better descriptions of the tension between “genre” writing and “mainstream” writing that I’ve ever encountered. These essays were written in 1978, but remain entirely relevant today—perhaps more so, because if anything has changed, it’s that the literary mainstream has become even more defensive and prickly as it feels itself more and more embattled. The dismissive nature of literary-critical rhetoric against the genres is if anything more vitriolic than ever, nowadays. It’s very easy, however, to try to raise oneself up by knocking others down; except that it never works.

Whenever you read a literary critic, or Critic—think of Harold Bloom, James Woods, or any number of high-profile litbloggers with academic ties—marking a rear-guard defensive position against the barbarians assaulting the gates of taste, quality, and virtue, just remember the concluding line of Constantine Cavafy’s great poem Waiting for the Barbarians, which reads: “Those people were a kind of solution.” It’s true that few things unite antagonistic opinions than finding something to disparage in common. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the saying goes. But these temporary alliances of mutual hatred, especially in a game with so little at stake as literary criticism, are fragile and cannibalistic. It takes nothing to turn on each other, once the common enemy has fled or been trounced. “Those people” are a solution only if they agree to be antagonists when you need them to be. A great deal of literary-critical gesticulating is centered on the "Us vs. Them" paradigm so common to manifesto scribes and defenders of one literary -ism or another. (Most of the rhetoric of the "post-avant" theorists in poetry is Us vs. Them, with Them being anyone they dismiss as not worthy of being Us—which is almost everybody.)

The default position of literary criticism, most of the time, is defensive, rather than appreciative. It tends to be the more defensive-minded critics, too, who tend to play the game of canon-making. That is, when conservation becomes preservative conservatism, and description yields to prescription in any artistic matter, not how often the tactics are identical. They are the mark of an ideology in play, rather than an open and observant mind with no particular agenda. Ideologues tend to build canons is support of their ideas. Most readers just read eclectically for pleasure, and don’t care about making lists, except perhaps personal lists of favorite books.

Why is a list of favorite books to be rejected in favor of a generated canon? Perhaps it’s the academic cloak of authority, the voice of doom speaking its pronouncements with so much heat and so little light, that it’s enough to fool the rubes.

In all this, appreciation and responsive reviewing all too often is lost, or often just rejected.. What happened to reading for pure pleasure? A well-written, idea-generating, imaginative scenario opens the door to reading pleasure no matter what style or topics are involved. This is as true of the literary avant-garde as it is of more mainstream writing. Good writing is good writing, no matter where it appears.

The influence of Modernism and its more avant-garde authors on science fiction stimulated the New Wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which brought to prominence in SF several authors whose work was as ambitious in terms of literary style as it was in terms of content. Robert Silverberg was only one of these. (This was also the first wave of SF stories that didn’t tone down overt sexuality, as was the rule in the pulp magazines, but in fact viewed sex as one more aspect of life to extrapolate upon.) One of the greatest SF anthologies of this period, Dangerous Visions, edited by literary enfant terrible Harlan Ellison, helped set the tone for the New Wave, and is a record of many successful literary SF experiments. In terms of influence, this was a generation of writers to whom Finnegan’s Wake was what had shocked their parents, not themselves; they read Joyce (and Stein and Beckett and that generation of writers who invented literary Modernism) as accepted literature, not as avant-garde. Some writers within the New Wave, notably Samuel R. Delany, went on to overtly incorporate advanced literary and philosophical critical theory into his SF and fantasy stories—which remain intensely readable, often stunningly beautiful, moving, and mind-blowing. Perhaps one ought to say, demi-monde-blowing. Other writers, such as Roger Zelazny, were lifelong fonts of imaginative exploration in which the style of the writing matched what was being written about, making reading into a visceral sensory immersive experience, rather than a cerebral parlor one.

It’s the self-appointed conservator of literary taste, in literary criticism, who is most toxic of all. This sort of critic—excuse me, Critic, especially a Critic with a Grand Theory—is often quickest to reject personal pleasure as any measure of a good read. This is de facto Puritanism, a basically anti-sensual attitude about reading: it’s supposed to be good for you, perhaps especially if you don’t actually enjoy it. It’s the castor oil school of Criticism: you don’t have to like it, but you need to read it, because it’s good for you, because you need to know about it. It is moralizing disguised as literary theory. (Zelazny for one pointedly and often hilariously parodied this critical attitude in numerous tales.) I’m sorry to say, Mr. Critic, but even though it was supposed to be hard going and hard to understand, I actually enjoyed reading Finnegan’s Wake; in fact, it made me laugh out loud a few times. (I am constantly amazed at how many opinions float about on books that the critic hasn't actually read, especially "difficult;" in my own case, if you hear me discuss a book, even a difficult one, you can be sure I've read it, unless I stipulate otherwise.)

Which is why canon-making is so fraught with disasters. The endlessly compiled lists of “great” or “best” or even “good” books will be always controversial because taste and pleasure are not as separable as some academic theorists would surmise. (The word “taste” is itself as sensory word.) In fact, the chief weakness of canon-building is that it is fraught with concealed and denied subjectivity, choices made on extra-literary matters of just plain liking the book, or what the book was about.

Don't get me wrong: what I object to is not that a canon-builder liked a work; what I object to is that simple pleasure is concealed as grand theory. Perhaps it is too easy when wielding Grand Theories to give in to the temptation to justify and rationalize matters of taste as matters of Quality; tempting, but also dishonest. When a book reviewer presents a list of books he or she enjoyed reading, there's no pressure to defend the choices made on the grounds that they are Great Art. This is by far the more honest approach to literary recommendation. It is almost always possible to discover a hidden agenda, usually a moral stance, behind the choices made in a Canon of Great Books; and the moral agenda is all too often the castor oil school of Criticism.

The simple pleasure principle of enjoying reading is underrated, it seems to me, by most serious literary critics. The Harry Potter books have brought so many children back to the pleasures of reading precisely because they’re fun, they’re fizzy, and they contain deeper, darker truths under the fizzy surface. What literary merit they might have, if any, is secondary to the fact that they inspired an entire generation of kids raised on TV and computers to discover anew the simple pleasures of reading a book. Yet can you imagine Harold Bloom admitting that he actually enjoyed reading a Harry Potter novel? (Assuming he ever would.) When one wears the mantle of literary-critical authority, self-appointed or otherwise, one must never reveal that the man behind the curtain is no wizard, but a snake oil salesman. So it's not pleasure in reading that I object to, it's the hardcore-adult notion that one mustn't admit to it.

Hardcore adults, who have forgotten that once too were children (at least theoretically they were), and have forgotten how to play, often reject the uses of pleasure. if you encounter a Serious Critic with a list of pronouncements in hand, you can be sure most of them will be Serious, rather than playful. How dreadfully dull.

Reading is supposed to be fun.

Malzberg concludes his “Introduction” with:

But not to be pompous. This is a genre book, a category book if your will; it will go into bookstores and libraries, it will go out of print, but ten or twenty years from now someone will have been reached by this book just as I was reached by genre or category hardcover books which were mine to behold a quarter of a century ago. . . .

And that’s the only true test of literature—keeping in mind that “mainstream fiction” can be categorized as just another genre, with its own inherent rules and limits—which is the test of time, of endurance, of resonance down the years to keep re-exciting another new generation into the pleasures and perils of reading.

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