It seems perhaps in poor taste to post today with all of Sandy’s madness, but the way people talk about genre fiction and literary fiction has long been a sore subject for me. In graduate school (though not in my undergraduate program, where the faculty were both more open-minded and more emotionally mature), I struggled with instructors and students for reasons relating to this limp distinction. As a writer trying to make a career for himself, I struggled for a long time to find venues that would not reject my blended approach out of hand, and sometimes I still do.
Don’t cry for me, Argentina: I’m doing just fine, and in the long term I expect to do better. But it never feels good to see the things you love to make, and the things you often love to read, dismissed out of hand. Arthur Krystal thinks he’s being a brave truth-teller when he takes to The New Yorker to restate his opposition to including genre fiction in the category of literature, but he’s not being brave. Instead, he comes off as weirdly incapable of reflection. There have been a thousand articles like Krystal’s, and they always make the same very basic mistake: their conclusion (genre fiction’s inferiority to literary fiction) is also their premise. That is to say, they are begging the question. Click below the fold to see what I mean!Near the beginning of his piece, Silver uses self-deprecation to smuggle in the substance of his conclusion as a beginning to the argument. Watch how he does it:
Apparently, the dichotomy between genre fiction and literary fiction isn’t just old news—it’s no news, it’s finis, or so the critics on Slate’s Culture Gabfest and the folks who run other literary Web sites informed me. The science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, for instance, announced that literature “is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.” Is that so? A novel by definition is “written art”? You know, I wrote a novel once, and I’m pretty sure that Le Guin would change her mind if she read it.
See what Krystal does here? The choice of his own novel as an example is crucial: if he had chosen any other text, it would be self-evident that he should have to demonstrate that the novel wasn’t literature. This strategy is so nearly clever that it’s easy to think he might have known what he was doing; by giving up his own novel for dead, he makes himself appear humble and self-effacing even as he dodges the most significant problem of his argument: if we are to exclude genre fiction, then how will “literature” be defined? This allows him to say, without saying, what the definition will be: if Arthur Krystal likes a novel enough, then it’s literature. If he doesn’t, then it’s not.
Of course Krystal can’t say this in so many words, because as definitions of literature go it’s useless. Either Arthur Krystal alone gets to make these decisions (which I’m going to generously assume would not be his preference) or we all get to make these decisions for ourselves. We know that Krystal definitely won’t accept the latter argument because there would be little reason for him to write an article thumbing his nose at genre fiction if it were all relative anyway. The third obvious possibility, and the one to which Krystal most likely comes closest to believing, is that there are some people whose opinions about this distinction matter (people like Krystal, I guess) and some whose opinions do not. Again, he doesn’t explicitly espouse any of these arguments, because each is distasteful in its own way, or possibly because he hasn’t actually put sufficient thought into his position. But it really has to be something like one of these three.
Anyway, Krystal’s premise is clearly this: genre fiction is not literary fiction because literary fiction is good and genre fiction, though there’s “nothing wrong” with it, is not very good. The rest of his argument amounts to repeating this claim again, and again, and again, without ever quite coming clean that this is what he’s saying. For instance:
A good mystery or thriller isn’t set off from an accomplished literary novel by plotting, but by the writer’s sensibility, his purpose in writing, and the choices he makes to communicate that purpose. There may be a struggle to express what’s difficult to convey, and perhaps we’ll struggle a bit to understand what we’re reading.
No such difficulty informs true genre fiction; and the fact that some genre writers write better than some of their literary counterparts doesn’t automatically consecrate their books. Although a simile by Raymond Chandler and one by the legion of his imitators is the difference between a live wire and a wet noodle, Chandler’s novels are not quite literature. The assessment is Chandler’s own, tendered precisely because he was literary: “To accept a mediocre form and make something like literature out of it is in itself rather an accomplishment.” So it is.
Again, Krystal thinks that what he’s saying withstands scrutiny because he can find an example of another self-deprecating author agreeing that his output is not literature. And I should concede this much: some of Chandler’s writing, especially that which deals in one way or another with race, is pretty much garbage. But if the word “literary” is not merely a synonym for “good,” then there are countless examples of literary garbage. So the fact that some of Chandler’s work is not very good doesn’t prove it isn’t literature. It can’t. If, on the other hand, “literature” really does mean “good fiction,” then the distinction between genre and literary fiction doesn’t come into it: there is good and bad in each, perhaps more in one than the other (don’t ask me which: I haven’t read every book in existence) and we can leave it at that. Of course, if we did, then Krystal wouldn’t have any nerds to bully.
“Genre, served straight up, has its limitations,” writes Krystal, “and there’s no reason to pretend otherwise.” Okay, but what are the limitations? This is one of many opportunities to actually define our terms, to describe the differences between genre fiction and literary fiction. But surely we’re not going to hang our hat on the idea that genre fiction has limitations: again, this is equivalent to saying that genre fiction is that which Krystal doesn’t like. Either literary fiction is itself a genre (and therefore has its own limitations) or literary fiction is, again, anything really good, in which case we’re still confusing premises and conclusions.
This isn’t — or it shouldn’t be — hard to understand. But Krystal can’t stop, writing of “our” expectations of genre writing:
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.
I don’t expect excellence in writing from genre or literary fiction, because, again, both have plenty of terrible stuff. I expect excellence in writing, perhaps rather predictably, from excellent fiction.
Again, he begs the question:
Hybridization has been around since Shakespeare, and doesn’t really erase the line between genre and literary fiction. Nor should it.
I still don’t see where we’ve actually defined the distinction. Okay, sure, hybridization doesn’t erase the line. But what, precisely, is the line?
This next paragraph is the closest Krystal ever comes to telling us:
What I’m trying to say is that “genre” is not a bad word, although perhaps the better word for novels that taxonomically register as genre is simply “commercial.” Born to sell, these novels stick to the trite-and-true, relying on stock characters whose thoughts spool out in Lifetime platitudes. There will be exceptions, as there are in every field, but, for the most part, the standard genre or commercial novel isn’t going to break the sea frozen inside us. If this sounds condescending, so be it. Commercial novels, in general, whether they’re thrillers or romance or science fiction, employ language that is at best undistinguished and at worst characterized by a jejune mentality and a tendency to state the obvious.
This is really just another example of Krystal’s profound failure to understand his own argument, but it comes the closest to giving us a sense of how Krystal sees the distinction. He thinks that maybe the better term for “genre” novels is “commercial” novels, and then he goes on to describe what commercial novels are: they are “born to sell,” they are “trite and true,” they rely on “stock characters whose thoughts pool out in Lifetime platitudes.” Those are certainly bad qualities, and I definitely recognize them as applying to many “commercial” novels. But they’re a poor match for a great number of genre novels. Le Guin’s novels have been commercially successful in the fullness of time, but can we really say that they were “born to sell”? What about Stanislaw Lem? Some of his characters are perhaps a bit stock (though no less so than those of your average literary novel, I think) but they hardly think in “Lifetime platitudes.” There is nothing comforting or obviously commercial about Solaris, and yet you can’t credibly claim that it isn’t very much a genre book. Not even a hybrid, but pure genre.
Krystal hedges ineffectively with references to “standard genre” novels and “true genre fiction.” This is meant to imply that whatever counterexamples we can raise are irrelevant — our favorite books probably aren’t “standard” or “true” genre. And yet when it comes to literary fiction, Krystal gets to define it by the best of the pack (emphasis mine):
Which is not to say that some literary novels, as more than a few readers pointed out to me, do not contain a surfeit of decorative description, elaborate psychologizing, and gleams of self-conscious irony. To which I say: so what?
One reads Conrad and James and Joyce not simply for their way with words but for the amount of felt life in their books. Great writers hit us over the head because they present characters whose imaginary lives have real consequences (at least while we’re reading about them), and because they see the world in much the way we do: complicated by surface and subterranean feelings, by ambiguity and misapprehension, and by the misalliance of consciousness and perception.
This “so what” reads as terribly snotty to me, and the way that Krystal chooses to follow up on this rhetorical question tells you just about everything you need to know about the quality of his thinking on genre. “Sure, there are shitty literary fictions,” he concedes, “but so what? Conrad and James and Joyce are really, really good. Therefore, literary fiction wins.” If you feel like his thumb is in your eye, you’re not alone. If the best genre writers don’t prove that genre fiction can be as good as literary fiction, (that they can be “literature,” i.e., good), then why do the best literary writers work as support Krystal’s argument? Why is genre fiction represented by its worst elements while literary fiction gets to be represented by its best? Well, because Krystal began with the confidence that he was right, and then he tried to work backwards toward a reason.
If Krystal stops begging the question for even a second, he’ll fall to pieces. So naturally, he closes in the same way (again, emphasis mine):
Writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know are not going to write horror tales or police procedurals. Why say otherwise? Elmore Leonard, Ross Thomas, and the wonderful George MacDonald Fraser craft stories that every discerning reader can enjoy to the hilt—but make no mistake: good commercial fiction is inferior to good literary fiction in the same way that Santa Claus is inferior to Wotan. One brings us fun or frightening gifts, the other requires—and repays—observance.
Presumably people say otherwise because they believe otherwise. Then many of these same people offer examples of beautiful genre fiction that does indeed struggle to “understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know.” (Is this going to be our ludicrously specific definition of “literature” then? Does Krystal also exclude from the category of literature any literary fiction with a different philosophical/aesthetic/political agenda from this one?) These examples are what one calls “evidence,” and Krystal has surely seen plenty since he started this argument. You don’t respond to evidence by repeating your claim and asking why anyone would ever say otherwise. They’re trying to tell you! The fact that you don’t know how to listen doesn’t mean you’ve won.
As I’ve written a thousand times before, we already have a name for “shitty no-good fiction.” It’s “shitty no-good fiction.” Why would we want to use the word “genre” that way? What did genre ever do to Krystal?
From the sounds of things, I guess that sometimes it was fun, and sometimes it sold well. (And of course, its readers were NNNNEEEEEEERRRRDDDDSSSS.) For trolls like Arthur Krystal, I guess that’s enough.