Thursday, October 25, 2012

Genre Fiction

It's amazing how easy it is to get me angry. This, for example, did the job. Arthur Krystal in The New Yorker...
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...

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. Writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know are not going to write horror tales or police procedurals... 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.
I realize this is a classic example of a guy who identifies with "literary" fiction defending what he likes. He may know mysteries and adventure stories. I suspect he does not know science fiction.

What he describes as "literary" sounds like the classic bourgeois novel of character and psychology. These can certainly be good. But they have were done in the 19th century and early 20th century, and I see no reason to do them again. If I want to read one, I will get out James or Proust.

Speaking of Conrad, an African writer -- I think Amos Tutuola -- has pointed out that The Heart of Darkness uses the entire African continent as a backdrop for the psychological problems of one white man, as if that enormous continent, full of societies and people, had no other useful purpose.

I can't say if this criticism is right, since I haven't read Conrad and don't intend to. Tutuola sounds more interesting.

In any case, the author of the above essay is not interested in what interests me -- which is change, technology, new ways of seeing the universe, big social questions, and fiction that pushes the limits of reality. The inner workings of the Western bourgeoisie really don't grip me.

And I don't like it when the essayist pulls in Odin. I presume this is a reference to Wagner's Ring Cycle. Odin is a seriously strange and scary being -- king of the gods, defender of hospitality, god of war, death and poetry. This is the guy who gave an eye for wisdom and sacrificed himself to himself to get knowledge of runes. He belongs to the world of magic and mythology, not to the world of psychological novels; and if you encounter him now, you have entered the realm of science fiction and fantasy.


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