|NEW YORKER trolls the nerds or Triumph of the State
||[Oct. 25th, 2012|09:30 am]
Seemingly excited by the number of people talking about him back this spring, New Yorker contributor Arthur Krystal is back with an essay entitled It's Genre. Not That There's Anything Wrong With That! His argument is the same as it ever was; genre fiction isn't as good as literary fiction. The usual fallacies and examples of muddy thinking apply. In the end, he just raises himself up with a middle-class harumph and goes for pure expressivism. Yay, stuff I like! Boo, stuff I don't! But I'm in the New Yorker with its circulation of over 1,000,000 and its literary reputation, and most of you are just whiners with blogs. (Of course, there's Lev Grossman, the chief nerd whiner at Time, which has a circulation of over 3,000,000 but that just proves the point that anyone will flip through some shit. Plus Time doesn't even run stories!)|
Anyway, after some extended preliminaries that seem to have been designed to make sure anyone Googling the more significant genre and literary writers by name will find the article, Krystal gets down to cases. Well, to "cases" anyway. Here are what seem to be his actual arguments:
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.
Genre, served straight up, has its limitations, and there’s no reason to pretend otherwise. Indeed, it’s these very limitations that attract us. When we open a mystery, we expect certain themes to be addressed and we enjoy intelligent variations on these themes.
It seems to me that Chabon, Egan, and Ishiguro don’t so much work in genre as with genre, and “All the Pretty Horses” is no more a western than “1984” is science fiction. Nor can we in good conscience call John Le Carré’s “The Honorable Schoolboy” or Richard Price’s “Lush Life” genre novels.
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.
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.
Of course, we can go through the fallacies pretty easily here. Is there a No True Scotsman fallacy? Yup! Does this itself lead to some circular reasoning—if it's genre it can't be good, so the good stuff isn't genre, thus demonstrating that genre can't be good? It does. Genetic fallacy? Yup. (Jonathan Franzen's editors and publicists would be surprised to learn that Freedom wasn't "born to sell", unlike the greasy kid stuff.) And, of course, the psychologist's fallacy. The standard (also an important word) genre novel will not break open the frozen sea inside whom? Arthur Krystal, assuredly, but people are moved by all sorts of things, for all sorts of reasons.
This is all topped off by a series of apple-orange comparisons. Though Krystal gamely attempts to compare like with like at certain points in the essay, in the end he appeals to the broad unmarked default standard of "genre" and compares it to the top tier of "literary fiction" that sells very well, and that appeals to and is often published in or examined by The New Yorker.
A more fair comparison to the stuff on the supermarket shelves—a very small fraction of genre fiction these days—would be to the stuff found in any of the not-very prestigious university-backed literary quarterlies that exist primarily as tenure farms. One would have to read a lot of journals entitled ______ Review to have the frozen sea inside broken open by the junk in most of those numbers.
And then again, the supermarket can surprise us. I've found Graham Joyce's Requiem in a supermarket once. Thanks to The da Vinci Code, it was dusted off and given a brief mass-market run. And Peter Straub's metafictional In the Night Room compares favorably to anything, anything, written in the past twenty years or so, by anyone. Also in rack-sized trim, and convenient to break a twenty with at a bus station.
I'm reminded of the poet Sparrow, who once picketed the offices of The New Yorker, and claimed that it wasn't fair that his poems were always rejected, because they were just as bad as the stuff the magazine ran every week.
Literary fiction has its genre tropes and its industrial manufacture as well. However, literary fiction is generally an intellectual capital good, not a consumer good. That is, most of the standard stuff is produced not to be read by readers, but by other practitioners. In this, the bulk of literary fiction is more like other scholarly material—peer-reviewed research papers, monographs, dissertations, etc.—than it is like either genre fiction or the stuff Krystal cites as literary fiction. The seas do not crack open when reading the overwhelming majority of this stuff. Here's one that I bought, and liked, and chortled along with as I read, but make no mistake, I bought it because of its generic tropes—the story of a frustrated writer dealing with dumb writing workshop students? I eat that shit up. However, the murder mystery version of the same generic story that came out at around the same time was both technically superior and better observed. It would have to be were it to be successful at all, as murder and the multiple reactions to it across social class and gender and whatnot are more complex than simple middle-class fuming about hitting the limits of one's own ability.
Recently, I heard someone suggest that there are so many markets out there for short science fiction and fantasy that it must be the easiest genre to work in. To which I must only say, lol. PS: the list of the link isn't near-complete. Right off the top of my head, the excellent Black Clock and the deeply shitty Connecticut Review are both not listed at my "lol", and that was just me checking the Bs and Cs. There's an enormous, enormous, amount of literary fiction being published that almost nobody reads. I'm unusual in that I live in a college down right next to a giant city, so I can actually buy a fair number of journals at my local newsstand. And I do. And I'll flip through anything at least once. Most literary fiction published in the US simply doesn't do what Krystal claims that it does, and this goes beyond the cliché of Sturgeon's Law. ("Ninety percent of science fiction is crud. So is ninety percent of everything else.") It's because most literary fiction, as she is produced in the US, is basically the beneficiary of a state subsidy—grants for the journals, pay lines for editors ensconced in the academy, adjuncting and the occasional full-time job for writers at colleges and universities. And even private colleges swim in state money. As such, it is no surprise that the state-backed literature focuses on the needs of the state.
In the US:
* the state doesn't need a critique of the primary state function of preserving the property rights of capital and the middle class. So, no crime fiction.
* the state doesn't need a literature that historicizes the state and suggests that its dissolution, or radical transformation, is inevitable and that this transformation will not be managed by the state. So, no science fiction or fantasy.
* the state depends on reproduction of the family, and of a contractual view of marriage and family relationships rather than a transcendent, emotional one. So, no romance.
* the state has solidified the frontier in its entirety and has all but completed its goal of genocide of the continent's aboriginal inhabitants. So, no Western.
What the state does need: an individualist ethos, fueled by anxiety over class position. Hey now...
Oh, and who reads The New Yorker? Hey now... And the folks who read genre fiction, well perhaps it is no surprise that they're often the ones who also find themselves extremely worried about the state and capital. The lower orders are the ones whose lives change dramatically with the introduction of new technology—everything from layoffs to finding themselves incapable of understanding the concerns and activities of their own children—and who marry for money only subtly, thanks to the demands of the state and capital, instead of marrying for position and then engaging in infidelity (a major theme of literary fiction) for emotional release.
And of course, the state needs some successes too, and some ideological centers. So, no surprise that a significant number of federal grants for writers go to writers who are already wealthy or successful.
I have to say that I find the comparison to Santa Claus/Wotan most compelling. Santa is a commercial figure, obviously, but he is also a folk figure ultimately controlled by the mores and attitudes of parents and children. There's a wide-ranging social conspiracy regarding Santa, a practiced collective irony and joke that has a lot to do with how cultures of proper behavior propagate themselves, about what it means to be good (one essential thing: don't be too greedy), and what it means to grow up and to realize that authority lies. Also, Santa is a cultural index—we have many different Santas, and we pick and choose which we want.
Wotan? A state-god once fully integrated into the Anglo-Saxon ruling class as a human king, now forgotten mostly, except for his few worshipers, a significant fraction of whom are literal Nazis. Oh, why don't more people sign up for that!
Krystal's essay essentially ignores the machine of literary fiction and looks only at the relatively few consumer goods created by a capital-good intensive state-managed industry. Most literary fiction is downright terrible when it comes to sentence construction—a lot of it is edited by resentful graduate students, or busy professors, after all—for the range and scope of observation of the social world, and even for its ability to move us. And even for its ability to move Krystal. If he wants to poo-poo workaday thrillers and crime novels, the least he should do is read a few minor-league literary journals featuring tales of failed tenure bids, jejune miscarriages, trips to Wal-Mart, and the letters grandpa wrote grandma during the Second World War. Go a little deeper than the tip of the literary iceberg, Krystal, then you may speak of the frozen sea.