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NEW YORKER trolls the nerds or Triumph of the State [Oct. 25th, 2012|09:30 am]
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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.

and, finally

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.

[User Picture]From: holli
2012-10-25 04:51 pm (UTC)


I believe this is appropriate, too:

[User Picture]From: helivoy
2012-10-25 04:56 pm (UTC)


Ishiguro doesn't write SF and le Carré doesn't write thrillers... because they're high quality writing and therefore cannot be genre. QED.

The great classics are all "genre hybrids". This mania with separation and ranking is a relatively recent (and peculiarly Saxon) disease. Fakínou, Tolstaya, Zafón, Calvino, Pamuk are all considered "mainstream" in their respective cultures.
[User Picture]From: andrian6
2012-10-25 05:00 pm (UTC)


I ran into an interesting essay on the literary fiction genre earlier this week. Might be an interesting companion piece.

The obligatory adultery/divorce plotline is my favorite of the 'literary genre' tropes. I heard a review of a book on NPR yesterday and, lo and behold, there was the shattered Midwestern family...
[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2012-10-25 06:33 pm (UTC)


I'm a fan of Jami Attenberg's (disclosure: we went on a couple of dates about a decade ago, and Gchat occasionally) and have been looking forward to The Middlesteins for months. I'm not against the generic trope of a shattered midwestern family any more than I'm against the generic trope of an alcoholic sleuth or a lost and wandering starship. My objection is just to Krystals' apples-to-oranges comparisons and special pleasing as to his own personal tastes.
[User Picture]From: andrian6
2012-10-25 08:50 pm (UTC)


I'm a fan of Jami Attenberg's (disclosure: we went on a couple of dates about a decade ago, and Gchat occasionally) and have been looking forward to The Middlesteins for months.

When I read this I became, for the briefest of moments, the guy standing on the left side of the Metro escalator. I wasn't selecting Ms. Attenberg's work in particular or disparaging it, gods no. It was quite literally the last book review I heard on NPR and it sent the mental dominoes tumbling.

(And somewhere, Sting sings about a dark Scottish lake.)

My thinking was, if the only difference between "literary fiction" and "genre fiction" was the tropes you decided to play with then (or market by) then all these distinctions are artificial.

They only exist for the same reason little boys put "No girl cooties" signs outside their treehouses. And it operates on about the same level of maturity.
[User Picture]From: jimkeller
2012-10-25 07:29 pm (UTC)


Thank you for sharing the link. Never would have found that otherwise.
[User Picture]From: osito71
2012-10-25 05:03 pm (UTC)


[User Picture]From: hand2hand
2012-10-25 05:04 pm (UTC)


Thank you for the summary. If I had to read it myself I think I'd retch.

I love how he classifies as "not genre" Things He Likes and as "genre" Things He Feels Are Inferior. Even though they have the same SF type story elements.
[User Picture]From: Nathan Helfinstine
2012-10-27 03:26 pm (UTC)


Indeed, from the summary it sounds structurally identical to a couple of top-tier academics' essays on the differences between "erotica" and "pornography" I had to read in a philosophy class once. The key distinction, of course, being "What I Like" versus "What I Don't Like".
[User Picture]From: infinitehotel
2012-10-25 05:09 pm (UTC)


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

Out of curiousity, how much do you think this applies to genre short fiction as well? Not so much with anthologies, but with magazines and webzines I've occasionally wondered if they're becoming more like hobbyist journals for people who make the stuff rather than for consumers. Sort of like "Fine Cabinetry"; most subscribers aren't reading it because they're shopping for furniture.

[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2012-10-25 06:51 pm (UTC)


Hmm, I don't think it's happening so much, really. I mean Clarkesworld has a reach of 30-40K these days, and so while it's a hobby/sideline for the editors, it's important for readers as well as for writers.

To me, lit journals are a capital good because the circulations are so small. Hell, my alma mater's Connecticut Review basically stopped printing copies even for its students. Which means they're using POD and don't want to print even a single copy not pre-paid for, which means they're printing a handful of copies.
[User Picture]From: etcet
2012-10-25 05:30 pm (UTC)


Frozen sea?

Krystal's permafrost-laden soul isn't enough to chill a cup of lemonade.
[User Picture]From: pantryslut
2012-10-25 05:37 pm (UTC)


My family honor is offended by Krystal's Santa Claus metaphor.

I usually tune out of these essays the minute I notice the "I am comparing the pinnacle of Group A to the middle stratum of Group B!" trick.
[User Picture]From: theweaselking
2012-10-25 06:02 pm (UTC)


I think you have a typo in "Yay, stuff I like! Book, stuff I don't"
[User Picture]From: mollydot
2012-10-25 06:07 pm (UTC)


He seems to be confusing literature, literary fiction and great literature.

Eg, complaining about Le Guin putting all novel in written art, he says his own novel couldn't count. Art doesn't mean good. His novel is probably *bad* written art.

[User Picture]From: princeofcairo
2012-10-25 07:52 pm (UTC)


The astonishing thing about that essay appears to be that it has so very many flaws that you don't even have to get all the way down to the idiotic notion of genre as exclusively "born to sell."

You do swing by it a bit with your Franzen tag, but I am surprised that anyone remotely literate can believe that Dickens and Shakespeare, to pick only the absolute pinnacle of commercial writers, weren't.
[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2012-10-25 08:00 pm (UTC)


But but, Ken! Those are old farts! We're talking about current literary fiction! Surely the giant Times Square billboard for The Marriage Plot

was a not-for-profit exercise in conceptual irony, and had nothing to do with marketing or publicity for the novel that, via cosmic coincidence, sold 150,000 copies in hardcover according to Bookscan. (So feel free to double that number easily, before factoring ebooks, foreign sales, etc.)

Edited at 2012-10-25 08:01 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]From: princeofcairo
2012-10-25 08:22 pm (UTC)


You know, perhaps I have the wrong end of the stick. Maybe I should be trumpeting Krystal's "born to sell" metric all over the place as part of my argument that R.A. Lafferty and H.P. Lovecraft are the great literary talents of our age.
[User Picture]From: andrian6
2012-10-25 09:00 pm (UTC)


But could any of them have cut as dashing and swoon-worthy a figure as Mr. Eugenides? Look at the billboard- he's the second coming of the Marlboro man!
[User Picture]From: bedii
2012-11-24 04:40 pm (UTC)


It looks to me like they've changed the title for a road-show version of The Quiet Man
[User Picture]From: bradiation
2012-10-25 10:28 pm (UTC)


I want "broke the frozen sea inside us" to replace the four-star metric for how much a critic likes a thing.
[User Picture]From: agrumer
2012-10-25 10:52 pm (UTC)


I've been hoping to see that metaphor used about a book on Trotsky.
[User Picture]From: rastokin
2012-10-26 03:06 am (UTC)


Не понять ничего.
[User Picture]From: ironed_orchid
2012-10-26 04:10 am (UTC)


I used to read pretty much equal amounts of lit fic and genre fic, maybe slightly skewed towards lit fic, especially if you count magic realism, and stuff like Will Self and Irvine Welsh.

These days I'm reading more genre fic because I get so bored of reading about white middle aged men having some sort of crisis which impacts on their personal relationships. It can be done well, but it just gets tiring reading about people whose world is so narrow.
[User Picture]From: pauljessup
2012-11-24 03:49 pm (UTC)


Don't read Hologram for the King then- even though You Shall Know Our Velocity and Eggers other fiction doesn't fall this formula, Hologram for the King does quite a bit...
[User Picture]From: maeve66
2012-10-26 05:47 am (UTC)


I enjoyed this essay so much -- especially the parts about the needs of the State and how they definitely do not coincide with basic genre fiction, and the class analysis of that. Thanks, Nick.
From: (Anonymous)
2012-10-26 08:07 pm (UTC)


When are you putting out another ( non-fiction collection? I can't be the only one who would pay for a book full of pieces like this.

[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2012-10-26 08:08 pm (UTC)


Probably never.
From: (Anonymous)
2012-10-27 02:58 am (UTC)


Would it be bad manners to ask why?

I still love "Old Boilers and Old Men", and would be happy to have a book with the "3 and 9" rule explained. I've enjoyed your fiction enough to buy all your novels (Move Underground: "I live in deep space, I summer in New England, have you heard of me?"), but my favourite is your non-fiction, especially some of your blog posts. I obviously don't understand the publishing world.
[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2012-10-28 08:31 pm (UTC)


I just don't think there's much demand for it, outside of Starve Better, or gifty stuff like Insults Every Man Should Know.
2012-10-29 04:22 am (UTC)


Wow, why are those posing as intelligensia so obsessed with grocery stores? The grocery store market for books basically collapsed in the 1990's, and the commercial paperback versus drama hardcover publishing model basically faded off by the early 1980's at the latest. And making a non-genre genre argument -- why do these people talk like they're stuck in the 1960's? Wotan? This is antique. I thought The New Yorker was trying to be hip hop now. This is bubble-world extraordinaire. I suppose the commercial lit field still likes this argument, but it's getting considerably hoary. (And poor Mr. Eugenides, who seemed to strike me as someone who doesn't like a fuss, to be turned into a romance hero on a giant billboard.)

Also, of course there's a market for your non-fiction social critiques. Every day I'm reading about some book of social essays by some journalist or other I've never heard of, usually about their shopping habits, and Scalzi sold a book called 101 Uses for a Spare Goat off a Twitter joke. I suspect a collection by you of puncturing those bubbles would find a decent audience. Or possibly one about your shopping habits.
[User Picture]From: mcjulie
2012-11-24 04:12 pm (UTC)


I love your observation about the standard tropes of modern literary fiction and how they reflect the needs of the state. I always wondered how those tropes got to be so incredibly boring...