Genre Games

Alan Trotter’s Muscle takes an interesting approach to dismantling the notion of literary genres — specifically the hardboiled mystery genre — and although it gets off to an admirable start, in the end the genre always wins. That’s basically the case I make in my latest review for Splice:

By now you’ve probably got the sense that Muscle is a rollicking good time, and you’d be right — up to a point. It is the language, above all, that animates Trotter’s novel, and not only the language of Box’s narration but also the dialogue of other characters who repurpose the kitschy ease of pulp noir. A woman who looks like a potential femme fatale, for instance, is explicitly designated as a generic type, as “the love interest” of a private investigator. And the shamus, for his part, speaks like the ideal of the hardboiled hero, telling his “love interest” not to worry, calling her “kid”, and issuing Box and ______ with a warning that properly belongs in a speech balloon from a comic book: “You two so much as wag your tails too hard and there’s lead coming back through this door for you to fetch.” But then, as will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to read a copy of Black Mask from cover to cover, there’s only so much buoyancy that a story can take from even this entertaining language, and beyond that point there’s a real struggle for fresh air.

From Criteria to Credo

In a new article at American Prospect, Benjamin Markovits has suggested that we can clearly articulate “What makes fiction good.” Daniel Green, upon reading the article, complained that Markovits made “not one mention… of the writer’s use of language. It’s all about various gradations of story. If a work of fiction isn’t first of all its style, what the writer can do with words, it’s literally nothing but a plot.” Finally, in response, Emmett Stinson argued against using language alone as the sole criterion for literary merit:

[T]here are great writers (even within a literary tradition that prizes style over plot) who are bad or inconsistent stylists. … Style is not an “element” [of literature]. Visual narratives, spoken narratives, and written narratives are not the same. There are great writers who are bad or inconsistent stylists… especially in genres outside the literary. … Writing can do many things beyond rhetorical mastery (style). Fiction can be deeply affective or ideational without rhetorical complexity. Science fiction is arguably conceptually more complex than much lit fic, though stylistically less masterful. Many options for greatness… [and no need for] a subordination of all categories to “the writer’s language effects,” which strikes me as an attenuation of the possibilities for literature — just as a narrow focus on only narrative forms is.

Now, with Philip K. Dick being floated as an exemplar of a “great” writer who is also a terrible stylist, I’ve waded in with some rough thoughts of my own. Continue reading

In Memoriam, Ursula K. LeGuin

It’s the use of language, and the conscious, purposeful exploitation of the unique capabilities of language, that distinguishes literary fiction from genre fiction. That’s an article of faith for me. The distinction has nothing to do with the material of the story. Which is why The Left Hand of Darkness, in particular, is an outstanding work of literary fiction. Not because it proves that science fiction can rival conventional literary fiction by telling complex stories with equal sensitivity, but because it does mindbending things with language, specifically the use of gender pronouns, with all their implications. That, above all else, is what makes the novel unadaptable, unfilmable, irreducibly literary. Extract the story from the language and you have a compelling, philosophically provocative science fiction tale, but you don’t have literary fiction. It’s the language that makes the difference; it’s in the language that LeGuin’s genius resides.

Confusions

People also create their own personal definitions of what literary fiction is. Nathan Bransford clarifies on his blog that “In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.” Another blog author gives one of the most confusing definitions of literary fiction I’ve ever read. Daniel Davis Wood states that “literary fiction is exactly what the adjective ‘literary’ suggests: not a work of fiction that possesses a certain set of “literary” freedoms, but a work of fiction that makes an issue of its own nature as literature, its very literariness. It is irreducibly literary, and therefore utterly unable to be translated into any alternative artform.”

My words cited in a discussion of literary fiction on Cara Reads.

A Clarification: Genre Fiction vs. Literary Fiction

In last night’s post, I cited a comment by dirt armature on the Culture Mulcher blog. “The dichotomy between genre and literary fiction,” he or she wrote, “relies on concepts of literary value that few people share.” The inference here is that the dichotomy between genre fiction and literary fiction is a false one. I disagree with that, so I dismissed the comment out of hand. But I didn’t elaborate on my reasons for that dismissal because I simply didn’t have the time. Those reasons, I wrote, “ha[ve] been outlined elsewhere, and in greater detail than I am able to equal at present.” But I have a few spare moments this morning, so I’ll take a shot at it.

Literary fiction, as I conceive of it, is manifestly not what bookstores or the book review pages of the broadsheet newspapers mean when they use the term. For them, “literary fiction” is essentially a genre of fiction defined against all other recognisable genres. When a work of fiction does not recognisably belong to the mystery genre or to the fantasy genre or to the romance genre or to any other genre, it is identified as “literary fiction.” Of course, unlike mystery fiction, fantasy fiction, romance fiction, and so on, the success or failure of a work of literary fiction typically does not rest on the extent to which it either satisfies or frustrates the norms and conventions of the genre to which it belongs. As James Bradley wrote of Peter Temple’s Truth, it is “a piece of genre fiction” because it recognisably “operates within the conventions and constraints of [a] genre,” and, as such, it is judged a success or a failure not on its own terms, but on the terms set by the conventions and constraints of the genre. Continue reading