Literature is like pornography: no one can tell you what it is, but they know it when they see it. Such is the underlying assumption behind this cry for help from Arthur Krystal in the New Yorker, which allows him, among many other logically-suspect things, to claim unto literature’s greedy penumbra several works which are clearly speculative (that is, genre) fiction. It allows him to say that works like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are simply a literary sensibility working with genre, and not in it, as if some aesthetic prophylaxis were involved, allowing said literary giant to wade into the post-apocalyptic pool and take a swim without getting any of it in his hair.
What is the nature of the distinction? I’ll let Krystal answer for himself.
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.
For those with the good sense to have skipped clicking the link above, we have here the crux of Krystal’s argument, such as it is: genre is concerned with things like plotting and story-telling, whereas literature is involved with something more ineffable, something difficult that takes a certain refined sensibility to produce and appreciate, something that will “break the sea frozen inside us,” whatever that means. Also, genre writing sucks. Except when it doesn’t. But even when it doesn’t, even when the writing is as good as or better than anything labeled otherwise, genre can still never rise to the lofty heights of ‘great literature.’
Poppycock. Bullfeathers. Stuff and nonsense.
What we have here is the last gasp of the old high vs. low culture debate, with a little bit of bourgeois vs. populist thrown in for good measure (Nick Mamatas, who I once met at a cocktail party, has an interesting take). It’s the same as some fucking hipster kid getting all hoity-toity at you because your favorite band isn’t as obscure or ‘challenging’ as his is, only tweedier and without an Instagram filter. Literature is better not only because of the sensibility behind its production, but because of the sensibility behind its consumption. What I like is harder to like, therefore it is better (than what you like), and I am better (than you) because of it. Krystal even goes so far as to apply that deadly epithet: genre fiction is 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.
I’ll pause while your inner cool-kid teenager shudders in disgust.
Never mind the serious doubts one has as to the exhaustiveness of Krystal’s research (how many ‘commercial novels’ would you have to read to make such a sweeping statement?), the broad characterization of genre fiction as shallow and poorly-written is old enough to collect Social Security, and while there may once have been something to it, that particular distinction fell by the wayside a long time ago. It’s only by white-man-style cultural appropriation that many, many great works of a literary nature are not properly understood as the speculative or other genre fiction that they are. Magical realism, anyone (or, as we call it over here in the genre fever-swamp, fantasy written in Spanish)? Jonathan Lethem? Michael Chabon? Jose Saramago’s Blindness is clearly a speculative work (albeit without the world-building rigor normally associated with the genre), yet is also clearly a work of literature, properly understood.
So, what’s the difference? I’ll let Krystal take another crack at it.
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.
See? Real literature is about feelings and ambiguity and the human heart in conflict with itself. Genre fiction is about femme fatales and spaceships and lusty pirates and zombies. Pwn! Never mind the moral ambiguities and meditations on the costs and nature of power in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, or the confrontation of modern sensibilities with the reality of a slave’s life in Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze. Take no notice when Philip K. Dick reimagines what God might be in the Valis trilogy or when Ursula K. Le Guin’s reimagines gender in The Left Hand of Darkness. Nope, no surface vs. subterranean feelings there, no misalliance between consciousness and perception. It’s just escapism, pure and simple, a guilty pleasure at best. Any deeper meanings and insights that may occur as a result of reading such works is purely incidental.
I am not one to say that the distinctions between the labels ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ are meaningless, because they are not. The borders between them are porous, and there’s lots of interesting cross-pollination and warfare, but I believe it is useful to draw them. Genres have their conventions and the expectations that go with them, and they are useful for writers and readers alike. The problem, to my mind, is that there is a genre called ‘literature,’ which has its conventions and expectations just like any other, but that has ensconced itself on a pedestal thanks to its historical high-culture designation and has been putting on airs for decades if not centuries, and giving a facsimile of cause for people like Arthur Krystal to do the same.
But let’s call it what it is, and what it is is snobbery, pure and simple, and I will suggest to Mr. Krystal the same thing I suggest to snobs of all stripes and persuasions: If you feel this burning need to find reasons that you’re better than other people, well, you probably aren’t, and you’d be much better served spending your time on that, instead of on trying to make other people feel bad because their tastes aren’t as refined as yours.