Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Only Thing That Went Through The Mind Of The Bowl Of Petunias As It Fell Was Oh No, Not Again.

Just when you think you’re out, they drag you back in. I really didn’t want to write anything else about literary and genre fiction for a while, but then I saw this piece by novelist Edward Docx on the failings on genre fiction. This kind of thing has been hashed and rehashed too many times, mostly to no good purpose. I really shouldn’t rise to Mr Docx’s bait, but I can’t help myself. My excuse is that while it’s a lazy and trite little piece of mischief, Mr Docx does hit on a couple of truths. As for the rest, not only does he use the tired, dishonest method of using the failings of a couple of bestselling authors -- in this case Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson -- to dismiss an entire genre, he also drags up the old high v. low art argument but fails to support his case. We get some anatomisation of ‘bad’ genre writing, but nothing to explain why literary fiction is so superior:
I'd love to end this piece by dealing with the fallacies of relativism, exposing the other misconceptions surrounding both genre and literary fiction (class needs tackling) and then round the whole thing off with a series of extracts from any number of fine contemporary novelists whom I love – Franzen, Coetzee, Hollinghurst, Amis, Mantel, Proux, Ishiguro, Roth – to illustrate again the happy, rich and textured difference. But there's simply not enough space.
Back when I was a university lecturer, clever but lazy students would sometimes try this Fermat’s Last Theorem gambit in their essays: an automatic D-. Actually, I’m glad he didn’t tackle class. Don’t get me started on class, the English publishing industry, and the stultification of the English literary novel. I don’t have enough time.

Mr Docx does though, make a useful point about how the conventions of genre fiction can cause a kind of thinning of the prose:
...even good genre (not Larsson or Brown) is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material. That's the way writing works and lots of people who don't write novels don't seem to get this: if you need a detective, if you need your hero to shoot the badass CIA chief, if you need faux-feminist shopping jokes, then great; but the correlative of these decisions is a curtailment in other areas. If you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise. Lots of decisions are already made.
Or rather, he makes half a point, because this is really a rather nice description of bad genre writing: following the tramlines of convention, furnishing the plot with tropes and images from the used furniture store, cliched characterisation. James Wood, in How Fiction Works, makes a far better fist of this kind of argument:
...the complaint that realism is no more than a grammar or set of rules that obscures life is generally a better description of le Carré or P.D. James than it is of Flaubert or George Eliot or Isherwood: when a style decomposes, flattens itself down into a genre, then indeed it does become a set of mannerism and often pretty lifeless techniques. The efficiency of the thriller genre takes just what it needs from the much less efficient Flaubert or Isherwood, and throws away what made those writers truly alive.
But this, of course, is precisely what any genre writer with any kind of self-awareness and ambition should be struggling against. Bad genre writers pander to the expectations of their readers; good genre writers subvert those expectations; great genre writers, like Philip K Dick, J.G. Ballard, or John Crowley, transcend them, completely rewriting conventions or using them for their own ends. And while there may not be any genre writers who can match, sentence for sentence, literary writers at the top of their game -- Saul Bellow, say, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez -- there are certainly a good number who can match the middle ranks of their literary counterparts. Who aren’t content with utilitarian prose and (quoting Wood again) “selection of detail [that] is merely the quorum necessary to convince the reader that this is ‘real’, that ‘it really happened’”, but want to bring life to their pages by selecting the best possible words in the best possible order. It would have been useful if Mr Docx had quoted from those writers, and explained why he thought them still not up to the mark. But that would have involved actual thought rather than reflex derision.

We’ve been on the receiving end of criticism or condemnation of too many people who, like Mr Docx, simply haven’t read widely enough. It makes us defensive. It raises our hackles. Which brings me to Mr Docx’s other useful point, which is that many genre writers aren’t content with popularity (although some of us aren’t content for the opposite reason): they are jealous of the critical acclaim won by literary fiction, and so tend to dismiss its values.

Science-fiction writers and fans aren’t immune to this: when an outsider points out legitimate faults in some piece of SF, they have a tendency to misuse Sturgeon’s Law by asserting that 90% of everything is crap, or claiming some kind exceptionalism – SF writers are allowed to skimp on characterisation because they have to build entire worlds. And so on, and so on, none of it especially useful. Of course, the flip side of genre defensiveness are pieces like Mr Docx’s, in which literary writers complain that they don’t get no respect, bad is driving out good, and only the true cognoscenti appreciate them. Under the skin, writers of all kinds are rather more similar than Mr Docx can ever bring himself to admit.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. This piece infuriated me when I read it, and I was all set to dash off a snarky reply, and then I thought I would leave it to better hands. I can't wait to see the letters next week.

December 14, 2010 9:55 pm  
Anonymous Pat said...

Can you tell me how the high literary form of "Magical Realism" differs from "Fantasy"? Some of my favourite fantasy authors could be placed on either side. Haruki Murakami and Charles de Lint, for example. Salman Rushdie, if you ignore the turgid first 100 pages of each book. Gene Wolfe in both fantasy and SF. I could think of so many more if I wasn't so annoyed.

December 15, 2010 12:04 am  
Anonymous John Crowley said...

Thanks for this -- though it dooesn't (and doesn't really need to) address the key problem that i deal with in teaching genre writing, or screenwriting -- that only within those genres do you find that body of works that is not good yet good: over the top, absurd, crude, cartoonish, and yet moving and unforgettable. the existence of work of that kind makes genre practice nearly impossible to teach, because the wonderfulness is unteachable and the crudity is unacceptable. (The only other realm where this mix of bathetic and transcendent works is, of course, opera; they say musical comedy too, but that leaves me untranscended.)

December 15, 2010 2:12 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Wufnik - there are a couple of hundred comments appended to the piece - which given its intrinsic snarkiness is probably the desired effect as far as the Guardian is concerned. Unfortunately.

Pat - I can't explain the difference; all I can say is hat it seems to me that 'magical realism' is a label slapped on writers outside the western realism tradition by western critics. I do think that right now there are a larger number of fine (as defined by lit fic criteria) writers working in the fantasy field than in sf. Although sf writers often have other qualities not recognised by lit fic critics (see below).

John - I see that I didn't really state my terms of engagement, namely responding to Mr Docx on his own terms. But the question of why so-called populist or crude writing can still be effective is very good and very important. Is Philip K Dick a case in point? His descriptive prose is at best unexceptional (although the way he mutates the dialogue of his his characters is something else). Some of his novels are awful. Yet as a body of work, everything he wrote builds into something that's somehow more than the sum of its parts. And some scenes in his novels are incredibly moving - the end of A Scanner Darkly, for instance. I have no idea how to begin to explain it, or the sense-of-wonder moments embedded in early pulp sf. The parallel with opera rings true - has that ever been explored anywhere?

December 15, 2010 10:06 am  
Blogger Jimmy said...

As far as prose goes, I think that Gene Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin, M. John Harrison and William Gibson (to name a handful)are a match for any of their 'literary' counterparts.

December 18, 2010 11:33 pm  

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