Friday, November 02, 2012

Let's All Get Real

Back in May, Arthur Krystal published a piece in The New Yorker attempting to put some clear blue water between genre and literary fiction.  Lev Grossman presented a slew of exceptions to Krystal's arguments, and suggested that Krystal's so-called clear-cut division was falsified by writers working from the edge of genres outward, and the many recent literary novels that found their own uses for genre tropes and narrative vitality.  If there is a border, it's porous in both directions.  And now Krystal had revisited his argument in another New Yorker piece, asserting that genre is basically commercial fiction, while literature is art, baby, with a capital A, its carapace glimmering with ambiguity, its heart pumping the rich blood of 'felt life'.

I was planning to write something about Krystal's circular logic and claims of exceptionalism re literary fiction, but by the time I started to think about getting around to it, several people smarter than me had already cut him down.  We've been here before, far too many times.  It's like man-made climate change: there are the facts on the ground, and there are the arguments that those who want to deny those facts or claim they aren't important trot out time and again, no matter how many times they're proven to be based on partial data or to be just plain wrong.  It's necessary to engage with splitters like Krystal, I guess, and maybe it's even useful . . . but it's getting old.

Still, a short passage in Krystal's piece does have the sting of (partial) truth:
...perhaps the better word for novels that taxonomically register as genre is simply “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.
I was trying to figure out how to link this to a new essay by Paul Kincaid, in which he returns to his argument about a growing sense of exhaustion in the science-fiction field, and suggests that the problem lies in the heartland of science fiction.  Which I think is more or less congruous with what we might call 'commercial' science fiction - those novels which make up the bulk of publishers' lists, and which tend to be self-contained polders which either have little connection with the present, or simplify its complex ambiguities to stirring tales of right and wrong, light and dark, heroes and villains.  And which tend to consist of rearrangements of genre furniture that are sometimes elegant, but don't contain any new tropes, and usually don't examine in any radical way the premises on which they are founded.

Krystal's piece pulls that old trick of judging literary fiction by its best examples, and genre fiction by its worst.  And too much criticism within the science-fiction field doesn't distinguish between commercial sf, which is trying to construct new and engaging stories within a defined framework, and the edgier stuff, which is trying to do something else.  One of the things Paul Kincaid is trying to do, I think, is attempting to work out what that distinction means. It's good, useful stuff.  I don't agree with all of it.  I certainly think, like Kincaid, that too much science fiction looks 'inward', but I wouldn't make a strong distinction between science fiction that attempts to revitalise genre tropes and science fiction that attempts to inject new ideas for 'outside'; some of those tropes have escaped into the real world, and by engaging with them and using them to discover new meanings science fiction is in dialogue with both its own ideas and with the real.  But it's laying the groundwork for all kinds of debates that stimulate writers and readers, and refresh the field and widen its possibilities, and crack open the limitations and boundaries (too often self-imposed) that, according to critics like Krystal, consign genre fiction to the outer dark of the second-rate.


Anonymous Cristian Tamas said...

Dear Mr.McAuley,

The translation of your article „Rip it up and start again” was posted in the Romanian Science Fiction&Fantasy Society's site :

Thank you.

Best regards,
Cristian Tamas

November 03, 2012 8:29 pm  

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