On Good Books And Literary Privilege

{Editor’s note: this post ran a little long. What can I say—I got on a roll.}

Stop the presses! Someone’s written a fool piece on mixing guttersnipe genre fiction with fancypants literature!

We here at Olivia Waite will now provide a public service: we read this nonsense so you don’t have to. And then we pull out our favorite bits, for some well-deserved snarkery.

Basic thrust of the Atlantic article: some literary dudes have been taking things (detectives, zombies, superheroes) that we normally associate with lowbrow genre fiction (mystery, sci-fi, comics) and putting highbrow literary sentences around them. This is presented as a deviation from earlier trends in American literature. Or, as our author puts it:

The trappings of genre fiction—monsters, masked marvels, gizmos, and gumshoes—are no longer quarantined to the bookstore aisles reserved for popular fiction. Horror, mystery and science-fiction books have spread their genetic code to a foreign habitat: the literature section.

To understand why this is significant, it’s important to stress how rare genre interpolations were in late 20th-century fiction. In the 1980s and 1990s, serious writers trafficked in realistic tales, simply told. Led by their patron saint, Raymond Carver, American minimalists like Grace Paley, Amy Hempel, Richard Ford, Anne Beattie, and Tobias Wolff used finely-tuned vernacular to explore the everyday problems of everyday people.

So yeah, there’s a definite sense that writing intelligently about vampires does not automatically disqualify you from the Pulitzer list in the way that it used to.

But—then we get this as part of the argument: “Discounting a few notable (and unclassifiable) isoladoes like Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Don Delillo…”

I’m going to stop you right there, Joe Fassler, recent Iowa Writers’ Workshop Graduate and unrepentant user of the word isolado, because what that sentence actually means is: Please ignore all these authors, who undermine the point I am trying to make.

Here’s me getting all book-snobby: Do you really think it’s wise to support a theory of modern literary history that has to discount the incomparable Margaret Atwood, the inescapable Don Delillo, and Toni Fucking Morrison in one fell swoop? I’m not convinced they’re as “unclassifiable” as you seem to think.

Moving on: “Even those writers who did not subscribe to a Hemingway-influenced minimalist aesthetic—John Updike, Phillip Roth, Jane Smiley—still wrote about modern-day people in believable situations.”

My favorite Updike book is The Centaur, where characters from Greek myth inhabit a small-town Pennsylvania high school. Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven has passages told from the POV of several of the novel’s equine characters. Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America was an alternate history where Charles Lindbergh was elected president. But we should ignore those, too, and simply homogenize these authors’ large and varied bodies of work because it suits where this article wants to go.

The view from the forest would be spectacular if it weren’t for all those trees.

By which I mean that you have to ignore a lot of other books in order to make your points hold water.

And then, actually, you have a very nice little section on how genre-borrowing books began to infiltrate literary awards. You name-check Michael Chabon (one of my favorites) and Stephen Millhauser (ditto). And then some other points of argument for why genre trappings might appeal to both writers and readers

My greater objection is: this whole article feels—how to put this—top-down? Like someone looking down from a tower (an ivory tower? shut up, Olivia) and saying, “The masses appear to have changed their direction of travel,” when really some of those masses spent years building that new road for that specific purpose, and have no time for your late realization that things are different now.

I’m saying there’s a weirdly classist undertone to the way you distinguish between literary writers and genre writers, except for this supposed New Mutant Breed as exemplified by two white dudes and Colson Whitehead. (And there sure seems to be a lot of dudeness in this piece. Aren’t any of the New Mutants ladies? Couldn’t we have heard from Erin Morgenstern, whose debut book The Night Circus totally fits with your thesis and is getting a lot of good buzz? Or are her literary credentials not lengthy enough?)

But even though I really like it when literary authors borrow from genre fiction (also known as, well, writing good genre fiction, which a lot of genre fiction writers have been doing for quite some time now), I get all itchy because you seem to presume that kind of borrowing is only significant when it goes one way. An author with a literary pedigree borrows from science fiction and everyone starts gushing; a science fiction author borrows from literary fiction and people mostly shrug. Of course they want to sound like literary fiction, because they want to give readers the impression that this is an Important Book. And Important = Literary, obviously.

You know what that sounds awfully like? Colonialism. It sounds like cultural appropriation. It sounds like literary fiction is the white male default that gets rewarded for taking things from people who are considered outsiders.

One does not simply walk into literary fiction.

This is not to say that only white men write noteworthy pieces of literary fiction and everyone else writes genre. (Because, again: Toni Fucking Morrison.) But it does seem to parallel some of the dynamics in the publishing world that we’ve all been talking about lately. A white man can write a book about a black woman and people will call it brave and universal; the same book from a black woman would be dismissed as a niche interest and thinly-veiled autobiography. Similarly, a literary author can write a book about zombies and everyone finds it new and exciting; meanwhile, horror and sci-fi authors have been writing about zombies for years—often quite well. Guess which one will end up on the cover of Time or being interviewed by McSweeney’s?

What I’m saying here is: privilege needs to be checked. Even literary privilege, as nebulous as such a thing might be.

Let me take one last lengthy quote from the discussion with Benjamin Percy:

“If look at the best of literary fiction,” he told me, “you see three-dimensional characters, you see exquisite sentences, you see glowing metaphors. But if you look at the worst of literary fiction, you see that nothing happens. Somebody takes a sip of tea, looks out the window at a bank of roiling clouds and has an epiphany.”

Genre fiction, by itself, can be just as fallible.

“In the worst of genre fiction, you see hollow characters, you see transparent prose, you see the same themes and archetypes occurring from book to book. If you look at the best of genre fiction, you see this incredible desire to discover what happens next.”

“So what I’m trying to do is get back in touch with that time of my life when I was reading genre, and turning the pages so quickly they made a breeze on my face. I’m trying to take the best of what I’ve learned from literary fiction and apply it to the best of genre fiction, to make a kind of hybridized animal.”

That “hybridized animal” is called a good book, and it will be a good book no matter where in the store it is shelved.

Look, I’m not saying we have to discard the distinction between literary and genre fiction, because that can be useful. Literary seems to be code for well-crafted prose, and genre can be boiled down to a well-built plot. Do I really need to tell you that good books should have both? But I think, and Mr. Percy seems to agree, that those labels can be about something other than importance: they can be about the reader’s priorities. Readers interested in solid plots end up in romance, mystery, and sci-fi; readers who are looking for greater attention to voice and style might gravitate more toward the literary fiction shelves. And the reason bookstore people can argue about where to put authors like Kurt Vonnegut and Mary Shelley is that they fit in both sections.

And as long as we remember not to make one of those categories higher than the other, I think we’ll be fine.

I’m ready for my Time cover now.

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2 thoughts on “On Good Books And Literary Privilege

  1. Yes, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of the “discounted” authors are women! I agree that the division is a useful way to shelve a bookstore (frankly, I don’t want to read literary fiction, I don’t usually enjoy it nearly as much as my genre stuff) but let’s not pretend people don’t apply it completely arbitrarily and then act as if it’s somehow a description of which is “better.”

    I’m glad sci-fi and fantasy are everywhere these days, but looking down on genre in an article that is supposed to show that genre tropes are hip right now (which, did you really need an article to prove that? Just look at a TV guide or a bookstore)…classy move. Plus ca change…

  2. I also noticed that he overlooked the romance genre entirely. But then, romance plotlines have always been welcome in literary fiction, assuming you don’t have the bad taste to end them happily.

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