Sunday, December 18, 2011

The problem with genre fiction

Recently, I've had conversations with self-described "science fiction" writers about the (rather lofty) subject of literature. 

I'm afraid I take a rather dim view of arguments that hold genre fiction to be literature.  I've raised a lot of hackles over the years, even amongst respected friends, by suggesting that any book that is ascribed a crass label like "fantasy," "science fiction," "romance," "thriller," or "what-have-you" cannot be literature.  Labels categorize.  They restrict.  Genre fiction, then, is confined by the label that identifies it.

Art, literature, cannot sustain such confinement and remain art.

For example, consider Professor Tolkien.  The sadly misguided Time columnist, Lev Grossman, referred to Tolkien as "the master of epic fantasy."  (Please refer to my previous post, George RR Martin: American Tolkien?)

Were Professor Tolkien alive today, I suggest he would have been puzzled by that appellation.  Professor Tolkien didn't set out to write a "fantasy" novel.  He created a mythos with a (very Catholic) morality and an examination of the nature of good and evil.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a by-product of his invention. 

With genre fiction, these purposes are reversed.  The prime objective of genre fiction is to tell a story that meets with certain criteria.  (Science fiction, for example, emphasizes technology, or futurology.  Fantasy involves the supernatural.  Mystery novels involve crime, and so on.)  Rather than examining truths or exploring eternal questions, genre fiction seeks merely to tell a story that falls within the parameters defined for it.

This is in no way meant to suggest that science fiction or fantasy or murder detective books are not worthwhile, skillfully written, or entertaining.  Who doesn't love a lark into a dragon-populated Disneyworld or a hyperspace leap across light years?  And writers like Frank Herbert, Roger Zelazny, or George RR Martin can certainly captivate and enthrall.  But these books are diversions, not literature.

Ezra Pound said “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”   So long as that single criterion is met, the setting can be anything:  a space ship in a far galaxy, a rat-infested back alley, or a grass hut on a beach.  What defines a work as literature is its examination of the universal human condition.

Reading good literature, we recognize truths.  We can't fail to recognize them, because they are eternal truths.  Eternal, and eternally worthy of examination, because they remain just beyond our comprehension.

At least, that's how I define great literature.

Okay, I'll get off the high horse now.

1 comment:

David said...

There are holes in your argument.  Using your criteria Shakespeare did not create great literature because he was writing to a target audience.  The same can be said of Dickens or Poe or Swift.  On the other hand, I distinctly recall a discussion in which you praised Alan Moore's "Watchmen" as great literature - and one can't get any more "genre" than the graphic novel. 

Your argument boils down to:  well-written fiction is better than poorly-written fiction, with you being the judge of what is well- or poorly-written.  This is simply personal preference.