Thursday, January 12, 2012

Genre fiction revisited

I like to think I'm man enough to admit when I'm wrong. Pride is the deadliest of the Deadly Sins. Ask any Catholic. And nothing will ruin one's credibility faster than defending an erroneous position, not out of conviction, but out of pride.

Therefore, today, I retract my previous post, entitled "The problem with genre fiction." Two respected friends, Dave Hauth and Dan Binmore (the Hopeful Muser) have made me see the error of my ways.  Here's what I wrote previously:
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.
Here's why what I wrote is wrong:

As Hopeful Muser pointed out, many of today's "classics" were, at the time of their publication, genre fiction.  Muser cited Charles Dickens as his prime example.  Dickens' novels were published serially in weekly journals.  And, as anyone who has read A Tale of Two Cities or Oliver Twist or David Copperfield can attest, these novels served to indict contemporary social policy and to advocate reform.  In a certain light, those works would qualify not just as genre fiction, but out-and-out propaganda!  Nonetheless, the longevity of those novels stands as evidence of their literary worthiness.

Dave Hauth hoisted me upon my own petard by recalling a conversation he and I had about Alan Moore's Watchmen.  He reminded me that I had declared that work a great literary achievement and then pointed out that there is nothing that more conforms to a specific genre than a graphic novel about superheroes.  Dave further pointed out that I was comparing the vast sea of shlock that gets published nowadays to known classics like War and Peace, For Whom the Bell Tolls, or (gasp!) Shakespeare rather than comparing it to other less worthy works from those times; works that have faded to obscurity.

Right on all counts, gentlemen.  I humbly stand corrected. 

As pennance I offer up some of my favorite passages from those great works you've mentioned.

How about the lyrical opening of A Tale of Two Cities, that recalls Ecclesiastes 3:1?
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. 
Or how about the words that super-being Dr. Manhattan uses when he confronts Adrian Veidt, the arch-villain in Watchmen?
I'm disappointed in you, Adrian. I'm very disappointed. Reassembling myself was the first trick I learned. It didn't kill Osterman. Did you really think it would kill me? I have walked across the surface of the sun. I have witnessed events so tiny and so fast, they could hardly be said to have occurred at all. But you, Adrian, you're just a man. The world's smartest man poses no more threat to me than does its smartest termite.
I'm grateful to have such smart friends.  (And I still stand by that bit about Lev Grossman.)

1 comment:

Dan said...

Right back at you Dade.  I actually started preparing  an entire response on my blog but considered it piling on, and I have been more watchful of automatically arguing.  You made me think, and here's what I think is literature now, a well written book that addresses the human condition by making us feel genuine emotions that we, the reader, couldn't otherwise describe, and without giving the simple answers that don't exist in reality.

I have also said that the greatest intellectual achievement is admitting that you were wrong, and it isn't really wrong when it's a question of semantics.