literary fiction

Pretty Much Sums Up the Problem of "Literary" Fiction

In the New Inquiry (which is a wonderful online periodical), Rob Horning has an article that pretty much sums up the problem of "literary" fiction:

I don’t like the word literary. It seems to imply some particular formal characteristics, but that implication only allows the term to serve as an alibi for the status aspirations of the people who use it, who want to control its meaning. It’s a sort of social tautology that way. The literary is what literary people say it is, which is what makes them literary people.

What’s at stake in claiming something is literary is different from claiming that some book is good. What counts as literary is a moving target, but it’s not always moving in one direction. We are not making collective critical progress toward a better, more comprehensive understanding of what the literary sometimes pretends to be: an expression of the perfectibility of prose, of the ability to capture the truth in words and well-formed sentences. Instead, literariness is ruled by the laws of fashion; it changes merely to replenish its potency for those empowered to declare what is and isn’t literary. Fixating on what is literary actually denies for books the possibility of transcending fashion. To evoke a book’s literariness is to evoke its transience, not its staying power. It says, this book’s only relevant and lasting meaning rests in its capacity to signify the literary.

In other words, the term "literary fiction" is about status and not quality.

Read the whole thing, it's worth it if only for poking fun at John Updike's descriptions of sex.

Gene Roddenberry's Unfortunate Legacy; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate Star Trek

Netflix in their pursuit of continual appeasement of the great god Mammon has etched a deal with Paramount Pictures that allows them to stream all day all night all Star Trek all the time. And lo it did come to pass that the great multitude of Star Trek Nerds were pleased. I have taken this opportunity to, with no extra expenditure than I would otherwise make, finally sit down and engage with the franchise as a text. I can now say unequivocally that it is without a doubt every bit as stupid as I always assumed it was, but I have nevertheless made some discoveries about it that I think have wider cultural implications that can be profitably unpacked.

I should note that I elected to watch the series in the chronological order internal to the franchise. I began with Star Trek:Enterprise, followed by 2009 Star Trek prequel/reboot, then watched the 60's Star Trek, then the Motion Pictures featuring the original cast, then Star Trek: The Next Generation, and finally Voyager (Deep Space Nine is not yet available on netflix as of this writing) flipping back and forth between them interspersed with the feature films with the Next Generation cast until Voyager gradually, finally, mercifully ground to an ignominious halt. In all of this, I find very little that is of any value, the Wrath of Khan and the interesting treatment of the "Mirror Universe" being the most notable exceptions. Of all of these particular cash cows, however, the one that I think is most consistently my favorite is the truly abhorrent Star Trek: Enterprise.

Why I'm Not Worried About Academic Laurels or the Death of Mainstream Book Reviews

Back when I was Literary Fiction guy, I had a conversation about books with a girl I knew who was, if not exactly well-read, did certainly read books regularly. In the course of the conversation I mentioned Don Delillo and Dave Eggars, and she referred to them off-handedly as "people no one had ever heard of." It was at that point I realized how thoroughly we lived in different worlds.

I had a similar moment recently at my job at comiXology, when Jake, who does a weekly comics podcast, mentioned that he might have George RR Martin on as a guest and asked me if that was a big deal. There's this assumption that comics and science fiction are part of the same "geek" world (as if geeks are some monolithic entity), but Jake is extremely well-read in comics didn't have any sense of the scale of one of the best-selling authors in the world right now.

But then, I should hardly feel cocky for having heard of Delillo, Eggars and Martin. After all, according to Wikipedia, the top five bestselling fiction authors of all time are, in order, William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Barbara Cartland, Harold Robbins, and Georges Simenon. Shakespeare and Christie are recognizable enough, but before looking this up I could not have told you for the world who those last three names belonged to. Apparently, Cartland wrote romance novels, Robbins wrote adventure fiction, and Simenon wrote detective stories. How is it that I, someone for whom books are practically a lifestyle, has not even heard of three of the five best-selling writers of all time? Imagine how absurd it would be if I were a film buff who had not heard of three of the five top-grossing film directors of all time?

Kelly Link, Pynchon, Moorcock and Genre

In a recent interview with Bat Segundo, Kelly Link offers some interesting comments about genre labels. She says that she feels like the term "Literary Fiction" turns off lots of people, and she prefers to call what she writes "Science Fiction:" "People who are turned off by the term 'Science Fiction' probably aren't the people I want reading my work, anyway." Which struck me as strange, since so much of what Link does is exactly what I think of as "Literary Fiction." Then again, a friend of mine once pointed out that Literary Fiction is a redundant term, and one wonders if it really means anything at all. Longtime Science Fiction and Fantasy author Michael Moorcock recently wrote a fascinating review of Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day, where, in a blistering litany of names and terms, he puts Pynchon in a linage that includes Brian Aldiss, William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard and Kurt Vonnegut. And perhaps Moorcock is right, and my own analysis that science fiction started growing up in the eighties is off by at least 20 years. If Neal Stephenson can call The Baroque Cycle Science Fiction then maybe there is no reason that we can't call Pynchon that too, and indeed his work may share more in common with Moorcock's own then it does with "Literary Fiction" stalwarts from Hemingway to Updike to Joyce Carol Oates.

However, if Link is right that it's the term "Literary Fiction" that turns people off, then someone like Pynchon would sell more as a Science Fiction writer, and I'm not sure that's the case. A lot of the Science Fiction fans I've met seem put off by anything remotely difficult, and I recall J.F. Quackenbush telling me about the time he went to a Science Fiction convention and a group of authors on a panel all agreed that writers shouldn't use big words. This kind of thing, and the Star Trek-type imprimatur I talked about in my earlier article, are what turns people off Science Fiction, and I can't help but feel like Link's own defensiveness about the value of her chosen genre (and, more importantly, I think, of the community she identifies with) results in a kind of reverse snobbery. Yes, Moorcock and Link are right; there are many works labeled Science Fiction that are really great, and besides, there's nothing wrong with a rip roaring good story (I am, in fact, in favor of those). Further, I really like lots of work that's labeled "Science Fiction." Further still, I respect the decision of people like Link, Stephenson and China Mieville who could declare themselves "Literary Fiction" writers and get out of the perceived "ghetto" of Sci Fi and Fantasy but don't on principle. The fact remains that I get very turned off by so much "genre" writing that reads like rapidly produced hack-work, and am reassured that even the least of the "Literary Fiction" crowd spend a good deal of time refining their craft and style in a way that just can't be said by the run-of-the-mill "genre" author, whose writing is often laughably bad. Which leaves me torn, because on the one hand I want to believe that's it's great to say "Yeah, stick it to those uppity snobs, Science Fiction and proud of it," and on the other hand I have trouble accepting the idea that labeling your work Science Fiction is in any way an improvement over labeling it Literary Fiction.

Ultimately though, it's a bad situation all around. I've certainly met people from the Literary crowd with an irrational dislike of Science Fiction, and vice versa with people from the Science Fiction crowd (as well as those of various other genres). There are, in fact, lots and lots of readers who will only voluntarily read one genre, voluntarily pigeon-holing themselves. So the whole thing becomes silly, a situation which I suspect is the product of the way bookstores started shelving things in the last hundred years or so that's taken on an unfortunate life of its own. Thus turning one's nose up at Literary Fiction makes as little sense as turning it up at Science Fiction, and I can't help but wish that Link's attitude towards Literary Fiction was a little more forgiving.