The Genre Gap

In this glowing age of equality us literati still happily overlook one of the more entrenched and obstructive ideological discriminations that, if we’re honest, is now largely irrelevant: the cold war between literary and genre fiction.

It is a strange war indeed, a war waged most enthusiastically by certain mass-media critics, awards juries and pseudo-intellectuals, clans seemingly ignorant of the fact that the rest of the world has moved on without them. In reality, the strangely-evolved notion that internal monologuing and odd pronouns are superior in some way to an active plot is beginning to lose traction.

100421FranckenIIThis notion of superiority evolved out of the world’s rebound from the Modernist period, as we trundled through the mid-20th century and mass-market paperbacks became a mode of dissemination and academia dug it’s fingernails into Joyce and Faulkner. One could argue that the publication of Ulysses was tantamount to the commencement of an arms race between the literaries and the hacks.

I myself am a bachelor of literature. I have read Ulysses cover-to-cover (an alarming life-achievement). Hemingway, Dostoyevsky and Pynchon are among my favourite authors. I appreciate a well-strung sentence and a verbose description of madeleine cakes as much as the next snob. I believe in the art of experimental framing, the poetry of precise imagery and the power of lyrical cynicism.

However I do not consider the writers of such to be superior to genre authors simply based on a legalistic classification.

You see, the truth is much more straightforward: some writers are simply good and some are simply bad.

Unfortunately many bad writers are writing genre fiction, which has given genre an unjustly bad aroma of clunky prose. But, in much the same way, plenty of bad writers are also writing ‘literary’ fiction.

Not so long ago I stumbled across a marvellous and highly controversial dissertation from the well-known journalist B.R. Myers, in which he holds vehemently forth on this exact issue. His perspective is rather traditional, mainly in that he despairs of the plight of contemporary literature exclusively, but in doing so he highlights some of the greatest cons of modern literary pretension:

More than half a century ago popular storytellers like Christopher Isherwood and Somerset Maugham were ranked among the finest novelists of their time, and were considered no less literary, in their own way, than Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be “genre fiction”—at best an excellent “read” or a “page turner,” but never literature with a capital L.

[…] Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand, is now considered to be “literary fiction”—not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance.

What once may have been a useful designation for the purposes of academic study in the mid-20th century is now as obsolete as the floppy disk.

He goes on to explain:

The dualism of literary versus genre has all but routed the old trinity of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, which was always invoked tongue-in-cheek anyway. Writers who would once have been called middlebrow are now assigned, depending solely on their degree of verbal affectation, to either the literary or the genre camp. David Guterson is thus granted Serious Writer status for having buried a murder mystery under sonorous tautologies (Snow Falling on Cedars, 1994), while Stephen King, whose Bag of Bones (1998) is a more intellectual but less pretentious novel, is still considered to be just a very talented genre storyteller.

Is it possible that Stephen King is more ‘intellectual’ than David Guterson? Quite.

SnowFallingOnCedarsThe distinction between literary and genre writing is no longer necessary. Our entertainment has evolved, like our audience, to the point where literary fiction is now itself a genre, not a ruling class as many ‘highbrow’ reviewers would still have you believe.

I direct your attention to the screen arts. Here is a medium that has far overtaken literature as a means of popular entertainment (gasp!), partly because of the responsiveness of screen artists to the demands of widening opinion. Much of that comes down to a bottom-line matter (by comparison no author these days will be a millionaire unless their work becomes a movie franchise) but people tend to put their money where their mouth is so perhaps it’s worth a thought in this discussion.

220px-BagofbonesIn film twenty years ago the gulf between ‘blockbuster’ (genre) and ‘indie’ (literary) was vast and easily depicted: one mindless, crowd-pleasing and action-packed, the other thought-provoking, character-driven and (possibly) meaningful. But directors and producers have since become wise to the fact that audiences themselves are becoming wiser, more discriminate and better educated. In response they’ve invented a whole new class of filmentertainment that manages to span the genre gulf: films that are both thoughtful and active, both character and plot-driven, both smart and entertaining.

And why not? Why can’t we admit that perhaps we are no longer the hallowed few, the only beings on earth guarding the keys to taste, intelligence and sophistication? Why can’t we admit that people are getting smarter? That perhaps they want their insightful discourse on humanity with a touch of action? Or their tightly-woven plot framed with beautiful prose?

Are we afraid that we’re not up to the challenge?

In 2009 The Guardian unwittingly (or perhaps very wittingly) shed light on this disparity between what readers (intelligent readers) actually enjoy and what the critics think they should enjoy when they published this article asking people to comment on the decade’s worst books.

Expecting, no doubt, to see a flurry of finger-pointing at the Dan Brown’s and Stephanie Meyers’s of the writing world, the result was actually quite startling. Many of the 875 comments named awards-listed books, Cloud Atlas and White Teeth among them, and others listed widely acclaimed novels such as Kite Runner and The Falling Man.

No one, however, was prepared for the particular quality and quantity of rage that generated around Ian McEwan. Commenter StuartEvers summed it up nicely:

StuartEvers 8 Dec 2009 21:54
In a shit -soaked field of its own is Saturday by Ian McEwan.
It has it all: smug, self-satisfied and completely unrealistic characters, tediously over-written “research”, plot holes you could drive both Branson’s spaceship and his ego through, quasi political noodling (isn’t it lucky that the central character knows an Iraqi?) and an ending so ludicrous it’s hard not to be personally affronted. Oh and a squash match! A bloody squash match!
On Chesil Beach was at least short and provided a good joke on Peep Show.

The ‘noodling’ alone makes me wonder if Mr Evers himself might write a better novel than McEwan.

I declare it’s time for our self-important gatekeepers to emerge from out of the dark age and embrace the new literary rainbow. It is possible for a work of fantasy to win the Booker Prize, according to Salman Rushdie. It is possible for an author to be ‘good’ without writing literary fiction, declares Stephen King. It is also just as likely that a writer can be ‘bad’ while trying to be literary, thank you Ian McEwan.

Myers sums up with a concluding anecdote in his trademark candour:

At the 1999 National Book Awards ceremony Oprah Winfrey told of calling Toni Morrison to say that she had had to puzzle over many of the latter’s sentences. According to Oprah, Morrison’s reply was “That, my dear, is called reading.” Sorry, my dear Toni, but it’s actually called bad writing. Great prose isn’t always easy, but it’s always lucid.

It’s time to move into the future, people, hand in hand with the rest of the world in declaring once and for all peace between literary and genre fiction; that all writers should be held to the same standards of good writing regardless of the affectation of their prose.

Equality for all.

 

Elise Janes

The (Super)Hero’s Journey

(Or, what we can learn from the rise of the caped avenger)

superhero picThe hero, it seems, will never die. From the ancient empire-creating adventures of Odysseus to the poetic quests of Sir Gawain, masterpieces that have truly stood the test of time have been tantalisingly heroic. Why? People like them.

Fast-forward a millennium or two and the narrative world is overrun with neon spandex and flying shields. Almost forty superhero blockbusters have been released since 2000. One has even made it into the top ten most popular movies of all time (according to the IMDb). Guardians of the Galaxy is already at 8.5 (at time of print) placing it on the same rung as Taxi Driver, American Beauty, even Citizen Kane. And this is a movie that features Bradley Cooper (two-time Oscar nominee) as a talking raccoon.

A talking raccoon.

Let’s not get into a debate about what is literary and what is not, and the fact that movies are a visual medium so of course everything with flash-bangs is going to be popular. And before you roll your eyes and go on about the difference between quality cinema and blockbuster material, and how you yourself have never even seen Spider-Man (the first or the second or the third, or the remake or the sequel of the remake), consider what the facts are telling us: people like them.

So a superhero movie has never been listed on the AFI’s Top 100, or taught in any serious cinema course, or even won an Oscar for anything besides technical production (except for Heath Ledger, but come on, he was astounding) but that doesn’t mean we, serious people who read Booker-prize-winning novels, can’t learn us a lesson or two about What People Want From Their Stories…

  1. A hero. Simple. A guy or girl who is strong or tough or can do awesome shit, and will pretty much save the entire known universe. Probably in New York City.
  1. A vulnerable lead. One with flaws and a past and tough, personal choices to make (italics necessary). Self-doubt is the key. A tragic orphaned upbringing? Great! If they have to sacrifice their greatest love/best friend/mentor/home planet or even a limb in the course of true justice, even better!
  1. Crazy, made-up shit (as long as it’s justified (or sometimes even if it’s not)). People love it. They love stupidly-named planets and weird teleport gateways, and bizarre fighting implements. They love flying submarine-ships, rocket-powered suits, web-swingers, or guys who can just plain fly (of course he can fly, he’s from Krypton!). They love alternate universes, mythological gods, magic crystals and glowing blue cubes of whatever-the-hell-that-is. The weirder, the better. Our audience may be getting more sophisticated, but they’ll never be too sophisticated for crazy, made-up shit.
  1. A good villain. Gone are the days when the bad guy is just a two-dimensional bad guy bad guy (or girl). No, no, no. There must be a reason. They must be vengeful, or misunderstood, or mistreated, or horribly disillusioned, or just plain unfortunate. Or played by Tom Hiddleston. That helps.
  1. A kick-ass supporting cast, not just a sidekick anymore. The funny-guy is mandatory. It’s even better if they can all crack a joke at some point. A range of genders, ethnic backgrounds, fighting abilities, and/or species is appreciated. The quasi-mentor who the audience gets attached to and then dies is always a winner (hey, you can always bring him back in the TV series).
  1. A dark ending. Is the hero dead? Did the bad guy win? Is our world destroyed? Is all hope really lost? Think The Empire Strikes Back, then add some more budget.
  1. Intertextuality and framed narratives (now we’re getting there, lit nerds). What’s better than one superhero? More superheroes! Get them together and let them push each other’s buttons. Develop a bromance or two. Run out of ideas? Write it again, only different! Create entire histories that no-one cared about before. Let worlds collide. There’s nothing a character-loving audience likes better than you exploring their what-ifs for them.
  1. A never-ending chain-link of narrative hooks. Damn you, black screen chapter-break, I want to know what happens next! How could they possibly resolve this terrible situation when there’s only ten minutes left?! No, that can’t be the end! What if that is the end? Surely there will be another sequel! Who was that guy we saw at the end of the credits? Who the heck was that? Tell us!
  1. Themes, themes, give us righteous themes! Good vs evil. Power vs sacrifice. Pride vs humility. The big guy vs the underdog. Forgive yourself! Let go of the past! Work as a team! Please, just teach us something about the nature of humanity.

A closing thought. James Joyce (arguably the best novelist who ever lived) based his masterpiece Ulysses on the heroic epic that started them all: The Odyssey. If he were alive today he might be tempted to write an indecipherable, genre-mash-up, satirical epic based on the formative years of Rocket Raccoon. Well, you never know.

And if it’s good enough for him? Well, then it’s good enough for you.

Elise Janes