Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On Tribe

Oy, out there. Oy, I say!

I get, I really do get, that it's human nature for people to put up totems, to define themselves as one group, to mark everybody else as outside people, and to loudly proclaim how it's the inside people who are the best and the rightest. It's tantalizing to belong, to feel special, to have a sense of an order in which the things you associate with yourself are of central importance.

But really, relax and get to know your neighbor. It's totally worth it.

So I got to see the Circle Jerks play at one point. It was, all in all, a pretty good show, but I was struck especially at one point when Keith Morris, in between songs, urged the people who had come to see his show to look around the whole festival, and not discount the techno and house stuff, because some of it was really cool, cutting edge music. He actually had people boo back at him.

I get liking something, and wanting something more of what you like. There's absolutely no evil in that. I think the problem is when we start to define ourselves as Spaceship and Explosion people, or Dragon and Elf people, or Only in the New Yorker people. I hear genre folk talk about literary fiction like Jane Austen is hiding under their bed ready to strangle them if they put down their light saber. I read people over and over again talking about the defining differences between the way literary and genre fiction writers think (and when you provide counter examples like "what about Kafka?" or "have you read Gene Wolfe?" mostly they blink at you and go "well I haven't read that one specifically").

I am infinitely richer as a reader and a writer for having read Nabokov, Austen, Tolstoy, Faulkner, and Hemmingway, and I consider myself a pretty straight genre person. It's not something to be afraid of. These guys aren't some tribe from over the mountain that sacrifices to strange unholy idols and has a blood feud with your people. They're more like the aunts and uncles you don't talk to enough. Go and say hi.

Seriously, guys. It's okay. Take off the war paint and put down the standards for a bit. Make a fruit basket and go say hello. I bet you'll be glad you did.


  1. I've been reading John Gardner's "Art of Fiction" lately, which is basically a book full of him, a university-based creative writing teacher, waxing philosophical on what makes great stories and how it can be learned. So far his thesis seems to be that deep, loving research into what has come before and understanding and building on that is the key to truly stunning, lasting fiction. As a result, he considers cross-genre fiction--blending the appeal and technique of more than one tradition--to be the highest art form.

  2. In my (admittedly limited) experience, genre fiction's self-segregation is the predictable result of being thumbed in the eye by the literary types for countless years. If we were sneeches on the beaches, the literary fans would be talking about how their stars made them the cool ones.

    Your point has merit, as far as one side goes. Has any genre fiction buff - one of the "Only in the New Yorker" types - ever said they were richer for having read Tolkein, Heinlein, Clarke, or Asimov? I wonder....

  3. Gardner more or less did, or at least he doesn't seem to privilege academic-style literary fiction over similarly well-written fantasy and sci-fi. (He does at one point talk about "junk," by which he means derivative pulp novels, but that's a different thing.) He hasn't mentioned those four specifically yet, but he likes Calvino and Isak Dinesen.

    I also had an Old English literature professor who loved the shit out of Harry Potter and kept mock-pitching to us how he would teach a course on it. And one of my MFA profs was really into Japanese girls' comics like Revolutionary Girl Utena, Fruits Basket, and Sailor Moon.

  4. Then again, Gardner is the guy famous for rewriting Grendel from the other perspective, so it occurs to me too late that he's probably not the only-in-the-New-Yorker guy you're asking about. But the point about my professors still stands. A not-insubstantial chunk of people in my MFA program wrote their theses about werewolves and superheroes and post-apocalyptic Snow Crash-esque situations, and it was totally great. Nobody batted an eyelash.

    Heck, I'm a back-and-forth convert to the fantasy sphere myself. Was into all that typified sword and sorcery/space opera stuff in childhood. (Peter David's Star Trek novels were my drug of choice in middle school.) Then in high school and college I bought wholesale into the "all fantasy is imitative crap" thing, which came partially from my high school painting/drawing teacher and partially from the fact that that was all I had read of it up till then, so of course I assumed that's what it was all like. It took being plugged into places like fantasy-writers and its ilk to introduce me to the wider universe of what was available so I could revise my thoughts into something resembling a fully informed opinion. So, yes, I as a once nothing-but-the-New-Yorker girl would say I've been enriched. Certainly.

  5. Yeah, my experience has tended to be closer to Lauren's. The partner I used to have who was all about Proust also had wonderful things to say about Tolkien, and I managed to get him really excited about Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I've actually had way more genre people tell me that literary people look down on genre than I have had literary people tell me so. (Though I have had people who tend to be more literary readers really enjoy science fiction, but assume that's not really what science fiction is. My stepmother, for example, adores Margaret Atwood's science fiction, even though she tends to think of science fiction as more the rockets and spaceships stuff).

    Yeah, most literary people I know are fine with magic and spaceships.

  6. I do respect, however, that my experience is neither exhaustive nor all-inclusive, and I invite anyone who wants to share their own experiences with it.

  7. SciFi/Fantasy/Speculative fiction is the exception in the genre vs. literary wars. Do you know any literary types who adore Nora Roberts or Janet Evanovich or Clive Cussler or Dan Brown? Or do they label those author's works as hackneyed prose? On the blogs that I surf through, I see that more than anything else. One in particular despises Dan Brown. I've read his books; I have no idea why she hates his prose so much.

    The exception which comes to mind is 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' by Steig Larsson. One literary type who "never reads bestselling novels" because of the "hackneyed prose" broke down and read Dragon Tattoo and adored it. Funny thing is on another blog with about five thousand followers, the blogger talked about the book and about half of his followers who bought the book got halfway through it and stopped reading. It seemed to me that most of the comments were "Oh yeah, I got to point A and put the book down."

    When I read, I am totally immersed in the story that the author has written. So much that I don't notice how things are said or what literary devices are used. Rowling has been criticized for overusing adverbs. I have read and reread the Harry Potter books numerous times and I have yet to notice them. My enjoyment from reading comes from being able to immerse myself in a story. It's a different way of reading a book.

    Hackneyed prose or not, literary technique or not, if an author yanks me into their world and doesn't let me go, I'm a happy camper.

    And Lesli, you and Lion are the only two writers that I know who could write a literary novel that would yank me into the story and not let me go. There are probably others, I haven't met them yet.

  8. I admit, I've never heard anyone say anything positive about Dan Brown's prose. At best I've heard people be neutral.

    Now, I have known literary types who loved the bejeesus out of best selling authors like Stephen King, Kathryn Stockett, Michael Chrichton, Robert Ludlum, Ian Fleming, J.K. Rowling, Anne Rice, and Stieg Larsson (as you mentioned).

    So I guess my question here is: how are you defining Best selling fiction? Are you defining it just as things that sell well, or are you defining it specifically as the books literary types don't like? Because the second definition is kind of circular, is biased toward conflict (literary wars? really?), and puts the locus for defining the genre in the hands of a population that prefers not to read it.

    Also... I'm kind of getting that you're upset at literary types for writing off bestselling fiction before they read it (and gratified (?) when they're proved wrong with stuff like girl with the dragon tattoo), but you also just said that literary style doesn't matter to you one way or the other, but with two exceptions, you can't even imagine it being a satisfying reading experience?

    Also also (this one's for Jonathan too), assuming I'm totally wrong about everything here, and there are a bunch of spiteful, snobby people who get their jollies by sitting around eating fancy cheese and expressing cultured disdain for books you like... how does that obligate you not to like books they do? Does that in any way give you less right to read and form your own opinions on Steinbeck and Faulkner? I guess my point is, even if those people exist, fuck 'em, what do they have to do with y'all?

    1. I define bestselling authors as those who land have landed on Forbes List of Richest Authors. It also includes authors who regularly appear on The New York Times Bestseller list or the Publishers Weekly bestselling list.

      I do not define it based on what literary types tend to hate or bitch about. Though I tend to notice when they make snarky comments about books or authors that I enjoy reading. I think it's just sour grapes or jealousy on their part, because at the end of the day it takes some talent to write a novel that the general population enjoys reading.

      One of my literary heroes is Charles Dickens. He wrote a story that was popular at the time he wrote it and that opened society's eyes to how children were being treated. Which resulted in a change in society for the better. So there have been times when I am reading one of my favorite authors when I wish they would aim their talent at showing a social injustice. And that is where I think you could succeed.

      I published several short stories which I found compelling to read and which the author labeled literary fiction. The literary label doesn't get an automatic pass from me. I only have a sample size of one from those writers so I don't know if I can add them to my list of writers who could write compelling literary fiction.

      Furthermore, I have read and enjoyed classical literature. I've also read and found inscrutable some classical literature. I'm not sure where I implied that I had never read classical literature or that I hated it.

      The literary snobs disdain for the books I enjoy reading does not obligate me to dislike the books that they enjoy reading, but it is a good indicator that I won't enjoy reading those books. And that goes for anyone. If you don't enjoy reading the books that I enjoy reading, then you probably won't enjoy reading any book that I recommend.