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Thursday, August 20, 2009

On genre fiction, or at least that's how this began

This is all fun to read at Elisa's blog.

I started this as a comment but it got too long. I have not yet read the posts at HTML Giant.


I like a lot of genre fiction (& movies).

For instance, Peter Straub is really excellent (just read The Throat and now am going back to do Koko and Mystery (which both come before The Throat, whoops)--these are murder mysteries, not his horror stuff, though I've liked those too, the ones I've read. Straub is a poet himself and has dedicated books to Ann Lauterbach and Charles Bernstein; he also drops in lots of nerdtastic jazz, art, and fashion miscellanea.) Are my parens all closed? OK.

I began reading adult horror and scifi novels in 4th grade when I ran out of Nancy Drews and Oz series novels, so I get where Matt sits w/ the Star Treks, but it's not just nostalgia or anything. Actually, I still read young adult junk, but never ever the realist stuff (which often seems so didactic or patronizing it just makes me sad to look at and wow are the covers ugly).

Like Reen I also loved Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell though it's more like what Jeff means by lit-w/genre elms, a shelf in which I'd include oh say Jeffrey Ford, Steve Erickson, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, and some Le Guin, etc. As for swords, I just read the whole Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin (WIZARDS!!! DRAGONS!!! AWESOME!!!) and I'm an alt-reality-with-plenty-of-aliens Octavia Butler fan. I pretty regularly read crime stuff, scifi (Gibson/Dick area, no space wars I'm with you there, Elisa) and psychological thrillers, even read true crimes sometimes. But I also read "experimental" and "literary" fiction.

Books with any of these shelf tags can range from shitty to stellar--I guess that's pretty obvious to say.

Admitting: I do not read romance. I have not tried in quite some time (jr. high perhaps, when my step-gran's books were lying around looking all irresistibly erotic, but pretty much all pissed me off in the end with unimaginatively stifling female roles). Has that changed? Please recommend if you know any good contemporaries, but doesn't Nora Roberts just lift whole sections out of other people's romances and nobody really notices for a while? And WTF genre does V. C. Andrews count as?


Maybe I have the opposite bias. Because I really can't stand a lot of what passes as "literary fiction" anymore, if it's that white-guy-on-a-downward-spiral kind of thing (ew, Updike's Rabbit ad Nauseum, or what Jim Harrison called at lunch once "nifty men at loose ends") or wife-recovers-from-husband's-affair-by-traveling-the-world-or-at-least-France formula (uh, a genre?). I almost require a magical creature or serial killer or feisty female detective or alien lover to relieve that sort of tedium. David Foster Wallace's absurdity will also do very well, thank you.

A lot of literary fictioneers seem more interested in "good prose" than plot or characters. Perhaps it's passe to enjoy plot and character, but I give not a fuck on that score, y'all. Genre fiction seems to favor the inverse: plot and character over "literary craft"--that's a key difference maybe? But there's now a generic idea of "good prose" that seems to translate to "serviceable but inoffensive." I'd so much rather be offended please; do go all McCarthy with the native tongue, you can't hurt it, it springs right back and we all might get lucky. I just don't want to be bored inside a book. There's a special hell for authors of meticulous craft but insipid imagination. Somehow when even when a genre book is bad I feel more inclined to forgive it, because it more than likely can at least be distilled into an entertaining summary & the movie will probably kick ass.

To be clear: I adore a really great sentence. Sometimes I swoon. But that by itself is not enough, nor is it even most important to me as a reader. I'm really fond of straight up "literary fiction" when it's good, and if it swings genreward like Thomas Kelly (Empire Rising, Payback, and The Rackets) or Jess Walter (uh, his new book is called The Financial Lives of the Poets? Sept 22 will find me in line at the bookstore) I'll stick my nose in it gleefully.

Gosh, I'm opinionated.

But Shakespeare (like Reen says too) and stuff like Don Quixote feel just like the good genre stuff to me, really.

Nowhere in this post do I say or intend to imply that writers of ___ are "worse" "craftspeople" than writers of ___. I am indeed grossly generalizing to repeat the conventional split along the plot/language line, and I am indeed sort of saying that if there must be a split, which I really would prefer there not be, I'll take the conventions generally associated with genre. It's so much fun to talk out of one's ass!

I haven't typed this many paragraphs outside the office in approximately 3 weeks. Now that I have, I realize this post could be retrofitted with a few tweaks to explain my preference for, say, Flarf or Jennifer L. Knox or Danielle Pafunda over poems about a guy at his kitchen table thinking about a conversation he once had with a squirrel he nearly hit with his ex-wife's aging father's orange Volvo (so vivid!) or gauzy phrasal drifts scattered in just the right magical configuration to allow "the reader to supply her own meaning."

And to be clear: I have nothing against orange Volvos or white space either.

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