Metapost: On Genre and Storytelling

I warned you I’d start doing this more. Proceed at your own risk.

Over on my twitter feed, I got a little excited about the Lev Grossman article in response to Arthur Krystal’s article in the New Yorker (unlinked, as you have to pay to read) about genre fiction and traditional literary fiction. I debated putting those terms in quotations.

Before I even finished the article, I had to google one of the books in the lead image that I hadn’t heard of, Zone One, by Colson Whitehead, which led me to this review by Glen Duncan.

It begins:

A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star. It invites forgivable prurience: What is that relationshiplike? Granted the intellectual’s hit hanky-panky pay dirt, but what’s in it for the porn star? Conversation? Ideas? Deconstruction?

So, genre fiction: pornography, literary fiction: intellectualism. Got it. Then I read this part:

 I can see the disgruntled reviews on Amazon already: “I don’t get it. This book’s supposed to be about zombies, but the author spends pages and pages talking about all this other stuff I’m not interested in.” Broad-spectrum marketing will attract readers for whom having to look up “cathected” or “brisant” isn’t just an irritant but a moral affront. These readers will huff and writhe and swear their way through (if they make it through) and feel betrayed and outraged and migrained. But unless they’re entirely beyond the beguilements of art they will also feel fruitfully disturbed, because “Zone One” will have forced them, whether they signed up for it or not, to see the strangeness of the familiar and the familiarity of the strange.

And got a little angry. I’m assuming because you’re here, reading this blog post, that you are a fan of horror. I hope this makes you angry too. Duncan assumes that no horror novel previously has dared touch on human issues of any real import, and only now, that a literary author has slummed it in the genre world, will your tiny minds be opened. If you can be bothered to look up all those big words.

Bullshit. Bullshit of the most perniciously supercilious kind.

To be fair, I did have to look up those last two words.

Stories are stories! I tweeted in irritation, (unaware that Lev used the exact same phrase). While the constructing elements can be chopped up, analyzed, set in an arbitrary intellectual hierarchy, those are all accomplished after the telling and the hearing of the story. Before that critical autopsy, it’s just a story. And it still amounts to little more than pretense & marketing. Genre classification has more to do with the perceived audience and shelf organization at Barnes and Nobles than it does about artistic merit or worth.

To a certain extent, classification and ranking is an understandable part of the human experience. Basing your self worth, and the objective merit of others on those activities is not. When I was a film student, I made some embarrassing distinction between a “film” and a “movie”, with regards to art and worth. This was at the same time that I was working in a now-defunct book and music store, and wondering why some albums were classified as “rock” and others as “country” despite sounding the same. This is precisely why I am no longer interested in defining what is or isn’t art.

All classifications, all breakdowns, are subjective and personal.

The benefit of these breakdowns is that we can self select our pursuit of leisure. I like this certain sort of music, so I will look in this section. I like this sort of story, so I will look on this shelf. This distinction begins to breakdown as brick and mortar stores contrast with online retailers. On Amazon, the science fiction shelf is not physically removed from the Fiction shelf. All shelves are cross referenced one atop the other. It becomes the onus of the consumer to do a little more research to find what you like.

Certainly some stories have different ambitions or intellectual goals, but that’s determined by the author, not what shelf it sits on. Where do you think Borders filed “The Sirens of Titan” or “A Clockwork Orange”? To a certain extent, we’re all aware these classifications are an artifice, but it’s still odd to see people define the merit of a book by it’s physical location, and to completely ignore the contradictions and absurdity of that spatial breakdown

Tension, terror, mystery and awe are about as lofty as my goals get, and sometimes just one of them. Not because I write genre, but because that’s what I want to write. I’m unlike to ever be considered a literary author. Not because I think what I write is worthless or stupid (I do of course, like all good authors, have a low opinion of my work most of the time) but because my ambitions are simple. I want to tell a good story. I want to scare you, and myself doing so. I want you to think about it afterwards. I’m not looking to lay bare the human condition anytime soon.

Many great writers are, and you’ll find them on every single shelf.

You’ll also find shit, on every single shelf. Sturgeon’s Law is in effect on both sides of the divide.

The perceived quality divide between genre and literary fiction is mostly misconception, and part self fulfilling prophecy. Certainly some readers, writers, publishers wall themselves into the genre ghetto, producing or consuming lower quality work simply because it can sell. But this an artifice of sales and business and capitalism, not the true worth of the entire genre. Whether or not it’s got zombies or big words. Or god forbid, both.

What matters is the story, and if it resonates with you emotionally. As Justin Cornille succinctly said: “There is no medium or genre that necessarily precludes quality storytelling.”

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that the stories you like aren’t important, or aren’t art, or are just word porn. Certainly, let them suggest a book to you, try reading books from every shelf, but only if they’ll do the same.

Have you read Lev’s article yet? You totally should.


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