Unsolving the Genre Problem

NBCC Panel on Merging Genres:
Peter Straub, Robert Polito, Geoffrey O’Brien, Lev Grossman

There was a panel discussion on Friday September 12, in New York City at the New School, sponsored by the National Book Critic’s Circle, entitled Merging Genres. Peter Straub, prolific multiple Bram Stoker award winning author and editor of Poe’s Children: The New Horror, just out from Doubleday, and of the Library of America’s H.P. Lovecraft: Tales, was the moderator. The panelists were Lev Grossman, book editor at Time magazine; Geoffrey O’Brien, poet, editor in chief of Library of America, and frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books; Robert Polito, editor of the Library of America editions, Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 1940s and Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, and director of the Graduate Writing Program at the New School.

Theresa DeLucci—only a month back to Tor after Clarion West in Seattle—and I went to listen. Straub, who is a passionate supporter of genre merging, and has done some himself in his works, was an enthusiastic and articulate moderator, and happy in the end to be a genre writer. Each of them read provocative and often enlightening opening statements on genres and literature, from widely differing approaches. The panelists, while agreeing that real literary writers were working with genre materials today, and that some exceptional genre writers were even real literary writers, separated two to one—Polito and O’Brien versus Grossman—on the proposition that this was anything new and different, and that any substantial number of genre texts or genre writers were deserving of serious attention. Grossman attempted to present the Modernist separation between high art and the rest, especially genre, as an important barrier to the acceptance of genre, now in the process of being dismantled, while the others argued passionately that James Joyce was perhaps the archetypal mixer of genres, and that it was incorrect to say that Modernism did not in some way encompass genre and merge genres.

In the end, I was disturbed that such a fine assemblage of knowledgeable people needed to keep the discourse focused on what we would surely have to call high art, and to appropriate, for instance, Jim Thompson and David Goodis as late Modernists. This is way too close to the old tactic of saying that, say, Ray Bradbury isn’t really a genre writer, he’s too good for that. You can all, I am sure, insert other names for Bradbury with equal justice. And that comes down to a covert way of saying genre literature, itself, is worthless, and only redeemed by incorporation into higher literary texts. I think that is what a couple of them were in fact saying by implication.

Dashiell Hammett’s work in Black Mask, the great detective pulp magazine, may have been read by Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, but it sure wasn’t published as theirs was, nor accorded the same level of respect. In 1963 I met the first person ever allowed to write a doctoral dissertation on Hammett, permission granted only after an academic battle. And mystery and detective fiction, as the saying goes, was the popular entertainment of the Modernists. That dissertation was the beginning of a change in literary attitudes, not a great leap forward. It seems to me that we are going to have to wait until the generation educated in literature up to the 1960s all retires, in another decade or two, before we can overcome those anti-genre attitudes. The touchstone will be if and when a genre work is allowed to be literature and remain genre. We aren’t there yet. And it will continue to be a blight on the works in genre that we love, and their authors, until we get there.

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