Sep 16 2008 4:28pm

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.

Felicity Shoulders
1. Felicity
Thanks for posting this. This debate has been dear to my heart since a high school English teacher (who got his undergrad degree in 1993) told me "Sci-fi isn't literature," and then used the same circular logic you cite about Bradbury to dismiss every piece of dystopian lit and even Inkling fantasy that I proposed. 1984 isn't sci-fi, he maintained, because it's good, so it's literature. And sci-fi isn't literature. Arrgh.

Perhaps we can't wait for all those who think that way to retire, but if we keep forcing them to consider 'literary' fiction as being a genre with its own conventions, and authors like Kelly Link keep being claimed by both sides, maybe even the '93 snobs will eventually wake up.
Jonathan Wood
2. JWood
The issue I always have with this debate is, what is "literature"? Did the panel go so far as to describe it?
Nathan E. Lilly
3. Nathan E. Lilly
I've just finished an interview with John Cawelti, one of the pioneers who established Popular Culture as a field of study. As much as the academic world hates Science Fiction, there are a great many in Science Fiction who hate Space Westerns. The argument is just as circular: If it's good then it's not a Space Western, and if it's a Space Western then it's not good.

The interview will be appearing on SpaceWesterns.com in October.
Mike Brotherton
4. mikebrotherton
I think we should just worry about whether or not work is good or not, to some particular audience, and not about the labels. The labels are there for the marketing people to make selling easier and the academics to be bigots. One accomplished creative writing teacher in college, who only permitted science fiction stories if he couldn't tell that they were science fiction -- whatever that meant, also wrote a script for the awful 1970s Spider-man TV series. I've read some of this "high art" literature and found it powerful, and some of it quite overrated. Sturgeon's law applies to all fields of endeavor, and it's a mistake to think that certain writers in certain categories are immune to it and have the "good" market cornered. And not everyone can even agree what's good and what's bad with perfect agreement.
Nathan E. Lilly
5. spinningjenny
I was at this event and had to leave early, unfortunately. I concur with your disappointment that the conversation spiraled into the high art/low art free-for-all. I did like Grossman's opening remarks about the origins of the novel, and how it started out as a mish-mash of different genres.
zaphod beetlebrox
6. platypus rising
Here are links to similar discussions on crime fiction blogs.




Leaving the problem of Academic recognition aside,I think it could be interesting to analyze what exactly we mean when we talk of "genre" and "literary".
For me a genre is defined by formal and/or thematic constraints determined by market expectation and target audience;"literary" is something that has the ambition to say something innovative,relevant or lasting regarding the human experience.
The opposition between the two is really a reflection of the opposition between "commercial" and "art for art's sake".
Obviously genre can be literary:Greek Tragedies were a genre,Dumas was a commercial writer.
What's considered literary may also be in truth just a rehashing of tropes,invisible becase in tune with the sensibilities of the moment:the "genre" of thirtysomething middle-class white males who have midlife crisis ,muse about the fact that their fathers never told them I love you,then discover the world existing outside their navel and start to grow up,for example.
But genre work may also "simply" be a good book,and there's nothing wrong with that.
I love good crime or sf,I wouldn't be much interested in a good romance novel;good genre books are confined to their target audience.
An interesting consequence is the fact that once writers are pidgeonholed inside a genre,unless they have great mainstream appeal like Chabon or sell more than God like Stephen King,they find it difficult to cross over to other audiences.
Jeffrey Ford has won an Edgar for the Girl in the Glass,but few in the crime fiction community noticed.
Irish crime fiction writer John Connolly has written a very good young adult fantasy,The Book of Lost Things,which reminded me of Gaiman and Clive Barker's Weaveworld,but I haven't seen it mentioned in fantasy sites or blogs.
Jo Walton's Small Change trilogy should appeal to the lovers of politico-historical mysteries like those of John Lawton or Carlo Lucarelli (and vice versa),but they'll likely never know.
I'm sure there are many more examples.
Carlos Hernandez
7. Yokozuna
As a member of academe, I'd like to formally apologize for my discipline's lack of insight into its own discipline.

The posters here have it right, to a one. The sad thing is, the generation now insisting on some rarefied idea of "literature" is also a generation that called that very definition into question a few moons back. They certainly weren't the first -- the Romantic poets did the same thing, and they weren't the first either -- but writers and critics of the 60s certainly did so with a level of brio that makes the panel's conversation sound all the more hypocritical. Among a billion other works I could cite, I'm immediately reminded of John Gardner's _The Art of Fiction_ (a terrific read, btw), where he argues that one of the fonts of "high culture" has always been "low culture." He had it right then. Why the backslide?

I'd also like to build on what platypus_rising said about the "literary" having ambitions of innovation, whereas something that is strictly "genre" being tied to its conventions. While I don't think ambition is quite enough -- I had ambitions to be a rock star once upon a time -- I think that that identifier is a very useful one. And so now we have started to build an aesthetic: "good" literature does not simply rehash tried and tested structures, but instead tries to innovate.

As far as I can tell, genres, before they are genres, are born of literary greatness. Poe spawned a whole generation of mystery and horror lovers; Mary Shelley's _Frankenstein_ is genre sci-fi through and through and helped make sci-fi what it is today; the genre of Romance in its current form takes most of its tropes from the Medieval Romances, making it perhaps the oldest extant genre around. You know who else borrows heavily from Medieval Romances? Dante and Shakespeare. "Literary" indeed.

This is why what platypus_rising said is important: so long as a work is not merely derivative, it is doing "literary" work, no matter its genre. Again, emphasizing already said in these posts, there is such a thing as the "literary genre"--derivative works that build on accepted conventions. Ever heard of the "MFA story" or "workshop fiction"? Literary genre: conventional, precious, and, most of the time, DOA.

Michael Chabon is one of literature's leading crusaders against the aspersions cast against genre, and his comic-book novel, which btw spawned a comic book, won the Pulitzer in 2000; Cormac McCarthy's _The Road_ is unapologetic apocalyptic sci-fi, and it won the Pulitzer in 2007; _The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao_ by Junot Diaz requires a Ph.D. in Nerd to understand (luckily I have one), and it won this year's Pulitzer. These are great books, literary in every sense, and each of them is also a valentine to genre fiction.

One more thing, and then I'll shut up -- I love a lot of literary fiction. If you're looking for just how good straight-up lit-fiction can be, please allow me to suggest to you _Wang In Love and Bondage_, a collection of three novellas by the Chinese writer Wang Xiaobo. It's just out, yet after reading it I've wondered how I've made it this far without it. Let me suggest, genre reader, that the pleasures you will find in that book will remind you of the pleasures you receive when you partake of your genre: you will be surprised and wonderstruck and wholly immersed in the world the author creates, and, when you have finished reading, you'll close the book and look out of the window of your subway car and, as the world zips by, you'll feel a little more human.
Nathan E. Lilly
8. clovis
If I may add my pennysworth, twenty years ago I had to fight to be allowed to do my dissertation on M R James, now my local university English degree course has a heavily subscribed course on ghost stories. While no acadamic I would like to back up Yokozuna's comment. The walls between 'genre' and 'high' fiction do seem to be crumbling, however see the fury of the head of Canongate publishers at Child 44 (a crime story) being listed for the Booker Prize. Perhaps we need to distinguish between genre works that only ever tried to work within the strict rules of that genre (eg 'golden age' detective fiction) and those that use genre tropes as just another tool for whatever they wish to achieve (great literature, a good read, discuss the difference if any). I remember an interview of Brian Aldiss I read a few years back in which he stated that Salmon Rushdie's Midnight Children was originally going to be marketed as science fiction (as his previous novel Grimus was)but the publisher's decided at the last minute to push it as 'literature' instead. Mr Aldiss went on to ponder whether Rushdie's later career might have been less fraught if he had remained within the SF 'enclave'. On a final note I would like to remind people of Phillip Pullman's reply to someone who asked when he was going to stop writing children's books and start writing proper books which was 'Do you ask paediatricians when they are going to start practising proper medicine?'. He also once commented that when 'His Dark Materials' (dealing with love, the nature of God and reality) was top of the UK Children's bestseller list, the head of the adult fiction bestseller list was called 'Does My Bum Look Big In This'. And who can forget Terry Pratchett's Carnegie award acceptance speech in which he complained (I forget the exact quote) that you write a story dealing with friendship, tolerance and the nature of evil, but put one dragon in it...!
Nathan Lilly
9. nelilly
Really, is the high art/low art dichotomy any different than how many SF fans portray SF "literature" vs. SF media fiction, and more importantly media in general (comics, video games, and movies)? Why is it literature when an author writes a Conan, Sherlock Holmes, or a Peter Pan story, but trash when it's a Star Trek or Star Wars novel? Or how about the (original) dichotomy between hard SF and Space Opera? Yes, Academia may have a speck in its eye...
Kelly McCullough
10. KellyMcCullough
The thing that I always find vaguely silly about that discussion is the idea that "literary" isn't itself a genre.
Nathan E. Lilly
11. Nick Mamatas
I often attend events or read books and such and find that opinions other than my own are valorized too.

Rather silly, given most of the panelists, to be disappointed in what they had to say. They've been paid to say such things for their whole careers.
Nathan E. Lilly
12. Pocketeer
One high school teacher at a time, I think. That's how you change attitudes about what is literature.

I know one highschool where in one year the efforts of students caused a closeminded teacher to self reflect for a while. He shifted from "this is studyable lit. this is trash" mindset to one where he made sure to consult the librarian about "good scifi" and make it available as classroom "lit".

What kids see in school affects what they 'know' as acceptable/niche/boring/literary. It wont change their tastes, of course, but it will change that wider perception.
Nathan E. Lilly
13. clovis
Certainly 'literary' fiction is a genre with its own rules and conventions. I recommend Neil Gaiman's short story 'Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire' as a fun illustration/send up of this.
Nathan E. Lilly
14. Ellen Datlow
Thanks for the write-up about the panel, David. I didn't know about it or I might have tried to attend.


I had no idea it was meant to be a ya novel but I loved it and covered it in the YBFH #20.

"The Book of Lost Things,which reminded me of Gaiman and Clive Barker's Weaveworld,but I haven't seen it mentioned in fantasy sites or blogs."
Sandi Kallas
15. Sandikal
I don't think "The Book of Lost Things" is supposed to be a young adult novel. While there are many things a teen might like about it, it is definitely a book aimed at adults who were once children. I've found it in both the fiction/literature section of the bookstores and the sf/f sections, but never YA.
zaphod beetlebrox
16. platypus rising
Yep,you're right,sorry.I was overgeneralizing.
What I meant was that while perceptive critics like you or,in the crime fiction world,Sarah Weinman,may indeed recognize the importance of works that come to the genre from outside,the respective communities still consider them foreign objects.
This may well be only my subjective experience of trying to bring The Book of Lost Things in conversation in blogs and forums and receiving the internet equivalent of a blank stare.

it is definitely a book aimed at adults who were once children
as opposed to adults who grew in the pods and had memory implants? :D

I've actually read a review by someone who picked it up randomly in the YA section.
That said,I didn't mean that it was a book aimed only at teens,rather a book aimed at both adults and children,or an adult book with teen appeal,like The Neverending Story or Sophie's World.
I'm not really familiar with the way books are classified in the Usa,but here in Europe it would probably be marketed in both directions.
Nathan E. Lilly
17. dzone
I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



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