Tue
Aug 17 2010 4:28pm

When literary authors slum in genre

There’s a curious phenomenon happening out there in LiteraryLand: The territory of genre fiction is being invaded by the literary camp.

Take Justin Cronin, writer of respectable stories, who recently leaped the chasm to the dystopian, undead-ridden realm of Twilight.  With The Passage, his post-apocalyptic, doorstopper of a saga, the author enters a new universe, seemingly snubbing his former life writing “serious books” like Mary and O’Neil and The Summer Guest, which won prizes like Pen/Hemingway Award, the Whiting Writer’s Award and the Stephen Crane Prize. Both books of fiction situate themselves solidly in the camp of literary fiction. They’re set on the planet Earth we know and love. Not so with The Passage, in which mutant vampire-like creatures ravage a post-apocalyptic U.S. of A. Think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road crossed with the movie The Road Warrior, with the psychological tonnage of John Fowles’ The Magus and the “huh?” of The Matrix.

Now comes Ricky Moody, whose ironic novels like The Ice Storm and Purple America were solidly in the literary camp, telling us about life in a more-or-less recognizable world. His latest novel, The Four Fingers of Death, is a big departure, blending a B-movie classic with a dark future world. The plot: A doomed U.S. space mission to Mars and a subsequent accidental release of deadly bacteria picked up on the Red Planet results in that astronaut’s severed arm surviving re-entry to earth, and reanimating to embark on a wanton rampage of strangulation.

And there’s probably other examples I’m forgetting at the moment.

So what’s all this forsaking of one’s literary pedigree about?

It began with the flipside of this equation. It used to be that genre writers had to claw their way up the ivory tower in order to be recognized by the literary tastemakers. Clearly, that’s shifted, as more and more fantasy, science fiction, and horror writers have been accepted by the mainstream and given their overdue lit cred. It’s been a hard row to hoe. J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Philip Pullman and others helped blaze the trail to acceptance. Now these authors have been largely accepted into the canon. You can take university courses on fantasy literature and write dissertations on the homoerotic subtext simmering between Frodo and Sam. A whole generation, now of age and in college, grew up reading (or having read to them) the entire oeuvre of Harry Potter. That’s a sea change in the way fantasy will be seen in the future—not as some freaky subculture, but as widespread mass culture.

Perhaps Stephen King is the best recent example of this. He never would have been published in the New Yorker a decade ago. Nor would he have racked up impressive literary kudos, like in 2003 when the National Book Awards handed over its annual medal for distinguished contribution to American letters to King. Recently in May, the Los Angeles Public Library gave its Literary Award for his monstrous contribution to literature.

Now, as muggles and Mordor have entered the popular lexicon, the glitterati of literary fiction find themselves “slumming” in the darker, fouler waters of genre. (One reason: It’s probably more fun to write.) But in the end, I think it’s all about call and response. Readers want richer, more complex and more imaginative and immersive stories. Writers want an audience, and that audience increasingly reads genre. Each side—literary and genre—leeches off the other. The two camps have more or less met in the middle.

One wonders who’s going to delve into the dark waters next—Philip Roth? Salman Rushdie? Toni Morrison?


Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, which comes out in paperback in September. Contact him through his website, www.ethangilsdorf.com

26 comments
Elio García
1. Egarcia
I think it can be argued that Rushdie already has, at least, with Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
Eric Phipps
2. Eric Phipps
1. Philip Roth has done an alternative history book recently in The Plot Against America

2. Salmon Rushdie writes "Magical Realism" aka Fantasy for snobs.

3. Toni Morrison wrote Beloved, which is a ghost story.
Eric Phipps
3. N. Mamatas
Now I get to be a total Internet stinker and point out that King was publishing fiction in The New Yorker in 1994 and personal essays in that same magazine in 1990.
David Levinson
5. DemetriosX
This is hardly new. Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, and plenty more have dabbled in SFF and mystery. Most of them won't admit it, maybe not even to themselves. I'd even be willing to bet that some, if not all, of those you mentioned would either deny that what they have written is at all science fictional or would say that they are usurping the trashy tropes of genre fiction in order to say something po-mo, lit-crit, deconstructivist.

It's not just the overly literary authors, either. Every so often, some semi-name, slightly above mid-list mainstream author will write something obviously genre without admitting it or it being marketed that way. The mainstream critical and reading public will be amazed at fresh new ideas and long-time genre readers will see nothing they haven't seen before and usually better done.
Robert James
6. DocJames
Vladimir Nabokov's last finished novel, "Ada", is set in an alternate universe in which the Russians colonized North America. Fascinating book.

In the nineteenth century, there simply wasn't this dividing line between "literature" and "genre." Hawthorne, Poe, Twain...all wrote whatever they wanted. Wells was not seen as writing genre fic either.

As I understand it, the divide was far more easily crossed in Europe and Britain than it ever was here. It's an artificial line in some ways, anyways. Heinlein published SF in the Saturday Evening Post, followed shortly by Bradbury. But the stigmata of writing SF reasserted itself fairly quickly. In an odd parallel, it was like what happened to movie actors who went to television -- they rarely returned, and tv actors had a hard time moving into the movies. It happened, but it was a bit like the dancing bear.

This is why Vonnegut refused to call himself an SF writer, even though he was -- and knew Ted Sturgeon quite well. Harlan Ellison conducted a massive campaign (which RAH preceded him in) to shift the label of his work and others from science fiction to speculative fiction -- and Ellison's hostility to the term "sci-fi" is legendary.

What is happening now is that SF (or actually, its former little cousin-turned-economic-juggernaut fantasy) is commercially dominating book publishing and movie production, so people who want sales jump on board. Sometimes they know what they are doing (Michael Chabon) and sometimes they don't....
Eric Phipps
7. sniffy
"Stephen King...never would have been published in the New Yorker a decade ago"

Actually, he's been publishing the The New Yorker for 20 years now.

One thing you gotta hand to snobby literary types: they value basic fact-checking and are willing to put in the extra 60 seconds it takes to not sound like an uninformed, stereotyping yokel...
Eric Phipps
8. Daniel Salvo
2. Salmon Rushdie writes "Magical Realism" aka Fantasy for snobs.

Ha ha ha ha.
Eric Phipps
9. Nicholas Waller
Salman Rushdie has arguably gone the other way, his first published novel being the sf and fantasy book Grimus; the pb copy I saw as a student in the 70s even had an Ursula Le Guin puff: “A fireworks of a book: beautiful, funny, and endlessly surprising.” —Ursula K. Le Guin
Eric Phipps
10. Carrie Laben
Well played; a very subtle jest.

... this is a joke, right?
Jon Evans
11. rezendi
Carrie @10

I can't tell either, but I've decided to interpret it as one; it's way more fun that way.
Ashley McGee
12. AshleyMcGee
Unless I missed something, we all managed to leave Neil Gaiman off the list of people who's flip-flopped into the literary field from genre writing. The Graveyard Book won a Newbury Award for Children's Literature, a book whose parallels to Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (another piece of the canon) run too close to be ignored. Anything else of his that I'm leaving off? Anyone else we forgot?
Chris Dearman
13. ChrisD
Ashley @13

I'm not sure Gaiman counts. The graveyard book features ghosts, ghouls, vampires, werewolves and various other supernatural creatures. It's great that it's achieved the recognition that it has but it's still unashamedly a fantasy book. (Ok, possibly horror)
David Lovely
14. DaveQat
Also, despite Harold Bloom's really amusing fit of apoplexy on the subject, King's National Book Award was for his financial contributions, which have indeed been vast and generous, not his literary ones. I say this as a diehard King fan who owns as much of his published material as is possible.
Eric Phipps
15. a-j
I used to run a second hand bookshop and would infuriate SF reading staff by insisting on putting '1984' and 'Brave New World' into the general or classic fiction sections. When they pointed out that they are SF novels by just about any definition I would tell them that as they were acknowledged literary classics they could not be SF as no SF could be literary. There was a commercial reason for this, customers rarely looked for those books in the SF section. If this artificial barrier is at last breaking down then hallelujah.
Salmon Rushdie's first novel, 'Grimus' was originally marketed as SF complete with SF-style cover and 'Midnight's Children' was in the running for an SF award until his agent asked for it to be removed from the contest as the publishers had decided to market it as a mainstream/literary novel (this from an interview with Brian Aldiss that I read about five years ago).
DocJames@6 is right in pointing out that the division of fiction into specific types/genres is primarily a 20th century one and perhaps it's time has run out. I hope so as the divide seemed to exist primarily for marketing and snobbery purposes. Oh, and I regret to say that DocJames is mistaken in thinking the divide is more porous in Britain. Believe me, it isn't.
James Cappio
16. cappio
There are only two "genres" of writing: good and bad.
Eric Phipps
17. dmg
Well, if you want to talk about the intersection of pop and literary, welcome to the world of this video (he says, being purposefully vague)...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1IxOS4VzKM

Or have you all already seen it?
Eric Phipps
18. euphrosyne
We can all agree that both general fiction and genre shelves in bookstores hold some great novels. We can also agree that both hold some pretty bad ones.

Perhaps the defining difference is that the low end of literary fiction covers its shame with pretention, while the low end of genre revels openly in its "immaturity".

As a practical matter, most readers probably don't care which shelf a really good book comes from...but they can hedge their bets on which type of bad they prefer, if a new book or author isn't everything they had hoped.
Brit Mandelo
19. BritMandelo
Speculative books are speculative books.

It doesn't matter who wrote them. It doesn't matter if the author protests up and down that they don't write that nasty genre stuff. It doesn't matter if the authors unabashedly wrote SFF and it's clerks and critics arguing that they're literature, because surely, no SF is good enough to be literature. (Which, as a bookstore worker/manager, makes me want to punch people in the face.)

Speculative is speculative. Done.
Robert James
20. DocJames
15 - aj: I am surprised to hear the division isn't more porous in Britain. By more than one account of SF History, and other sources, this is the impression I got. Perhaps the American influence poured out at some point after the period these histories concerned themselves with? What would you make of something like Kingsley Amis' "New Maps of Hell"? (btw, I am making this reference very early in the morning, and hoping I just got the title and author right....). I don't think an American academic/mainstream writer would have dared write such a book in that time period, and expect to ever be taken seriously again. Likewise, Michael Moorcock, who seems to have a literary reputation and output that is taken seriously, despite all the fantasy and pulp knockoffs he wrote. His acquisition of public funds to keep "New Worlds" going in the sixties, for example -- such a thing would never have happened here in the
US. (Granted, the use of government funds for artistic purposes here is limited and highly protested anyways). Or is this all a European impression, based on things like the French giving Norman Spinrad and Mike Resnick major literary awards?
Eric Phipps
21. a-j
DocJames@20
My experience has been that most British readers/critics are either unaware of/quietly ignore Kingsley Amis' interest in and writing on SF (you got the title right by the way, if my memory serves) just as they did with his interest in and writing on James Bond ('The James Bond Dossier', a critical study of the James Bond novels written shortly after Fleming's death and 'Colonel Sun' a JB novel written under the psuedonym of Robert Markham). Michael Moorcock's non 'literary' novels are again ignored or written off (pun intended) as 'hunger' novels, written for the money. JG Ballard is highly lauded as is Ursula le Guin and Stanislaw Lem. Please note though that my opinion is absolutely personal, based on my own choice of newspapers/magazines and I could be way off beam here.
Eric Phipps
22. BigHank53
Uh, Ian M. Banks and the stuff he's published without the "M"? P.D. James "Children of Men"? Paul Theroux's "O-Zone"?
Robert James
23. DocJames
This actually tends me to think things are more porous in Britain -- in that same period in the US, no serious writer would have ever been read again were he to indulge in the things Amis, Moorcock, or Ballard did. In fact, I can recall quite distinctly being told by my professor that we had to include H.G. Wells in a list of modern novels, but only because the British insisted; and were I to choose them as my subject, I would only be able to achieve a "B" on the paper, no matter what.

I chose Henry James as my topic....

Iirc, Aldiss raves about this subject in more than one place.

Of course, this may have more to do with what I perceive as a greater tolerance for eccentricity in British culture than we have here in America; for a nation that likes to think of itself as individualistic and nonconformist, we spend an extraordinary amount of time and effort pigeonholing people into specific groups and categories, and then being upset when they don't stay there.

Most teenagers claim they want to be themselves, then they dress and act exactly like everybody else in their group....

I wonder if our intense refusal to consider class as an issue in our culture leads to all this behavior, whereas the British (reportedly) mark class as a matter of course, and (reportedly) accept eccentricity as a safe avenue of expression....

I may be off the beam, as you say, as well -- most of this is based on books I've read, with a sprinkling of personal anecdotal information.
Eric Phipps
24. Mike Hobart
Dave Langford's long-running fanzine "Ansible" often includes little quotes from critics who are trying to tap-dance around the fact that they like a book which seems to be science-fiction but of course isn't.... ! I think they appear under the title "As Others See Us".

http://news.ansible.co.uk/Ansible.html
Martin Wisse
25. Martin_Wisse
"Around half the writers discussed in this encyclopedia did not publish their work as genre sf and often too, their work does not feel like genre sf."

--Peter Nicholls in the 1992 Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

There has always been science fiction outside of the genre, sometimes being written by writers clearly "slumming" while clumsily rediscovering themes long since mined out by genre writers, sometimes by writers who have a clear love and interest for the genre and want to join in, but most often by people who could care less about it but use science fiction as a tool to write about what really interests them, like Orwell did in 1984 or Huxley in Brave New World or even Wells in some of his sf stories.

Because that might just be the greatest difference between genre sf writers and mainstream writers of sf: whether it's an end in itself or "just" a tool. What may seem clumsy from the perspective of the genre may just be intentional for writers of the later variety.
Eric Phipps
26. a-j
That HG Wells story is interesting. Over here he is acknowledged as a significant and important author. I was required to read him for my English Lit. degree. If SF/F is more respected in the UK it may be because of the respectability of Wells and, to a lesser degree, Tolkien (after all, he was an academic!) though the real literary snob would reference Mervyn Peake. Times change. When I did my degree in the '80s Wells' 'War of the Worlds' was the only SF available to study and no other genre fiction was looked at. I had to fight to be allowed to do my dissertation on the ghost story writer M R James (and had many people assume I was writing on Henry James) yet today my local university offers a module on ghost stories as part of its Eng Lit degree. My personal feeling is that the seperation of fiction into genres is dying a natural death and may come to be seen as a peculiar 20th century habit.

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