The OF Blog: A literary blogger slumming in genre?

Friday, February 28, 2014

A literary blogger slumming in genre?

Yesterday, I read an interesting post over at Pornokitsch entitled "Poking at Awards:  'Literary Authors Slumming in Genre.'"  I read it just before my bedtime and I promised Jared that I would write an "evisceration" when I had time.  At the time, there was a lot about the column that struck me as being misguided and I see that some of the comments to his post gibe with my initial impressions about the use of certain quotes and the inferences derived from them.  Yet I think my biggest problem with his piece, and one that I haven't seen addressed in the comments or on Twitter, is the very concept of "literary authors" somehow "slumming" in this amorphous entity known as "genre."

I have partially addressed this over the years in numerous posts here, but I have problems with the basic premise that there are somehow these two separate camps called "literary" and "genre."  My metaphoric hackles are raised when I see someone blithely talking about this as though they somehow a) know precisely what constitutes "literary" or "genre," and b) that "genre" is compressed further to themes/stories most frequently labeled these days as "science fiction" or "fantasy."  I understand the value that many place in creating labels and categories in order to create facile comparisons or to market tales, but I am reminded of the introductory passage to Michel Foucault's The Order of Things, in which he paraphrases Jorge Luis Borges:

“This book first arose out of a passage in [Jorge Luis] Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.”

Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Pantheon, 1970) xv.
In trying to delineate what constitutes "literary" or "genre," the arbiter elegantiarum is going to run into several taxonomic problems, which Foucault, using Borges as a springboard for discussing this, notes in his book.  We want an order of things; we know life does not fit into neat categories.  The same occurs when trying to categorize literatures.  There may be perceived kinships, some close and others more distant, in certain types (genera) of writing, yet just as virtually all humans have distinguishing traits that make even identical twins identifiable to those who know them best, so too do our writings betray any sense of rigid relationships.  In trying to analyze whether or not there are "literary" writers somehow "slumming" in "genre," Jared ran into this taxonomic problem.  What constitutes "genre?"  Is it the inclusion of certain plot and/or thematic elements (e.g. werewolves, regeneration, FTL space travel) or is there something else to it?  After all, are there not authors whose works do possess some of these elements, yet they have argued (sometimes vociferously) that their works should not be considered "genre?"  Do they, who presumably have the closest and most in-depth insight into the stories' geneses, have a valid point, or are they just ultimately another form of reader, with his or her own prejudices and fallacies when it comes to discerning meaning from a text?

But even this question, which does merit further consideration, threatens to overlook a larger issue:  can there be a good analysis of literature that presumes there can be static divisions?  I would posit that creating categories can be good to a certain point, only as long as the reader can admit to herself that extrapolating from having ephemeral divisions according to personal tastes toward anything that approaches a systematic schema is a path fraught with epistemological peril.  Let's look at Jared's points near the end of his essay:

Which, despite my own initial belief in LASIGism, is a good thing, as the LASIG position is dangerous for genre as a whole. Again, a few reasons:

Some of our best and brightest authors are LASIGs. In 2012 and 2013, the pool of literary-authors-turned-to-genre included submissions from notorious literary elitests Neal Stephenson and Iain M. Banks. If we'd drawn some sort of LASIG hardline early in their careers. Looking past the 2012 and 2013 dataset, the the "LASIG" argument becomes increasingly ridiculous - take a moment review the list of past Clarke finalists and winners - this year's numbers are no fluke. If anything, they're low.

Other notorious LASIGs include David Eddings, Margaret Atwood, H.G. Wells, Robert Howard, Mary Stewart, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Discouraging LASIGs is shortsighted. It is also worth noting that at least three of the 15 individual LASIGs*** are people of colour, a low-but-still-much higher proportion than the rest of the submission pool. And the LASIGs that submitted include three Man Booker finalists, a MacArthur Grant recipient and one of Granta's Best Young Novelists. Aren't these the people we should be encouraging to write our science fiction and fantasy stories?
The problem I had with his post is centered in these paragraphs.  Leaving aside that he fails to convince me that a silly title such as "literary author slumming in genre" should be used even as a self-referential title to denote perceived literary divisions, the part about this "LASIG" being "dangerous for genre as a whole" is just oddly argued.  These "literary authors" are never defined by any positive connections; a presumed absence of some particular "genre" characteristic appears to be what binds them together in some sort of literary kin-marriage.  Since I have no idea what these "LASIGs" are supposed to be (the authors cited further serves to baffle me), arguing for or against the benefits/weaknesses of this amorphous group seems rather pointless.  I am not even convinced a "group" can be made out of such disparate writers as those who were up for awards consideration (and were mentioned, sometimes indirectly, in the original article).  Furthermore, the last point means well, yet ultimately contains a sense of possessiveness (why can't they/you write something that fits snugly into something that I like?) that in some cases would run counter to the notion that writers should tell the stories that they want to tell, using themes, tropes, situations, and character types to further these tales.  There seems to be more angst from certain quarters about Colin Whitehead and the stories that he likes to tell than from those circles of which the first group seems to consign him (unless he would be good for him).  He, like many other writers who write in a variety of literary modes, seems much less concerned about how his works are categorized than certain fans/critics are.

A more useful discussion than trying to parse which writers are "literary" (whatever that might mean) and how their works that might be "genre" (again, whatever that might mean) would be to look at how certain themes and tropes are employed to tell certain tells.  If the pop cultural notion of a zombie, now far removed from its Haitian source, is used in a story, what does it mean when the reader encounters a zombie?  Are there certain (pre)conceptions that are satisfied over the course of the fiction, or does the author present these themes and tropes in a different light?  After all, readers can divide works into multiple categories unto near infinity.  What often is missing, however, is an examination of the applications of the tools used in constructing fictions.

But what do I know?  Am I merely a literary reviewer (blogger was used in the title in an ironic sense; I hate that term to describe what I do) somehow slumming in genre, or am I a reader and critic who has some discussion elements in common with certain reviewers and not with others (or conversely, with the same people on different topics)?  Perhaps the answer to the definition of the reader/reviewer type is similar to that of authorial/fiction type:  what we perceive to be the limns of something may only be a permeable boundary for a small section of something much broader than what has been considered before.  If this is indeed true, and I suspect that it possesses a larger range of interpretations than having semi-rigid divisions according to perceived type, then the issue of whether or not a work should be categorized as "literary" or "genre" (and again, that term perhaps should be tightened, lest the locutor end up twisting herself into knots trying to place limits on writings that perhaps should be free of all such restraints.  In this case, authors who write different types of tales are not "slumming" as much as they are (with the possible half-exception of those writing to a market instead of primarily for their craft) not constraining themselves to artificial categories that might hamper their works by creating false expectations as to what their stories should be.  However, this is a topic that probably deserves greater exploration at another time.


Jared said...

Hmm. I think I may have been unclear at two points:

- By the "LASIG position being dangerous genre as a whole", I think we *agree* and I'm incredibly unclear. I think people being nervous about 'LASIGs' is a very bad thing. The "LASIG position" I refer to is the hypothesis I am testing- that "non-genre authors write bad genre books". The evidence supports (and I wholly believe) the reverse, for all the reasons you cite (and more). That sentence is unclear though - sorry!

- As to what a LASIG - I made up a definition that I explain in my post - with a lack of defined genre boundaries, I went for demonstrable behaviour. So "literary" = "published by a non-genre publisher" and "literary author slumming in genre" = "someone first published outside of genre, who is now published inside of genre". It isn't a good definition, but it is one I can measure.

Actually defining what "literary" and "genre" means is much heavier lifting. Interesting as hell though. (Go for it!)

Anyway, per usual, agree on everything. Go squirrels!

Bill said...

I'm not sure that's a terribly useful definition of LASIG. "Genre/non-genre publisher" is also not a terribly precise distinction. For example, are these genre or non-genre publishers?

NYRB (Christopher Priest, for one)
Coffee House Press (Brian Evenson, etc)
GrayWolf Press


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