« hiatus | Main | the Obama "theory of change" »

December 28, 2007

notes on "genre fiction"

I'm going to try a little light blogging again, although I'm still very emotionally preoccupied. Throughout this difficult period, I have been trying to use novels as a distraction--reading works by Alan Furst, Patrick O’Brien, and Ward Just that could be classified as "genre fiction." It struck me yesterday that that disparaging phrase is a solecism. Should we call Hamlet "genre fiction" because tragedy is a "genre"?

Traditionally, literature emphasized plot, and traditional plots involved grand, dramatic moments. They could be classified by "genre," according to the nature of those moments. For example, there were plays about murderous revenge, happy marriage, and the salvation of souls. But as we move toward the era of Jane Austen and then Henry James, writers become increasingly interested in the craft of representing subtle, interior states. They are able to dispense with dramatic plots and then almost to drop plot completely. Ulysses is an anti-epic because it describes a fairly unremarkable day in the life of an ordinary citizen. Such description becomes the mark of literary excellence, especially when it is layered with irony and reference.

In short, "genre" is what you subtract to get great modernist works. But some authors have continued to serve the taste for dramatic plots, and so we still see novels about crime and espionage, among other genres. (Fictional modern detectives make momentous choices and judgments under intense pressure, much as princes did in Shakespeare’s day.) "Genre" novels have dubious literary status because we presume that real excellence lies in thick description, whereas plot is a crutch--especially if the plot is formulaic.

And yet reliance on dramatic plots does not preclude close and subtle description. I quote P.D. James:

E. M. Forster has written: "The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot. The queen died and no one knew why until they discovered it was of grief is a mystery, a form capable of high development." To that I would add: the queen died and everyone thought it was of grief until they discovered the puncture wound in her throat. That is a murder mystery and, in my view, it too is capable of high development.

Genre fiction, in other words, can vary in its degree of literary seriousness. For instance, Alan Furst has revived the noir espionage thriller, in the tradition of Eric Ambler. He provides good entertainment but not much depth. The narration is very straightforward and I detect little irony or complexity. There are discrete portions of dialog, alternating with pure action. (Two characters are talking; then they are running along, being shot at.) Almost all the characters are highly competent and there’s lots of sophisticated spycraft to keep you impressed. It would be a lot harder, however, to tell the same kind of story if the characters were confused and fallible.

Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin novels belong to a hoary subgenre of war novels, the Napoleonic naval series. At least since Horatio Hornblower, we’ve been able to follow the assent of fictional British officers from midshipmen to admirals. These heroes are brave in battle but humanitarian toward their own; Nelson is always the model. But O’Brien crosses this subgenre with Jane Austen; he mixes espionage and battle scenes with close and ironic description. Consider the following passage, picked almost at random. Dr. Maturin has just been given a commission by the admiral himself:

"There is only one thing I do not care for, however," he said as the order was passed reverently around the table, "and that is this foolish insistence upon the word surgeon. ’Do hereby appoint you surgeon … take upon you the employment of surgeon … together with such allowance for wages and victuals for yourself as is usual for the surgeon of the said sloop.' It is a false description, and a false description is anathema to the philosophic mind."

Maturin is a physician, which is a gentleman's occupation, in distinction to the tradesman's job of surgeon. He is a snob about the difference, but he doesn't want to appear so. Thus he settles on the ideal of precise terminology, which he values as a scientist. All of this is efficiently shown, adding a level of richness, humor, and irony to the narration. Equal depth could be found on almost every page.

Which brings me to Ward Just’s Forgetfulness. Superficially a spy novel, this book actually tells a very simple story that could be summarized in a paragraph (if one wanted to spoil the suspense). Most of the text is devoted to very close descriptions of the interior state of one flawed and unheroic, but interesting, individual. Ward Just does not choose a spy plot to entertain. Rather, he wants to reflect on the secret "war on terror," which is a crucial political issue today. The result is fine literature, and whether we call it "genre fiction" hardly seems to matter.

December 28, 2007 9:51 AM | category: fine arts | Comments


It is wonderful to see you blogging again, if only lightly (and your schedule doesn't seem so light from the outside.) This is the perfect post to pick up with: I enjoy your literary and aesthetic reflections. As you say, the O'Brian novels are full of Austenian irony, and like many of the better-recognized writer-ly novels (Morrison, Gibson, Lethem) of the last few decades, they undermine the distinction between literature and genre fiction.

One question, remains, however: there remains the cross-genre epic, which still gets labeled literary more often than any other: the sort of mammoth tome thematizing post-modern alienation that readers of Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, William Gaddis, and Don Delillo toil at unpacking. Do you have any thoughts on this kind of work, which seems to reassert the connection between totalizing mastery and literary genius? (One contender that largely fails to receive the nod of the literary gatekeepers despite dense, complex, and erudite prose is Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle and his Cryptonomicon.)

January 7, 2008 12:40 PM | Comments (1) | posted by anotherpanacea

Site Meter