As my friends are well aware, I am a total snob. I’m a film snob, a literature snob, and, most recently (due to my sudden interest in Nietzsche, that syphilitic genius), a philosophy snob. I watch movies with long names and long takes, like Last Year at Marienbad and Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. I read Thomas Pynchon for fun. I like Baudrillard and Foucault and words like ‘signification’ and ‘heteronormative structures’. I write douchey posts on my blog, like this one.
I also like terrible B-movies, slasher flicks, sappy romantic comedies and things in which Bruce Willis or Vin Diesel blows shit up. And I read genre books: crime fiction, sci-fi, fantasy and their subgenres, steampunk, cyberpunk, even the occasional romance novel. I do not like contemporary literary fiction as a rule. Everything recent that I’ve taken interest in usually turns out to be what would be broadly classified as ‘genre’ fiction. You know, genre. That thing that snobs are not supposed to like. That thing that is repetitive and has rules and is, like, generic and stuff. That section of literature (or film, or art) that is not ‘serious’.
Recently, a furor broke out over the BBC’s World Book Night last month. Lead by Stephen Hunt (an excellent steampunkish author), a group of fantasy/sci-fi writers responded to what they perceived as the BBC’s anti-genre attitude. I believe the phrase ‘sneering derogatory tone’ was used. The BBC of course denies that they sneered at genre fiction. (Hunt’s original post can be found here: Stephen Hunt vs BBC , the BBC’s response according to The Guardian here: BBC Denies Sneering at Genre Fiction ).
I did not see the program, so I really can’t comment on how right or wrong the sci-fi authors or the BBC are. Being that an opinion is much easier to hold if not hampered by the facts (thank you, Mark Twain), I choose to side with the authors. But the point that this whole debate makes is one that keeps coming back to me: what’s the matter with genre?
What is it about so-called genre fiction that makes folks like the literati over at the BBC sneer? I use the BBC specifically, but this extends to a whole section of writers, readers, professors and intellectuals. Why is To the Lighthouse literature, and Farewell My Lovely not? I once took a whole class in 20th Century Crime Fiction at a university known for its stalwart dedication to the canon of English literature. Why is this debate still going on?
Warhol, like him or hate him, made great strides in making pop culture art. Thomas Pynchon wrote a potboiler, a steampunk novel, an adventure story. Cormac McCarthy writes westerns, but no literary critic will admit that he’s working in the tradition of Zane Grey. Robert Louis Stevenson is taught as canonical, but lest we forget that he was a genre author: horror (Jekyll and Hyde) , adventure (Kidnapped, Treasure Island), historical fantasy (The Master of Ballantrae). Dickens was a popular writer who got published in monthly installments in magazines. Jane Austen, let’s face it, wrote chick lit.
I blame the Modernists. Before Virginia Woolf et al began venerating themselves, novels were largely modes of entertainment. They were a popular medium intended for a wide audience longing for a three volume escape from mundanity. They were TV for the middle classes. The best ones (for my money, Dickens, Hardy and Thackeray, but that’s debatable) were entertaining first; the depth of their subjects, their political commentary and social consciences were a marvelous addition. The Modernists made the novel deep as a cave and just as dangerous. They gave it a greater social conscience, and moved it towards real political efficacy, but in the process lost sight of entertainment value. We read Ulysses because it’s important, but is it fun?
This is not to say that there is no place for intellectual books. I love intellectual books. I also don’t want to be bored by something just because it’s ‘important’. Anti-intellectualism is a terrible thing, but sometimes I get the sense that intellectuals are looking to cordon themselves off from the rest of the world, to look down their noses at something just because it does not fit into an arbitrary criteria of ‘art’. The fact is that literary fiction is as much a genre as anything else: there’s BAD literary fiction, and there’s good. We just slap the phrase ‘literary’ on it and suddenly it’s a tome worthy of the New York Review of Books. Good genre fiction is difficult; it requires as much skill, as much intelligence and attention to detail as any other work of art. Entertaining people is hard work. So, basically, we all need to get our heads out of our own asses and realize that literature is a slippery category. Besides, some literary fiction could be improved by a dirigible or two.