Sunday, December 20, 2009

Genre Ghetto

In a New York Times review of Dan Chaon's estimable
Await Your Reply, Janet Maslin, who should know a hell of a lot better, wrote: "[the book] bridges the gap between Literary and pulp fiction." (The cap "L" is mine.)


Talk about snobbery. The ill-chosen word "gap" suggests that we exist in a sort of bifurcated world, where the lovers and creators of Literary fiction lead heightened lives, subsisting on the fragrance of oranges, sunlight, and a wry acceptance of the human condition, while the rest of us grub around on our elbows in the muck, grunting at each other and trying to keep the drool off our copy of the new mass-market paperback by Stuart Woods.

By pulp fiction, Maslin means what she undoubtedly thinks of as genre fiction: mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, romance -- you know, the stuff people read. And I'll admit that some of it is awful, but I'll also say that some of it is every bit as good as Literary fiction. And even when genre fiction is bad, it's not as bad -- nothing is as bad -- as bad Literary fiction.

I believe that one of the things that agonizes many Literary critics (and editors) about genre fiction -- okay, about mysteries and thrillers -- is the prevalence of happy endings. No book can be taken seriously by the critical establishment unless it ends on a gray, cold beach, shrouded by fog, with a gull screeching unseen as a child's brightly colored shoe washes ashore. I mean, that's life. Life as it really is. With a bad ending. Bleak is the new black.

In today's criticism, a bad ending, by which I mean an ending in which the characters are considerably worse off than they were in the beginning, is almost a requirement for fiction to receive serious artistic consideration. Happy endings are a convention. They're vulgar. They're not real.

It will not come as news to the writer or fan of mysteries and thrillers that everyone dies sooner or later. Most of us understood that before we began to shave wherever it is that we shave. We actually do realize that all happy endings are temporary. And so what? One of the essential creative acts in writing a book is putting a frame around the story: it begins here, it ends there, it goes no higher than this and no lower than that. Painters and
photographers face the same challenge. For a work of art to be about anything, there have to be things it is not about. That's the function of the frame -- to exclude the irrelevant.

And (this is a secret not to be shared with critics) we all experience happy endings all the time. The biopsy comes back benign. We marry the one we love. We have kids. We get home from the dry cleaner without being hit by a dump truck. The sun goes down at the end of the day and everyone we love is still alive. Those are perfectly good places to say the arc of a story is complete. Why would it be better or more honest to wait until the sofa on which we gather at day's end is empty, perhaps with the family dog, in the midst of starving to death, looking mournfully up at it?

Mysteries and thrillers are fundamentally optimistic. Whether they have happy endings or not, they're about the restoration of order. They take a situation (or a person) that's broken, and the main course of the action is about fixing the break. The truth comes out. The innocent are vindicated. The guilty eat it, one way or another. Life can move on again.

Sorry, but that's not a definition of pulp, not unless it's very badly done. That's a consciously constructed approach to a novel, with the frame the writer chose to impose on the material.

Look, do we criticize a wedding portrait, the commemorative shot of two people at a high point in their lives, because the photographer didn't back the camera up so he could squeeze in the church cemetery, where the blushing bride will eventually be buried? Or mount his lens on a satellite so he could put the nuptial celebration into the larger perspective of global ethnic cleansing?

All I ask of an ending is that, whatever it is -- happy, mildly happy, bemused, unsettling, tragic -- it has to arise naturally from the story and the characters. It has to be consistent with the world the novel presents. If it isn't, if it's a phony, tacked-on, cobbled-together resolution plucked out of nowhere, then it doesn't matter whether it ends a 180-page private-eye novel or the latest 468-page sofa from a Literary Novelist. It's pulp. Even if it's sad.

Because pulp is about quality, Ms. Maslin, not about genre. And you should be ashamed of yourself.

The type says it all: going downhill.

Tim - Sunday


  1. Tim - I figured the best place for me to start my comment is to set out a definition of "literary" that reflects my opinion of literary fiction.

    I went to "" and selected the last two of the six definitions as being closest to my philosophy:

    literary -

    "5. characterized by an excessive or affected
    display of learning; stilted; pedantic"

    "6. prefering books to actual experience"

    TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is neither of those two things. Jem and Scout are definitely neither stilted nor pedantic. The book is considered by many experts as being autobiographical so it reflects real life. Since it is considered literature it is taught in most high schools. It is one of the few books that the kids actually read. It is also one of the best books in American literature. It is also a mystery: Who is Boo Radley? Who keeps leaving things in the tree? The answer to those questions and the kids reaction to them lift the story from the pessimism of the trial to the optimism of two children who are loved and who love the people who cherish them.

    So, is the book literary or pulp? Who cares? It is an extraordinary story told in an unforgetable way.

    Carlos Ruiz Zafon has written two books that have been translated into English. The first, THE SHADOW OF THE WIND, is about people who are given a book that has been forgotten by the world and it is their job to protect it from being lost forever. Optimism abounds. Books are to be cherished because of the joy (optimism) they bring to the readers who love them. The second book, THE ANGEL'S GAME, is a prequel in which books and their writers are used to trick people and disparage their creativity. Total loss on the optimism scale. The first is a mystery that I had to read straight through; the second is a book I made myself finish, hoping to find the joy that filled the first.

    Most popular fiction is read for enjoyment. There are those books that people feel they have to read because everyone else is (anything by Dan Brown)but, for the most part, people read what they like. Tastes change and, as they do, the reputations of the authors change too. Charles Dickens books were released as serials, one chapter at a time, with people in the US waiting at the docks for the next installement. Now Dickens is literature with a capital L and students groan their way through the books.

    I think people confuse "literate" and "literary". The members of this blog are certainly literate. You have knowledge in your field, be it the countries about which you write or, in this post, the world of literary criticism as practiced by people who don't sell as many books as you do. Aside from great stories and great characters, your books make their readers more literate because we learn, in a most pleasant way, about the culture, politics, and problems of the people about whom you write.

    Please stay literate and please don't devolve into the literary.

    As regards the NYT and newspapers in general, I left a long diatrive on that subject after Leighton's post on How to Subscribe.


  2. Michael (of Michael Stanley) often tells people that Henning Mankel once said that John le Carré is the best writer never to win the Noble Prize.

    Why do you think he never won, Ms. Maslin?

  3. Hi, Beth, hi, Stan --

    Beth, I appreciate the letter and agree with the distinctions you make. (And you're dead on about Zafon -- I felt exactly the same way about the two books.) Thanks also for the nice words about my own books, which are (a) intended to entertain people and (b) written as well as I know how to write them.

    I read a LOT of so-called literary fiction. My three favorite books of 2009, MILES FROM NOWHERE by Nami Mun, 2666 by Roberto Bolano, and NUMBER9REVOLUTION by David Mitchell, are all literary, even (in the case of Bolano and Mitchell) to the point of obscurity. Why did I like them? Because they entertained me enormously, even when they were grim, as part of 2666 certainly is.

    The next seven books in my personal top ten list for 2009 are all what Ms. Maslin would call "pulp." Hard to believe that anyone could read James Lee Burke's RAIN GODS or Nina Revoyr's THE AGE OF DREAMING, to name two, and think they're anything but writing of the highest order.

    Oh, well.

    And Stan, that's a great question about Le Carre, and I would argue that no one who's read Mankell would mistake his work for pulp, either. Anyone who can consign to a genre ghetto writing as rich and varied as you'll find in this golden age of mysteries and thrillers is just plain tone deaf.