OF LITERARY FICTION
by Claire Harlan Orsi
The romantic strain—the idea that individuals emanate unique works of art unconstrained by societal or intellectual strictures—is as potent as ever in contemporary thinking and teaching about writing. Nowhere is this more evident than in the relationship of literary fiction to genre fiction, a category that literary writers tend to deplore. Take a few sample pronouncements:
“Genre novels perform a useful service to the anxious air traveler by reducing his or her ability to speculate” (Charles Baxter).
“In genre fiction the action is commanding and compelling, but the hearts are half drawn” (Ron Carlson).
“One way to tell slick genre prose from really interesting writing is to look, in former case, for the absence of different registers…” (James Wood).
These writers are no doubt thinking of the mass market romances and paperback sci-fi novels that line the shelves of grocery stores and public libraries—the image the phrase “genre fiction” traditionally connotes. These uniform spines are the anxious specter the high literary establishment must confront, along with genre’s further senses: the word “generic,” as denoting a type, something lacking individuation. In other words, something distinctly un-romantic.
On the flip-side of this distaste, the literary establishment has dabbled in genre for a number of years (helped, no doubt, by the veneer of transgressive rebellion that comes with the notion of “popular” fiction) with Lethem and Chabon mining the masculine world of comics and Paul Auster and others legitimizing the detective story. Stephen King got a Paris Review interview in 2006, the ultimate stamp of high literary acceptance. It’s not border crossing, exactly—that would imply the category of literary fiction contains defined borders. Instead, literary fiction writers who incorporate aspects of genre fiction are seen as facilitating the latter’s rise from a cramped, market-circumscribed domain into a boundary-less embrace. Similarly, genre writers like King who are newly adopted by the literary establishment are seen as transcending genre.
Recently I moderated a panel discussion between two writers, one who identifies herself as a genre writer (of “chick-lit mysteries”), and one who, since he doesn’t identify himself at all, can only be one thing: a writer of literary fiction. The discussion turned to the writing of mysteries, and I asked this writer whether he considered literary fiction to be, in the end, “just another genre.” Not really, he said. Literary fiction can’t really be categorized like that, it just is. This despite the realities of the publishing industry that produced this writer’s novel, an industry in which “literary fiction” has been an accepted category for decades.
But then, no so-called serious writer wants to see herself as part of a marketplace, even if it’s a marketplace of ideas. Genre fiction is frightening to literary writers because it openly references the conditions of its production. Publishing categories exist primarily for target audiences, so that any adjective placed in front of “fiction” implies a defined readership and a certain segment of the market. Since writers of literary fiction spend a lot of energy avoiding an open acknowledgment of the audiences (or lack thereof) for their work, these categories are troubling. Audience-denial may serve a useful function, if only as a distraction from the lamentable state of the publishing industry (no one reads novels anymore, we are told), but it also speaks to the extent to which the mystique of literary fiction hinges on a purer-than-thou relationship to the market forces that make its existence possible.
That said, we all want to get published. As a student of creative writing and literature I have front-row seats to the spectacle that is the anxious wager between legitimacy and marketability. It’s an endless, tedious battle, tedious because it is conducted in an all-too transparent secrecy that obscures what is actually an unexciting debate. We want to be recognized but we are ashamed of wanting to be recognized. We are ashamed, in other words, of all that is generic—all that connects to the vagaries of the marketplace we simultaneously desire and loathe—and this shame does us no good.
What if we accept literary fiction as generic, embrace its precarious position in the marketplace? Then, like all genre fiction, we are forced to acknowledge its fundamental systemic characteristics. Mark McGurl’s recent study The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing lays the groundwork for those of us interested in parsing literary fiction’s hidden logic. McGurl speaks of the “remarkable absence of ‘genre consciousness’ in the course offerings of most university-based programs, which assume that the student is there to produce literature, and that literature is not generic.” Through careful readings of the works of several iconic post-war literary figures he demonstrates the extent to which certain historical trends play out in certain aesthetic movements (minimalism versus maximalism, for example), ultimately suggesting that literary fiction is as much a product of a system as the most formulaic science fiction novel. Yet in favoring analysis over polemics, McGurl fails to go so far as to actually call literary fiction generic. My own intentions are less subtle. I’d like to suggest that certain rules underlie the production of literary fiction just as they do what we would traditionally call genre fiction, and that naming those rules is ethically, as well as aesthetically, imperative.
What is that makes present or future writers of literary fiction want to write? Is part of it not the mystique surrounding the production of literary fiction, the idea—as has so often been debated—that it “can’t be taught,” the feeling that we are cryptographers setting out to crack an uncrackable code? If you want to write science fiction or romance or horror you go online (www.writingclasses.com) or you buy an instructional book at Borders. If you want to write literary fiction, you apply to a creative writing program. In this program, however, you get none of the rules you’d get if you bought the how-to book at Borders (a sample horror manual includes headings like “Planting the Hook,” “The Gory Details,” and “Spacing Out Your Shocks”). Granted, there are tons of craft books for literary fiction—the anti-genre quotations above are from a few. Like creative writing classes, though, they tend to be an amalgam of craft-based exercises and techniques designed to root out and stimulate the creative voice along with close readings of various canonical literary works. They offer very little concrete guidance on the specifics of what makes a work of fiction literary.
These rules are hidden—veiled, often shifting—but they are there. Take one example, a recent work of self-consciously literary fiction: Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. The novel announces itself as literary fiction through structural acrobatics (reviewers have been unable to resist the admiring descriptor “high wire” suggested by the novel’s central conceit, Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers), ventriloquistic manipulation of point of view, and grounding in a gritty (New York in the 70s) yet symbolic (the World Trade Center) past. What does this implicit (by the author of the novel and by its critics) and explicit (by its publisher) marking of the novel as literary fiction suggest about the kind of reading experience we can expect from it?
For one, we can expect to witness a performance in which our participation, as the audience, is neither courted nor manipulated. We can feel any number of things on finishing Let the Great World Spin, none of which matter (or should be expected to matter) to Colum McCann, who, unlike genre writers, can speak his work into a reader-less void. For contrast take the advice of William Nolan, renowned horror/fantasy writer and author of How to Write Horror Fiction, to “satisfy your reader by ending your horror with clarity and definiteness.” Satisfy your reader! In the genre of literary fiction, where the reader is an amorphous entity that pales in importance to the anticipated critic, the rule is: leave your reader unsatisfied. Following this particular generic convention, the end of McCann’s novel reveals the next generation of one of the protagonists to have fared much better than we thought she might; but then again, she is not welcome at the deathbed of her benefactor. We feel melancholy; we are alerted more explicitly to the symbolism of the towers; we are brought in the span of historical time to the present. What we do not feel is satisfied, which implies a certain level of thematic clarity or narrative resolution. This, too, the characteristic anomie of contemporary novelistic endings, is a kind of satisfaction in unsatisfaction, and it’s not my place to challenge its preeminence. A generic convention, nonetheless, it is.
The defensive posture of literary fiction serves primarily to keep out the “too muchness” of genre fiction. Too much violence, too much sentimentality, too much symbolism, too much plot. Too much caring, as well: “make the readers care so much about the hero, the heroine, and their problems that they can’t put the book down,” advises the author of On Writing Romance: How to Craft a Novel that Sells. But if I’ve learned anything from reading literary fiction it’s the opposite, to avoid giving the reader too much pleasure, to invite them to set the book down. McCann’s novel bounces from one point of view to the next so that we are unable to commit fully to any character. We are unable to immerse ourselves in any particular narrative thread; we are unable to surrender. Bibliophiles like to talk about a childhood experience of being “lost” in a book. Typically this experience is gone forever, irretrievable. The culprit here is usually the academic study of fiction beginning in middle school and progressing through high school and possibly college and beyond. Contemporary literary fiction like Let the Great World Spin won’t help them: it performs a similar function, one designed to force an observational/analytical posture that removes the reader from a potentially immersive bodily experience. And in workshops, when we are told to respond to a given student’s story we are not supposed to respond by saying, “This story made me cry,” or, “I hated that character.” When asked about the difference between popular and literary fiction, Stephen King points out (in the above-mentioned Paris Review interview) that, “The real breaking point comes when you ask whether a book engages you on an emotional level. And once those levers start to get pushed, many of the serious critics start to shake their heads and say, No.”
Again it comes down to the problem of audience. In his book A Reader’s Manifesto B.R. Myers—along with Stephen King somewhat of a literary populist—writes of the glowing critical reception of Annie Proulx: “Her writing, like that of so many other novelists today, is touted as ‘evocative’ and ‘compelling.’ The reason these vague attributes have become the literary catchwords of our time, even more popular than ‘raw’ and ‘angry’ were in the 1950s, is that they allow critics to praise a writer's prose without considering its effect on the reader.”
If those writing under the generic mantle of literary fiction aren’t obligated to consider their audiences, their critics are, or should be. If any writing needs to transcend genre it’s criticism itself, whose purpose should be to reveal assumptions, not fall prey to them. Unlike King and Myers, my intention here isn’t to call for a greater level of emotional engagement in contemporary literary fiction. Personally, I feel plenty engaged. It is simply to suggest that, for better or worse, this lack of affectivity is constitutive of the genre of literary fiction, and that we should recognize it as such.
So why can’t literary craft books and teachers of writing simply give, instead of or in addition to exercises designed to stimulate the imagination and close readings of canonical stories, some concrete rules? Don’t let your readers become too invested in your plot. End with anomie. Bring out the poetry of your language, but not too much (e.g. don’t get carried away with alliteration). Details are all-important, whether or not they carry meaning. The sentence is the most important syntactical unit. Your work must be “about” something, but that something must not be too apparent. An evocative mood trumps fidelity to the accuracy of “real-life” details. There are more.
We might be reluctant to name rules (and thereby associate with the generic) because saying them like that sounds a little silly, but our reticence also stems from the sad reality that a lack of explicitness is key to the whole enterprise. This nebulous state of affairs has its advantages. There’s something sexy about this refusal to name the rules, this advice that is not really advice. The opacity of the following statement by Robert Olen Butler (from From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction) on the feelings evoked by a successful work of fiction speaks to this seductive ambiguity: “A kind of harmonic resonance is set up within you. That is the primary and appropriate response to a work of art.” Butler’s argument for an expansive imaginative realm is attractive because it allows us to imagine many possible scenarios for the creation of fiction. The creative horizons seem limitless, unlike those of genre fiction (Butler is also among the chorus of those who regard genre with disdain), with its circumscribed procedures and associations with the empirical realm of formulaic science.
As it stands now, the production of literary fiction derives its greatest magnetism from its inexplicitness, the implications of which are best expressed by Pierre Bordieu: “The possessors of legitimacy, that’s to say those who are in the dominant position, will always utter the vague and pompous discourse of the ineffable, of what ‘goes without saying.’”
But “what goes without saying” always comes at an exclusionary cost; thus, the first obligation of genrefication is an ethical one. The people who write literary fiction now are those who are attracted—as opposed to repelled—by its mystique. Am I reaching too far if I suggest that this distinction has its roots in social class? Though some poor and working class people write literary fiction, a casual survey of any MFA program student body reveals that plenty of them don’t (and this despite a laudable commitment on the part of most of these programs to financial aid). If, as McGurl so thoroughly demonstrates, the higher education system is responsible for most of the dizzying variety and robust quality of contemporary literature, than the old-fashioned rhetoric of equal access for all becomes more important than ever. On an institutional level equal access is accomplished through the distribution of resources; on a pedagogical level it is accomplished through a system of open access to cultural norms.
Demystifying codes tends to level the playing field. It’s a simple idea, but its enactment has been thwarted time and time again by those with the best of intentions. As Lisa Delpit argues in her radically suggestive book Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, progressive educators have done inner-city youth a disservice by refusing to teach the staples of a middle class existence—correct grammar, deportment, and test-taking skills—in the spirit of tailoring their pedagogies to the student’s “home culture.” It’s a long way from inner-city schools to the world of writing programs, yet the link deserves to be forged. In the service of an expressivist tendency (a relic of the curricular reforms of the 60s) on the one hand and an old-fashioned New Critical zeal on the other, critics and professors are busy maintaining the illusion of literary fiction’s separateness, its lack of definable traits. The fact remains, however, that literary fiction is generic, does contain codes, and that these codes are for the most part unexpressed.
It’s not a revolutionary idea. Academia has considered dominant, normative ways of being proper subjects for inquiry for a good quarter century now, since the advent of “masculinity studies” and even “whiteness studies.” It’s time literary fiction took its turn on the dissection table. Samuel Delaney, a (black, gay) critic and science fiction writer who has straddled the boundaries of literary and genre fiction for years, was also (not coincidentally) behind the first attempts to bring whiteness and masculinity to critical attention. As an article in the Minnesota Review states, “demystification is the intellectual imperative that drives Delany's writing”—demystification, that is, of race, class, gender, and generic codes. Tellingly, Delaney is also preoccupied with “aesthetic discipline,” or, in his formulation, “[t]he structures that must be absorbed, internalized, and submitted to if one is to write anything from a sentence to a scene to a multi-volume Encyclopedia of Everything or a roman fleuve.”
Genrefication is nothing if not an elucidation of hidden structures, and, as Delaney suggests, it can reap not only ethical but aesthetic rewards. Writers who acknowledge openly (if only to themselves) that they are following particular generic conventions will write fiction that is self-aware, and therefore better. Given the fascination of literary writers with transgressing rules, they will move on to break explicitly (rather than implicitly, as it is now) from generic conventions, which will yield interesting results as well. Right now, writers of literary fiction are simply following rules they would never acknowledge are there.
As any psychoanalyst can attest, simply speaking anxiety-ridden thoughts—naming what is there but yet unnamed—diminishes their power considerably. Literary fiction is the genre that is not a genre, the implied but not named. Calling it what it is—naming and accepting its generic conventions—will diminish its potency but also its mystique. In the end, this will be a step in the right direction, opening the genre to necessary challenges and transgressions. After all, no one really wants to follow the rules.
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