Two posts today gave me some food for thought, but since one touched a nerve, one that I’ve been nursing for some time, I’m going to write about that one.
In The Guardian, Jennifer Weiner writes that critics rarely write about the books that people are actually reading. I’m not sure that’s 100 percent true — I’ve seen many different kinds of books reviewed that are also popular — it’s probably more true that they rarely recommend them.
But that being said, I took greater offense to a rebuttal in the Huffington Post (I know, HuffPo, but stick with me). Claire Fallon, in her post, “Critics Don’t Exist to Flatter Your Taste” she rebuts the claims that critics purposefully distance themselves from anything popular, even backtracking from works they once approved because they’ve since become popular.
I’m not spending a lot of time on that because I generally don’t care about critics. What does need some picking apart is the following: “Critics focus on what we deem literary fiction — for the purposes of this piece, fiction that doesn’t conform to the tropes or formulas of specific genres, and that generally aims to be artful or experimental in its prose and structure. On the other side, traditionally, are genres: romance, sci-fi, fantasy, crime, mystery.”
Nice of her to throw in “traditionally” leaving a little wiggle room for us lowly genre writers to occasionally have a glimpse of creativity. Most of the time, of course, we’re just following tired old formulas, churning out drivel for the masses.
OK, I will acquiesce, there is a lot of genre fiction that follows tropes. Romance? Of course. Mysteries? I suppose. I don’t really read either, so I can’t say one way or the other.
But she had to lump science fiction in there. That is something I am very familiar to me. And false. Here’s the thing: Real science fiction exists for the very reason of circumventing convention. It’s existence is a backlash against tropes.
People who say consign science fiction to the trope-filled trash bin of literature haven’t read enough. They haven’t pondered the existential questions of Galatea 2.2, reimagined a post-corporate world in Snow Crash, or explored human sexuality in Imago. The irony is that the three authors in question: Richard Powers, Neal Stephenson and Octavia Butler are considered literary authors. How could they stoop to the depths of the science fiction genre?
This is why I don’t think “traditionally” cuts it. Traditionally science fiction authors existed to buck the trend of current literature. Authors such as Isaac Asimov existed to subvert those tropes, to explore facets of humanity by taking it out of our everyday context.
Again, this goes back to my argument about science fiction needing to be more than “boobs in space.” This became the argument behind the latest Hugo Awards (full of, BTW, authors who subvert genre tropes); the backlash from the gamergate equivalent of the sci-fi world was that the award program was rewarding authors for experimentation rather than what was selling.
So sure, there is also plenty of “boobs in space” fiction claiming to be sci-fi. And a lot of it sells. And they might not need critics because those people already know what to buy. Yes, there is plenty of sci-fi that follows formula, that doesn’t seek to reinvent, that follows tropes.
The same can be said of many genres, including literary fiction. Tropes in literary fiction, you say? First off, how many of the main characters in these have some university involvement? (John Updike, I’m looking at you.) How many have main characters that exist merely to serve as tools to make the author’s theoretical point, story be damned? (Don DeLillo, I’m looking at you.)
I could go on but you get the point. Post-modern thought tells us there is no higher art, that all art is on a level playing field and is a text to be criticized. Fallon’s post harkens back to the modernist concept of high art, the elevation of the author, and so forth. But even using that rubric, so-called literary fiction doesn’t hold up.
It’s that experimentation I seek in my own work as well. I start off with a familiar sci-fi concept: A boy and his robot. I then make them background characters, subverting the boy on a journey concept; instead, what might be the female love interest is instead the main character. Isellia is a strong-willed character who just refuses to remain in the background – I shouldn;t even take credit for it. Her story is one of following in her father’s footsteps to become the greatest XR racer in the universe, relying on the help of those who consider her family and those who would use her for their own gains (who is whom isn’t always clear).
I experiment with form, with chronology, and with what “traditionally” qualifies as sci-fi. But at the end of the day, I always wanted to write books people want to read. And I think that’s where literary fiction often fails. Experimentation is good, but not when it comes at the expense of compelling narrative, or good characters. (White Noise is a good example of this.) At the end of the day, what good is a book no one really wants to read?
Take a book like House of Leaves. It’s a fascinating book, and perhaps one of the more difficult to read I can think of (in fairness, I’ve not read Finnegan’s Wake). In fact, Infinite Jest is also a good example of a difficult but fascinating book. What makes both of them great books is that, while both experimental and post-modern, they also contain great characters that feel real. The don’t exist to make a literary point; they’re fleshed out people a reader can latch onto.
Which is why I think we should get away from the literary/genre divide. It’s a foolish division that doesn’t actually have any merit for existing.