From the school of “slap one hand to raise the other,” we have a thought provoking article from The Atlantic, emailed to me by Bitchery reader Deb, on the nature of “literary fiction.”
I was nodding and giving a chorus of, “Uh huh, sing it, yup, I’m so with you,” as the author lined up the sad differences between what is considered genre fiction and literary fiction:
Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be “genre fiction”â€”at best an excellent “read” or a “page turner,” but never literature with a capital L. An author with a track record of blockbusters may find the publication of a new work treated like a pop-culture event, but most “genre” novels are lucky to get an inch in the back pages of The New York Times Book Review.
Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand, is now considered to be “literary fiction”â€”not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance….
The dualism of literary versus genre has all but routed the old trinity of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, which was always invoked tongue-in-cheek anyway. Writers who would once have been called middlebrow are now assigned, depending solely on their degree of verbal affectation, to either the literary or the genre camp. David Guterson is thus granted Serious Writer status for having buried a murder mystery under sonorous tautologies (Snow Falling on Cedars, 1994), while Stephen King, whose Bag of Bones (1998) is a more intellectual but less pretentious novel, is still considered to be just a very talented genre storyteller.
But when he starts flailing away at Proulx, Guterson, and others, I felt a little bad for them. Proulx, for example, gets a mighty spanking, and while I know what he’s talking about, and for the reasons he outlines I don’t enjoy her writing, damn, he done beat that horse for a good two hours. Then he moves on to McCarthy.
Nothing makes me snicker like seeing people prick holes in the self-inflated, self-important opinion some people have of the quality of their reading material, especially when Myers writes of Guterson and other writers, “it more important to sound literary than to make sense.” But then, few things make me twitch more than folks who take themselves too seriously, and certainly this is an examination of what is held in serious, lauded regard.
And then, as my empathy for the writers getting spanked tipped the see-saw against my enjoyment of seeing the self-important taken down a bit, I read this about Guterson:
Only the sex scenes, which even his fans lament, are laughably bad.
“Have you ever done this before?” he whispered.
“Never,” answered Hatsue. “You’re my only.”
The head of his penis found the place it wanted. For a moment he waited there, poised, and kissed herâ€”he took her lower lip between his lips and gently held it there. Then with his hands he pulled her to him and at the same time entered her so that she felt his scrotum slap against her skin. Her entire body felt the rightness of it, her entire body was seized to it. Hatsue arched her shoulder bladesâ€”her breasts pressed themselves against his chestâ€”and a slow shudder ran through her.
“It’s right,” she remembered whispering. “It feels so right, Kabuo.”
“Tadaima aware ga wakatta,” he had answered. “I understand just now the deepest beauty.”
If Jackie Collins had written that, reviewers would have had a field day with You’re my only, the searching penis, the shudder’s slow run. Thanks to that scrotum slap, which makes you wonder just what Hatsue’s body felt the rightness of, the passage fails even on a Harlequin Romance level.
You had to go there, huh, sir? Fails “even on a Harlequin Romance level?” Someone get that man a few well-crafted Blaze excerpts quick, so he can experience what well-written sex is like. Myers lauds King and other thriller writers who are dismissed as only good enough for the subway, but oh, so easy to dis the romance.
The highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow are alive and well, it seems. And romance landed somewhere in the moustache. And that’s really a bummer, because if he’d (a) flailed a little less at Proulx et al, and (b) championed specific examples of genre fiction writing that were “quality writing” according to his definition, the article would have been a welcome change to the usual “literary pretention” vs. “genre fiction – but not romance omg it suxx” debate.