Some thoughts about genre
The other day, over at Spike, the delightful Jessica Au posted some thoughts about genre, and the rather vexed question of its changing relationship to the literary.
Jess’ thoughts were sparked by China Mieville’s The City and the City, but they echoed a series of questions I’ve been pondering for a while now. Certainly a cursory glance across the bookshelves of your average reader is likely to reveal a rather more catholic collection of books than one might have found there a generation ago. Where once the white spines of Picadors jostled with writers such as Peter Carey and Raymond Carver, now one is apt to find Harry Potter jammed next to Cormac Mccarthy and Stiegg Larsson.
The usual reaction is to say one of two things. On the one hand, people will argue that the literary as a category is changing, growing more diverse and inclusive. And to an extent that’s true: Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin are in the Library of America these days, and literary readers seem perfectly willing to embrace work that is essentially SF from writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood. But while I think the category may be more inclusive than it was a decade or two ago, I suspect it’s always admitted work which drew on the fantastical and SF (Angela Carter, anyone? Riddley Walker?). And I think it’s important not to overstate the extent to which the category has actually changed: conventional literary fiction is, 99% of the time at least, still conventional literary fiction (and, as a quick flick through the prize lists of the last year or two will demonstrate, in surprisingly and even counter-intuitively good health).
The other response usually comes from those outside the literary world, and takes one of two tacks. One is to argue, as writers such as Kim Stanley Robinson and Adam Roberts (author of the rather excellent Yellow Blue Tibia) do in articles published in New Scientist and The Guardian last year, that the literary novel has already been so efficiently colonized by science fictional conceits it’s already dead, and it’s only the insularity and elitism of the literary world that stops us acknowledging that fact. The other is essentially the line that Jess runs on Spike, that what we’re seeing is a larger breakdown of the categories that once structured and organised our reading, and that the whole idea of SF, or Crime, or even the literary is now essentially meaningless, and what matters is story.
I have some sympathy with both points of view, not least because I think both are, to some extent, correct. But I also think that by continuing to understand this in terms of the comparative merits and businesses of genre they put the cart before the horse. The shift in reading habits and tastes in recent years isn’t about reality and SF becoming indistinguishable, or the old canard of readerly impatience with unreadable literary novels, it’s part of a much larger shift in the power structures that underpin our culture, a shift that’s as visible in the increasingly belligerent populism you see on display amongst younger Australians (the “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi” and tattoos of the flag crowd) and the manner in which the outside-the-Beltway world of new media keeps pushing back against old media’s highly controlled, scripted and insider-friendly coverage of politics as it is in shifting reading habits.
That may sound like a long bow to draw, but I’m not sure it is. One of the signal features of political and social discourse in recent years has been the accelerating pushback against traditional loci of cultural authority. The increasing sophistication and power of the new media, and in particular the rise of political blogs and websites such as Crikey!, Mumble and Possum’s Pollytics in Australia and Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo in the US, are probably the most visible aspect of this process (if you’re interested in exploring this question a bit further you could do a lot worse than read Michael Massing’s recent piece in The New York Review of Books, ‘A New Horizon for the News?’). But I think it’s also visible in the rise of right wing populism: Fox News and Sarah Palin are signal example, but here in Australia it’s also pretty clear that a lot of the fairly belligerent populism is about an anti-politics pushback by working class and lower middle class people once excluded from the political process (here in Australia I think that process is being amplified by the boom of the last few years, and the now not-inconsiderable wealth of many such people: once you’ve got a big house and kids in private school you’re probably a little less likely to put up with being told what to think by the educated middle classes).
While it might be a sideshow, reading tastes are being transformed by the same process. While it’s fashionable these days to deride the “literary” as simply a marketing term, it’s in fact much more than that. “Literature”, like high culture in general, is one of the more significant repositories of cultural power. What you read matters (or did until very recently), not least because it’s a powerful signifier of membership of the educated middle classes. It’s certainly not accidental that the boundaries of what’s acceptable was (again until very recently) pretty ruthlessly policed by academics and critics writing for major broadsheets and magazines such as The New Yorker, The Monthly and The New Statesman, since those publications are read by the educated middle classes. I don’t want to sound too much like some Refectory Trot, but basically the middle classes are a club, and you get in by going to the right schools and universities, and by reading and watching the right things.
But in recent years these loci of cultural authority in the literary world have been experiencing exactly the same pushback as the newspapers and the accepted boundaries of political discourse. Critics no longer make or break books, TV shows such as Oprah and Richard and Judy do, reading groups and word-of-mouth are on the rise, as are any number of online services allowing readers to share and disseminate their own views on what’s good and what’s not. Indeed what’s really interesting is the way the last decade has seen not just the rise of the Harry Potter/Da Vinci Code-style literary blockbuster, a phenomenon which seems to have almost nothing to do with the way books once found success, but also any number of reader-driven, word-of-mouth successes such as Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Part of it’s certainly about the increasing preparedness of publishers to explore non-traditional avenues of distribution, such as supermarkets and petrol stations, and the increasing sophistication of marketing, but most of it’s about the rise of the reader.
At this point in the argument a lot of people are likely to start banging on about the rise of the reader being a reassertion of the power of story over the dreary worthiness critics and academics once foisted upon us, but – not to put too fine a point on it – that whole line of argument is anti-intellectual crap. Reading pleasure and sophistication aren’t mutually exclusive. Sure there are lots of boring literary novels, but there are just as many boring SF novels, or boring Crime or Fantasy books.
But I think it is worth recognising there’s another factor at play here, which is education. “Literature”, and the literary may be socially contingent cultural constructs, but they’re not arbitrary, at least within the context of our culture. What’s good and what’s bad is defined by relation to the canon, and by standards of judgement which (while they change over time) have been developed over hundreds of years.
Nor do they come for free. Until very recently our education system, both at a secondary and a tertiary level, placed great emphasis upon understanding literary tradition. That didn’t just mean reading the canon, it meant learning how to read, a process which embraced an understanding of Latin grammar, the memorisation of slabs of poetry by Homer and Shakespeare and Tennyson, a grasp of the Bible, and the Classics, and an attentiveness to the way language works on the page.
Things might be different overseas, but nobody in Australia gets this sort of education anymore. In its place we have a system of literary education that emphasises personal response and personal expression, and which privileges comparison of groups of texts over close reading of particular texts. At one level this is great, since it opens us up to new forms of expression and empowers the individual, as well as breaking down the hegemony of the literary, but it also means almost all of the criteria that once allowed us to define “Literature” have slipped away, and our judgements about books and writing are now made on quite different criteria.
I should emphasise this isn’t meant as a jeremiad or a lament: it seems to me there are now extremely sophisticated cultures of critical judgement and appreciation operating within forms such as SF, cultures which have their own criteria and agendas. And while I want to scream every time I hear a reader talk about a character’s “journey”, I recognise they’re using a critical language that makes sense to them, and which they find enriches their reading experience, which is, at the end of the day, what criticism should be about.
But it does mean that at almost every level our capacity to regulate or even define the boundary of the literary is diminished. What’s good is no longer defined by gatekeepers schooled in the right universities and armed with an intimate knowledge of Renaissance poetry and the Russian novel (though there are plenty of them out there). Instead it’s defined from the ground up, by readers, who are finding ways of communicating and sharing things they like online and elsewhere, and bypassing traditional organs of cultural authority such as the newspapers. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, part of that process has been the falling away of many of the old status anxieties about genre and the literary, and a freeing up of readers to seek out books unhindered by those anxieties.