I read Arthur Krystal’s essay on genre fiction shortly after it came out in the October 24, 2012, issue of The New Yorker. It made me angry at the time. But I ignored it for a number of months. Then I came across it again and decided I really did want to talk about it. I find it amazing that a critic would write something like this in the second decade of the twenty-first century. It sounds as if it belongs in 1960. It is also amazing that a reputable magazine would publish the essay. Are the people who put out The New Yorker living under rocks?
This is part of what Krystal wrote:
What I’m trying to say is that “genre” is not a bad word, although perhaps the better word for novels that taxonomically register as genre is simply “commercial.” Born to sell, these novels stick to the trite-and-true, relying on stock characters whose thoughts spool out in Lifetime platitudes. There will be exceptions, as there are in every field, but, for the most part, the standard genre or commercial novel isn’t going to break the sea frozen inside us. If this sounds condescending, so be it. Commercial novels, in general, whether they’re thrillers or romance or science fiction, employ language that is at best undistinguished and at worst characterized by a jejune mentality and a tendency to state the obvious . . .
One reads Conrad and James and Joyce not simply for their way with words but for the amount of felt life in their books. Great writers hit us over the head because they present characters whose imaginary lives have real consequences (at least while we’re reading about them), and because they see the world in much the way we do: complicated by surface and subterranean feelings, by ambiguity and misapprehension, and by the misalliance of consciousness and perception. Writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know are not going to write horror tales or police procedurals. . . . Good commercial fiction is inferior to good literary fiction in the same way that Santa Claus is inferior to Wotan. One brings us fun or frightening gifts, the other requires—and repays—observance.
I realize it’s is a classic example of a guy who identifies with "literary" fiction defending what he likes. He may know mysteries and adventure stories. I suspect he does not know science fiction.
What he describes as literary sounds like the classic bourgeois novel of character and psychology. These can certainly be good. But they were done in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. As a writer, I see no reason to do them again. If I want to read one, I will get out James or Proust.
There are lots of problems with Krystal’s description of science fiction and fantasy. A lot of our work is not commercial. This is why independent presses such as Cheeky Frawg, Aqueduct, and Small Beer—among others—exist: to publish science fiction and fantasy that is not going to be picked up by the big New York houses.
This non-commercial SF, much of it fiction that pushes at the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy, is still within the SF community. We all go to the same cons; and the convention dealers’ rooms sell books that range from Doc Smith to graphic novels to endless fantasy series to non-commercial books by presses like Aqueduct.
This is important. SF remains a community, thanks to cons, blogs, Facebook, and so on. People doing very different kinds of work remain in the community. The best way to see science fiction and fantasy, I think, is as a group of interconnected people and/or a fuzzy collection of related kinds of fiction, some of which are very loosely related. Rather than a single uniform thing, SF is a hodge-podge.
Krystal’s description of SF is both unfair and silly. For that matter his description of great literary fiction is also unfair. When he gets down to specifics, he lists three white men who lived in Western Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There is a lot more to literature—even to the kind of literature he claims to like. He could have mentioned Jane Austen or George Eliot or the many fine literary authors produced by countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
“Commercial” is a stupid category if we want to talk about quality, since—in the end—it is talking about sales. Charles Dickens was a highly commercial writer. Does that say anything about his work?
We could argue for days about what makes a writer popular. Ursula K. LeGuin appears to sell well. Terry Pratchett is a good part of the British GDP. Is either “trite-and-true?” I’d say no. Both build large, complex, original worlds and use them to say serious things about our lives and our world now. Both write well. LeGuin is an amazing stylist, and I am in love with Pratchett’s footnotes.
There are several issues here, which Krystal has deliberately confused. One is being commercial, which has two meanings: books that sell well, and books that were written deliberately to sell well. The first can be discovered. It’s a matter of sales figures. Whose books show up on the New York Times list of best sellers? Whose books appear in large numbers in Barnes and Noble? And whose books remain on the shelves? Of course, books sell in e-versions now. These also can be tracked.
Some of the books on the Times Best Seller list were deliberately written to be best sellers. But not all. How do we determine the intent of the authors? Ask? What if the authors lie?
At this point in the discussion, we move to quality; and good sales have nothing to do with quality, or so Krystal argues. I would agree with him. Some good books sell well, and others do not. Moby Dick bombed, and Melville had to get a day job.
So what is quality, and how do we discuss it? Who makes the judgment, anyway? In the end, it’s history. The trouble with the judgment of history is, it’s not available to us now. So we are left with our own judgment, which may or may not be correct.
Krystal argues that the writers he likes are good. In fact, James and Joyce—I have read some of both—are good. But the novels of character that appeared in the nineteenth century and continued to be written in the twentieth century are not the only kind of fiction.
Krystal avoids talking about many distinguished literary authors who have written fantastic fiction, novels that push our ideas about reality and art, because they aren’t doing what he says fiction ought to do. The obvious people to mention here are Jorge Borges and Italo Calvino. Margaret Atwood and A. S. Byatt have written fine fantastic fiction. The great Icelandic novelist Haldor Laxness wrote an amazing novel titled Under the Volcano, which involves a woman who gets turned into a salmon and frozen for years in a glacier, then is bought back to life and humanity. One cannot call it realistic, though it is—in part—a novel of character.
I’d argue that SF is a large, messy field. Some writers in it sell well. Others do not. Some write fiction I would call hackwork or just plain bad. Work. Some are so close to literary fiction as makes no difference. Jonathan Letham began in SF and is now a literary writer in good standing. Iain M. Banks moved back and forth between science fiction and literary fiction during his entire career. Maybe these boundaries mean less than they used to. Maybe they never meant a lot.
We have people in the SF community writing space opera (Iain M. Banks and Lois McMaster Bujold, for two very different examples) and people writing hard SF. There are authors of quirky fantasy, such as William Alexander, who recently won a National Book Award. There are authors of massive epic fantasies I find unreadable, but other people love. We have small presses and little magazines full of work that challenges traditional ideas of fiction and science fiction. But we all recognize each other as members of the same large, messy field. You will find many of us in the bar at Worldcon.
This self-identity is important and, I think, valuable. What it means is, many different kinds of authors feel at least some connection to one another. I can sit on a panel with SF writers of art fiction and military space opera writers and feel more or less comfortable. We share a culture.
(This does not mean we always get along. Sometimes our community seems like the family Thanksgiving from hell. But the community continues to exist, in spite of the fights. On my optimistic days, I think it is progressing in a—so to speak—progressive direction.)
As far as I can tell, the world of literary fiction is similar. It’s large and messy and has ragged edges. Some people sell well. Some do not. Literary people recognize each other.
In any case, the author of the above essay is not interested in what interests me—which is change, technology, new ways of seeing the universe, big social questions, and fiction that pushes the limits of reality. The inner workings of the Western bourgeoisie really don't grip me. It may well be possible to write about the issues that interest me outside science fiction. But science, technology, change, and new ways of seeing have been the great themes of science fiction. I think I will stay where I am.
And I don't like it when the essayist pulls in Wotan. I presume this is a reference to Wagner's Ring Cycle. Wagner based his operas on research into Germanic, especially Icelandic, myth. His Ring Cycle is not realistic. Odin, who is the version of Wotan to be found in Icelandic literature, is a seriously strange and scary being—king of the gods, defender of hospitality, god of war, death, and poetry. This is the guy who gave an eye for wisdom and sacrificed himself to himself to get knowledge of runes. He belongs to the world of magic and mythology, not to the world of psychological novels; and if you encounter him, you have entered the realm of science fiction and fantasy.
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