The OF Blog: "Literary mainstream": Monolithic or not?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

"Literary mainstream": Monolithic or not?

Been following the discussion on a few sites recently in regards to modes/genres, and there was something that Jonathan McCalmont said that made me stop and think:

As I suggested in the column, I think that definitions can have a social role, telling people what kind of tradition a work draws from as well as inviting other people to play off of them as in the case of movements. SFFH simply is not as monolithic a culture as mainstream lit. It's similar to the way that people from Boston will identify themselves as "Irish American" despite the fact that they probably have to go back 150 years to find an actual Irish person in their immediate family. If America was not as monolithic a culture as it is, these people would most likely be happy to consider themselves as Bostonians.
When I read that, my first response was a skeptical, "It is?" Too often, I've heard authors, reviewers, critics, and general readers of SF/F/H/speculative fiction express a belief in a counterforce, some "literary mainstream." From the tenor of their discussions, it always sounded more as though this "literary mainstream" were some stolid, solid, vaguely dismissive entity. But as someone who came into reading genre literature (outside of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and a couple of others) at a relatively late age (my mid-20s, just over a decade ago), I never was quite convinced by this. I recall well the cultural histories talking about polarizations between "high" and "low" cultures and the semiotics of each, but I was never given this impression that either branch was a stable, monolithic entity, but instead were dynamic forces that represented values and world-views encoded in forms recognizable to its members, similar to the secret handshakes of fraternities and so forth.

But perhaps there's something more to this that I'm missing. Why do many, especially genre fans, envision this "literary mainstream?" If it doesn't really exist (or maybe it does, but I'll need some convincing), then what is the purpose of trying to bring it into existence? Are there sets of codes/values embedded in its form(s), whatever that might entail? Just something I'm curious about, little more than that.


Cheryl said...

It is, I think, human nature to view a large group that you are not part of as "monolithic". To a certain extent, Jonathan is simply showing that he doesn't know much about America, or about "mainstream literature" (whatever that is). You can perhaps argue that the UK shows considerably more cultural diversity in a small space than the US does, but I'm pretty sure it would not be hard to find Scotsmen who claim that England is a monolithic culture whereas the Scots are fabulously diverse.

As to why genre fans envisage "literary mainstream", that's fairly obvious. It is there in the bookstore for all to see. Certain books are shelved as "fiction", whereas others are siphoned away into their little ghettos where only the weird people go. Of course the books shelved under "fiction" are not all alike, and readers of, say, chick lit or historical fiction, might welcome their own ghetto where the books they like are easier to find. I've seen some stores with a lot more "genre" sections than others. But with the industry dominated by chains the rules of partition can seem very fixed.

The other aspect to this is, of course, that group of people who regard themselves as the guardians of good literature: the mainstream critics. Most of these people, of course, are just as dismissive of much of what gets shelved with general fiction as they are of speculative works, though that's not always obvious to the SF fan who sees his favorite writers being dismissed as talentless hacks time and again. This situation is, I think (and I do split my life roughly 50/50 between the two sides of the Atlantic) much worse in the UK than it is in the US. I'd cut Jonathan a little slack on that basis (though I'd still like him to learn more about America).

Larry said...

Oh, I wasn't criticizing him there, only that his statements (which I too thought reflected only a superficial awareness of the tensions of the US) on the "literary mainstream" reminded me of so many others that I just paused, thought, and questioned.

Sometimes, it is beneficial to think of "other" as being more akin to one's own group/mode/etc., as it leads to different sorts of questions and sets of assumptions. Which of course begs the question of how do the marketers hold that much sway these days? As for the academics, been around them enough to know that Baskin Robbins' has less flavors than they have opinions and schemae ;)

Cheryl said...

It is the job of people in PR and marketing to understand how people work and manipulate them. That they sometimes succeed may be depressing, but is perhaps not totally surprising.

As for academics, they are indeed a fractious lot. It is their job. But even the most fractious community can seem monolithic if they are united against you.

Larry said...

Cheryl, I don't know if I can agree with that last statement. Outside of a few here and there, my experience when I was in grad school (albeit in a different discipline, cultural history) is that the professors and so forth are quite interested in the more "popular" forms of mass culture, from comic books to pulps to things like that. But I know it varies from locale to locale as well and department to department. I just can't seem to buy into this notion of there being any real "uniting" going on.

Cheryl said...

That's because you are on the other side of the Atlantic, Larry. Trust me, things are very different here.

(And yes, there are plenty of people who do film studies and things like that. They are fine. But if you want to do "Literature" you must disavow childish pursuits.)

And remember, there doesn't need to be any active "uniting". Most prejudice is so ingrained that people often don't realize that they are doing it. It is just a mode of behavior.

Larry said...

Ah, yes, I forgot about that bit about the BBC documentary on fantasy from a few months ago and the uproar it caused over the interpretations. Yes, it is quite a bit different here and with the emerging generation of scholars, it's bound to be even more genre-friendly here in the very near future.

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