The OF Blog: Perceived fallacies

Friday, February 04, 2011

Perceived fallacies

Ever heard someone speak and you thought they were full of shit, yet there were several people who seemed to be spooning that crap into their mouths?  It's a common occurrence in all walks of life; we do, like birds of a feather, stick together.  Yet it never hurts to challenge certain assumptions for what they are, personal prejudices trussed up and made to look almost respectable.  Thought I'd cover a few writing/reading related fallacies that I've seen rehashed several times over the years:

Fallacy #1:  Literary fiction/mainstream fiction writers hate genre fiction.  This is so commonly heard in certain parts that one begins to accept it as a matter of fact without thinking much about it.  Which writers?  A few here and there, no different in size and number than fantasy/SF writers who dismiss realist fiction?  Is it representative of thousands upon thousands of writers across the globe?  Of course not.  If you want to see how ridiculous this claim is, insert an ethnic/religious minority into the lit fic role and put the ethnic/religious minority into the second.  Or you could just flip them about as best suits you.  See how ridiculous that sort of generalization sounds?

Fallacy #2:  Genre fiction has produced more "literature" than has literary fiction.  Let me quote from a recent tweet sent by someone working for a major UK publisher:

Plenty of genre fic becomes Literature (Dickens) courtesy of posterity. Lit fic not old enough as a genre to have examples of the opposite?
 Sounds all nice and good for the audience (I almost responded at the time, but I knew I wanted to devote more than 140 characters to this.  I also am withholding more specific information, since I think this is not just the opinion of one person, but of several people who are active in genre discussions), but can it be disproved? 

Well, there's Saul Bellow for starters.  Likely Charles Bukowski.  Most of Norman Mailer's works.  Pat Barker appears to be well on her way.  Truman Capote and Harper Lee for certain.  That's just off the top of my head.  Still puzzled how Dickens is being claimed as "genre fiction," however, which I suppose leads to the next fallacy.

Fallacy #3:  Only the most narrow of prose styles can be classified as "literary fiction."  This fallacy is a natural conclusion to those who want to claim unto themselves virtually every single work of enjoyable fiction as being "genre fiction," until only a tiny remnant of works which they either do not understand nor care to like are excluded.  It really is a silly, silly argument.  For the life of me, I just cannot picture the vast majority of Dickens' works, concerned as they are with 19th century social problems or with the people of those times and backgrounds, having much in common, besides the English language, with the works of Terry Goodkind.    Methinks some are just overreaching in their desire to have their preferred reading be more desirable than other literary genres.

Fallacy #4:  Literary fiction is only concerned with bourgeois concerns.  Although there is some truth to this, only so far as there being several novels each year as being marketed to such audiences, there's a much wider range.  One only has to look at the past year's National Book Award and Booker Prize finalists to see that.

Fallacy #5:  Lit fiction writers do not care for genre fiction.  If that were the case, then I would imagine that the very warm reception I received from several lit journals when I queried for reading materials for Best American Fantasy 4 would have never happened.  It is rather telling that a sizable percentage of those who responded here or elsewhere to August's announcement regarding BAF's discontinuance were those most usually associated as "literary fiction" writers and editors.  I think a more pertinent question would be "Do core genre fiction writers/editors/publishers/fans care much for writers in other fields?"

Fallacy #6:  Fans know how to argue the dynamics commonly found in disparate styles of fiction.  We don't.  Even those of us who've had some training and experience in doing so ought to be very cautious in doing so.  The pressures put upon writers to change certain elements to suit better certain perceived market audiences differs from subgenre to subgenre and it would be wise not to pardon writers in one field for what they have to do and not consider what writers in another field have to do in order to have their works become successful.

Fallacy #7:  Everything I say is the gospel truth.  I could be very wrong, you know.  Are you certain you are not mistaken as well?


Booker said...

I don't know, that Number 7 seems right on the money to me!

marco said...

I think in choosing to analyze and dismiss these naive positions you're making a straw man of the broader issues from which they spring.

Can you can tell me why a host of literary bloggers sang the praises of Chris Adrian, yet none of them knows the works of John Crowley?

Why the work of, say, authors like Brockmeier, Millhauser, even Danielewski is forgotten by the broader literary conversation when it is translated into genre imprints?

Conversely, why works of "genre" authors like Chandler, Simenon, McCain, Sturgeon gain serious attention for the first time when they're published, along names like Bolano, Sebald, Bernhard, Canetti or Borges by Adelphi, a highly respected literary imprint run by multiple Nobel candidate Roberto Calasso?

Lsrry said...

Marco, I'm a bit confused by the Crowley situation, since he has received some coverage from those circles, especially from Harold Bloom, who has included Crowley's earlier works in his "canon."

As for the Brockmeier et al., I've seen some mention here and there over the years in certain circles. Could it be simply a case of not just seeing it often enough and conflating it with not appearing at all? I'm uncertain myself what to think on that, to be honest.

As for the other names, it might just be due to some sort of Zeitgeist, I suppose.

As for the "straw man," not really buying it, in that I am not making truly definitive comments (thus my #7), as I am well aware that I can and often am not covering everything due to limitations in my awareness. However, I also see those putting forth anything resembling a definitive split into two or more writing camps as a fallacy that's emerged over the past century or two from artificial divisions brought about by the demands associated with the Industrial Revolution. Might elaborate on this point in a future post.

marco said...

I know Bloom holds Crowley in high regard, wrote the introduction for the reissue of Little, Big, and included works by him (along a couple of works by Thomas Disch and Ursula Le Guin, as well some others that could be considered "genre" writers) in his canon. Bloom is a special case however, both for his ongoing interest in the fantastic (Alice in Wonderland, A Voyage to Arcturus, etc.) and for the incredible range of his reading. Bloom's regard (and random appreciative pieces from time to time in magazines) did not translate into a real presence on the literary map outside the "ghetto" of the fantastic - or even widespread knowledge of Crowley's name.
In itself this wouldn't be particularly significant - fluctuations in literary fortunes are part of the game, in and out of genre.
My larger point, however, is that the kind and degree of critical attention and discussion your work will receive is very much a function of where it is shelved (or the magazines it is published in).
That was especially the case in my country (where Calvino was gently rebuked because he did not write "serious" novels, critics engaged in verbal acrobatics in order to avoid the descriptor "crime novel" for works by Gadda or Sciascia, and even in the Eighties a comprehensive tome on French Literature of the Twentieth Century didn't see fit to include an entry about Georges Simenon) - but from my stay in Germany and the English papers/magazines/blogs I read, I'd say it's more or less the same everywhere.

marco said...

I also feel there's a diffuse belief that the literary writer is capable of writing in genre, but when he does, he uses the genre toolkit to further different ends, while the genre writer merely wants to follow and satisfy conventional expectations.
The exceptions are those writers who "trascend" the genre (Lem, Ballard, Vonnegut) but sooner or later they will make it into the canon, so we don't need to soil ourselves looking for the rare diamonds in the dirt.
Variations of these assumptions come up fairly frequently in literary discussions, look for example at the Edward Docx piece in the Guardian which caused quite a stir a couple of months ago. Or, in short, Genre is entertainment, Literature goes to the heart of the human experience.
Of course I don't (want to) believe in artificial separations - genre is an indication, a framing device, but every text should be judged on its own, examining whether what it's trying to achieve is interesting or meaningful, and how effective it is.
But I still feel that the genre tag often carries a stigma, or perhaps more exactly some kind of invisibility cloak.
You could say it works in both directions, but those who know and read John Crowley or M John Harrison certainly also know, say, Angela Carter or Calvino, and probably enjoy many different literary/mainstream authors, while the reader with no a priori interest in a genre will rarely be put in the position to encounter authors he may appreciate.

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