The OF Blog: Why do "zhen-rah" types look dumb when talking about "literary fiction?"

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Why do "zhen-rah" types look dumb when talking about "literary fiction?"

Browsing through a few blogs after jury duty/work today and I see where on Grasping for the Wind a reprint of a 2009 blog entry by Mark Rayner has been posted called "Why do lit-ah-rary types look down on SF?"  If it weren't for its asinine, half-baked title, I might have merely dismissed it.  But no, the title of this piece (both the original and the reprint) brings to the fore so many of the stereotypical images of SF-centric fans (and some authors):  the inability to investigate a received comment to see if it's "true" or even static (such as the oft-repeated comment on Margaret Atwood claiming that she doesn't write SF, when for six years, there's been this little piece written by her online from one of the UK's leading newspapers); the blithe dismissals of "literary fiction" as being "unreadable;" and the  launching off onto a tangent (in Rayner's case, vintage SF magazine covers from roughly a half-century ago) that avoids addressing the very valid issues surrounding the term "literary fiction."

There are quite a few authors today (admittedly, more so in the United States than in the UK for the Anglosphere) whose works go back and forth through various tropes, modes, styles, and bents.  Atwood is but one of several, ranging from Chris Adrian, Matt Bell, Blake Butler, David Anthony Durham, Brian Evenson, Rivka Galchen, Bradford Morrow, Téa Obreht, to Karen Russell,  just to name a few, whose works move in and out of the realist approach toward literature toward something approaching the speculative.

Sure, some of the authors might feel unease at being associated with such an appropriated typology such as "genre fiction" or "SF," but that is not necessarily because they are unaware of SF (if you read the bios of several, including those of Obreht and Russell when they appeared in last year's The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list, the intrepid reader might discover certain influences and narrative preferences that show at the very least an awareness and appreciation of non-realist fictions and even major influences on their own fiction.

But these sorts of things aren't often talked about in such articles.  No, I fear the aim of articles such as Rayner's is for the article writer to beat his/her chest, bellow out "Me like genre!  Genre goooood!  Lit-ah-rary baaaaad!", and then proceed to talk about some nostalgic look at old artwork or SF fiction from an era that often is castigated for its sketchy characters, firm belief in a quasi-Positivist outlook, and whose fiction is not often imitated by contemporary writers in any genre.  Sure, it's a "throw red meat to the rabid base" sort of gesture that certainly will generate a lot of rah-rah, hell yeah! responses, but really, is there any real thought put into these sorts of statements?

Anecdotal evidence from reading several such screeds over the years indicates that this is usually not the case.  No, the exploration of "literary fiction," whatever that might mean in the eye of the blog-writing beholder, is relegated to the dustbins of historical criticism, which is not something to be entrusted in the hands of polemical bloggers who appear, on the surface at least, to fail to show any curiosity at all outside of what is occurring in their genre clan cave.  Those neighboring genre clan cave lights might as well be the ignition of dried moose dung for all that these type of readers seem to care.  Whatever it might be, the myopia in articles such as Rayner's leads me to wonder if it might be worthwhile to highlight such drivel every time I stumble across it, in order to get a counter-opinion out there so such posts will not be accepted as received wisdom.  Not that I aim to convince all readers of the many fine points of realist and other narrative fictions, but it might be past time that those readers like myself who enjoy the "literary" as well as the "genre" state that blanket dismissals of one or the other is short-sighted at best and moronic, imbecilic rabble-rousing at its worst.

P.S.  Just after I post this, I see SF Signal has posted something similar to Rayner's article.  It's a bit more thorough, but ultimately, I am unconvinced at Stevens' claims.  There just isn't enough specific examples to bolster his points, which are argued more cogently than Rayner's (which, as I re-read it, isn't saying much at all).


S.M.D. said...

Amusing. I posted something on the topic, which I suppose betrays my own snobbishness for genre fiction. It's an inaccurate betrayal, but so be it.

F. said...

Do not forget the now almost old-as-time dismissal of literary fiction as the same story over and over about college professors dealing with divorce and infidelity. (I remember Gene Wolfe saying in an interview that Le Guin's The Dispossessed could be described that way. What I can't remember though is if he intended his words to be construed as a way to criticize that novel or that particular view.)
But I think that's another discussion, though related. What years ago was a debate between realism and non-realism, or mimetic and fantastic, or (insert label here), has become, due to the "emergence" (are you aware of how many words in this kind of discussions should be between quotation marks?) of young authors who use the tropes of genre fiction (which, as you all Bobs know, are the exclusive property of genre writers), a more confusing and confused matter of genre (but inside) vs. genre (but outside), having lost the more clear boundaries that defined both sides. The things that way, the reaction sounds pretty basic: accepted fiction vs. resentful (or we-don't-care) fiction? Well-written fiction vs. just-written (or we-don't-care) fiction? Widely regarded and praised fiction vs.-- well, you get the idea. It's kind of desperate, as if we wanted so bad to remain different and were afraid of being assimilated or (God forbid) realizing the need to assimilate other forms of making literature.

John Ottinger III (Grasping for the Wind) said...

Though I published the piece, I'm actually with you on this one. I think the whole thing is a false dichotomy set up by each side to make each other feel better about their choices. Which of course they don't need to do unless they are insecure.

John Ottinger said...

Though I published the piece, I'm actually with you on this one. I think the whole thing is a false dichotomy set up by each side to make each other feel better about their choices. Which of course they don't need to do unless they are insecure.

Anonymous said...

The writing on this blog is awful. Just in your last sentence you have two agreement problems:

There just isn't enough specific examples to bolster his points, which are argued more cogently than Rayner's (which, as I re-read it, isn't saying much at all).

should read:

There just AREN'T enough specific examples to bolster his points, which are argued more cogently than Rayner's (which, as I re-read THEM, AREN'T saying much at all.

Not trying to be a jackass but I had real trouble getting through this and I won't be back. If you want to grow your blog you'll have to work on basics of grammar and clear sentence construction. Good luck to you.

Larry said...

Yes, I do need to proofread an occasional sentence or two after I edit in a clarification to make sure it doesn't change subject/verb agreement. But if that's the complaint about this blog, then I should sleep easier at night. Oh, and hi. I'm almost certain you came back to read this.

James said...

I wonder if Anon is the sort of person who flies into a frothing rage at the mere mention of Literature? Perhaps he/she failed to come up with a witty enough reply and was forced to fall back on typical Grammar Nazi behavior instead.

Good ol' Anonymous, they just don't have enough time/sense/motivation to click the button next to name/url.

Larry said...


I was being somewhat polite. I could have noted the lack of commas in two instances where one is required in order to set off a dependent (in one case, also a conditional) clause that begins a sentence. Oh, and the lack of the article "the" in a key place.

But that's just nitpicking, n'est ce pas?

rahkan said...

It kind of seems like the counter-post, castigating genre-lovers for being blind to the world outside the pond, is also something of a staple. I feel that I've read examples of it here, and on Jeff Vandermeer's and Nick Mamatas' blogs. Examples of it usually include a reference to literary-type authors with some genre influences or non-realist tendencies (once Lethem and Chabon, now Karen Russell and Tea Obreht, amongst others).

Larry said...

Perhaps, except I would note that the people you mention (including myself) are not taking sides as much as ridiculing the hypocrisy of one so-called side bemoaning the prejudices of the other so-called side while displaying as much of an ignorance of that other group's literary output as they claim to see from them.

Considering that the three you mention review, write (in their cases), translate (in my case), and promote speculative as well as non-speculative fictions, chances are much higher that such people might be more aware of what is being produced and would not blind themselves to certain swathes of fiction.

Anonymous said...

Yeah--I love all kinds of fiction, and my objections arise when like kind is sundered from like kind by dint of either subculture blinders or mainstream bias. JeffV

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