The OF Blog: Standing in the Pissstream: Comments Regarding "Mainstream," "Literary Fiction," and "Fantasy"

Friday, February 03, 2012

Standing in the Pissstream: Comments Regarding "Mainstream," "Literary Fiction," and "Fantasy"

I promised Justin Landon on Twitter earlier that I would write a rebuttal of his post "Are We Trying Too Hard?", thus the post. 

I am a catholic reader.  I read histories, poetry, dramas, various comedies, historical fictions, contemporary fictions, the occasional romance (the 19th and early 20th century definition, however), weird fiction, cross-genre, crime, mystery, graphic novels and the odd manga, science fiction, fantasies of various stripes, and yes, I've even read yaoi on a dare.  There are, of course, gaps in my reading, as I am not a regular reader of erotica, nor have I enjoyed reading the latest iteration of "urban" fantasy (the term's meaning has shifted greatly over the past 10 years; the older forms of it I have enjoyed) or paranormal romance, because I am not the "ideal reader" for those works.  Oh, and thrillers, which I can barely stomach in cinema form and which I choose not to read after a few bad experiences.  I don't judge those who prefer these other forms; after all, my parents love reading thrillers and my mom romance novels on occasion, but both are well-rounded, intelligent people who have different reading preferences from mine.

Notice that I did not use the terms "literary fiction" or "mainstream" here.  I find neither label to be a good descriptor of what I like from certain styles of fictional narrative.  When I see people use these terms, whether it's pejorative or not, usually they are in reference to contemporary fictions, although sometimes the label is attached to historical fictions or even crime/mystery novels (which may baffle the well-read in the latter genres).  "Mainstream" is rather odd, almost as meaningless these days as talking about what "Main Street" wants.  There are a variety of styles for readers to choose from and several don't limit themselves to just a single form.

After reading Landon's article, I could not help but think that he does a poor job in defining the terms of his argument.  He treats terms like "mainstream," "literary fiction," "fantasy," and "literary fantasy" as if they are crystal-clear terms with sharp delineations.  He notes, for example, that Téa Obreht's excellent The Tiger's Wife was his favorite fiction for 2011 but that he did not include her in his year-end list because "in my mind, it isn't genre.  It's got some magic, or supernatural plot devices, but only by happenstance.  It is not a Fantasy novel, rather Obreht wrote a mainstream literary novel with a hint of fantasy."  It is a very odd distinction to be making, one that I do not think is supported by the text itself (which includes, among other elements, a supernatural being that is immortal and who promises to meet up with the narrator's grandfather when it is time for her grandfather to die) nor by Obreht's stated influences

What seems to be the point of his article is to narrow down the terms of what constitutes "fantasy" to something that is: 1) set in a fictional locale, 2) does not utilize certain narrative techniques that would make it "literary," whatever that might mean.  Although I likely am distorting Landon's argument somewhat, on the whole such a schematic for outlining what is and what isn't "fantasy" is flawed.  It is flawed because there are so many exceptions (where do you classify the likes of an M. John Harrison, China Miéville, Jeff VanderMeer, or Ursula Le Guin on occasion?) that can be made that it becomes difficult to justify trying to define anything outside of how it is marketed to readers.  Want something that is odd and tentacled?  There's some weirdness in Aisle 5.  Want shapeshifting female fighters who battle werewolves and other creatures?  Patricia Briggs can be found two aisles down.  Want a complex narrative about self-identity set in a mostly-deserted town with mysterious fog creeping about?  That's Samuel Delany and he's found...uh....well....fuck!  I don't know, but he's somewhere!

Another troublesome area in his article is his apparent defensiveness when it comes to perceived "attacks" on the particular brand of "fantasy" that he seems to prefer most, the multivolume epic fantasies.  I don't dispute matters of taste very often and I won't here, but a disproportionate amount of Landon's column revolves around his distaste for people either "pushing" for other forms of fantasy (if such are fantasies to him) or "attacking" the particular style he favors most.

To that, all I can do is shrug.  There are fans of epic fantasies who read this blog and enjoy what I review outside their particular "comfort zones"; others find the paucity of coverage here of their favorite subgenre of literature to be offputting and rarely visit or consider the books that I do read, because of perceived "negative reviews" of certain authors.  Tonight, I reviewed over at Gogol's Overcoat William Faulkner's 1932 novel, Light in August.  This weekend, I hope to write a column on Eric Basso's poetry for later publication at Weird Fiction Review and by Tuesday, I hope to have a review of Saladin Ahmed's debut S&S fantasy, The Throne of the Crescent Moon, up here at this blog.  Each of those differs wildly from one another.  I could make the argument that each of them could be considered "genre" and I would have some evidence to support that view.  I could just as well ignore such a label and focus on the works as being part and parcel of contemporary material culture (as a former cultural history grad major, it is still influential on how I view the world and its peoples).  Either one can "work," but both allow for a greater acceptance of works that might have some sort of literary kinship.  That openness I find lacking too often in these "literary/mainstream vs. genre" discussions and their off-shoot "what constitutes 'fantasy'" arguments.  I seem to be standing in the middle while so many are pissing off at these component fictional areas that I love that I sometimes wonder if I need to put on a raincoat and use an umbrella to avoid all of these piss streams that are flying past me.


Anonymous said...

Your link to the Tea comment isn't working, and I'd love to see what she claims as her influences!

I think I'll say two things here, and I definitely think I'm in the minority here.

1. Oh so tedious and unilluminating is the endless policing of genre borders, bickering over encroachments, caviling the preferences of others!

2. And yet, no less irksome and sophistic, are the endless counterarguments claiming that genre doesn't even exist, or if it does, you haven't defined your terms nearly carefully enough, because here are examples X Y and Z to such terms as you've established (and be well assured, that *whatever* terms you establish, I shall easily uncover countervailing examples, and then crow in triumph over your supreme lack of intellectual rigor and sophistication. Therefore all merit is mine, none yours!)

Wearily I sigh. Can't we all just get along?

Kai in NYC

Matthew Cheney said...

It's an endlessly tedious argument when it's focused on content. There are useful reasons to distinguish between various genres when talking about systems and histories of production, distribution, and reception (and particularly in the 20th century, when genre publishing came into its own, so from the time Hugo Gernsback created SF societies in the late '20s there evolved a system of genre-specific publishers, writers, and fans), but to try to make any sort of coherent argument about genre based on content is pretty much a fool's errand, though the desire to do so has existed for a long time, as the letters column of old pulp magazines show.

Larry said...


Fixed the link.

As for your second point, I understand the need for some sort of "standard" for similar works, but I favor fluidity in stead of rigid models, as the exceptions tend to break those models too easily.


You state it better than I did, as I was thinking in regards to content, yet never did express that in this rebuttal post. But in fairness to content-arguers, very similar debates occur in a plethora of fields whenever people seek to stake out a patch as their own. Certainly saw that with certain German historians trying to argue intent vs. function in regard to the Holocaust. Fascinating as that group debate was, it was wearisome to read at times when I was in grad school in the mid-90s.

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