Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Genre versus Literary Fiction – Are The Two are Meeting in the Best 21st Century Novels?

A man reading great books
My late-80's humanities professors -- and the powerful critics who influenced them -- focused student attention on hard-to-read works: like Ulysses by James Joyce, JR by William Gaddis and Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Each took work to understand. But once you solved the puzzle each author posed, these books told gripping, humorous and psychologically and sociologically complex tales.
My teachers said these novels laid-bare the path towards literature’s future. They took the high-Modernist experiments of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and would catapult them into the 21st Century.

Problem is, the critics failed to notice that those high-art techniques, though effective, also had limitations. For instance, when James Joyce tried to reproduce a Dubliner’s sleeping consciousness in Finnegans Wake, the entire artifice falls apart. The story gets buried under layers of language and allusion that most people find incomprehensible. Even people like me, who loved Ulysses, despised Finnegans Wake.
Because, unlike Finnegans Wake,  Ulysses told a story a regular person could follow -- albeit after work.. And despite some hyper-creative word-play and experimentation, the novel’s humanity shone through the often-thorny text.
Finnegans Wake's failure should have set alarms blaring.
Unfortunately, it didn't. The critics and academics held fast. And predicted that 21st Century writing would grow ever more complex.
They were wrong.
Instead of experimental, the best literature in the 21st Century does not posses not “hard” to crack styles. The best writing now-a-days seems plot-focused. Some contemporary critics have pointed to “genre-derived plot” as the “killer app” that our contemporary writers are exploiting. And our better writers, like David Mitchell and Toni Morrison, do draw inspiration from a genre fiction. For instance, Mitchell's The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas mine science fiction. And Morrison’s Beloved owes a debt to paranormal romance..
Amazing Stories, a pulp-fiction mag from the 50's
50's pulp fiction magazine 
But unlike genre writers, who stick to genre tropes and expectations, the better writers use genre “tropes” to explore moral and intellectual dilemmas in a mature, creative way. By exploiting and breaking these conventions, contemporary post-postmodern writers create fiction that, while psychologically and conceptually complex, tells a rousing yarn. And with no “skeleton key” required – unlike the cottage industry that's grown up around Finnegans Wake.
In this new-ish century, many high-quality,  contemporary writers ditch the Modernist enterprise, Sure, they understand Modernist innovations, like stream-of-consciousness, that helped Faulkner and Woolf trace a person's psyche. But instead of “going there,” new-breed writers hearken back to Dickens – who created intricate, over-the-top yet believable characters. And then, he ran those characters through his [often cheesy] plots that illustrated a “truth” he was trying to convey.
But these contemporary tale-spinners go further. They go beyond the acceptable, if quaint, Dickens. Often, the best contemporary novelists mine genre fiction, using its dramatic plotting and recognizable tropes to tell their tales. This synthesis, when done well, creates captivating works that transcend the genre they have raided.
To illustrate, I would like to compare and contrast a talented, traditional fantasy author Dave Eddings to Alice Sieblod. Eddings's Belgariad series is a traditional fantasy writer. While Siebold’s The Lovely Bones uses fantasy in a literary work to chilling effect.
In common hands, fantasy stories are simplistic, thrilling page-turners filled with swords, sorcery , and duels with fantastic creatures. For instance, I recently re-read Eddings' Belgariad series, first published in the 80's. The novels prove no exception to the rule. Good and evil are well-defined. The protagonist, Garion, is good – of course. And even the morally ambiguous characters, like a thief and a cheat named Silk, were “good at heart” when they lie, manipulate and kill for Garion. But the same actions taken by an “evil at heart” adversary makes them, well, lying, manipulative killers.
Granted, the tale is gripping. And the battles hair-raising. And the evil sorcerer standing in Garion’s way creepy and vile. But the series was an epic fantasy. Since he genre required the protagonist would succeed, all of the plot twists meant zilch. There was no tension. True to the genre, the reader knows that good will prevail. But since I identified with the good-guy Garion, I continued reading. Not to better understand our world. Not to discover “truths of the soul.” Instead, I read to see how Garion would meet challenges, fight demons and earn victory in his quest. A quest I knew he would complete.
But in the hands of a better writer, like Siebold,  fantasy presents a gold mine.
Fantastic Adventures, a pulp-fiction mag from the 50's
pulp-fiction mag from the 50's
Her debut novel, The Lovely Bones, is literary, concerned with characters facing real emotions in an often-cruel world. And yet, Siebold uses fantasy tropes to drive her narrative. For instance, the narrator is the ghost of a teenage girl who had been murdered by a violent pedophile – a man who is definitely evil. But unlike in Eddings' work, “The Lovely Bones” is not about a direct clash between good and evil. Instead, it traces how the young girl frees herself from the scarier “ghost.” Which is her own inner evil. Because the rapist's acts have enthralled her, and trapped her between two worlds. Because of this thrall, she can see but not impact impact the human plane, and yet remains unable transcend the mundane and soar to heaven.
That is a complexity, both emotionally, morally and spiritually, that Eddings could never illuminate while trapped in genre expectations. Thematically, psychologically, and dramatically, Siebold has much more in common with Dickens, Faulkner and Hemingway than Eddings and Tolkien. And yet, The Lovely Bones is a fantasy.
Which is amazing. A despised genre informing one of the most powerful books I read in the early 2000's.
The Lovely Bones – and many similar novels – takes the narrative art into new realms. By ditching the confines of realistic, literary and “stealing” from genre fiction. And in so doing, answering real moral questions about the real world effectively.
Literary art at its finest.
However, old-fashioned, lyric-voiced literature “ain’t dead yet.” For instance, I have read many excellent literary novels influenced by Woolf and Hemingway over the past year. Examples include John Baneville's lyrical  The Sea, Ian McEwan's stunning realist novel Atonement, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s tragic Remains of the Day.
But many serious writers are ditching “high-art” pretensions. Instead, they are are opting for the populist. For instance, many -- Like Salmon Rushdie and Nathan Hill --  ape Dickens, and create vibrant, over-the-top yet “realistic” caricatures. Others mine Surrealist writers, like Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Tom Robbins and even Joyce and Pynchon in their wilder moments. Like the brothel scene in Ulysses. Or Slothrop's surreal trip through occupied Germany while dressed as a pig in Gravity's Rainbow.
Tapping those deeper, often despised literary streams – which border on fantasy, science fiction, crime fiction, et. – adds to an author's “tool kit.” It allows them to tell stories that illuminate new “truths” in unsuspected ways.
And what's more, using populist tropes allow serious writers to speak to regular people. Without using “high-highfalutin” techniques that take work to crack, Instead, like Dickens, they use simple language, character and plot-driven narratives to tell a story.
And that rocks.
At least, it feels fresh now. Who knows what the rest of the Century will bring. But unlike earlier critics and humanities teachers from the 80's and 90's, I won't predict.

Any thoughts here? Or anyone willing to predict the future? If so, comment below.

Further Reading (or articles which got me thinking to write this post)

Stephen Marche, “How Genre Fiction Became More Important Than Literary Fiction: the book war is over, the aliens, dragons, and detectives won.” (
Jonathan Lethem, “The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction”  (
Thomas Mallon and Pankaj Mishra, “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow — Do These Kinds of Cultural Categories Mean Anything Anymore?” (
Joshua Rothman, “A Better Way to Think About the Genre Debate” (

Image Credits
Man Reading:
Amazing Stories Cover:
Fantastic Adventures Cover:

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