When I was in architecture school in the late 1980s, there was a commitment to architecture that could not be easily understood. Architecture that stood apart from its surroundings, offering aloof commentary. Architecture that was entirely about the creation of logical order, and not at all concerned with either the logistical or emotional support of those who would encounter it.

That was really what Modernity and Modernism were about, no matter what field we were engaged in: the idea that rational progress was the only goal, and that any sorts of emotional or cultural attachments were merely sub-rational reflexes which we could be trained to leave aside.

I wasn’t wired in the correct intellectual array to accept Modernism. I was a working class kid from the Midwest who knew that people wanted to come home after a long day in the shop to some combination of comfort and delight, both of which are concerns declared out-of-bounds in Modern discourse. And so it’s not a surprise that, as a writer of fiction, I again have no clear footing in the academic categorization within which books of Literature are on one side of the fence, and those of Genre or Commercial Fiction are on the other.

A few days ago, my Sunday New Yorker feed linked to eight or ten “classics,” articles from the magazine’s archives to which I, as a subscriber and member of the cultural elite, am granted access. And one of them just pissed me off: the October 2012 essay on literary fiction by Arthur Krystal entitled It’s Genre. Not That There’s Anything Wrong With It!

To sum up quickly, Krystal argues that there is an inevitable and true boundary, like a river, between the lands of Literature and Genre. The relations between the two nations are occasionally friendly, occasionally hostile, but the root fact is that they represent two entirely different cultures, and that it’s crucial that we all understand the difference. He insists that we acknowledge that “good commercial fiction is inferior to good literary fiction.”

The problem with his essay, perhaps inherent to the limitations of magazine real estate, are that he leaves all of his terms undefined. There is no firm definition of what constitutes “commercial” or “literary” fiction; no firm definition of the good in “good fiction” of either type; and no firm definition of what would make something “superior” or “inferior.” It’s a shaggy essay that ought to be sent back for revision.

But let’s do what we can. Let’s see if we can intuit what he means by any of this. He’s in the New Yorker, after all, so his ideas must be worth exploration, unlike some guy with a blog.

Let’s start at the end, with his examples of things that fit into one or the other camp.

Quality comes in different forms: there is Cole Porter and there is Prokofiev; the Beatles and Bach; Savion Glover and Mikhail Baryshnikov—the difference between them is not one of talent or proficiency but of sensibility.

Because we’re culturally savvy, we’re supposed to quickly read the differences between those pairs. So what are the differences?

  • the Popular side are from the 20th century; the Serious side are from traditions much older;
  • the Popular side were aimed at the masses, and the Serious side at the more educated elite; and
  • let’s be honest: the Popular side are drawn from the non-white traditions of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop, those from the Serious side from Northern Europe

If the differences between the Popular and the Serious are “not one of talent or proficiency but of sensibility,” then we need to take the idea of sensibility (the ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences) seriously. We are either “able” to appreciate complexity or we aren’t; it is a moral judgment of the consumer as much as of the producer.

And literary trends are by definition about the reader. If a whole bunch of us go left, then the sales figures will show that; if we then move right, that trend will emerge as well. Literature of all stripes by necessity has writers and readers; a verdict about which camp a book falls into is a verdict about both parties in the exchange.

Krystal trots out a few possible differentiating field markings of literary or genre fiction, and then immediately disqualifies them himself. The division isn’t based on plot versus lyricism. It isn’t on the quality of language, of raw sentence-craft (though he spends a lot of words on genre’s “language that is at best undistinguished and at worst characterized by a jejune mentality and a tendency to state the obvious”). It isn’t about the writing at all, in fact. Let me try to cobble together a working definition of the boundary from his essay:

A good mystery or thriller isn’t set off from an accomplished literary novel by plotting, but by the writer’s sensibility, his purpose in writing, and the choices he makes to communicate that purpose. There may be a struggle to express what’s difficult to convey, and perhaps we’ll struggle a bit to understand what we’re reading… One reads Conrad and James and Joyce not simply for their way with words but for the amount of felt life in their books. Great writers hit us over the head because they present characters whose imaginary lives have real consequences (at least while we’re reading about them), and because they see the world in much the way we do: complicated by surface and subterranean feelings, by ambiguity and misapprehension, and by the misalliance of consciousness and perception.

So as best I can make out here, literary fiction is literary because a) it’s hard, and b) its characters are conflicted. That’s pretty thin porridge. It’s kind of like the schism between the Orthodox and Hicksite Quakers in the 1820s, a community who divided themselves forever on the slimmest theological grounds. The divide is, simply, books that are read by people like us… and books that are read by people like them.

And note again his examples. Joseph Conrad. Henry James. James Joyce. The marble busts in the library, carved into their perpetual scowls.

Modernism is merely an intellectual manifestation of masculinity, the last pre-feminist landscape of the humanities. So it’s no surprise that it employs masculine justifications for its reading biases. It sorts the world quickly into tribes, and declares one of those tribes to be superior and deserving of our loyalty. It valorizes the stoicism of “close reading,” picking one’s way across stony and inhospitable fields, and denigrates ideas like generosity and welcome. It’s all head, and no heart.

With all that in mind, let’s look at some of the recent critique of my own writing, from my group of friends who meet monthly or so to read and talk about one another’s work. Critique is always hard business—we’ve put our very best work on the table, for review and dissection by others. And the critiques are really wonderful, after the bruises heal. We see our own work in new ways, see doors that we’d overlooked on our first visit. These friends are talented writers and readers who have enriched my craft.

But sometimes, the terms in which the critiques are framed are revealing of our differences across this boundary of “serious” and “commercial” fiction. Here are a few selected excerpts:

  • Perhaps your main challenge will be to avoid ‘Melrose Place’ territory, and I’m sure you aspire to more than a soap-opera plot
  • I’m not sure whether this opening is departing all that much from the conventions of the romance novel
  • The repartee between Dan and his sister is good, but maybe you can hint at some darkness there.
  • I felt very strongly that the story was suddenly organizing itself around a classic love triangle: unhappy/neglected wife finds new vitality with another man.

Because my friends are serious writers, they’re quick to sniff out the rot of genre, to wish always for “ambiguity and misapprehension, the misalliance of consciousness and perception.” They’re uniformly quick to point out the quality of the writing itself, that it’s polished and has wonderful turns of prose and carries the reader effortlessly from front to back (one of my favorite comments ever was “it does crack along!”). But that craftsmanship is not sufficient to the demands of Modern intellectual fiction, which is always about ambiguity and uncertainty and the struggle for the reader to understand what’s going on.

Those concerns are simply not of interest to me, just as they weren’t in architecture school. And as Krystal points out, the difference between literary and genre fiction is at least in part “the writer’s sensibility, his purpose in writing, and the choices he makes to communicate that purpose.” So I guess I know which nation I’m a citizen of.

More on Friday.

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