Assumptions of superiority
So today I was reading an article on how publishing and its sensitivity readers, and its “non cultural appropriation” editors have stifled literary creativity and turned storytelling into a hellish post-apocalyptic landscape in which nothing grows, and certainly not imagination or feeling.
I was reading and sort of nodding along — sort of? well, they seem to think that traditional publishing is the only game in town, when they decided it was time to establish their intellectual superiority.
The policers of imagination try to slot fiction writers into two categories, in terms of adult writing. You are either a genre writer or a literary writer. Genre writing is long on tropes. Your brain cools out, as do your emotions. It’s word-based comfort food. People might get splattered on sidewalks in a crime thriller, but you know going in that they’re going to get splatted on sidewalks. There is little risk, because there is little surprise.
Say what the actual hell? With bells on and a little sprinkle of WTF?
I know literature, you know, the things that are supposed to be immortal. That was half of my study degree in college (the other half was literary) and besides, my dad has never heard a book being acclaimed as a literary masterpiece and not bought it, and it was in the unwritten rules of the household that I must read every book that came into the house. Yes, even my brother’s engineering books. What? They were there, they were printed, and therefore they must be read.
So… the literature I read in college for various courses was full of risk, surprise and interest, and it stimulated both brain and emotions, right?
Are you kidding me? I enjoyed Shakespeare, Jane Austen and weirdly Theodor Fontane. I think very well of Jorge Luis Borges, but honestly I can’t remember if I read him in school, or under the desk, with Heinlein, Bradbury, Phil Dick and my other guilty pleasures.
Most of the more recent “literature” we “enjoyed” was pat and dead as a three day flounder. Predictable and devoid of risk as Sunday evening with the grandparents. No, wait, given my grandparents, that would be a pulse-pounding evening in comparison. At least on one side there would be cats, and on the other, he might start cussing you out in Latin.
Look, most twentieth century literature we were forced to read — particularly late 20th century literature — was written to be “what university professors like.” A dash of unearned superiority, a bit of social critique and always, always, every character being a worthless bastard or bitch, not worth the paper they were described on. Oh, and the entire thing always ended in a morass of bitterness and disillusionment.
For pulse-pounding emotions and risk, I’d take the gothic romances I read in the early nineties when we were so broke my only source of reading was the free bookcases outside bookstores. I mean, you knew the hero was mysterious and shady, the heroine scared, and there would be a HEA, but what the heck, sometimes the formula varied a little. And sometimes the characters were interesting or at least tolerable.
Back when I was going through literature courses I cured every professor who hit me with the “genre is just bad literature” by introducing them to Bradbury then hitting them with Phillip K. Dick while they were down. Not one retained their opinion of genre, and some of them I left converted to science fiction. (You could trace my progress through Portuguese educational institutions by the teachers/professors who not only read but rhapsodized over science fiction.
If it were today, I’d expose them to Terry Pratchett. And challenge them to find the predictable in that.
Sure, science fiction, mystery, all of it uses tropes. In fact, if you aspire to writing in genre, you must first learn the tropes. It’s akin to knowing the map when you’re going to a certain city. That way you know what’s in the readers’ heads. It doesn’t mean you can only walk certain streets, or only in one direction. And literary fiction has its own conventions, as I said above, it seems to consist of unpleasant people, humdrum and yet subtly depressing situations, and “Social critique” that consists of flattering the opinions of 99.9% of college professors.
It’s what you do within the boundaries that is important. Note the example they give above is of a thriller. It’s one of the more predictable genres. So is Romance. They’re also the bestselling genres. I suspect partly because they’re predictable. Is it brainless entertainment? To an extent. I’ve read examples of both where I was suddenly startled with an amazing insight or an unexpected development. But yeah, they’re the equivalent of sitcoms on television. You know everything will be solved and can usually foretell the steps. So? People like entertainment.
On the other hand to take those as the examples of everything in genre is more than a little crazy. More than anything, as practiced by masters, when genre uses tropes its often to subtly subvert them or expand them. See Jim Butcher’s character development in Dresden, pretty much all of the characters. Or, say, well, Pratchett’s dwarves and trolls. Standard characters? Sure. But that’s where the fun begins, and the surprises are rife.
As for emotions, I’m one of those people who read for an emotional ride. I’ve got more of one from genre books than from just about any literary work you care to name.
Also, frankly, Shakespeare was genre. The plays he wrote were within well defined genres, with their tropes. Heck, we know for a fact that stuff like Romeo and Juliet had been written before, in some form, by other hands, but it was given its final, definitive form by Shakespeare.
And now he’s literature with a capital “intellectual” because through the centuries he continued to portray the essential in humans, and to speak to generations living in times he could never imagine.
Is there any reason current practitioners of genre literature won’t be similarly honored in the future? Nah. More than likely one or more of them will. (Quite possibly Dame Christie, who spoke to me quite clearly across cultures and time.)
The article laments the death of litfic by a thousand cuts of political correctness. But he’s confused. If there is to be such a thing as literature, the kind of literature that will stand the test of time, it won’t come from traditionally published litfic. (Which as Kris Rusch has pointed repeatedly, is really just another genre.)
It will come from indie, and likely it will come from genre.
Why from genre? Because it allows us to stretch reality. Sure, we stretch reality in ways defined by genre. Any little old lady around whom as many murders happened as Christie’s Miss Marple would probably be a murderer herself. And yeah, we do know werewolves and dragons don’t exist. And if we ever go to space, it’s not likely to look like any space opera, or even like our hard science fiction.
But you know, ladies and gentlemen, Shakespeare didn’t write about two merchants in London arguing over which bear pit was the best; or playwrights in a vain search for the best fried fish. No, he wrote about those hot blooded Italian families (trope) with their daggers (trope) and poisons (trope.) And within those parameters he managed to sketch characters that are immortal and alive, and whose passions and reverses still affect us.
Pratchett’s work lives and will live as well because of the fantasy tropes and how he plays with them as despite them. And Christie’s work benefits from exposing people to the shock of Malice Domestic.
The best of genre will live. I promise you that. Already it is far more enjoyed than so called “litfic” something people more often brag about reading than read.
What is already dead will never be immortal.
Yes, traditional publishers are also importing political correctness and lack of imagination into traditional genre. But it doesn’t matter. if it dies there, it will flower anew in indie.
We live in very exciting times, when new forms of literature, and new ways to reach the public are being forged.
Future generations will envy us. And they’ll quite forget litfic, which got zombified while still living.
Now go and write and read and leave questions of literary worth to the future. Because the future will have its own opinion.