Saturday, March 17, 2007


Last week, Ed Champion posted a "field report" from Richard Grayson, who attended the NBCC panel discussion, The Mandarin at the Minimart: What We Talk about When We Talk about Mass Market Fiction. In the discussion it appears (as conveyed by Grayson) that the panel-members are talking past each other, that no one seems to share any definitions or expectations. In many respects, it is reduced to publishing and reviewing decisions (admittedly, the basic topic of the panel is the question of why "genre" or "popular" books are treated differently than "literary" books by reviewers and review pages). Book A is marketed as Science Fiction or Mystery, so it gets ignored, or shunted off to a genre review page. Book B is marketed as "literary fiction", etc. Panel-member Walter Mosley says that the "smartest writers wrote science fiction". Another, Louise Ermilino of Publishers Weekly, says that "good writing is good writing" no matter where it appears, and later asserts that "a hundred years from now, people are more likely going to be reading Stephen King than Philip Roth". Everyone seems to agree that it's all about story, and good stories can be found anywhere.

Ok, I have no desire to rehash the entire thing, but some points interest me, particularly in the context of my last couple of posts. First of all, I agree that "good writing is good writing". I see no reason why a nominally "genre" book could not be great art or great literature. The key word, though, is "nominally". If they are great literature, they cease to be "genre". In case it's not clear, I think the same is true of most so-called "literary fiction".

One thing said in the panel, which I've seen said elsewhere, is that "literary" writers "borrow" from genre, and get treated with more respect:
Cormac McCarthy wrote a genre novel [presumably The Road, which I gather is set in a post-apocalypse, like many dystopian SF novels; but what about Blood Meridian? Is not "western" a genre?] [...] Philip Roth can do alternate history in The Plot Against America and literary reviewers who don’t know that genre actually give Roth credit for inventing that kind of book, as if he were the first one to do it...
I think these kinds of comments are revealing. While it's probably true that many reviewers did give Philip Roth all kinds of credit for "inventing" alternate history (and more generally true that literary writers get more respect than genre writers when they "borrow"), this is because most reviewers don't know what they're talking about. The best parts of The Plot Against America (which, incidentally, I thought was wildly overpraised) were those that were the most typically Rothian. Roth, it seemed clear to me, chose his setting as an interesting way to explore certain ongoing fictional concerns of his. Whenever he had to move the plot of the alternate history along, it became less interesting and often felt rushed. As a result, this aspect of the book was unquestionably "unsatisfying". But I doubt he cared whether it was conventionally satisfying. No doubt several SF writers would have handled it better, made the facts of the alternate world more convincing, but it would have been quite beside the point; they wouldn't have been Philip Roth. Same with Cormac McCarthy. It's pointless to say that he "wrote a genre novel".

Then there's Ermilino's comment, quoted above, that "a hundred years from now, people are more likely going to be reading Stephen King than Philip Roth". No, they're not. Stephen King is popular entertainment. Philip Roth is a great writer. I see this kind of thing said all the time. This inability, or refusal, to tell the difference is depressing. But, then, what does she mean by "people"? "People" don't read Roth now, if we mean people in the huge kinds of numbers who read Stephen King. A hundred years from now, the people that read Roth will be the same kinds of people who read Henry James now, broadly speaking. Some other popular writer will be in King's place. I don't see why it should be offensive to say this. King gets routinely compared to Dickens and to Shakespeare--not their abilities as writers, of course, but their apparent popularity, as if this is any kind of useful indicator. People read Dickens and Shakespeare now, don't they?, these people observe, ergo they will be reading King a hundred years hence. And if you don't think so you must be a snob, looking down on other people's "tastes".

More later.


T. Hodler said...

I agree that Roth is a better writer (most of the time) than King, but you really don't think The Shining or something will last a hundred years? I mean, people still read Ann Radcliffe, and Wilkie Collins. People still read Varney the Vampire!

Richard said...

Actually, I have no idea, of course. It's certainly possible that certain King novels, the best ones, will be read x number of years from now. I was responding more to the general comment: "people are more likely to be reading this popular writer than they are this other literary writer". Whenever people say something like this (and I see it a lot) it tells me not necessarily that they think King (or whoever) is a great writer whose work will stand the test of time in the same way that past classics have, but that they resent having to make the distinction between a King and a Roth. Or resent the implication that there even is a distinction.