The Genre Fiction Rant      

Breaking my criticizing other critics rule: it always amazes me to read book criticism by prudes and scolds who take pride in dismissing entire classes of writing. Here, in a post admittedly two years old (but new to me!) the fabulously ignorant Arthur Krystal manages to acknowledge the work of both Ursula Le Guin and David Mitchell (though he pretty obviously has no acquaintance with the former beyond her rightly upbraiding him) in this little mini-essay while arguing that literary fiction is innately superior to genre fiction, which the author describes thusly: “Born to sell, [as opposed to lit fic, which they apparently give away at the cash register] these novels stick to the trite-and-true, relying on stock characters whose thoughts spool out in Lifetime platitudes. There will be exceptions, as there are in every field, but, for the most part, the standard genre or commercial novel isn’t going to break the sea frozen inside us. If this sounds condescending, so be it.” The distinction between literary and genre fiction has always been nothing more or less than marketing but it’s profoundly depressing to read someone who has been so successfully convinced that the purchase and consumption of the most recent Iowa Writers Workshop thesis, bound and blurbed, makes him the intellectual superior of the woman reading Cory Doctorow or Ray Bradbury; and in The New Yorker, no less! The elephant in the room, and let me just say that if I had the misfortune to argue from Krystal’s perspective, I would ignore it, too, because it is extremely inconvenient, is that contemporary literary fiction simply can’t happen without the very writing Krystal execrates, some of it wonderful and some of it lame. Mitchell could never exist without the great Samuel Delany. Jonathan Lethem is very open about his debt to Philip K. Dick. Michael Chabon once wrote a novel-length homage to the famously overwritten and cheesy swords-and-sandals fiction of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. In my life, “the sea frozen inside” has yielded almost exclusively to the work of genre writers, though perhaps I simply don’t possess the depth of feeling enjoyed by Arthur Krystal. It’s one thing to decline to read a particular kind of good writing; it’s quite another to congratulate yourself on the accomplishment.

The Genre Fiction Rant      

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