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more on “genre” and why i can’t read it

with 21 comments

A few lead-in infobits and then a continuation of an argument:

1) Bought Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones today after hearing yet another respected litblog voice vouch that he couldn’t put it down, would rush home from work to read it, hadn’t showered since he started etc. I have to say: I started reading it today (while watching Arsenal get clubbed by Chelsea – look at norf london me, oy!) and I have a feeling everyone is right. You can tell a murderer from his fancy prose style, but bureaucratic murderers are masters of understatement and that’s what we refreshingly get here. I’ll report as I go, but so far so good.

2) Very much relatedly, found Journey Planet via Ken MacLeod’s site, and within the former I found something truly excellent. Not sure the ethics of cutting and pasting this here, but what the hell. It’s a cover design for 1984 by someone named Kris Stewart according to the caption in the zine.


Absolutely perfect… funny how one can defamiliarize something that everyone knows so well by refamiliarizing it.

3) OK now for the (again, related) argument. We all had quite a skuffle in the comments box a few posts back about genre fiction and what I was calling (sort of reluctantly) or what was being called the bourgeois novel. Some these skuffles have continued off-line. I’ve been thinking more about it, and I think I’m ready to explain a bit more about why “genre fiction” doesn’t really do it for me.

First, though, the fine print. 1) I don’t hate genre fiction. In fact I read or try to read quite a lot of it. I very much like the idea of it! I was being a bit too stark and polemical for my own good. 2) Christ, I don’t hate J.G. Ballard. I will say that I am continually disappointed by Ballard’s work – whenever I read it I feel that it could be so much better than it actually is. But there’s probably even a bit of anxiety of influence type psycho-dynamic going on when I talk about him, and as I keep promising, I’m going to try to say something bigger and better soon. But just to prove that I don’t dismiss him: I’m teaching a graduate seminar on him next year, by choice! 3) Issues of taste are really complicated! How can they be discussed without the weird slant logic of what I like is admittedly only what I like but on the other hand I have to make a claim for universal value or else why the fuck are we talking about this? Kantian or something? I think so…. But it’s complicated talking about things in this way and strangely, strangely, we’re not used to doing it anymore – maybe because we don’t really understand (or understand all too well) the bit I just put into italics.

End of small print. On to the argument, stated very succinctly but ripe for expansion:

I believe that narrative fiction’s principle interest, what it does best and is basically meant to do, is to rehearse a rhythm of banality and eventfulness, ordinariness and emergence, everyday life and the shocking turn, the crisis. It goes on at length about nothing really happening, things being ordinary, and then something else happens.

The problem for me with most genre fiction is that it skews from the start and by structural mandate the relationship between the familiar and the unfamiliar that is the very baseline of fiction, in my opinion and according to my tastes. I think this is easy to see. When the generic presupposition is in the distance future, when everything is utterly different and new, something happens or whatever, I get lost, I doesn’t sound like music but rather only noise.

Of course there are “genre” writers who are invested in boredom and ordinariness. And of course this is complicated by the fact that there are many “conventional” or “bourgeois” novelists who start with a defamiliarizing gesture. But I also think you can see what I mean. And from what I understand (which is not much) this is an active line of debate and discussion in “genre” circles themselves. And it’s not that I simply can’t read past this stuff as wallpaper, because of course I can. The problem isn’t that – the problem is that the mandate to start from the unfamiliar skews the writers’ relationship to the form itself, generally seems to make them misunderstand the first and primary thing that the form does well.

I also happen to think – and much of my work is staked on this claim, so christ I hope I’m right – that one of the main things that modernist narrative was invested in was the exposure of this dialectic, or in particular the shadowy part of this cycle, the everyday side. I’d even go so far as to say that most of the works that we think of as major milestones in the development of modernist prose were in fact invested in an experiment in prose narrative without the fateful turn, the illuminating exposure, the shocking revelation. Perhaps – consciously or unconsciously, or somewhere between the two – they were trying to teach us something about the nature of fiction, trying to get us to think about this dialectic and the phase of it that we’d often generally rather forget.

I further think that there is a politics implicit in this arrangement, a politics of uneventfulness, an implicit practice that works against the event. And I’m going to try to say this, at length and in depth, as I rewrite the goddamned manuscript yet again but for the first time really, this summer.

But just to circle back for a moment: most of the genre or quasi-genre stuff that I like is stuff that fulfills this contract, the contract of the narrative form. Lots of utopian and dystopian fiction is in touch with this issue – lots of it even hyperbolizes the point, making it more visible that it generally is with other thematic frames. But when we start in a spaceship, or with a bodice that’s always already ripped, or with a seamonster who is god or the devil or both, or with vampires, or anything else that skews the realism, that is to say the tedium, of the work, I am lost and I cannot read, not willingly anyway.

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May 10, 2009 at 10:34 pm

21 Responses

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  1. I take it you mean “realism” as an attitude toward the material and not how the material’s presented (generically if you think realism a genre, modally if you think it a mode). Because if that’s the case, then all that matters is whether a particular novel operates under the assumption of easy explicability. It could happen fifteen or fifteen hundred years in the future, so long as the rhythms of daily life are established and ruptured. The problem with science fiction, then, would be that we don’t feel these rhythms, that we only learn of them via infodump. Which, obviously, true. (Although by your lights, I don’t see why you would have a problem with Harlequins. I mean, not only does that describe them structurally, the experience’s replicated by the act of reading them, which is what makes them escapist in the first place.) But there’s a lot of science fiction out there that refuses the imperative of the infodump and forces the reader to actively identify the rhythms, oftentimes for hundreds of pages, and just when they’re finally established subjects them to violent rupture. I’m thinking of something like Wake-lover John Clute’s Appleseed, with its technical descriptions of daily routines that initially make no sense to us. The tedium is there, just as it is in one of those Beckett shorts in which people climb up ladders, take two steps to the left, confirm that someone else performed an actual, then with their left hands cup their balls while sticking their right into a hole in the wall.


    May 10, 2009 at 11:39 pm

  2. Yes, actually, I’ll admit that Harlequins would be a tough case for me to deal with! I should probably buy and read Appleseed – this isn’t the first recommendation.

    I guess I think the mandate to infodump, or even to defamiliarize that dump, to my mind skews the form, misdirects the authors. I am trying to describe the effect of reading these things – what I mean when I say that for the most part I haven’t found them to be written well, on the whole.

    Trying to think of other ways to say this. Have you read any of William Gibson’s newer stuff. I like the newer stuff better than the old, for reasons that should be obvious from the above. But on the other hand, still there’s this annoying tendency on his part to, dunno, render his characters “interesting” in a way that ultimately is not. Mainly through a techno-fetishism that comes through without any of the yawning madness of, say, BE Ellis’s stuff. Gibson thinks it’s really interesting and cool that she’s wearing such and such Japanese impossible to find bomber jacket or whatever.


    May 11, 2009 at 5:53 am

  3. Gibson’s last few have been disappointing, like he’s no longer outpacing the world, he’s behind it. The ‘footage’ thing in Pattern Recognition seemed so… inadequate to the web 2.0 reality of the mobile phone-youtube-etc nexus; out of date before he even wrote it.

    But the bomber jacket – shouldn’t that be right up your street? The point isn’t that she’s got a cool jacket like the Fonz, it’s about the impossibility of escaping the semiotic game of commodification. She wears it because it’s as unbranded as possible – but then makes a fetish of it. Can’t you relate that to the everyday? The dilemma of how you get up & get dressed without feeling like a corporate drone covered in ads (of varying subtlety)?


    May 11, 2009 at 9:24 am

  4. Yeah maybe you’re right about the jacket. Hmmm… I think you are right.

    I did like Pattern Recognition, sort of anyway. Better than the one that came after that, Spook Country, which was pretty lame….


    May 11, 2009 at 11:11 am

  5. I’m glad you are revisiting this discussion!

    To my mind, what can get lost in viewing, critically, the ‘rhythms of everyday life” as the absolute parameter of fiction, is the ‘spirit’ of everyday life – using spirit in the sense that Montesquieu speaks of the spirit of the law. There’s a beautiful passage in Dmitry Merezhovsky’s essay, Gogol and the Devil, which sums up the polarity between the everyday and the spirit of the everyday:

    “God is the infinite, the beginning and end of all being. The Devil is the denial of God and consequently the denial of the infinite as well, the denial of all beginnings and ends. The Devil is something that is begun and left unfinished, but purports to be without beginning or end. The Devil is the noumenal median of being, the denial of all heights and depths – eternal planarity, eternal banality. The sole subject of Gogol’s art is the Devil in just this sense, that is, the Devil as the manifestation of ‘man’s immortal banality,” as seen beneath the specifics of place and time – historical, national, governmental,social; the manifestation of absolute, eternal, universal evil – banality sub specie aeternitatis.”

    It is only banality sub specie aeternitatis that touches me, as a reader. It could be about Bloom getting an upskirt’s eyeful of Gerty McDowell or it could be about Bob Arctor watching himself alternately lounge about his shabby house and frantically search for things. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, harlequins not only do not display banality sub specie aeternitatis but it is pretty much against the rule for writing them – and there is a rule, a form they send you to write those things.


    May 11, 2009 at 2:43 pm

  6. How do we know what “genre fiction” is?

    I’m a pretty explicit genre critic, which means — for me — I understand what a text is doing by reference to the conventions its working within, an approach that is obvious if you’re going to talk about Sherlock Holmes or Raymond Chandler, but which is no less true for anyone else, since every novel is a text woven from other people’s threads.

    My problem with the terms of this argument, then, is that, as interesting as I find the claims about familiarity and unfamiliarity, it doesn’t map on well to an argument about genre, since you seem to have dramatically diminished the term’s usefulness, essentially, to something like its most vulgar of meanings: detective fiction, sci-fi, romance, etc. If it were something like “to the extent that the generic presupposition is, etc” I would follow you better, but you seem to be implying the employment of genre is necessarily its oversimplification, that we know something is genre fiction because it’s using genre reductively. But so very many detective novels are interesting because they are about detection (and it doesn’t make them less part of a generic tradition); the uninteresting ones might not be, but that’s because they are uninteresting, not because they are detective novels.


    May 11, 2009 at 3:13 pm

  7. Could you clarify a bit exactly how you’re using the term “familiar”? Meaning, familiar to whom? To the characters living through the plot? To the experienced genre reader? To the average prole? Or, do we need some kind of unity of the familiar, combining these aspects?

    I ask mainly because I keep going back and forth on what usage I think you mean. Presumably one could have a novel where the events were tedious and banal to the participants but exciting to the viewer, if only because of their novelty; it would not be hard to imagine the reverse as well.


    May 11, 2009 at 4:13 pm

  8. roger,

    Brilliant comment – I agree entirely. I wonder if you might say more – beyond the excellent Merezhovsky bit – about what it is that puts the banality sub specie aeternitatis?

    “The Devil is something that is begun and left unfinished, but purports to be without beginning or end.”

    Ha! Sounds like my working life lately!

    But yes, of course you’re right about Harlequins – I conceded a bit too quickly there.


    Me too with the “reference to the conventions.” It’s the only way I know how to work. (I’ve never taught a class where I didn’t make the joke that I wish there was something in a plan white cover that I could assign them with the title Conventional Novel before we start in on the stuff that we’re doing. Literally do that riff every time I teach…)

    Basically, the answer to your question in ref to this post is that I’m working with “genre” in the sense in which it was deployed by others and by me in the comments box of the previous post on this subject. I think, here, it mostly means sci-fi and “horror,” with the dystopian left in the middle and all sorts of figures like Ballard stuck there too.

    But I think I am making a slightly stronger claim than would allow me to get on board with the interesting / uninteresting detective fiction position.


    I suppose I mean “familiar” to me. Not in the sense that I’ve directly lived it myself. It’s complicated. Why is the life of a provincial medical officer’s wife in the early 19th century more “familiar” to me than, say, the speculatively furnitured existence of someone living in the future but closer in time to me than Emma Bovary? I’ll need to say a bit more about this, perhaps at length….


    May 11, 2009 at 11:14 pm

  9. Yes, that’s sort of what I’m getting at, the necessary history and subjectivity that has to go into any definition of familiar… because it can’t be with respect to the prose style or the characters’ perspectives, as there are (from what I’ve heard, though I’ve read very very little of it) many examples of tedium in genre fic.

    The angle I’m seeing is this: genre’s success depends on the creation of an unfamiliar but well-crafted world, something that will be new even to a reader already very familiar with the concerned genre. Is that somewhat of where you’re going? Because presumably, all the conventions of fantasy or detective or harlequin become extremely familiar the more you read of them, but the exceptional pieces are those with some kind of newness no matter your exposure level.

    I don’t mean to be belligerent about this, I’m just having a bit of trouble seeing exactly what you mean by familiar…


    May 12, 2009 at 2:29 am

  10. Well, I suppose what I’d say is this: that the swapping about between realism, romanticism and the moral conte has not really been sorted out by the literary critics or historians. They leave out things, like Peau de Chagrin, or Gogol’s The Nose. Is the nose a realistic story? Is it science fiction? Or is it a joke that takes on reality – a joke buried in realism itself.

    Of those jokes buried in realism, one was set by Stendhal when he wrote that a novel was a mirror walking down the road. One forgets that Stendhal claims, here, to be quoting someone else – the brilliantly named Saint-Réal. Of course, this has to be the libertine author of Conjurations des Espagnols contre Venise, who lived in London in Saint Everemond’s time and whose works contain no reference to a mirror or a road. On the other hand, in a culture that treasured conversation, among the French in London, Stendhal might actually have heard some oral account of Saint Real. Saint Realism – in which the novel of the everyday rhythms of life confronts infinitude – might be a better name for realism.


    May 12, 2009 at 2:30 am

  11. I wish there was something in a plan white cover that I could assign them with the title Conventional Novel before we start in on the stuff that we’re doing.

    Ooh, there we go — the title and cover of my first novel. I was so peeved when I found out The Great American Novel had already been taken. Not that I actually write fiction or anything. But in my mind, at least, I’m a world-famous novelist.


    May 12, 2009 at 5:58 am

  12. w,

    Sure I see what you’re saying. And there was a time (back in the heady days of theory, I guess) when I would have been a strict no outside the texter on this. That “recognizability” in writing depended solely and exclusively upon generic familiarity, whatever the situation of listening or writing. Since then, I’ve gotten a lot fuzzier on it – there’s more to recognition than the recognition of codes. (I should post something about l’effet du reel and how differently I see that essay now vs. back a few years ago… Basically, Barthes says something utterly brilliant, but also something that is about 90% wrong. The barometer does function structurally as a marker of the real, but mostly as a marker of a lot of other things, first and foremost…)

    So short answer is, yes, generic familiarity is important. But what I’m getting at here is another sort of familiarity, that can’t be reduced so easily simply to code.


    Just brilliant, again. But the infinitude comes close to a mirroring or distortional effect here, no? (Nausicaa, cited above, would be to my mind a good example of that – it’s not just any guy getting the peek, it’s this guy given the complex mirroring effects at play….)

    I am inclined, if this is sort of what you’re saying, to say that agree, but that I also wish it was something more than that… Something other than a formal effect. Do you know what I mean?


    Ha! Just as Colm Toibin seems to have stolen the title of his new novel Brooklyn from somebody else writing for the same press, we might end up in a nasty scrap over who gets to use the title.

    Actually, though, it would be fun in a sort of belatedly-McSweeney’s way to try to write something like that, wouldn’t it?


    May 12, 2009 at 10:29 am

  13. Re “Saint Realism,” the quite wonderful Lynne Tillman has a lovely story sequence called Madame Realism, published by Semiotext(e) of course.

    Realism is the mode in which “character is fate” is an iron law. Thus “what’s become of realism” is the fate of fate.


    May 12, 2009 at 3:40 pm

  14. Isn’t there a problem in terms of different genres being more or less familiar than others? Detective more so than fantasy, etc


    May 13, 2009 at 5:17 am

  15. jane,

    that’s a very nice formulation there…


    Sure, I suppose. None of these things are absolute, black and white. Genres aren’t absolute except I guess in the mind of the bookstore people.


    May 13, 2009 at 10:30 am

  16. Ads, I think saint realism is more than a distortionary effect. To take four instances: the talking cunts in les bijoux indiscrets, the pact on the onyx skin in La peau de chagrin, the talking nose in The Nose, the devil’s cat in the master and the margarita – in what genre are these figures operating?

    To my mind, Jane’s suggestion about fate is an excellent pointer – talk about genres is subordinate to talk about social orders. The realistic novel exists in a moment in the war on superstition – the war on the dense connections of belief that constituted the everyday life of the seignorial, ancien regime societies – which was, on the one side, a war of emancipation, and on the other side, the vast liquidation of an entire form of life in the name of … well, the pursuit of happiness. Economic growth. Etc. All of which substitute, for the old fate, new forms of fate – but this time, installed in the name of human freedom.

    So, to be all Marxy about it, it is here in this social contradiction that saint realism gains its powers. That Joyce would turn to a double register – Gerty and Nausicaa – is a gesture that both bows to Saint realism and tries to destroy it – puttinng a crack in the looking glass of the servant, so to speak. Out of that destruction you get a whole new kind of figure – the Anna Livia Plurabelle, the Here Comes Everyone. As fantastic as a Nose, those two.


    May 13, 2009 at 5:59 pm

  17. The realistic novel exists in a moment in the war on superstition

    I think that’s true for a bit, but almost immediately la lutte is extended or inverted into the war for superstition. The novel as a form disenchants, panics about what its done, and then heads back in the other direction – resulting probably in things like the talking cunts etc….

    (Same thing in Marx, the need to hold the magic in suspension – dancing chairs, talking things…)

    But yes, definitely out of social contradiction. It’s the ulcerous symptom, the leading indicator.


    May 14, 2009 at 8:19 am

  18. Re: walking mirrors, realism. . .

    “I walked down a parking lot that covered the old railroad tracks which at one time ran through the middle of Passaic. That monumental parking lot divided the city in half, turning it into a mirror and a reflection–but the mirror kept changing places with the reflection. One never knew what side of the mirror one was on. There was nothing interesting or even strange about that flat monument, yet it echoed a kind of cliched idea of infinity.”

    –R. Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey


    May 14, 2009 at 2:45 pm

  19. Ads, I’m not sure I fully understand your comment. The war for superstition? This phrase is a little too tightly packed for me. What war is that?

    You know, this whole comment thread of mirrors makes me think of a favorite mirror story. It is in V.S. Ramachandran’s book, Phantoms of the Brain. Ramachandran worked with people who suffered from phantom limb pain. Now it isn’t only that one feels the phantom limb is still there – often it is there is a very diseased way. A phantom fist is clenched so tightly that the phantom fingernails hurt the patient. Etc. So Ramachandran devised a box with a trick mirror in the center of it. The box had two “sleeves”, in which the patient put both the good limb and the phantom limb. There the box is transparent enough that when the patient moves the good limb – an arm in this case – to the right position, it is reflected, and seems to superimpose itself, over the phantom limb sleeve. This is where the fun begins. Ramachandran had phantom limb patients learn to move their phantom limb by seeing the movement in the box, which was actually performed by the other limb. Unclench fists. Get rid of stiffness. Since they could ‘see” the limb, they were able to feel like they were manipulating it. And many of them learned to use their phantom limb, or at least feel that they were no longer in pain from it. This is a beautiful instance of the divide between what one believes and what works – which is, I think, characteristic of contemporary “reality.” That divide is commonly called irony, but I don’t think that it is quite right. It is, rather, the collapse of the notion that one’s private belief about anything has any import in the real world. One’s beliefs are just phantom limbs. The realistic novel then provides the trick mirror that helps one live with these ghosts – which is perhaps why the fantastic element has such reach in all ‘genres” at the moment.


    May 15, 2009 at 5:36 pm

  20. I’m way out of my league here, being a visual artist and an animator, but I thought I’d chime in with a bit more of something that is probably obvious, and that you are certainly already aware of (based on your notes on Gibson, etc.)

    One of the things that genre fiction does best is to use the unfamiliar to talk about the familiar with a bit of distance. The same applies to period pieces viewed through the lens of contemporary culture, which may or may not fit into ‘genre’.

    It’s true that most genre work is little more than escapist fantasy, letting the reader identify with whatever exploits the hero is involved in. However, the best of it allows the reader to get comfortable in the fantasy environment, gives that sense of escape, but then brings it back to ‘reality’ by paralleling events that are going on right now. ie. X-Men’s heavy-handed comparison of “Mutant Rights” with Gay Rights. There are better examples, but I can’t think of them right now.

    I guess all of this is beside the point you’re trying to make, since your main complaint seems to be with the general structure of genre work – but I almost feel like the point (and the audience) of the genre novel is slightly different from that of the “bourgeois novel” you’re talking about. “Social commentary” comes before “Art,” maybe? (With liberal doses of technology and monsters?) Of course, I’m probably totally off base on that, since a lot of the classics I’ve read have more commentary than most genre. Dunno.

    I think what I’m trying to say is that good genre tricks people into thinking they’re reading something escapist, while actually teaching them something about the world they’re living in… but it can be targeted at an audience that would normally avoid social critique like the plague.

    Chris L

    May 15, 2009 at 9:00 pm

  21. Jasper,

    Will have to look into that. My home state and all…


    I think I meant that the novel materializes both the social task of disenchantment and reenchantment very seriously… I think we agree on this… And boy do you ever provide a lovely allegory of it. A keeper, that…

    Chris L,

    I agree with all of this, I think… The relationship to popular readership is another question. In this post I was addressing, firs and foremost, my own discomfort with “genre” works. But I would agree with you wholeheartedly one can slip social commentary in the back door with genre stuff.


    May 15, 2009 at 9:37 pm

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