It’s an ongoing issue that genre fiction–mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, horror–is somehow less important than so-called “literary” fiction. That involves forgetting that in many cases the disposable genre fiction of yesterday (Jules Verne, HG Wells, Edgar Allen Poe, HP Lovecraft, Louis L’Amour, Jack London, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler) has become the acknowledged classics of today.
Still, it’s frustrating to still see this play out right in front of me, as it did last month in the New York Times. I won’t use the authors’ names here, because it’s not important; it’s not hard to figure out if you feel the need, but it’s utterly beside the point. To me, what’s important is how this “corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals” (props to Spiro Agnew) pronounces and supports its judgment.
Here are two excerpts from the literary novel’s review:
“So does the new novel deliver? I’m not so sure…the author seems a bit lost, adrift in unfamiliar waters, and the book feels less like a second novel than it does another try at a first.”
“There is only so much we can read this way before we are overwhelmed by the desire to drop the pretense.”
And here are two from the review of the genre novel:
“[The author’s] novel has the stylized quality of books by Angela Carter like The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, and it displays similar pyrotechnics.”
“Yet in a highwire act of her own, [the author] still raises the novel above the ordinary through her ability to convey the richness of the [characters’] emotional lives, coupled with impressive writing.”
Clearly the first review was less than positive, while the second was close to a rave. Now, the kicker: which book got the three-page excerpt also published in the New York Times? That’s right, after their reviewer says “There is only so much we can read this way before we are overwhelmed by the desire to drop the pretense,” the Times decides to put that to the test.
As I said, I mean no disrespect to either writer. I do mean disrespect to this constant shafting of the genre in which I work, in which a lot of people do great work that readers actually want to read. How do I know? You don’t get David Foster Wallace conventions; you do get Terry Pratchett ones.
But perversely I also enjoy this lack of respect. Like Superman and Lex Luthor, or Batman and the Joker, your hero is measured against the strength and cunning of the villain opposing him/her. And when you get right down to it, the Literary Establishment is actually a lot like Lex Luthor: powerful, entrenched, sophisticated, and–most delightfully–fundamentally threatened by those aliens in their brightly colored costumes.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go put on my cape and long underwear.