On Genre and Literature

I’m a little late on this due to having been very busy with paying work, but allow me to point you to a post on Crooked Timber in which Henry Farrell takes issue with this lengthy article by Benjamin Kunkel from Dissent magazine.

The paragraphs that Farrell quotes sound very much like the classic LitCrit dismissal of science fiction that we are all so familiar with from the “How Others See Us” section of Ansible. If you read the whole article, however, Kunkel’s argument is a lot more complex, and I’m going to go on at some length about it.

The meat of the article (from a LitCrit point of view – let’s forget about the politics, much of which is plain silly) comes about two thirds of the way in where Kunkel explains what he means by a “literary” novel:

Lionel Trilling thought that when he gave the following description of the literary or art novel he was only repeating a commonplace: the novel, he wrote, was “an especially useful agent of the moral imagination, as the literary form which most directly reveals to us the complexity, the difficulty, and the interest of life in society, and which best instructs us in our human variety and contradiction.” Notice that Trilling says nothing about original language, sharp perceptions, or a significant order of events. This is not because Trilling was indifferent to these things, but presumably because he believed they acquired their value in fiction by virtue of revealing the complex moral, social, and psychological realities to which he refers.

I should first note that this is by no means the only definition of what “literary” means. Many writers will defend the idea of original language and sharp perceptions being important. However, it is a fairly popular idea, and it is also one that is likely to appeal strongly to a critic who is, Kunkel appears to be, is firmly convinced of his own moral superiority over the bulk of mankind.

I’m not familiar with Trilling myself, and as no actual source for the quote is given I can’t check for context, but I note also that Trilling says nothing specific about “character”. He talks instead about “life in society”, and it behooves us to remember that in any sort of secondary world novel the world itself is, in a way, a character, and can be as complex and carefully built as any living being. Kunkel, however, proceeds on the basis that Trilling is talking only about character, and makes various condescending remarks about genre fiction of the usual “they can’t write characters” type. He even notes:

In sum, when the contemporary novelist contemplates the future—including, it seems, the future of the novel—he or she often forfeits the ability to imagine unique and irreplaceable characters

as if by choosing to write (gasp!) science fiction otherwise sane authors such as Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell and Kazuo Ishiguro have somehow taken leave of their senses and thereby lost their ability to write.

However, Kunkel isn’t always that simplistic. Following on from his invocation of Trilling he writes:

In this light, genre fiction doesn’t exist in contradistinction to literature merely because of stale language, secondhand insights, or hackneyed plots. The larger difference is a failure or—less judgmentally—a simple setting-aside of the moral imagination. The literary novel illuminates moral problems (including sometimes those that are also political problems) at the expense of sentimental consolation, while genre fiction typically offers consolation at the expense of illumination.

Here he is making a point that M. John Harrison would probably agree with. Harrison can regularly be found railing against consolation. But what genre is actually about is giving the reader what she (or he) expects. A genre novel is one that unfolds in a particular way. The more “generic” (or perhaps “ossified”) a book is, the more closely it follows the expected form. As Kunkel notes, Jane Austen and George Orwell have written genre novels. They just did it rather better than most people, and consequently have been accepted as “literary”.

In places Kunkel is actually groping towards the sort of insights that Farah Mendlesohn presents in Rhetorics of Fantasy. He hasn’t quite got there yet, because dystopias are clearly immersion fantasies whereas the horror novels he likened to them are generally intrusion fantasies, but at least he’s thinking in the right direction.

The real issue here is confusion of tropes with genre. There is a (perhaps understandable) tendency for people to assume that if a book is set in the future, has spaceships in it, or whatever, then it must be a generic science fiction novel with a hackneyed plot and poorly defined characters. Not only is this an unwarranted generalization, it also misses the fact that science fiction itself is not a genre. You can write any sort of plot in a future setting: a romance, murder mystery, an adventure, a war novel, or indeed a deeply literary novel of character.

Looking specifically at Kunkel’s article, he’s right that dystopian novels are a genre. Clone novels that focus on the nature of clones may also be a genre, but clones are a trope as well and I suspect that there are lots of science fiction novels that feature clones and do not follow the standard “are clones human?” plot.

In summary, Kunkel gets it wrong, but he does so in interesting ways, and not in the simplistic manner that Farrell complains about. At the very least he was interesting enough for me to spend over 900 words commenting on his article. Hopefully you found the discussion interesting too.

14 thoughts on “On Genre and Literature

  1. I think you are correct that Kunkel gets it wrong in interesting ways. I am not an expert in literary criticism but I did a quick read of the Kunkel article in Dissent. As I read Kunkel’s essay I felt there is a greater diversity both in genre fiction and in society than he addresses. Thus his comments about character and morality in genre fiction struck me as overly simplistic and lacking the necessary nuance for such a complex topic. It seems to me that sometimes a lens can act like a mirror. Perhaps the thing we are using as a lens for examination is sometimes partially reflecting as well as magnifying and thus we project more than we realize into what we see. It happens to us all (well at least occasionally to me) and I am wondering if it did not happen perhaps in just a small amount to Kunkel in his essay.

    When I was reading the essay I wondered if he had read “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler or “Sims” by F. Paul Wilson or “Farthing” and “Ha’penny” by Jo Walton.

  2. Fred:

    I suspect that Kunkel avoids reading any science fiction that might not fit his preconceived ideas about it being a hotbed of evil neoliberalism.

  3. If genre = escapism and literary = insight or illumination, then they are not mutually exclusive anyway. Consolation = happy ending, and while I’d agree most are cheats meant to reassure at the expense of making a point, it is quite possible to construct a story’s ending so that it leaves the reader feeling good while also offering insights into the human plight, etc.
    Again, not mutually exclusive, if difficult.

    It boils down to some critics using their tastes to excuse categorical thinking. Meaning bigotry. More advanced readers will simply take each story as it comes and assess it on its own individual strengths, weaknesses, and goals.

    The debate lies between bigotry and informed open-mindedness.

  4. Tetar:

    Yes. In fact I was originally intending to write something along those lines, but Kunkel’s article turned out to be far more interesting than Farrell made it out to be and I got sidetracked.

    I’ve just finished An Autumn War, which is a magnificent example of how a book with a driving plot can still ask all sorts of interesting moral questions. I’ll try to write something about it soon, but it looks like I’m going to be heads down over work all weekend so I don’t know when.

  5. Science fiction = elsewere and tomorow
    Anticipation = here and tomorow
    Fantasy = spatial elsewhere and temporal elsewhere (a spatio temporal line clearly separate of the consensual reality time line)

  6. Fabien:

    No. Simplistic definitions based on content generally run foul of author creativity. For example, you have defined the whole of steampunk as fantasy because it is set in the past, not the future. I’m sure there are some hard core science fiction fans who wold like that, but it isn’t a useful definition.

    Dr. Jon:

    No, I hadn’t, so thank you! It is very funny.

  7. I have extremely simplified the things. If i explain all the subgenre, it’s compulsory more complicated. I’ve given a general case but there are full of more complex thing.
    I’ve worked a bit in a semiotic operation of SF and other speculative littérature. It’s extremely complex more than mainstream i think.

  8. Fabien:

    Understood, but it still sounds like you are trying to define genres in terms of settings and tropes. It doesn’t work. And ultimately it isn’t useful except to people who want to play identity politics games with books. Working with plot structures is usually much more effective.

  9. Just a couple of comments (and, sad to say, I am far more familiar with literary theory than is healthy):

    * Dystopian/utopian literature is not a “genre” under either the snarky postmodernist definition (genre || marketing category) that Kunkel seems to have adopted without thinking about it or a more-defensible, internally consistent definition closer to Aristotle’s usage and the pre-Derridaean assumptions of theory. It is, instead, a trope and variation on the classic eiron’s tale; it’s more accurate to call it a subset of political satire than anything else. And a type of literature broad enough to include even the narrowest conception of political satire is far too broad for the simplistic nonsense served up by Kunkel.

    * I always find these arguments sadly one-dimensional for another reason: They tend to reflect the abject ignorance of science, technology, and the history of them among the literati. Whether it’s because math is too hard or understanding change is too hard, the literati tend to have their perspectives very narrowly focused on what passes for the here-and-now among them… which, in turn, seldom has much extent beyond their personal experiences, which tend to be extremely narrow. As an undergraduate, I got to watch some of the intrafaculty teasing between the two military veteran poets on the faculty and the Ivory Tower types (and one of those two veterans was a Poet Laureate), which was nothing compared to grad school.

    * Here’s a challenge for Kunkel et al: Define where Love in the Time of Cholera, 100 Years of Solitude, The Island of the Day Before, Terra Nova, and Gulliver’s Travels fit in your oh-so-neat classification system.

  10. Do you think Kunkel actually read I Am Legend? I would think he’d have gotten the fact that the protagonist is actually revealled to be the “villain (an unfortunate term Kunkel insists on using to denegrate by association with pot boilers in order to allow himself to be willfully ignorant of its qualities).” Those who capture the protag at the end fear him and what he might do to them. He’s the alien, the threat. It’s much more complex than the “villains” in The Road — sort of toned down Mad Max retreads. Don’t get me wrong, I liked McCarthy’s novel, but for moral complexity and philosophical depth it doesn’t hold a candle to I Am Legend.

  11. Jeff:

    If you approach books with the view that they are going to be morally simplistic then it is quite easy to not see any complexity that is there.

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