Monday, June 25, 2012

Le Guin Attacks a False Dichotomy

In my first book, Is God a Delusion?, I attacked the idea that the theist/atheist divide coincided neatly with the divide between the reasonable/morally decent and the unreasonable/moral pernicious. I'm suspicious of such practices of hierarchical division: Divide the world between A's and B's (where A and B are something other than "good" and "bad"). Then assert that all A's are good by virtue of being A's, and all B's are bad by virtue of being B's.

So, I'm a fan of people who challenge the coherence of such divides. And I'm a fan of Ursula K. LeGuin. Have been for years. The Dispossessed blew me away when I read it for the first time in college. Before that, as a boy, the Earthsea trilogy charmed me and challenged me and kept me awake past my bedtime.

So, imagine my delight to see LeGuin taking on a hierarchical division. If you haven't read it, you can find it here.


  1. Hi Eric

    As a genre writer, and having attended a good number of festivals and the like where other genre writers inevitably turn the conversation to bitching about how they're not taking seriously, I find myself, at least in part, disagreeing with Le Guin on this.

    Yes, genres are in part a marketing convenience, and yes, literature can be found within genres, so there are occasionally examples of crime writing, or sci-fi or whatever, that might be thought of as literature. But, if we go so far as to claim that the notion of quality literature is itself an empty construction, we miss an important point.

    Some writing is designed primarily to entertain. Other work aspires to something more. This is true across media. There is a difference between an advertising jingle and a symphony, surely, and an episode of CSI has an entirely different artistic intention that one of The Wire.

    There exists within the world of the novel a subset of works that explicitly attempt to capture something important and true about the human spirit. When they work (and mostly they don't, of course) they are difficult works to come to terms with, but the rewards of grappling with them are great.

    While what counts as a great work will vary from reader to reader, to miss the distinction between works that seek primarily to entertain, and works that seek to stretch our understanding of the human condition, is to trivialise the form.

    So, while we genre writers might envy the respect given to the producers of work of genuine literary merit, I do the think the more dignified path is to keep this to ourselves.


  2. Some good points here, but as I read Le Guin's article I don't think she intended to say that "quality literature is itself an empty construction." Rather, her point was that the divide between works of fiction that are quality literature and works that are not does not map neatly onto some category division between so-called "literary fiction" and genre fiction.

    That said, I think you are correct that most who write deliberatyely within a genre are aiming primarily to entertain, as opposed to illuminating the human condition in challenging and thought-provoking ways--and that it is a feature of the greatest literature that it does the latter well. By contrast, there are those who set out to challenge us and motivate transformative reflection...and, too often, fail, producing a work that is neither entertaining nor challenging, but merely pretentious. I'd rather read entertaining genre fiction than pretentious literary fiction any day. But sometimes those who set out to speak to the human condition in challenging ways succeed, and when they do, they have accomplished something that most genre writers aren't even attempting.

    Too often, however, there seems to be a presumption that these aims (roughly, telling an entertaining story and motivating reflection on the human condition) are mutually exclusive--a presumption which I think is dangerous and misleading for at least three reasons. First, it sets up kids to groan and grumble about reading literature on the assumption that if it's literature it must be boring. Second, I don't think you can tell a really great must-turn-the-page story unless you are to some extent sensitive to the human condition--sensitive enough that your story, even if the focus is on entertaining, will inspire some of the reflection that is generated by the greatest literature. Third, to be entertained by a story is to take pleasure in the story, and what one takes pleasure in is a function of one's character and capacities. Among other things, an activity is pleasurable if it absorbs us, and it won't absorb us if it is too difficult for us to engage with, nor will it absorb us if it is too easy. Some literature is widely inaccessible, not in the sense that it is not entertaining PERIOD, but in the sense that to be entertained by it--absorbed by it--one's character and capacities must be developed. Some works, in other words, are crafted such that they will always challenge us no matter who we are, but will for many be a challenge too great, given their stage of development, to be entertaining. Such works CAN be a goad to personal development even if one is not yet ready to take pleasure in the challenge--and so may be worth wrestling with even if doing so is not a pleasure.

    Other works operate at multiple levels at once--offering a story that is widely accessible while at the same time offering layers of nuance that will challenge those who are ready for it and are likely to be missed altogether by those who are not.

    I don't, however, think that the capacity of a work to challenge us is a function of whether its story occurs in the future, or in the past, or in some invented world in which ancient myths are brought to life, or in a contemporary suburb. And I don't think it's a function of whether the focal narrative is a love story, or a quest, or the pursuit of vengeance, or the effort to solve a mystery. This seems to be Le Guin's most significant point. What matters is not which genre tropes are invoked or avoided, but how these elements are put to use.

    And sometimes one can motivate people to challenge themselves, to stretch themselves, by offering the challenge in a form that appeals to them. That is, you can get a sci-fi fan to wrestle with illuminating and transformative reflections on the human condition if the goad to such reflection is offered in a story set in a future involving cloning...while they never would have undertaken the challenge if the story were packaged as "literary fiction."

  3. I do disagree with this, because I think (and this argument will be familiar to you from another context) it only works if we are prepared to stretch what me mean by the term genre until it is meaningless.

    When we engage in a piece of genre writing, we are entering into a contract with our readers, a certain set of expectations are established (if it's a thriller, then thrill me, if it's a love story, then let me believe in the passion, if it's a comedy, make me laugh) and in return we get to use (and subvert) a familiar set of tools.

    The idea that one can have it all, so perhaps a thriller can also serve the purposes of great literature, is, I think, exactly wrong. In trying to do both, one ends up doing both badly. This is not to say a story can not contain many elements, that a romantic comedy might not produce moments of searing insight, but stories must first and foremost work on their dominant level, and so be prepared to compromise other elements.

    Hence, works of literature that might on the surface meet a genre description, quite clearly depart from the rules of that genre in order to satisfy the writer's goal. Think of how McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses moves away from being a western, or how a book like On Chesil Beach isn't trying to push the love story buttons. To look at it in another way, consider the way a very strong literary novel like The Corrections has its weakest moments precisely when it self-consciously embraces genre writing (The East European jaunt).

    The same is true of film. Secrets and Lies has funny moments, but it is no comedy, Winter's Bone has a crime at its heart, but it is no crime film. It is precisely because the director's knew what they were trying to do that they were able to achieve their artistic goal.

    Equally the very best genre films are those that resist the temptation to mimick art house gravitas; Reservoir Dogs relishes its traditions and constraints, and that's what makes it a great crime film.

    Or so I see it. There will be exceptions to this rule, of course, those works so startling that they would be exceptions to any rule (The Catcher in the Rye simultaneously established and transcended the constraints of my field, Young Adult Literature). But by in large the mapping LeGuin objects to fits pretty well, and what I read in her piece is not insight but envy, the very envy all writers feel when we come across true works of literature.


  4. There seem to be two key arguments here. The first argument challenges the possibility of genuine literary genre fiction on a theoretic level. The argument, as I read it, is that what it means for something to be "genre" fiction precludes it from being literature--so that if X is a work of literature that "on the surface meets genre description," it won't ACTUALLY be genre fiction if it really is literature. Calling it genre fiction if it's a work of literature requires stretching the meaning we attach to genre fiction to a point where that terms loses its usefulness as a label.

    The second argument is related to the first but a bit weaker. The argument might be seen as affirming the divisiion between genre writing and literature for more pragmatic reasons, as opposed to espousing a theoretic incompatibility. On this argument, literature and genre fiction generally aim at doing different things, and if one tries to do both one typically ends up doing both badly. Fiction writing requires making compromises, making trade-offs between attaining this goal and that one; and to suggest that no compromise is needed is to set writers up for failure. We end up with genre writers who weaken the merits of their genre fiction AS genre fiction in the pursuit of unwise literary aspirations.

    The first argument strikes me as depending on an implicit understanding of what it means for something to qualify as genre fiction: genre fiction is defined essentially in terms of a set of "rules" or conventions in which readers come to the genre with a set of expectations that the genre writer promises to fulfill. There's an established plot formula, perhaps. Or there are certain expected character types. One might subvert these elements--as Joe Abercrombie does in his "First Law" trilogy that at once recalls and then radically refashions tropes established by the Lord of the Rings, by rejecting the sharp dichotomization of good and evil and the eschatological view of history that underlies Tolkien's tale. But such subversion is, we might suppose, restricted so as not to betray the genre reader's trust.

    Does this capture your arguments?

  5. Hi Eric

    Sort of.

    It's not a logical argument, insomuch as exceptions clearly occur. Rather it's an observational one, the exceptions are so rare as to make the general mapping of genre onto non-literary works a valid one.

    With regard to the weaker argument, yes, I'm proposing a mechanism for this correlation. Writing aims at realising a goal, and a work represents a single shot at it, a single bullet in the chamber, so to speak. If one is tremendously talented and lucky, then during a career you might hit the target, be it to produce a compelling crime narrative, a swoon inducing romance or a poignant study of the human condition. To hit two targets with a single shot is relying upon a special sort of ricochet, and I think experience shows it almost never happens. To aim at two targets with a single bullet is a pretty good way of missing both.

    As soon as we admit rare exceptions, the strong argument can't hold, and it's not one I'd make. Rather I'm suggesting that those who are motivated to elevate the status of genre writing will often resort to the trick of mis-identifying works to bolster their case.

    A great example is John Banvile, Booker winner and literary giant. The Book of Evidence is a favourite of mine, and in it a man murders a woman and is subsequently arrested. But to want to claim that as a work of genre crime fiction, in order to show crime fiction can be literature, requires a stubborn misreading of the work.

    To underline this point, we might note that Banville does actually write crime fiction, under a pseudonym (a man needs to earn a living). And so we can assume he has the distinction clear, in relation to his intentions and methods, and I think the same sort of clarity is useful in discussing the work.

    The mistake here is to assume that because genre and literature are different beasts, one must be superior. As a genre writer, I absolutely dispute that. Both have their merits, their challenges and their place. Understanding this is, I think, the better way of avoiding snobbery.