Thursday, January 16, 2014

Literary Vs. Genre: Snobbery for All

All literature is genre literature.
I wish that sentence was enough to settle the argument but it isn't and it won’t. The separation of genres is the result of the writers, the critics, academics, and universities. Essentially it breaks down like this: literary writing is art and is the only form of writing worthy of praise. Genre writing is meant as simple escapism and worthy of derision by serious writers and critics. Literary writing is all that is good, right, and noble about the written word. Genre writing is the dregs thrown out for the unwashed masses to consume. The divide between literary writing and genre writing is artificial, like most ideological divides.
Elevating one genre of writing (and literary writing is a genre) over all the others is complete bullshit.
I’m not demeaning the work of so-called literary authors nor am I championing genre as the best form of writing. Instead literature should be treated for what it is: genres, with their own conventions, tropes, and expectations. The distinction and overdeveloped admiration for literary works is the byproduct of an older era of writing.
Literary writing as we understand it now is a product of the Modernist period, which covers much of the early to mid-20th century’s writing. For academics like my professors, this time period is roughly the late 1880s to the 1950s. Modernism’s hallmark styles were densely-worded prose, stream-of-consciousness sentences, and structured writing requiring multiple readings and analysis. Keep in mind that these writings take place before the advent of television. Radio is the largest media outlet aside from books during the early 20th century. There is no mass media saturating the landscape with content.
Anyone who has gone through college literature courses, particularly American Literature and British Literature for the first half of the last century would have been inundated with Modernist literature. From E.E. Cummings to Ezra Pound to Ernest Hemingway to James Joyce (throw in some Faulkner and O’Connor for Southern flavor), English majors and Creative Writing majors are made to read and decrypt books seemingly designed to be dense for the sake of using obfuscation. Taking literature classes also teaches you how to use $5 words like “obfuscation”.
The obtuse, stylized Modernist movement became the celebration of academia. College professors spent decades studying and instructing Literature and Writing students that this was true art and everything else was shit. The pulp writers of that time like Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft were relegated to being considered hacks for using such obvious things as “plot” and “story”. The generation of college students who went on to being Writing and English professors after the Modernist period ended (1950s to 1970s, called Post-Modernism) were trained to approach writing only from four styles: realism, magical realism, absurdist, and surrealism. Anything genre-based without a strong foundation in Modernist-realism, psychological drama, or the stylized tropes of Modernist giants was automatically dismissed as being less-than. This snobbery was and still is apparent in both prose and poetry instruction at the college level.
And it’s complete bullshit.
I spent the better part of 6 years studying literature and writing. In that time, I was exposed to everything from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Stein (Gertrude, not Ben). Some things I learned during that time studying:
·         Heavy drinking made Hemingway and Faulkner “brilliant” writers, but for different reasons. Hemingway used as few words as possible while Faulkner sometimes had problems using a period.
·         Joyce seemed to revel in writing stories and books requiring Herculean amounts of research to scratch the surface.
·         Stein’s use of repeating words in a single string for a sentence is not artistic. It’s fucking monotonous.
·         Shakespeare is the go-to writer when you want to steal tragic falls from grace and comedy romance.
·         Langston Hughes used words the same way Louie Armstrong used a trumpet.
I get why academics enjoy movements like Modernism and the Beat Generation that followed because you can chew on the language, dissect it and find hidden meanings. My poetry professors embraced the Beats and Modernist poets as well as recent poets who in many ways emulated those prior writers. I was trained to write poetry that duplicated the style and content of those writers. Prose professors were much the same way. My first Fiction professor was very anti-genre, which is what I tend to write. Anything genre-related was not given great value in terms of grades. The second Fiction professor I had embraced genre fiction as just another form of literature and encouraged my fellow students and I to use whatever we needed to become better storytellers.
I was intent on going forward with getting an MFA degree and teaching at the university level after graduation. I would publish on the side and teach the next generation of Writing students. Not long after graduation I was asked by an old friend to read and review her husband’s book. It was a science fiction story called Simon Vector. The book followed many of the genre conventions while being well-written and fun. That book and review started my reintroduction to genre fiction, which I had grown up reading and largely abandoned while in college. It also helped me realize the career path I’d chosen wasn’t what I really wanted.
Literary writers (whether prose or poetry) are largely academics but that’s not always the case. Those literary writers who are employed by colleges in teaching positions are writing because being published and garnering critical acclaim (not sales) is a prerequisite to obtain tenure. In order to gain said acclaim (and the awards and cash prizes that come with them) the literary writer has to write for a specific intended audience: academics in other English departments across the country. Literary magazines and journals are almost exclusively run by universities or closely associated with universities. English Masters of Arts graduate students and Ph.D candidates need new material to critically analyze, to write papers and books about because... publishing leads to tenure. It’s almost a tacit, incestuous handshake between the two sides of English departments to help each other stay employed.
I wish to reiterate: I am not dismissing all literary writing as useless or treat it as unworthy compared to the more popular genre writing.
I’m saying literary fiction and poetry are just another genre.
Literary writing has its own conventions and expectations, much like the genre writing literary gatekeepers backhandedly call “guilty pleasures”. Here are some of the conventions of literary writing:
·         Characterization is paramount. Layered, nuanced characters are key.
·         Plot is an inconvenience that should be avoided.
·         The tone of the work through word choice and structure is serious, layered to the point of being obtuse, and deeply introspective.
·         Literary poetry is often (not always) allusive, requiring the reader to decipher the writer’s meaning.
·         Literary fiction often moves at such a glacial pace as to be almost stationary despite drawing out scenes to often excessive lengths.
These conventions are unique to literary writing in much the same way magic is for fantasy stories or steamy sexual encounters are for romance and erotica stories. More importantly the tropes listed above are emblematic of the genre, meaning without them one is not writing literary fiction or poetry. Literary gatekeepers like professors often dismiss writings from students that stick to genre tropes. Every so often a professor or literary critic “discovers” a genre writer with skill and elevates them as great writers who “transcend” their genre trappings. The gatekeepers backhandedly compliment the writer’s abilities while insulting the medium the author uses as inferior.
I want to ask literary writers, poets, and gatekeepers this question: What objective, methodological standard is being used to elevate literary writing over genre?
From where I sit, it breaks down to logical fallacies like the argument from authority, false equivocation, and special pleading. Every genre has books that are so atrocious you want to soak your eyes in battery acid and chisel out the parts of your brain that remember the words. Every genre also has great stories:
·         Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire for Fantasy
·         Murders at the Rue Morgue and Murder on the Orient Express for Mystery
·         Interview with a Vampire and The Stand for Horror
·         Old Man and the Sea and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” for Literary Works
·         Foundation and Dune for Science Fiction
And there are thousands more titles in all the genres that are worthy of praise. To think that one genre should be elevated above all others as the only true form of writing is snobbery of the worst kind. No genre is greater or lesser than any other. Masterpieces and schlock abound in all of them. If the arbitrary focus on “good” literature were removed, there remains simply literature. Reading is an activity for pleasure, for introspection, for escapism, and for learning. Anything more than that is simply a superiority complex gone completely out of proportion

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