26 September 2009

Hybrid Books and the Marketplace of Literary Respectability

I previously mentioned the "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" list at The Millions, and Andrew Seal posted some ruminations on why the results were what they were. In the comments to his post, there's some interesting discussion, well worth reading, but one paragraph of Seal's original remarks does not seem, so far, to have been discussed, and I think it's among the most interesting of his observations, so I'm posting it here to see if anybody wants to say anything. I haven't thought too much about it, so am not proposing agreement or disagreement, just that I think it's an interesting observation about how the value of fiction is constructed in the U.S. especially (since most of the panelists are U.S.-based):
The writer-heaviness [of the panelists] also, I think, accounts for why so many of the works included are of the hybrid variety—"literary fiction" that cleverly incorporate genre (SFF, thriller) elements—while there are so few (actually none) books which are actually categorized as genre fiction. Writers who practice this boundary-crossing (while keeping a strong "literary fiction" audience) are simply the most empowering models for aspirant writers: an ambitious young writer would be a fool not to like them. These hybrid books suggest the extent of a writer's powers (crossing or playing with genre boundaries is assumed to be a proof of the writer's talent and imagination) while also instructing on how to rein that power in before falling all the way into genre. "You can play with reality," these books say, "and if you do it like me, you can still be shelved in a respectable location in Barnes and Noble."

4 comments:

  1. It's hard to figure out what's really meant by "crossing or playing with genre boundaries," for a start. A Duncanesque dichotomy between "genre" as sensationalism and "literary" as intellectualism fails. Either it's a trivial opposition between dumb and smart, and casting that way is setting up an appeal to reverse snobbery. Who really is in favor of dumb?

    Or it's a an opposition between "literary" focus on character, detached from nature, society and history and a repudiation of narrative (mystery story, adventure story, romance, etc.---in other words, all the real genres, which are not places but narrative goals pursued together with the reader.) Playing
    with narrative hooks can be amusing, in the same way playing with scientific ideas (aka speculating) can be amusing, except that most people are less interested in the nuts and bolts of literature than nature. Which is not to exaggerate the number of people interested in nature.

    And neither of you meant to imply this, but one meaning of this is that playing with reality is the prose equivalent of free verse. It's hard to lose when playing tennis without a net.

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  2. S,
    I certainly could have been a lot clearer, partly because I left my thoughts in fairly abstract terms which, as you point out, themselves have unclear meanings.

    By "crossing or playing with genre boundaries" I mean just the incorporation into "literary fiction" (or standard realism) of elements normally associated with science fiction, fantasy, detective novels, or thrillers, while still retaining a claim to the audience of literary fiction/standard realism and remains eligible for the kind of critical recognition usually reserved for literary fiction (high-profile reviews, awards, consideration for lists like The Millions, etc.). So that, while Michael Chabon, for instance, is considered a natural candidate for a Pulitzer Prize (where someone like Kim Stanley Robinson is not), he's also recognized as innovative in his incorporation of genre elements in a way that Joseph O'Neill is (obviously) not.

    Yet that's not all--these books aren't just able to retain their "respectability" (by which I mean their eligibility for the same kinds of recognition as works of literary fiction), but they are also praised for being greater feats of imagination, as more freely and fully the product of the author's mind/genius. It's my contention that this dual recognition--both the type that pertains to literary fiction and this recognition for extreme imaginative creativity--is very appealing to a young writer.

    I hope that makes more sense--I apologize for a muddled first attempt.

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  3. Thanks for the clarification. The related issues of how "standard realism" came to be privileged or how realism can't be "standard' when there is wide disagreement on "reality" were not at issue there.

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  4. "Yet that's not all--these books aren't just able to retain their "respectability" (by which I mean their eligibility for the same kinds of recognition as works of literary fiction), but they are also praised for being greater feats of imagination, as more freely and fully the product of the author's mind/genius. It's my contention that this dual recognition--both the type that pertains to literary fiction and this recognition for extreme imaginative creativity--is very appealing to a young writer."

    And appealing to readers. I appreciated much of what you had to say about the writer-centric nature of the list, Andrew, but this part made the least sense to me. I don't think that growing interest in genre hybridization is a particularly writerly phenomenon.

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