Writers Kazuo Ishiguro and Ursula K. Le Guin have a very old-fashioned debate on the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction. Ishiguro started it, in an interview with The New York Times on his latest novel The buried giant, when he asked “Will the readers follow me in this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? fantasy ?” Le Guin didn’t like the tone of that last remark and hit back, “Well, yeah, they probably will. Why not? It seems the author is taking the word for an insult.” Now Ishiguro defended himself, quite obediently, by saying, “I am on the side of the elves and the dragons.” The whole show is very strange. It sounds like a debate from another era. What writer today would feel the need to separate from fantasy or any other genre? If anything, genre forms – sci-fi, fantasy, harsh detective story, murder mystery, horror, vampire, and werewolf – have become natural hotbeds of more serious literary questions.
Only idiots or snobs have never really thought less about “genre books” of course. There are stupid books and there are smart books. There are well-written books and there are poorly-written books. There are fun books and boring books. All of these distinctions are much more important than the distinction between literary and non-literary. Time tends to demolish old snobbery. Once upon a time, Conan Doyle was embarrassed by the stories of Sherlock Holmes; he wanted his serious historical novels to be remembered. Jim Thompson’s books – considered pure pulp during his lifetime – are obviously as dense, layered, and confusing as great literature. Correction: These are great literature. Who really thinks today that Stanislaw Lem is not a genius, that he is “only a science fiction writer”?
More recently, writers of a more explicitly literary bent have explored the genre with increasing regularity. Colson Whitehead’s Zombie Novel Zone one was both a bestseller and a critical darling. Chang-rae Lee On a sea so full is literature and genre fiction, simultaneously, without any sense of contradiction. In a self-referential approach, Emily Mandel Eleven station, a 2014 National Book Award finalist, predicts a post-apocalyptic future in which artists deal with Star trek and Shakespeare with absolute equality. It is the future, and also to some extent the present.
Resistance to the genre, among writers, has given way to relentlessness to exploit its riches. The boundaries between high and low are less and less meaningful to the public. But there are also aesthetic reasons for embracing the genre. For novelists – and I should probably admit at this point that I have a novel with werewolves right now, The wolf’s hunger– generic forms offer a freedom of field that literary realism simply no longer offers.
The landscape of realism has shrunk. If you think of the outright literary novels of the past decade—The Plot of Marriage, The Interesting, The Art of Fielding, Liberty– they often deal with stories and characters from a very particular economic and social situation. Realism, as a literary project, took as its main subject the painstaking social struggles of graduates mainly from Ivy League schools. The great gift of literary realism has always been its characteristic ability to capture the changing times of the inner life, but the mechanisms of this inner life and whose inner lives are under discussion have become as generic as any book on vampires. : these are books about privileged people. with relatively minor problems.
Not that these little problems cannot be fascinating. It is exactly the best realistic novels of our time that are the most miniature: In Teju Cole’s Open city, a man and his thoughts roam various cities. At Adelle Waldman The loves of Nathaniel P., the action consists of the minute fluctuations of the over-sized vanity and self-loathing of the main character. Both novels are stunning and both focus on the smallest details. They derive greater meanings from these details, to be sure, but the constraints are fierce. All discussion of politics or any other larger aspect of the human condition is channeled through the characters’ fine judgments.
In the great spaces left by the shrinking of realism, the genre becomes the place where the great philosophical questions can be elaborated in narrative terms. Sometimes you will read on a cell phone in a realistic novel, but the meaning and consequences of technology are much deeper in a book like Super sad true love story. Freedom deals with the environmental crisis, that’s right. But a book like Eleven station deals with the fate of our species and the possibilities of art, ideas of a magnitude that the realistic imagination, at least of our time, can no longer bear.
Strictly speaking, there is no longer a non-genre; one can choose to write vampire books or werewolf books or horror books or one can choose to write books in the genre known as “literary fiction”. For most of the twentieth century, literary art dreamed of an escape from the genre, an escape from the constraints of type and stereotype and, most importantly, the market. In the 21st century, the traditional roles are now reversed. I can only assume that Ishiguro misspoken in his Time interview, because in The buried giant and in Never let Me Go, he used the forms of genre writing as beautifully and as deeply as anyone. He knows that today’s “fanatics of literature” are the inhabitants of the ghettos. Realism is a closed shop. Genre fiction is open.
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