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Genre v. Literature: The eternal struggle?

December 10, 2011

Daniel Abraham’s letter, From Genre to Literature:

…. This artificial separation between us is painful, it is undignified, and it fools no one. In company, we sneer at each other and make those cold, cutting remarks. And why? You laugh at me for telling the same stories again and again. I call you boring and joyless. Is it wrong, my dear, that I hope the cruel things I say of you cut as deeply as the ones you say of me?

But allow me this, dear: what you do is crueler. You take the best of me, my most glorious moments – Ursula LeGuin and Dashiell Hammet, Mary Shelly and Philip Dick – and you claim them for your own. You say that they “transcend genre”. There are no more heartless words than those. You disarm me. You know, I think, that if we were to compare our projects honestly — my best to yours, my mediocrities to yours, our failures lumped together — this division between us would vanish, and so you skim away my cream and mock me for being only milk.

I forgive you. I weep and I resent and I say how little I care what your opinions are. And, let me be honest, dear, I take comfort in the fact that I make more money than you. That my audience is larger. Outside the narrow halls of the academy, my star is brighter. I go to the movies, and I am on every marquee. A television is practically my mirror. My house is larger and warmer, and the people there laugh and weep more loudly. Not all of them are sophisticates. Many of them find comfort and solace in things you consider beneath you. But they are my people, and I love them as they love me.

The relationship ‘twixt “genre fiction” and “literature” is a strange one. If genre fiction is good enough, it must be literature and not genre fiction. Because, well, as we all know, genre cannot be literature.

And in a way it’s true. There is no guarantee that the craftsman who makes the finest knives can actually cook. Nor the farmer who grows the bell peppers, nor rancher with his cattle.

But at the same time, the food metaphor doesn’t hold true. What genre most resents is being treated like cheese doodles while some truly abhorrent literary gastronomica is considered haute cuisine for the simple fact that it is literature, and not genre fiction.

Dining at the Literary TroughOn the other hand, I’ve been in a five-star restaurant that once served me, as a pre-appetizer course, two slices of albino beet with a smear of goat cheese between, a single forkful of something that looked like some potato shreds mixed with overcooked cheese, and a homemade marshmallow with powdered carrot on top. You know, quite literally because the chef felt like dawdling around in the kitchen that day, and that’s what he came up with.

Sometimes people need soul food. Or a bit of greasy spoon. And if you can’t tell the two apart, that’s fine. Because if you ever find yourself in that scene from L.A. Story, at a restaurant called “L’Idiot”, reciting Steve Martin’s refrain—”I’m already finished and I don’t remember eating”—then yes, you will think kindly upon the never-ending hash browns, or a bacon cheeseburger with curly fries and a chocolate shake, or any number of genre foods that have done more than their share to sustain, and even please.

-bd

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