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Ursula K. Le Guin on Literature vs. Genre

24 June 2012

From Book View Cafe:

I keep telling myself that I’m done writing about Literature vs Genre, that that vampire is buried at the crossroads with a stake in its heart and garlic in its coffin. And then it pops up again, undead. Its latest revival is a cheery one in an entertaining article, “Easy Writers,” in the May 28 New Yorker by Arthur Krystal, who discusses the literature/genre divide and while seeming to make light of it does a pretty thorough job of perpetuating it.

He uses Chesterton’s phrase, “good bad books,” for genre novels, and calls reading them a “guilty pleasure” — a phrase that succeeds in being simultaneously self-deprecating, self-congratulatory, and collusive…

Mr Krystal gives a good brief discussion of 18th-century disapproval of allnovel-reading as guilty pleasure, and is amusingly acute about the dire modernist invention of the “serious” or literary novel, which tossed out all other novels as genre — trivial.

But his only quoted example of the literary novel is Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. Now, I love that interminable four-decker and think it one of the great novels about war. But it was never well known in America, and I wonder how many people have even heard of it by now. If it exemplifies the literary novel, the literary novel is: obscure, unpopular, syntactically complex, ninety years old, and British…

“Skilled genre writers,” Mr Krystal says, “know that a certain level of artificiality must prevail, lest the reasons we turn to their books evaporate. It’s plot we want and plenty of it.”…

Plot is not the reason I turn to novels and is often the least interesting element to me in them. Story is what matters. Plot complicated and extends story; plot is indeed pure artifice. But Mr Krystal seems to say that only genre writers are aware that a certain level of artificiality must prevail in fiction. Does he mean that literary writers don’t use artifice? That they don’t know, just as as surely as genre writers, the absolute, imperative, marvelous artificiality of their art? That Virginia Woolf, so often demonstrably plotless, was artless?

And I question the idea that we “turn to” genre fiction as addicts turn to their needle or their bottle. Genre as Fixfic…

The trouble with the Litfic vs Genre idea is that what looks like a reasonable distinction of varieties of fiction always hides a value judgment: Lit superior, Genre inferior. Sticking in a middle category of Good Bad Books is no help. You might just as well make another one, Bad Good Books, which everybody could fill at their whim — mine would contain a whole lot of Booker Prize winners and, yes, definitely, The Death of Virgil — but it’s just a parlor game…

To get out of this boring bind, I propose an hypothesis:

Literature is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.

The value judgment concealed in distinguishing one novel as literature and another as genre vanishes with the distinction.

Every readable novel can give true pleasure. Every novel read by choice is read because it gives true pleasure.

Literature consists of many genres, including mystery, science fiction, fantasy, naturalism, realism, magical realism, graphic, erotic, experimental, psychological, social, political, historical, bildungsroman, romance, western, army life, young adult, thriller, etc., etc…. and the proliferating cross-species and subgenres such as erotic Regency, noir police procedural, or historical thriller with zombies.

Some of these categories are descriptive, some are maintained largely as marketing devices. Some are old, some new, some ephemeral.

Genres exist, forms and types and kinds of fiction exist and need to be understood: but no genre is inherently, categorically superior or inferior….

Read the rest at Book View Cafe 

~Contributed by guest blogger Kat Sheridan with thanks to Cora Buhlert for pointing me to the original article

Books in General, Fiction Fundamentals

23 Comments to “Ursula K. Le Guin on Literature vs. Genre”

  1. Interesting take on the “game field is more level than you think” theory.

    *sigh* Need to dig out and re-read her Earthsea books.

  2. I like the hypothesis, although arguing with academics has rarely done me any good. The market drives what it wants. The mainstream is obvious by revenue and debatable in quality/taste. Literary eddies serve the smaller specialty groups. Great literature comes as often from the mainstream as the eddies.

    Several thousand books were published in 1883. One of them was immensely popular while frowned upon by academics. I loved reading Treasure Island ninety years later. It stood the test of time whether the professors liked it or not. Literary? Adventure Genre? Boy-book? Who cares? NOt Stevenson.

    In an online writer’s group, where I experimented with tenses and POV, I was castigated by a college professor for a first person, present tense short story. He said, “James Joyce set the standard for first person” and later “you can’t break the fourth wall without sounding manipulative”. I responded that Joyce died 70 years ago (before jet airplanes, open heart surgery, nuclear bombs, etc etc) and that the current standard for 1st Person, present tense, 4th wall, etc was Josh Bazell’s 2007 hit, Beat the Reaper. He’d never heard of book or author. Things change.

    I wish the best of luck to those bent on definitions. I only aim to write in a way that entertains people. The more, the merrier, and therefore, better. In my series, On Writing, I recommend writers look at their intent before seeking a market. Is it a hobby to amuse/impress friends, peers and students? Or a profession?

    Peace, Seeley

  3. Yay, a new word – bildungsroman. Good one!

    I understand her feeling that the topic just won’t die. I feel the same was about the current tussle with Self pub/Trad pub. Seems like every time things start to settle down, someone needs to have their prejudiced say and everyone gets riled.

    I agree with Seeley about definitions. Why do you so desperately need one? Some people must have a ladder to climb to prove their worth. So they must constantly define the ladder. Self publishing put in escalators and the ladder climbers must find every point possible to discredit them.

    • I’ve heard it said that if people are trying to pull you down it’s because they secretly believe you are above them…

      • Well, that would explain Scott Turow trashing E.L. James. *grin*

        • Oh, my mind instantly flashed me the wrong sort of picture.

          … By the way, my new word for the week is palinode. Gorgeous word – what a great fantasy-knight name it would make.

  4. You know, I’ve heard this argument for 50 years; that genre fiction (any genre) isn’t “writing”. My take; if you don’t like it, don’t read it. If your thing is non-fiction written with the dry pen of a professional paper, spoken in the voice of the most boring lecturer you’ve ever heard, go for it.
    Writing, of any kind, is food for the mind and sustenance for the imagination. It exercises all those synapses and fires those neurons like nothing else. That’s because reading is an “active” exercise; unlike movie or TV, it stimulates our minds and paints pictures in our heads, of things that may or may not ever be.
    So if you want to read of dragons and daemons, or spies coming in from the cold, or politicians corrupted by their own power, or they-lived-happily-ever-after, please proceed.
    Indulge yourself; feed your mind; release your imagination; explore those fantasies. And feel ye no guilt for doing so.

  5. I wish she’d stayed on topic and hadn’t closed with this:

    But then, how long will the publishers and booksellers last against the massive aggression of the enormous corporations that are now taking over every form of publication in absolute indifference to its content and quality so long as they can sell it as a commodity?

    • Actually if you look at the sentence before that, she IS on topic. She’s blaming the rift on that attitude of the corporations: as long as they treat commercial fiction like a commodity, that rift will continue.

  6. “Literature is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.”

    Not just a hypothesis — it’s the definition of the word literature.

    All the same, I have no problem writing good bad books, or my books being a guilty pleasure.

    I understand why LeGuin gets upset though. She does write literary fiction, and does a darn sight better job of it than the vast majority of academic writers. (And even some of the snobbiest ones know it.)

    • Yeah, The Dispossessed is right up there with any piece of literature I had to read in high school or college.

      I don’t care what critics will call my books, only that they get read. At least, for now. Ask me after I’ve had a few published and torn down because they’re not literary enough. 🙂

      • I think the real frustration point is that she is constantly pointed at, by literary people, as being “literary” and “not really science fiction/fantasy,” by people who often do not even realize how much attention she pays to the traditions and innovations of her genres. LeGuin would write differently than the rest of the pack in any genre, but she knows what rules she’s breaking. That’s part of her point, usually.

        Anyway, the annoying thing is that a lot of her newer books have been shelved over in “mainstream literary” so much, that a lot of sf/f readers don’t ever find out she’s got something new out. Which is sad, because the last few years she’s gotten incredibly prolific again.

        • …dang. I didn’t know she’d gotten prolific again. (I don’t know if I’d like her stuff, mind. I seem to be in the case of liking the author’s non-fiction perhaps more than the fiction!)

  7. Hmm, how did this person miss the last 200 years. I always think of literary books as just another genre.

    • Clare K. R. Miller

      I kept trying to say that in college, where I did a degree in “creative writing.” Glad to find one person who agrees with me.

  8. I honestly don’t understand why people care about this stuff. I have been guilty of inverted snobbery in the past, but some literary writers put me right — it’s hard to sneer at people you respect. However, I would not have typed (spit) after every use of the term ‘Literary Fiction’ if the lovers of that genre did not dismiss my genre ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’ every time they write an op-ed on the subject.

    I don’t care if people call my stuff literary or not — in fact I would rather prefer it if they didn’t. I don’t actually care if I ever write something that might possibly ‘be called’ literary. That is not why I write. I do hope that my stuff is called “A good read” though. That is all that really matters.

    Of course, even that is beyond my control. I just write to the best of my ability and see what happens next.

    • Ms Leguin comes from an academic background and chose to write excellent books that can be categorized as fantasy and science fiction. For that crime, she’s been marginalized by critics for her entire career. Yes, she’s made money. No, her books have never been out of print to my knowledge. But no-one likes to be cold-shouldered by the entire profession of those who write and analyze “littrachure.”

      Still, I suspect for herself she doesn’t care nearly as much as for the writers coming after her. She gets on with it, which is good news for us. But the snobbishness so many take as truth does cause wounds.

      It doesn’t bother me to be cut (in the social sense of the word) by critics who’d drown if they remained outside in a rainstorm, but for some it must be hurtful.

      • Oh I wasn’t having a go at Ursula K. Le Guin. I know her work as SF&F, rather than literary though. SF&F is my first love and I doubt anything will ever supplant it.

        There’s an awful lot of SF&F (from the New Wave period in particular) that is, by any standard, literary. It’s probably why I got irritated with Lit Fic. There is nothing that can be done with prose that hasn’t been done — and done well — in SF&F. And I read it all voraciously. Complex, difficult, novels that played with form, with style, with subject matter. Don’t ask me which ones because I have not a clue what ones would qualify. It was all SF&F to me from the Lensman onwards. It never mattered about the form, the ideas are what mattered.

        So I pick up (or usually had bought for me by somebody trying to improve my reading habits 🙂 ) some literary ‘experimental’ novel or story and I see nothing I haven’t read before.

        I just don’t understand why people, and I have a couple of writing friends who feel this way, want to see an out and out genre novel, by an out and out genre novelist, on the Booker short list. I don’t see the point.

        I’d consider being cold shouldered by the literary establishment as a badge of honour. After all, they are the ‘establishment’.

        • I do remember the SF New Wave. Not fondly, for the most part :). And I never thought you were bashing LeGuin. Perish the thought. But whether we understand it or not, a lot of writers do care about the ongoing marginalization of genre. A lot of others shrug it off. Like you, I like to read good books wherever I find ’em. I read my first SF novel at the age of seven, and that pretty much spoiled me for boring writing, no matter how many critics might praise it.

  9. I guess all I can really say is welcome to my senior thesis, lol. I have a BA in literature and spent years combating the snobbery. A lot of this is probably very “inside baseball” for people who don’t pay attention to the academics.

    On a side note, I had a professor in my British Novel class who had the class write for 5 minutes on the media items (movies, books, television, games, music, etc) that were inspired by Jane Austen. I filled the first page with movies and had only started on the Romance novels when time was called. He never expected to see so much science fiction and fantasy on the list and he became one of the biggest supporters for the Tolkien class I was helping push for. They can be converted!

  10. Glad you liked the article, Kat.

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