Tag Archives | literature

Is Genre Fiction Second-Rate?

One reads Conrad and James and Joyce not simply for their way with words but for the amount of felt life in their books. Great writers hit us over the head because they present characters whose imaginary lives have real consequences (at least while we’re reading about them), and because they see the world in much the way we do: complicated by surface and subterranean feelings, by ambiguity and misapprehension, and by the misalliance of consciousness and perception. Writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know are not going to write horror tales or police procedurals. Why say otherwise? Elmore Leonard, Ross Thomas, and the wonderful George MacDonald Fraser craft stories that every discerning reader can enjoy to the hilt—but make no mistake: good commercial fiction is inferior to good literary fiction in the same way that Santa Claus is inferior to Wotan. One brings us fun or frightening gifts, the other requires—and repays—observance.

— Arthur Krystal, in It’s Genre Fiction. Not That There’s Anything Wrong With It!

Krystal’s graceful, highly intelligent, and blithely condescending and snobbish (get Maggie Smith for the audio version!) post at The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog is a bracing blast of reaction against the current perceived ascendancy of genre fiction. And it’s a naive and provincial symptom of one of the great absences in literary discourse: Northrop Frye’s, especially the Frye of Anatomy of Criticism. Krystal shakes his head at Ursula K. Le Guin’s dictum that literature “is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it” — which is exactly right, and periodically needs to be re-argued and re-learned, although Frye proved it.


[N.B. The title of my post is a shameless instance of Betterridge’s Law of Headlines: “Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no.’”]

October 24, 2012 at 9:21 pm

Death as Metamorphosis

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Via Andrew Sullivan (“Death as Metamorphosis”), a previously unpublished interview in which John Updike talks about death in Vladimir Nabokov’s writing and says, “I take dying to be for a lepidopterist like him a kind of entry into immortality, just the way a butterfly on its pin becomes deathless, in a sense, and is preserved.”

I’m not sure whether the reassurance that Updike found in a lepidopterist’s metamorphic rather than terminal vision of death has much of a real basis in Nabokov’s work, but I’ve always found a very different kind of comfort regarding mortality in the writing of the Russian master, especially in this passage from the opening of Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory:

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence… But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.

The first time I read this, I realized I’d never feared “the prenatal abyss” in the same way I instinctively dreaded the possibility of permanent extinction after this life. If there is a God, I thought, then the Creator who cared enough to bring me into being out of an eternal and untroubled preexistence might have something equally benign and purposeful in store after I’m dead. And it is Nabokov’s smiling imaginative eloquence, rather than the Gothic spookiness of that empty baby carriage, that has stayed with me.

November 21, 2010 at 4:51 pm

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