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.’”]