Once Again On Genre

It has popped up again, that infuriating discussion whereby genre writers have to defend themselves against the literati. It seems to happen everytime a famous so-called ‘literary’ writer tries their hand at genre. The latest is Ishiguro’s turn to fantasy, The Buried Giant. Across the Anglophone world, one senses the collective puzzlement of reviewers, used to spending their time with, Alice Munro and John Updike (the former a great writer, the later of more questionable value), as they wonder just how they can assess a book with ogres and dragons. It stains their reviews. It poisons their reviews. It turns their reviews into acts of contortion. Take Maria Arana’s insufferable paragraph from her review for the Washington Post:

It would be too easy to call what Ishiguro is undertaking “fantasy” or “magical realism.” Critics will summon such phrases to describe this book, but they would be wrong to do so. Such facile labels — suggesting that the author is relying on literary devices pulled from old bags of tricks — have no meaning here. Instead, what we are given in “The Buried Giant” has the clear ring of legend, as graceful, original and humane as anything Ishiguro has written.

One doesn’t need to have a degree in literary criticism to detect the attempt to defend Ishiguro against the ‘taint’ of fantasy. With a wave of the great wand of ignorance, Arana manages to reconfirm every prejudice about genre there is. It relies on an ‘old bag of tricks’. One wonders, has she read Gene Wolfe or M John Harrison? Has she read Jeff Vandermeer or Ursula K. Le Guin? Le Guin herself recently took up this battle in relation to Ishiguro, who himself, it appears has tried to defend himself from the stain of genre (much as Margaret Atwood does). Le Guin’s piece, which is well worth reading, pointed out that it is Ishiguro’s distain for the genre that – in her opinion – actually poisons his own book (I haven’t read the book, so can’t comment, but I loved Ishiguro’s novel of science fiction, Never Let Me Go. In a devastating paragraph, she writes:

I respect what I think he was trying to do, but for me it didn’t work. It couldn’t work. No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”

You must take the genre and its history seriously, or else you are doomed.

But it’s not all the fault of the mainstream literati. The truth is, also, that genre (and its fans) themselves reaffirm this division. It’s been forty years since Thomas Disch’s essential essay on ‘The Embarrassments of Science Fiction’, in which he claimed that SF was ‘a branch of children’s literature.’ I won’t rehearse Disch’s argument. Rather, his piece is essential reading, along with it’s sequel, ‘Big Ideas and Dead-End Thrills: The Further Embarrassments of Science Fiction’. Disch himself gave up on his aim to transform the field into an ‘adult’ one (see his book The Dreams or Stuff is Made Of, and though I think there is a niche in the genre for the kind of work he was advocating, much of his argument stands. Too often, genre readers (and editors and awards givers and writers themselves) are happy to rely on the very ‘bag of old tricks’ that Maria Arana is bemoaning. The SF scene allows the snobbish to get away with their dismissals too easily because it often reaffirms them itself. It marginalises the best writers (Thomas Disch himself, for example) and lauds the ones which most obey the genre conventions. So someone who writes literary or – god help us – experimental SF is double marginalised: by the literati for writing genre, and then by the genre for being too ‘literary’ (as an aside: the real distinction is not literary v genre, but realist v speculative). We keep a space to one side for our Dischs and our M J. Harrisons, but it’s a grinding, marginal space, a niche within our niche.

That’s where distinction between ‘literature’ and ‘genre’ has led us. And that’s why we’re in this mess.

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