Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Gilsdorf on Genre Dabbling

Ethan Gilsdorf (author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks) discusses at the increasingly common trend of literary authors dabbling in genre. Excerpts:
So what's all this forsaking of one's literary pedigree about?

It began with the flipside of this equation. It used to be that genre writers had to claw their way up the ivory tower in order to be recognized by the literary tastemakers. Clearly, that's shifted, as more and more fantasy, science fiction, and horror writers have been accepted by the mainstream and given their overdue lit cred. It's been a hard row to hoe. J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Philip Pullman and others helped blaze the trail to acceptance. Now these authors have been largely accepted into the canon. You can take university courses on fantasy literature and write dissertations on the homoerotic subtext simmering between Frodo and Sam. A whole generation, now of age and in college, grew up reading (or having read to them) the entire oeuvre of Harry Potter. That's a sea change in the way fantasy will be seen in the future -- not as some freaky subculture, but as widespread mass culture.
Read the whole thing. Gilsdorf goes on to argue that in addition to gaining greater acceptance in the academy, genre has found a home among the literati because "readers want richer, more complex and more imaginative and immersive stories." That may be true in some instances (such as Justin Cronin's post-apocalyptic vampire epic The Passage). But I hope that literary authors are also coming to realize that speculative elements are less facile escapism and more facilitators of theme. Universal human experience can come through in both narratives about frustrated academics facing existential ennui and survivors at the world's end squinting down the stocks of their homemade crossbows.

(Picture: CC 2009 by


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I think he misses one important point: literary fiction now has far less cultural penetration than even pre-Tolkien genre fiction by the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Doc Smith, Robert E. Howard, &c. Even today, more people know who Tarzan (pulp hero of a pre-nerd era) is than Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, the hero of Updike's far more recent literary series.

His article also doesn't point out the fact that Lewis, Tolkien and Pullman are far from the most high-lit members of the fantasy genre. From Gene Wolfe to China Mieville, Walter Miller to Neal Stephenson, there have been SF and fantasy authors who take on all the attributes of literary fiction.

(Wolfe's Book of the New Sun is designed as a puzzle and metaphysical poem. It starts with a fundamental question of Sausurrian linguistics (can we see reality outside of the categories of our language) and moves through myth and philosophy with an assured complexity that has been compared to Joyce. And of course you can't understand all of Stephenson unless you're well-read in philosophy and advanced mathematics, or all of Mieville unless you understand postmodern Marxist theory.)

What is happening is not that fantasy has become more literary, but that purposefully populist fantasy and science-fiction has become more intelligent. Brandon Sanderson may be read no more than Robert E. Howard (and he certainly is no more difficult to read), but the way his characters appear as real members of society with concern for their relatives, cities, and nations makes Conan's shallowly nihilistic individualism seem passe and antiquated. This depth, arguably, springs from Tolkien's passion for consistent worldbuilding, but may be moving fantasy into the territory once held by the Realist Novel--fantasy and science fiction may, in fact, be the new place to go to analyze the serious issues of what happens to humans in societies.

Of course, I'm not sure where intentionally stripped-down genres such as crime fiction fits in this narrative. But if people are seeing that popular fantasy can do interesting intellectual work even when (or especially when) it isn't being literary, it would make sense tat similar realizations may center around the crisper, tauter "thriller" genres. Certainly Chandler, though rarely taught in American literature survey classes, has earned a respect for himself and his followers.

Chestertonian Rambler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Loren Eaton said...

Agreed with the vast majority of your points. However ...

What is happening is not that fantasy has become more literary, but that purposefully populist fantasy and science-fiction has become more intelligent.

... while this is true, I think Gilsdorf's point is that the "literary tastemakers" are more likely to look favorably on genre and thus dabble in it. Cronin was firmly in the literary camp before The Passage (which is pure awesome, by the way).