Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Britt on Genre, Literature and Pop staff writer Ryan Britt muses over the intersection of SF, pop and literature. Excerpts:
Between The New Yorker's Arthur Krystal and Time's Lev Grossman, the discussion as to what comprises genre literature versus literature literature is hot this week. Everyone's looking for a rubric, and here's mine. The difference is pop.

Pop is Fantasy. Pop is Science Fiction. And the future of literature is pop, because it always has been. ...

Being dull is the greatest crime any work of literature can commit. We may consider it a slog to get through Ulysses now, but Joyce was mixing it up with that novel in ways no one had ever thought about before. By employing the bizarre format he does, Joyce was implementing a pop choice, not unlike a science fiction or fantasy writer would do. To put it in pejorative terms: Joyce found a gimmick or an angle. Now, I would venture to guess at least half of the new generation of writers between 25 and 40 years old don't sit down and try to come up with a gimmick or angle. But the other half do. What's the crime in coming up with a high-concept before the story itself? What's wrong with wanting to not necessarily have something be character-based, but instead be concept-based?
Read the whole thing. Readers with strongly held opinions on matters of genre (and that includes most of us here, doesn't it?) will likely find plenty to disagree with in Britt's piece. Yet I find his analysis of popular elements in literary and genre fiction interesting, to say the least. Do "big metaphors and crazy worlds in which a reader can lose themselves" prove "inviting and calming to a reader (or audience) in a way that kitchen sink drama isn't"? Well, they certainly do for me, although I bet folks who like to curl up with a copy of Dostoevsky might feel differently. Can we honestly say that, in literary fiction, "what happens in the story isn't as important as the emotional take away one gets from the story." Yeah, that one seems pretty spot-on. Give the article a read; it'll get your mind humming.

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Chestertonian Rambler said...

I think he's helped a lot by starting with Hollywood speculative fiction, rather than books.

He also has an interesting blind spot regarding crime fiction. Certainly crime fiction feels larger-than-life and plot/premise driven. Yet in television, it seems to be the bread and butter of the most critically acclaimed shows. Talk to most people who care about television, and they'll say The Sopranos (drama spiced up with the "pop" premise of Mafia violence) kicked off our current golden age, and that the best recent shows are The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men--crime drama, crime drama, and historical fiction.

Ironically, in fantasy, the emotional takeaway of the story is often the most important. I honestly can't remember all the twists of the plot of The Last Unicorn. But I can never forget the bit about the unicorn-turned-human's eyes not reflecting, then finally reflecting, te villain as she gets corrupted. Larger than life, yes. Plot-driven rather than character-driven? No. Similarly, The Shire has a place in my mind quite different from any plot mechanics of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings.

Still and all...I think having "an angle" may be a key. Literary fiction is an odd breed because it limits its angles so dramatically. (But not completely--Updike and others found great success by writing from the perspective of Jihadist terrorists, for instance.) Yes, the genre has a lot of highly skilled practitioners, and works well as a laboratory for developing precise prose and richly-delineated characters. But perhaps it is akin to hard SF, in the sense that its limitations seem so alien to the reasons most people turn to fiction in the first place.

Honestly, the future of university fiction may be akin to the present of independent cinema--a much more all-embracing generic free-for-all in which experimentation is prized above naturalism.

Loren Eaton said...


On an only slightly related note, what's your opinion of Breaking Bad? I watched the first season while on the treadmill and was ... a little underwhelmed. I've added the second season to my Netflix queue, but I dunno. I don't yet see what all the fuss is about.

Regarding literary fiction, I think that many practitioners don't see themselves as having an angle at all. Which is somewhat silly.

Chestertonian Rambler said...


I haven't actually seen Breaking Bad yet. From what I've heard, though, I expected you to like it--reviews and discussions seem to have focused on the ways it represents clear moral choice, a protagonist who makes the wrong ones, and its dire consequences. Noirish stuff.

Loren Eaton said...

Yeah, I expected to like it, too. So far, though, it has skewed away from the moral choice aspect of noir (things are bad because I've made bad decisions) and into the cruel universe paradigm (things are bad because the world is a rat trap and it'll break your back no matter what). I'm going to stick with it a little longer, though, see what develops. After all, it's into the fifth season now.