This piece by Joshua Rothman on the genre wars is a welcome attempt to bring some context and clarity to the discussion. Since the rise of magical realism in the ’60s, we have been coming to understand that there is nothing “natural” about the particular tradition of novel writing whose high period spans the century from George Eliot and Tolstoy to Saul Bellow and James Baldwin—the social-psychological realist novel of high moral seriousness. There is nothing wrong with the Eliot/Tolstoy/Bellow/Baldwin model—in fact, I love it—but it is not the indisputable telos of the novel form, a form that has always encompassed in its greatest works all manner of weirdness since it descended from the late classical/medieval romance. Well and good; who could disagree with this?
What I do disagree with in Rothman’s piece is the following:
1. The ritual casting of modernism as the villain, the scapegoating of Henry James or, here, Virginia Woolf as the source of the stratified and overly solemn literary culture that dominated the Cold War period. Are we really to imagine that the author of Orlando needed to be schooled in the possibilities of romance? Are people generally aware that the pre-Freudian Henry James damn well meant the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw to be taken as ghosts? That the proto-modernist art-for-art’s-sake attitude was most heavily promoted in Anglo literary culture by an author (I mean Wilde) whose entire corpus of fiction and drama is “genre” from back to front, from romantic comedy to Gothic pot-boiler to fairy tale to pornography? I will not reproduce the entire first chapter of my doctoral dissertation here, but I argue there that the resurrection of romance at the fin de siecle was integral to the development of modernism, in that the enchanted externalized psychic landscape of the romance emboldens the cartography of subjectivity that will be the signature gesture of modernist fiction in English: no Picture of Dorian Gray, no Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As the most potent because most consistent champions of realism—the Marxists—recognized, both romance and modernism favor allegory in lieu of realism’s quasi-scientific commitment to mimesis. Both the romance and the modernist novel eschew high realism’s insistence on detailed and objective social mapping; they are at one in their challenge to the legatees of Eliot and Tolstoy as writers who, with whatever good intentions, reified a social structure in the guise of describing it. Woolf and James are not the enemy of the novel’s opening to the fantastic; they have enabled this opening, precisely because they spiritualized the form, as Rothman rightly asserts. Their enemies—Bennett, Wells—were the Jonathan Franzens of their day. (I like Wells and Franzen well enough, by the way, and even Bennett, though to a lesser extent, and I revere Eliot and Tolstoy—I just think theirs is not the self-evidently best or only way to write fiction.)
2. The neglect of the economic factor. Rothman alludes to it, but he does not give it enough weight. Genre work has been suspect because it was regarded, not unreasonably, as simply for-profit work, work made for hire and work calculated to appeal to the lowest common denominator for the quickest money. This fact of the marketplace led to an association of genre subject matter with cheap sensationalism, the hormonal appeal to the adolescent with money in his or her pocket. The mad scientist with his raygun and scantily-clad daughter, the corseted heroine in the arms of the shirtless hunk with flowing locks, etc. I believe that work on which extrinsic market conditions are made to impinge too heavily will almost certainly be less interesting, so I don’t think the judgment on the part of earlier generations of critics against genre was totally wrong. Art needs to be sheltered some way or other* from the market’s snap judgment; a lot of the best fiction is immediately discomforting or puzzling or boring—some of the greatest novels I’ve ever read took years to unfold in my mind to their full stature. While it is a category mistake to denigrate out of hand the subject matter of genre fiction—the detective, the alien, the love story—because great fiction can be made out of any subject matter, it was understandable to suspect the materials of mass culture, and I think people should be putting up a more spirited resistance to some of mass culture’s current incarnations (you can make interesting art out of super-heroes, for instance, but probably not in multimillion-dollar movies pitched so widely as to appeal at once to Middle America and the Middle Kingdom; you have a much better shot in comic books so cheap to produce that the companies producing them aren’t paying very close attention—see, e.g., Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo’s wonderful graphic novel Enigma, which will never be made into a summer blockbuster or inspire a fandom, but is about super-heroes and is a work of fiction to reckon with). It is the profit-above-all model, rather than the subject matter, that many people condemn when they condemn genre, and this is no doubt and for a variety of reasons anachronistic now, but not intrinsically misguided. (There is also the argument that literary fiction is also a genre on the profit model. I think literary fiction is probably too broad, at least these days, for that to be entirely true, and I also suspect literary fiction’s institutional proponents see themselves as high-minded enough not to have mass appeal uppermost in their minds; though this criticism perhaps holds in the world of the MFA short story—honestly, I find both Raymond Carver and Alice Munro so lethally dull and predictable that they make me wonder if I ever really liked Chekhov.)
(By the way, is the historical disparagement of non-realist fiction not slightly exaggerated by today’s writers and critics? I understand that New York publishing and reviewing were probably hostile, that public literary intellectuals—Edmund Wilson is the ready example—maintained such standards, but academic studies of science fiction go back to the ’70s or earlier, genre books were staples of the high-school English curriculum back in the ’90s when I went to school—we were given Alas, Babylon, The Ox-Bow Incident, and Rebecca freshman year, for instance, though only the last named was any good—and the classic dystopias had everyone’s respect. Is the whole post-realist turn not just a narrow scene rebelling against its own earlier incarnation, rather than some enormous about-face for all literary institutions?)
To add to Rohtman’s intriguing citation of Northrop Frye, another useful way to look at this whole question can be found in Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets. In that book, which I think is deservedly becoming something of a cult classic, Nelson argues that the realism problem is mostly just an American problem, that only we blew realism out of proportion for about a hundred years (you can fill in the reasons: money-minded pragmatism, essentially), whereas Europe and Latin America were able to comfortably accommodate Kafka, Schulz, Borges, Calvino, Lem, Ballard, et al. as major literature without discomfiture. Then, Nelson goes on, we condescendingly imported the literary fantastic as ethnic color in the name of a boutique multiculturalism for a while, until it finally started to become part of our own literary culture. Another way to put this is that we have not turned our back on modernism, as Rothman argues, but rather assimilated the modernist fantastic. (Not that this applies in every case.)
Unlike conventional academic critics (such as Northrop Frye), who arrogantly consider the basic and necessary task of aesthetic judgment beneath their “scientific” calling, Nelson makes an argument that allows us to discern a serious work from mere genre work in the sense of profit-mongering sensationalism. The serious work, Nelson says, carries with it a sense of self-completion, because, she implies, it allows us to enact what Freud calls “working through”: the patient expression and examination of unconscious materials for the purpose of getting to the source of unease or dis-ease. Genre work, on the other hand, corresponds to Freud’s “compulsion to repeat”: the endless enactment of the originary trauma in coded form. Nelson ingeniously suggests a test that will allow us to discern art (“working through”) from entertainment (“repetition compulsion”) in any particular case: does the work in question make you want to read more works on the same subject matter (e.g., more horror stories about grotesque creatures or more romantic comedies that end when boy gets girl) or does it make you want to read another work that functions at the same psychological and thematic depth? If you love Moby-Dick, you probably do not want to read another sea adventure—you may want to go on to Joyce or Sterne—whereas Lovecraft is addictive qua cosmic horror. Nelson, then, is advising us not to regard subject matter as what determines quality; what determines quality is the use of any particular subject matter to engage the intellect and emotions on the highest level. If we follow Nelson’s model in addition to Frye’s, then we need neither fear any particular genre nor acquiesce in a simplistic relativism that only empowers the money-men.
*To anticipate objections: I know that art is usually only able to be sheltered from the market behind a pile of money, public or private, not tied to the immediate market success of the artwork, and that this state of affairs should not be confused with perfect freedom, because the owners of said pile of money will have their own demands to make of the artist. True enough, but there is never going to be perfect freedom; money always has to come from somewhere; so the question is one of relative freedom. The evidence suggests to me that the market is more fickle and more hostile to complexity than the admittedly unsavory disbursers of funds, such as governments or private institutions, which may generally restrict certain political expressions but are usually indifferent to strictly aesthetic questions in a way that the “general public” is not. It is certainly not ideal, but so far I’ve found that nothing is.