Just a few more words on this debate, occasioned essentially by this article that the adorable Stefanie linked to on the comment chain of my previous post. It’s by Lev Grossman and whilst he makes many good points and I agree with him on a great deal of what he says, his article annoyed me by being somewhat sneakily and on the quiet, a defence of genre at the expense of the literary. Once again, I wonder: is there any way to conduct this debate without it sinking into a zero sum game of value judgements? To my mind, this is the biggest problem with the differences between literary and genre fiction – that they cannot be read as simple difference, but must be seen as engaged in a competitive hierarchy. This is fundamentally false: difference DOES NOT always and inevitably imply a difference in quality.
How many times do we have to learn this lesson? We’ve been through it all before with gender, with endless debate over evaluating the differences between men and women. We’ve been through it very painfully with race, and ugly questions of innate racial superiority. Now we keep dragging it out on issues as ultimately pointless as whether literary or genre novels make the ‘better’ fiction.
Perhaps it boils down to the very human need to assign justification to personal preferences. It seems we can’t simply ‘like’ something, without needing to rationalise why that might be, and to push for our preferences as being based in objective scales of value. But how foolish is this? If I like roast potatoes better than I like them mashed, does that make roast potatoes somehow superior? Of course not, it’s simply a personal preference. I suppose the defensiveness arises because of this spurious belief that what we read reflects on our characters. But let’s get a little perspective here: choosing whether to read Agatha Christie or James Joyce on the weekend is not in the same league as choosing whether to help the poor or experiment with chakra torture on small animals. Okay? It doesn’t matter what novels we read. The point is that we read, and gain the benefits of keeping our minds and imaginations open, of empathising with the plight of others and asking challenging questions about the way we live. All reading invites us to do this.
A much better test of character is what we do when we’re given a little power. And here’s where I think some public commentators on books let readers down. When I was teaching students, we began on the assumption that our experience when reading was very important, but it was the springboard for thinking about the book, not the last word on the subject. In fact, the job of the teacher was to show the students just how much there was to say about a book, beyond the fact of whether they had enjoyed it or not. The most admirable critic, for me, is the one who can really bring out the interesting and salient features of a novel, even if they did not personally appreciate it. In my mind, that’s being a professional. If the first thing critics do with authority is start pushing their partisan preferences and denigrating the competition, well, let’s just say that doesn’t impress me much. We have politicians for that sort of thing.
So, just in case I was not clear enough before, my position is this: in the creation of fiction, there can be literary elements and genre elements, and these do different things, both of which have value. And I still think it is useful and intriguing to explore the differences between those literary elements and the genre ones, without casting aspersions on any of them, or indeed thinking that terms like ‘convention’ or ‘experimentation’ naturally come loaded with value, either.
But I really do find I (personally) dislike the defensive rubbishing that goes on in the book world, whether it be over the difference between literature and genre fiction, or even individual attacks on authors or books. And I am particularly sick of reading slashing remarks about ‘literary critics’ as if we were all the same person! I know, I know, it can be amusing, reading one side stitch up the other. But starchy as it may sound, I have an ethical problem with it. On the one hand, there’s always a living, breathing human being behind a piece of writing, and one who has probably put heart and soul into their creation; they deserve better than clever, snide remarks. And on the other hand, it creates – well, has created as is so clear to see – a climate around the arts where extreme disrespect becomes commonplace and acceptable. Ultimately this devalues the arts themselves, makes them seem pointless and unsuccessful and worthless, which in turn leads to less popular interest, less official interest, and government cuts in funding and so on and so forth.
What I am talking about here begins and ends in balance. That we can own our personal responses of like and dislike without believing they are objective judgements. That we should, in other words, be fair in a way that mitigates our emotional reactions without denying them. And I should add that the debate in the comments on my previous post was pretty exemplary in this respect, thanks to the intelligence and good manners of my readers here. Isn’t it so much more interesting when people discuss in reasoned and respectful fashion? We don’t have to resort to insults and aggression to hold the attention of an audience.
On a different note entirely, thank you all so much for your wonderful messages of support, which I’ve found immensely comforting over the past week. I’m slowly getting better – almost free from infection now, just feeling a bit blitzed and a bit tetchy! I am so behind in everything it’s not true – dear friends to whom I owe emails, you will hear from me soon! And I’m reading everyone’s blog, just not got the energy to comment, but I’ll be back soon.