Modern Greats

by Henry on November 24, 2003

There was an interesting imbroglio at the National Book Awards ceremony on Wednesday. Stephen King, who had just won an award, made a speech telling the gathered dignitaries of the literary world that they should be reading more popular bestsellers. Another award winner, Shirley Hazzard, politely but firmly dissented from the idea that people should pay any attention to “a reading list of those who are most read at this moment.” According to Terry Teachout, who was there, you could tell that Hazzard “was torn between her obligation to be tactful and her desire to tear a piece off King.”

Update: more on this from Terry Teachout, Ophelia Benson and Sarah Weinman. Teachout also has a nice piece, which I hadn’t spotted before, about the merits of one genre series, Donald Westlake’s Parker novels (written under the pseudonym of Richard Stark). It’s a series for which I’ve a weakness myself.

I think King is closer to the truth here, but I’m of two minds. He told the judges that he had “no use for those who make a point of pride in saying they have never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer.” I haven’t read Higgins Clark, but I have read Grisham and Clancy, and in the improbable event that I ever deliver a NBA acceptance speech, I shan’t be recommending them. Grisham writes sterile but easily digestible pabulum. Clancy is fascinating as a case-study in US right wing politics, but he’s a rotten writer. There’s a difference between recommending that literary snobs read more popular fiction, and recommending that they read bad popular fiction.

Still, King is more right than wrong – many wonderful writers are overlooked, because they don’t write ‘literary’ fiction. This is a mistake on two counts. First, the literary quality of some writers is systematically discounted because their writing is ‘popular’ or ‘genre fiction.’ I know the field of science fiction best; I reckon that Gene Wolfe and John Crowley are major writers under any reasonable definition of the term. Nor am I alone in that judgement. Michael Swanwick, Kelly Link, Paul Park, China Mieville and M. John Harrison aren’t too bad either. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, the merits of popular fiction as popular fiction are completely overlooked. PG Wodehouse is one of the masters of the English language; because he wrote light comedy, critics don’t take much notice of him. As a prose stylist, he’s the equal of Nabokov, perhaps even his better: he doesn’t feel obliged to show off. Donald Westlake writes crime novels in witty and vigorous prose; again, nobody outside the genre pays much attention. Other neglected writers, who manage to combine good prose style with an enormous sense of fun include Terry Pratchett, Steven Brust, and Iain M Banks (as opposed to his literary alter ego, Iain Banks). You can fill in the other examples yerself.

In contrast, there’s something unattractive about the unabashed snobbery of writers like Hazzard, whose ostentatious refusal of the modern world (she has no television, and writes in longhand) seems less a serious statement of aesthetic purpose than a snobbish tic or affectation. To identify the popular with the bad is not only wrong; it’s silly. While King overstates his case, he’s dead right on the facts. It’ll be interesting to see whether he succeeds in provoking a response.

{ 105 comments }

1

matt 11.24.03 at 2:58 am

Some time ago, writing about Harry Potter, (I think) Harold Bloom said that he didn’t understand reading a book that wasn’t going to make one a better person. I thought that was a pretty good sentiment, even though I’m pretty sure I have at least somewhat idea of which books would do this. Perhaps something similar applies here.

2

Henry Farrell 11.24.03 at 3:16 am

My retort would be that sometimes, you just want to have fun. Books don’t have to be morally uplifting to be worthwhile. This said, Bloom also rates John Crowley’s _Little Big_ as his favourite novel of all time, so he’s not altogether to be discounted (not to mention his spiffy work on the anxiety of influence – although I’m not too fond of his more recent work, which I find ponderous).

3

julia 11.24.03 at 3:17 am

I didn’t think King was endorsing those particular writers, just saying that it’s terribly screwed up to be proud of not ever having exposed yourself to something you just assume you despise because…

It’s that because that gets me. Because anything lots of folks read can’t be good? Because they read a review? Does anyone ever review popular novels in any publication Shirley Hazzard is likely to read by the light of the whale-oil lamp in the outhouse?

She doesn’t think it’s comforting to list authors she’s never read because she’s busy reading “the classics”

So, did Professor Bloom tell her these books were bad, or did she just not like the covers?

This is Bill O’Reilly territory. It’s an embarassment for the National Book Awards in the light of her comments if she’s one of their voting members. She’s not qualified. She doesn’t read.

4

dmm 11.24.03 at 3:25 am

Harold Bloom said that he didn’t understand reading a book that wasn’t going to make one a better person.

It didn’t work. Harold Bloom has read an enormous number of books and he’s still a pompous gasbag.

5

roger 11.24.03 at 4:11 am

It is easy to pin the snobbish label on Hazzard. However, I think that, at least for a writer, hers is much better advice.

In actuality, people who are proud of not reading Grisham have probably read Scott Turow; those proud of not having read Clancy have probably absorbed enough action adventure vids to be able to pretty much guess at Clancy. It just isn’t the case that we are producing writers with a startling absense of knowledge about pop culture. That’s a pretty laughable proposition.

We are producing writers with a startling absense of knowledge of our own past culture, and any other culture beside our own. This is bad on a number of levels, one of which is simply technical. Clancys generate degenerate Clancys, ad infinitum. How much better to be influenced by, say, Joseph Conrad, before you write a Clancy like novel. Nicholas Shakespeare’s The Dancer Upstairs is no different, in its elements, than any action adventure story, but it is re-readable simply because it is better written, and it has the human element in it.

There’s no advice to give to readers per se about what they should read per se — that’s ridiculously presumptious. However, at a writer’s awards ceremony, where the audience is presumably other writers, King’s advice is disastrous.

6

Marco 11.24.03 at 5:01 am

Iain Banks has no sense of fun?

Crikey!

7

Nabakov 11.24.03 at 5:24 am

Prove Shirley right by not reading her books.

8

Henry 11.24.03 at 5:28 am

God no – didn’t mean to imply that at all. I merely meant to mention the literati’s weird distinction between ‘good’ Iain Banks (respectful reviews in the TLS and LRB) and ‘bad’ Iain Banks (consigned to the SF section at the back of the bookshop with the rest of the tat). Bad phrasing on my part. Of course Iain Banks has a sense of fun, even (and perhaps especially) when he doffs the M. I treasure my memory of first reading his riotously funny _The Wasp Factory_ (funny, that is, if you have a certain kind of sense of humour) at a tender age. I can even (mis)quote from memory the Irish Times review that was blurbed on the front page of my battered paperback edition; “It is a sick world, where the business acumen of a major publishing firm is justified in publishing a work of such unparallelled depravity. The vast majority of the public will be relieved that only reviewers will have to read this tripe.” How could you go wrong, I ask you, with a book that could attract that class of review.

9

Brad DeLong 11.24.03 at 6:09 am

The Hunt for Red October was quite good, actually. That led me to read two others. But no more…

10

jdsm 11.24.03 at 6:53 am

I think it’s a mistake to talk about literary fiction and popular fiction since it’s obviously all on a sliding scale. At the one end you have plot driven novels with a fairly simple prose style and at the other, plotless obscurist books with a very convoluted style. Most books, even most of those termed ‘literary fiction’ lie somewhere in between and have at least some plot. Look at Ian McEwan or Martin Amis.

The answer then, is to read what you want to read at the time. I have Jonathan Frantzen’s “The Corrections” and Philip Pullman’s “The Amber Spyglass” on my bedside table at the moment. Which one I pick up depends on how I feel. So it should be.

11

Brian Weatherson 11.24.03 at 7:31 am

And some “plotless obscurist books with a very convoluted style” can be popular. Ulysses continues to sell remarkably well, and it’s plotless (unless you count Paddy Dignam’s burial plot) and with a style that’s at least complicated, if not convoluted. I’m not sure the book is ‘obsurist’, but that’s largely because I don’t really know what that means. Of course books can sell well without being popular, especially if they are bought and not read, so maybe Joyce shouldn’t be given that label, but he’s certainly a possible counter-example.

12

Dan Simon 11.24.03 at 9:41 am

With so many blogs out there, who has time to read novels anymore?

13

Doug 11.24.03 at 9:58 am

Henry’s on to something more than just “read what you want, critics & media be damned.” He’s saying that the alleged superiority of the lit’rary genre is completely bogus, and that the allocation of prestige, money, attention and perhaps eventually immortality to the practitioners of the lit’rary genre sells our common written culture woefully short.

The presumed hierarchy of genres determines quite a bit about authors’ lives and careers. It shapes how many of their books are printed, where they are sold, whether and how they are advertised, whether and what kind of resources the publisher will commit to publicity, whether major media review the book and on and on and on. The Haydens hang out here sometimes; they can give you chapter and verse. The differences in author advances, media support, touring and on and on are significant.

Why did Kurt Vonnegut run from the science fiction label as from the plague? Why does Margaret Atwood do the same with both A Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake? Both are reinforcing a hierarchy of genres that reserves the richest rewards for the lit’rary genre.

Consider the award ceremony – I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wondering who the heck is Shirley Hazzard, and at the outset it looks like she’s David to King’s goliath. It turns out that her previous book was published in 1981, yet Publisher’s Weekly (the bible of the business) not only remembers her, it gushed that a new novel from Hazzard is a literary event. Advantage: lit’rary genre.

John Crowley struggles back from obscurity every time he publishes a book because that happens every four years or so. If he hadn’t published a book since Little, Big appeared in 1981, would Publisher’s Weekly even give him the time of day?

Or consider Gene Wolfe. His prodigious and astonishing output has come while he held down a day job as editor at an engineering magazine. He’s been brilliant beyond the dreams of most lit’rary writers in his spare time. If the resources and prestige that accrue to even second-rate lit’rary writers had come to Wolfe, our culture would be much richer because more people would know his writing and there would be more of his brilliance to share.

The best in any genre can hold their own with the best in the lit’rary genre. That the rewards go almost exclusively to the practitioners of the lit’rary genre is a shame, that awards such as the National Book Award reinforce the monopoly of the lit’rary genre is shameful as well. King’s right: The judges should look outside their own sandbox and recognize the best books, not just the best books in a very small genre.

14

Raj 11.24.03 at 10:23 am

I always find it annoying that Book reviewers (in the UK especially)concentrate almost entirely on the ” Literary novel”.

Film reviewers review all films from art movies through to horror films and tend to be able to say whether the film succeeds in what it is trying to do. i.e. is it a good art movie or a good adventure film etc, etc.

Book reviewers on the other hand seem to assume that only literary novels are of any worth and are unwilling for example to review a new science fiction book and say whether its a good science fiction book.

Genre fiction is not poor literary fiction; it is trying to do something else and should be judged as a success or failure on its own merits.

15

Thomas Dent 11.24.03 at 11:14 am

Who is King that he knows how many ‘popular bestsellers’ is the right number to read and how many his colleagues are reading already?

The difference between (most) popular bestsellers and the recipients of Book Awards should be that the majority of popular bestsellers are made up of predictable elements mixed to a well-known recipe, but the awardees do (or should do) something UNEXPECTED.

P.G. Wodehouse was ignored by serious critics precisely because he wrote to a formula. It’s not exactly true that once you’ve read one you’ve read them all, but damn nearly.

And this was the right thing for the critics to do, because there isn’t anything useful you can say about the 34th Wodehouse novel as distinct from the 33rd, and people who like his formula would continue to buy his books. Dog bites man isn’t news.

Of course, the first few books in a series are de facto original: King’s early novels were groundbreaking and certainly award-worthy. But I don’t think bestselling authors deserve awards for pulling out their star turn one more time.

Where criticism is useful is precisely in the realm of the unpredictable and unexpected: books by little-known writers, books not written to a formula (of which Ulysses is the example par excellence), books by known writers that are interestingly different from their previous output.

Now when a literary award goes to a book that’s *not* conspicuously original (there was a furore a few years ago about “Last Orders” and more recently about “Life of Pi”) you do have cause to wonder what the point of it is.

By the way I thought Clancy didn’t actually write “his” books any more – they’re produced by a collaboration and Clancy just comes up with a few ideas and his name on the title page. Does King really want to encourage the mass-production of formulaic books written by committee?

There is a difference between the questions Did I enjoy this novel? and Did this novel change my conception of what a novel can be? (Not that “genre” novels can’t do the latter.) There is a legitimate difference between the criterion for being a bestseller and the criterion for getting a book award.

16

reuben 11.24.03 at 11:33 am

Harold Bloom said that he didn’t understand reading a book that wasn’t going to make one a better person.

The further I get from my teenage years, the more deeply suspicious I grow of the belief that high culture makes us better people. More knowledgeable, sure. Better conversationalists, most likely. But if by ‘better people’ one means being a kinder partner, a more loving parent, a more compassionate citizen, etc, I wonder just how much positive effect high culture has. I’m not saying it doesn’t ever have any, and I certainly wouldn’t argue that an encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare’s tragedies hasn’t made someone somewhere a better human. But the museums and art review boards of this world are full of culture wonks who cheat on their spouses, are cold to their children, and give crappy tips to waitresses.

Any thoughts?

17

Matt McG 11.24.03 at 11:52 am

Of course, so-called literary novels ARE genre novels. It’s just that the genre is “tedious over-examination of the interior lives of the middle classes”.

18

matt 11.24.03 at 1:16 pm

“…if by ‘better people’ one means being a kinder partner, a more loving parent, a more compassionate citizen, etc, I wonder just how much positive effect high culture has.”

Somehow I don’t think this is at all what Bloom had in mind. I suspect you were closer to right w/ your first idea. Whether that’s something we should care about, I’ll leave to others. But, I’m fairly sure by “better person” Bloom means something much like “more interesting” or a “higher man” of some sort.

19

dsquared 11.24.03 at 1:28 pm

Could I simply note that the view that PG Wodehouse was a greater prose stylist than Nabokov is by no means universally shared? He was the king of the one-trick ponies, with some fantastic moments but bloody awful quarters of an hour.

20

Thomas Dent 11.24.03 at 1:32 pm

“tedious over-examination of the interior lives of the middle classes”.

Indeed. A brilliant one-line summary of Ulysses, which is in fact mostly concerned with the interior lives of a small number of middle-class Dubliners.

But I wonder if the person who delivered it has actually read any great novels — let alone Ulysses?

Or could it be just ignorance and inverted snobbery?

21

david 11.24.03 at 1:53 pm

Wodehouse had some good full 1.5 hour sets too, D2. And Ada can suck pretty much for weeks. Which is not to choose sides.

Anyway, King is right, Hazzard is wrong, if the sense was, quit bragging about not reading people. There is no superiority to be found in turning off your tv and writing longhand, if you do it because you think other people are sucks.

But I wanted to say that, Wodehouse is not dismissed by serious critics. He is worshipped by the academic elite of the last generation (rightly so), and I don’t know enough about the contemporary literary studies set, but I expect he has plenty of defenders there. I can imagine why it’s become important to say people don’t take Wodehouse seriously when talking about people like Hazzard, but it’s not true.

22

Timothy Burke 11.24.03 at 2:37 pm

As a few folks have noted, King’s not saying, “Read more popular bestsellers because they’re better than literary high culture”.

He’s saying that it’s a good thing to know something about the totality of writing at any given moment. And there’s lots of reasons why it’s a good thing to know that, it seems to me, both from the perspective of learning the craft of writing through exposure to the widest possible range of it (whether as aspirant writer or as critic) and from the perspective of learning about the levers that move the weight of the culture this way and that.

23

Keith M Ellis 11.24.03 at 3:20 pm

I read a lot of genre fiction. I also have a so-called “great books” education. When necessary, I use the latter as a shield against insults concerning my taste in genre fiction.

My best friend has the same education I have, but he’s much more of a literary snob. (He’s also an editor.) When he reads, he is very aware of the quality of the writing.

I’m not. I’m aware when it’s so bad that it makes it impossible to read the book (a subjective standard, of course); but otherwise I am not reading most books with a concern to the quality of the writing at the paragraph level. My friend is. An interesting difference between us that I read very fast—I’ll read a genre novel in about a day. His reading is much more leisurely.

Now, I can tell the difference between really good books and “good” popular genre fiction. To me, genre fiction is like fast food–which, I should say, I like–while literature is like dining at, supposedly, a quality restaurant. I have different expectations, and I judge these by different standards.

As a matter of fact, I’ve read six genre (science-fiction) novels this week; but I’ve been stuck near the beginning of re-reading “War and Peace” (my favorite book, by the way). I’m stuck because Tolstoy’s writing is so good, even in translation, that I keep being distracted by it–even though it’s a pleasure.

Raj’s comment above concerning movie reviewers versus book reviewers are very interesting. It seems to me that most book critics and serious readers are far more aware of the mechanics of writing–the technique of the art, say–and they are informed enough to be very conscious of this and evaluate books on that basis. Personally, I think technical ability is vastly overvalued these days. Anyway, in contrast, most filmgoers and a good portion of film critics are not very aware of the technique of filmmaking. They are less impressed with technique, and more interested in the overall experience.

Now, I’m not a filmmakter, but I am far more aware of filmmaking technique than most people. I’ve seen many good films, and I’m the kind of person that watches the director’s commentary on the DVD. I find that the result of this is that I value technique more highly in film than I do in writing, and I will evaluate something as “good” on a technical basis, even if it fails in other ways. Still, I watch a fair number of mediocre Hollywood movies, and I enjoy them when they’re good at what they’re doing.

24

Doug 11.24.03 at 3:22 pm

Broaden those horizons. Neuromancer is far and away the most important novel of the last 25 years. In fact, if I had to sum up the twentieth century in two novels, I’d add One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and be done. In three, maybe add All Quiet on the Western Front. Not a member of the lit’rary genre among them.

25

dsquared 11.24.03 at 3:32 pm

You wouldn’t have Ulysses or Lolita in there at all, Doug?

26

rea 11.24.03 at 3:44 pm

While popular = good isn’t correct, it’s a logical fallacy to infer from the error of that proposition that popular = bad.

People like Shakespeare, Dickens, and Dumas were, in their day, writing for a popular audience, yet their works make it into the “canon” (whatever that is).

I don’t want to try to formulate a general theory of aesthetics in a blog comment, but it seems to me far easier to identify “popular’ works that have stood the test of time, than to identify self-consciously “literary” works that have passed that test.

27

degustibus 11.24.03 at 3:52 pm

This is a highbrow argument. The problem is with those who do not read.

28

drapetomaniac 11.24.03 at 3:56 pm

Harold Bloom said that he didn’t understand reading a book that wasn’t going to make one a better person

Good grief, I thought HB opposed political correct views on literature as moral instruction.

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, the merits of popular fiction as popular fiction are completely overlooked.

Huh? Overlooked by whom? I thought we lived in the age of Cultural Studies, when critics have been falling over themselves to praise genre writers. Who *hasn’t* praised Wodehouse, from Orwell on down? (I must be the only person alive who finds him not particularly amusing.)

Frankly, I think King has his millions and it is far more painful that someone like say, Barbara Pym was overlooked for a very long time. Overlooked literary novelists don’t have money or rabid fans of the scifi fan club type to sustain them.

29

dsquared 11.24.03 at 3:56 pm

I don’t want to try to formulate a general theory of aesthetics in a blog comment, but it seems to me far easier to identify “popular’ works that have stood the test of time, than to identify self-consciously “literary” works that have passed that test.

Well of course they’re easier to identify; they’re popular!

But I doubt it would be hard with a bit of effort to come up with books like “Tristram Shandy” that have never been mass-appeal, always been a bit difficult, but lasted mightily well and continued to be important.

30

Chris Bertram 11.24.03 at 4:12 pm

Whenever this topic comes up I take the opportunity to recommend Ken Worpole’s brilliant collection of essays Dockers and Detectives. Worpole makes a pretty good case for Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain and the Scottish author William McIllvanney’s Laidlaw novels also get a mention.

31

dsquared 11.24.03 at 4:17 pm

And William Burroughs is never gonna be a best-seller for all manner of reasons (most of them bad reasons), but is likely to last, for all manner of reasons (most of them, etc).

32

dsquared 11.24.03 at 4:18 pm

James Kelman is better and will last longer than Irvine Welsh, etc, etc.

33

rea 11.24.03 at 4:24 pm

“books like “Tristram Shandy” that have never been mass-appeal”

I’m no great expert on 18th century literature, Daniel, but wasn’t “Tristram Shandy” written for the popular market, such as it was in those days?

34

dsquared 11.24.03 at 4:33 pm

It was published in nine parts, and it was popular at the time, but it wasn’t published as a “popular” work a la Dickens, aimed at the general reading public. It was structurally complicated, highly allusive and scathingly satirical of the popular literature of the day. I think it’s stretching the term “popular” too far if it covers TS.

35

rea 11.24.03 at 4:39 pm

“I think it’s stretching the term “popular” too far if it covers TS.”

I would suggest on the contrary that back then you didn’t have novels that weren’t “popular” fiction–the the 18th Century equivalent of literary elitists like Ms. Hazzard turned up their noses at novels.

36

reuben 11.24.03 at 4:41 pm

All this talk of genre fiction has me curious. Anyone care to recommend a few urbane, witty detective novels? I loved the Philip Marlowe books back when I read them, but with the exception of Alan Furst (who I also quite enjoyed), I know nothing more about this genre.

37

Matt Weiner 11.24.03 at 4:44 pm

It turns out that her previous book[*] was published in 1981, yet Publisher’s Weekly (the bible of the business) not only remembers her, it gushed that a new novel from Hazzard is a literary event.
I respectfully submit that this is because a new novel from Hazzard is a literary event. First of all, it’s rare, while new King novels are frequent. Second, Hazzard’s 1981 novel, Transit of Venus, is one of the best books I have ever read, and seems to have been popular enough in its day to have been reprinted as a mass-market paperback by Playboy books, for what it’s worth–which caused some amused looks when I rushed out to by a sale copy for the wife of one of my committee members, but that’s another story.
I don’t want to endorse Hazzard’s snobbery–I think Wodehouse and also Walt Kelly are two of the most important prose stylists there are, and they’ve probably given me more pleasure than Joyce and Nabokov–but you shouldn’t dismiss her work. (The new one isn’t half as good as ToV, but it couldn’t be.)

*Novel, actually–she wrote a memoir of Graham Greene a few years ago.

38

Thomas Dent 11.24.03 at 5:02 pm

Keith Ellis took the words out of my mouth. Fast food can be good and is extremely popular, but there’s no point giving it any more attention by writing restaurant-critic columns about it or giving annual awards for the best cheeseburger. Everyone (well, almost) already knows what a cheeseburger is and the difference between a good one and a bad one.

By contrast there’s the chef who actually makes up his or her own new recipes. That’s where the restaurant critic can have something useful to say and where awards can make a difference.

And Stephen King is the guy who says the restaurant critic should eat more burgers…

(By the way, I don’t have a TV: please tell me if this invalidates my judgement of novels.)

39

rea 11.24.03 at 5:12 pm

“By the way, I don’t have a TV: please tell me if this invalidates my judgement of novels.”

Not necessarily. It certainly would call into question your judgment of the artistic merits of television shows, though–which is somewhat akin to King’s point that the literary world ought to pay more attention to popular bestsellers.

40

Ophelia Benson 11.24.03 at 5:13 pm

What parallel universe is this?

“the allocation of prestige, money, attention and perhaps eventually immortality to the practitioners of the lit’rary genre sells our common written culture woefully short.”

Money? Money? Money? Not to speak of attention? “Literary” writers get more money and attention than Stephen King and Clancy, Grisham & Clark do? Where would that be, exactly?

And how do all these suspicious people who claim that “snobs” pride themselves on not reading popular fiction *because* it’s popular, know that? How do they know that’s the reason? How do they know it’s not because the popular fiction in question is bad?

41

chun the unavoidable 11.24.03 at 5:17 pm

As a practicing literary snob, I have to admit I’m considerably dismayed by some of the comments here.

First of all, Brian, Ulysses does have a plot. I’m curious to know what definition of “plot” you have in mind that it doesn’t meet.

Whoever said that Wodehouse, as amusing as he is, is a better prose stylist than Nabokov has a tin ear. Alternately, he may never have read much of either author.

Calling Neuromancer the best novel of the last twenty-five years is just puerile. And then Remarque? Remarque?

With the exception of Ulysses‘ plot, these are my opinions, and I won’t argue about them. I will point out, however, that they are widely shared among people who read capital “L”iterature and that enthusiastic readers in other disciplines unvaringly tend to overestimate the worth of science fiction.

42

Paul 11.24.03 at 5:38 pm

King’s early novels were groundbreaking and certainly award-worthy.

They were neither. They were all solidly within the genre of horror/SF/weird fiction. In fact, King’s rarely written anything that isn’t deeply indebted to his generic predecessors. He admits this. And while his, say, first dozen, books made him very rich, I don’t recall King earning any awards for them; at least not in terms of “critical recognition.”

What makes Stephen King great (when he is) is his love of his chosen genre, his astute eye for small details of modern American life, a talent for memorable characters, and in his early books, a good editor. He tells good stories. Originality, at least in some high modernist sense, has very little to do with it, as far as I can see.

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rea 11.24.03 at 5:40 pm

“Calling Neuromancer the best novel of the last twenty-five years is just puerile. And then Remarque? Remarque?”

Calling ANYTHING the best novel of the last 25 years probably qualifies as puerile, but it would be interesting to hear a criticism of Neuromancer that goes beyond just scoffing at it for not being “literary.”

After all, 18th Century theorists scoffed at Shakespeare, on the grounds that his plays didn’t match their notions of Aristotlian literary theory.

And it’s hard for me to understand the contempt for Remarque–All Quiet on the Western Front surely has stood the test of time by now.

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Ophelia Benson 11.24.03 at 5:44 pm

No, not all 18th century “theorists” did scoff at Shakespeare – to put it mildly. Don’t take Gary Taylor too seriously. The names Pope and Johnson, for instance, might ring a bell.

“it would be interesting to hear a criticism of Neuromancer that goes beyond just scoffing at it for not being “literary.””

Did anyone scoff at it for that? Not that I saw. People sure are good at putting words in the mouths of us literary snobs.

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Esq 11.24.03 at 5:56 pm

chun:

Oh very bad my fellow book snob. While of course Ulysseys fits all definitions of “L”iterature, so too does the ground breaking and to date unmatched work by Gibson. You can not even call it ‘Science Fiction’ it has redefined that genre and greatly impacted popular culture.

I think if you identify great “L”iterature you seek more that just defining prose, great “L”iterature challenges us. It reaches beyond itself to affect the culture. Of course, it often spawns immitators. It is rarely ignored, never overlooked. By its very definition great “L”iterature has a cultural impact. Show me a King or Clancy novel with cultural impact.

For those who feel their favorite authors have been slighted, buck up. The creation of “L”iteratary milestones are rare. They happen seldom and some truly gifted writers may never reach that height. It does not diminish their work but rather defines it, puts it in perspective. It is a perspective that you can enjoy and within which they should not feel shorted.

reuben: Check out http://www.rogerlsimon.com
for your witty urban detective or some great advice from a witty urban detective novel writer!

I have found the recent Novels by Penham to be inspiring detective fiction. While they are witty and urban, you must be content with 15th century urban!

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kevin 11.24.03 at 5:57 pm

“And it’s hard for me to understand the contempt for Remarque—All Quiet on the Western Front surely has stood the test of time by now.”

The fact that literary snobs reject works like All Quiet on the Western Front is, to me, pretty telling. (And I am not picking on opehllia – she is not the only person I have heard express this opinion). The Western Front may not be the most stylistically intricate novel, but it is is an amazing work. the style fits the subject matter perfectly, and the story is universal in nature and has something important to say about There are, frankly, very few books I would rate higher than Western Front. The fact that some “literary snobs” dismiss works like it means, to me, that haven’t the first clue about what literature really is. Literature is the act of telling universal, important stories in a manner that

1)Gets people to read them
2)gets people to think about them

Style that isn’t appropriate to advance those two goals, style that calls attention to itself at the expense of the story and theme, or style that exists for its own sake – all things that seem to be rewarded in literary fiction – is crap, in my opinion.

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Henry Farrell 11.24.03 at 5:58 pm

Ophelia – you say “how do all these suspicious people who claim that “snobs” pride themselves on not reading popular fiction because it’s popular.”

In Hazzard’s case at least, it seems quite clear that she either believes that popularity is unrelated, or inversely related to literary merit, and more likely the latter. Also see Thomas Dent’s argument above, which as I understand it, argues that popular fiction is hamburger, while literary fiction is exciting new recipes. I think this generalization falls flat on its face. Many (although certainly not all) ‘literary’ novels are precisely as formulaic as the most mediocre genre hackwork, albeit usually better written. Academics in small liberal arts colleges suffering midlife crises and so on. Similarly, there’s some exciting and innovative work in genre which is dismissed precisely because it’s not ‘literature.’ Dunno if you’ve read any of it – I’d recommend Gene Wolfe’s ‘Book of the New Sun’ (collected in ‘Shadow and Claw’ and ‘Sword and Citadel’) series as a good starting point. It’s one of the most extraordinary novels of the late twentieth century, written in gorgeous, if chilly, prose. Alternatively, try John Crowley’s “Little, Big.”

I don’t get annoyed when people don’t want to read bad popular fiction. Indeed, I agree that a lot of it is bad. Rather, I get upset when people refuse to read popular fiction on principle, or for one reason or another dismiss popular novels as children of a lesser god, sight unseen. This is an old – and indeed hackneyed – debate. I’m not the first to make these points. But they’re important nonetheless.

Rea – don’t get too upset at Chun. He’s deliberately stirring up the shit to see who gets provoked (he’s an enormous fan of SF himself; his nom-de-blog is taken from a Jack Vance novel).

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kevin 11.24.03 at 5:59 pm

Sigh. Never comment at lunch. I meant
“And I am not picking on chun – she is not the only person I have heard express this opinion”

not ophellia. Sorry.

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JRC 11.24.03 at 6:01 pm

“Did anyone scoff at it for that? Not that I saw.”

Okay. . .how about “it would be interesting to hear a criticism of Neuromancer that included actual criticism, rather than offhand dismissal.”

—JRC

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Chris Bertram 11.24.03 at 6:06 pm

I’ll say this for Neuromancer, it is a damn sight better than anything by the execrable Virginia Woolf!

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Doug 11.24.03 at 6:09 pm

d^2: Have thoughts of making it through Ulysses before the centennial Bloomsday, so I’ll have to let you know. Can’t see summoning much enthusiasm for Lolita, though. I can think of about half a dozen Russians whose works interest me more, to say nothing of the rest of the world…

I was thinking of books that capture the times, a la Dickens or Twain. Naturally, a different view of the 20th century (more decolonization, less Europe) would give you a different short short list.

matt w: Your post seems to me to demonstrate further how Hazzard benefits from writing in the lit’rary genre. A mystery, western, horror, science fiction or fantasy writer who hadn’t published a novel in more than 20 years would not be feted, he or she would be forgotten. A cruel fact of the marketplace, but also one that is reinforced continuously by award judging panels, book review editors and other opinion shapers. By defining all genres other than lit’rary as unserious, these people push the rest to the margins. This makes the common culture poorer because the most prestigious parts are occupied by practitioners of a single genre: lit’rary.

Compare the lists of National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize and Nebula Award winners. No overlap between the science fiction winners and the lit’rary winners. (A look at the finalists’ lists would be even more revealing, but I haven’t the time just now.) Look at 1999, just for instance. I haven’t read any of the books, so I’m shooting in the dark, but by reputation, Octavia Butler is a formidable writer with a unique perspective. By all of the usual award criteria, those characteristics should put her in the running for a literary award. But because she’s not working in the lit’rary genre, she’s not even considered against Wa Jin or Michael Cunningham. Ok, in 1992 Connie Willis would have had the bad luck to compete with Cormac McCarthy, but I would certainly take her over Jane Smiley.

And look at the early to mid 1980s – Nebula: William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Michael Bishop; National Book Award: Harriet Doerr, John Updike, Wright Morris (quick, name any book by two of these three); Pulitzer: William Kennedy, Updike again, John Kennedy Toole. I’d have to take Confederacy of Dunces over Bishop’s book, but the story behind Toole’s book is a classic example of the generally closed nature of lit’rary publishing. As for the Updike, Harry Angstrom vs Severian would be a hilarious celebrity death match. Judging from the reviews of Rabbit is Rich, Updike won more on strength of reputation than onf the quality of the book.

Or the 1975 Pulitzer winner? Not nearly as well written as the Nebula winner. Nor as eloquent on war, the central topic of both.

The lists could go on, but the point, as both King and Henry have argued, is that juries for the most lucrative and prestigious awards confine themselves to a single, narrowly defined genre of fiction. That’s a dead loss for all concerned.

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Ophelia Benson 11.24.03 at 6:32 pm

Henry,

Good points. I’m not particularly trying to defend ‘literary fiction’ – the truth is I think there’s way too much of it and that most of it is mediocre at best. But I am trying to say that literary snobbery is a fine thing and there ought to be more of it. Snobbery so snobbish that it dismisses most ‘literary’ fiction as well as popular. And I’m also trying to say that just as it does not follow that if fiction is or aims to be ‘literary’ it is therefore good, so it does not follow that popular fiction is good. Nor does it follow that it is bad. All the possibilities exist. Literary and good, literary and bad, popular and good, popular and bad. But King’s remarks at the NBA, at least as reported, seemed to be claiming that it’s mere snobbery and pretension (that ‘brownie points’ comment I thought was truly stupid) to fail to read Clancy and Clark. Pu-leeze.

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Doug 11.24.03 at 6:37 pm

Ophelia: Chun scoffed at Neuromancer for no stated reason whatsoever. He also took my designation, most important, as equivalent to his, best.

But I’ll throw down the rhetorical gauntlet for our assembled guests: Name a novel published in the last 25 years that has had greater influence than Neuromancer on culture, technology and society. Si monumentum requiris circumspice.

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Henry Farrell 11.24.03 at 6:37 pm

If literary snobbery is simply about distinguishing good writing from bad writing, I’m all for it. Not that I have much of an aesthetic theory to back up my intuitions of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad,’ but I knows it when I sees it ..

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rea 11.24.03 at 6:47 pm

“Snobbery so snobbish that it dismisses most ‘literary’ fiction as well as popular.”

It may well be true that 90% of everything is crap–but that is no reason to prefer PRETENTIOUS crap over ordinary crap.

There is something to be said, too, for reading a vastly popular author like Clancy in the same spirit that an anthropologist woiuld listen to folk tales from an obscure Amazonian tribe. Everybody ought to read a little Clancy, if only to understand the folkways of their fellow citizens.

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rea 11.24.03 at 6:53 pm

“Name a novel published in the last 25 years that has had greater influence than Neuromancer on culture, technology and society.”

[laughing madly] Red Storm Rising? I’m not sure Neuromancer is well-served by totally excluding literary merit from the equation. :)

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Ophelia Benson 11.24.03 at 7:00 pm

Yup, that’s what I mean by literary snobbery – distinguishing good from bad. And I don’t have any criteria either, but that doesn’t make me one tiny bit less dogmatic on the subject, nor should it.

“Chun scoffed at Neuromancer for no stated reason whatsoever.”

But that’s a completely different thing from scoffing at it because it’s popular. My question was who scoffed-because-popular. I’m not accepting answers to any substitute questions.

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Ophelia Benson 11.24.03 at 7:02 pm

By the way, I think there is very, very, very little to be said for reading Clancy in an anthropological spirit. Life is too damn short for that.

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Matt McG 11.24.03 at 7:12 pm

I wrote:

“tedious over-examination of the interior lives of the middle classes”.

Thomas Dent wrote:

Indeed. A brilliant one-line summary of Ulysses, which is in fact mostly concerned with the interior lives of a small number of middle-class Dubliners.

But I wonder if the person who delivered it has actually read any great novels — let alone Ulysses?

Or could it be just ignorance and inverted snobbery?

I respond (assuming Mr Dent’s response wasn’t a clever satire on entirely non-inverted literary snobbery):

What?! You (Mr Dent) dare to assume what I have or haven’t read? OK, maybe you just assumed my “ignorance” for the purpose of a crude ad hominem attack, but since I’ve been accused of ignorance and inverted snobbery, perhaps I ought to point out that I have
a literature degree. I’ve read huge swathes of the literary canon and -like most people, I imagine – hugely enjoyed some of it and hated other bits of it. I’ve also read fair sized chunks of the Anglo-Saxon corpus, the Middle English corpuse and the Old Norse corpus (all in the original, not in translation). [Although it’s fair to say that the interior lives of the middle classes are somewhat under-represented in the latter]

Some of my favourite books are indeed concerned with the “interior lives of the middle classes” – Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier” or Bronte’s “Villette” spring to mind.

However… my comment was directed more at the type of fiction that dominates contemporary literary awards and the review pages of major newspapers – and the point was that it is by and large literature that is just as conventional in its form and subject matter as any `genre’ novel. It tends, on the whole, to be precisely about the “interior lives of the middles classes”.

Now I’m sure the middle classes are very nice, and no doubt their interior lives are as interesting as anyone elses, but it’s still the case that (and I presume this is the sort of point King was trying to make) that fiction in other genres is overlooked in favour of this one.

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rea 11.24.03 at 7:22 pm

“By the way, I think there is very, very, very little to be said for reading Clancy in an anthropological spirit. Life is too damn short for that.”

Well, given Condi Rice’s statement that before 9/11, she never imagined that a hijacked ariplane could be used as a missile to take out a major building, it’s too bad she never read Clancy’s Debt of Honor. But his novels do give a certain insight into the world view of the American right, which you may or may not find useful.

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howard 11.24.03 at 7:25 pm

Although there’s lots of interest in this thread, i’m going to limit myself to answering Reuben’s question – some urban, witty detective series.

Try these: the Bill James Harpur and Iles series, set in a modest-sized British town a little outside of London (although it’s gotten just a touch obsessed with cocaine lately); the Janwillem van de Wetering “Grijpstra and de Gier” series, set in Amsterdam (if i tell you that these are Zen detectives i’m oversimplifying, but not my much – this series is the embodiment of urbane and witty); the Nicholas Freeling Van der Walk series, also set in Amsterdam (urbane, although not witty); and you might try any of the half dozen or so books by James Crumley, which are neither urbane nor witty, but which are decidedly literary in an action-oriented way.

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howard 11.24.03 at 7:27 pm

oops, that would be urbane.

and van der valk.

someday, i’ll learn to proof in advance of posting instead of after.

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Ophelia Benson 11.24.03 at 7:31 pm

Yes, true, insight into the world-view of the American right is probably useful, but reading Clancy would be to buy it at an awfully high cost. And one can always just watch O’Reilly (mind you, that’s a high cost too).

Oh hell, for that matter, the world-view of the American right is all over the place, do we really need to read Clancy in order to explore it? Surely not.

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Doug 11.24.03 at 7:41 pm

Money? Money? Money? Not to speak of attention? ?Literary? writers get more money and attention than Stephen King and Clancy, Grisham & Clark do? Where would that be, exactly?

The argument was that people writing in the lit’rary genre get more attention and resources from the publishing business than people writing in other genres. A mid-list author writing lit’rary fiction is much more likely to tour, have publicity support, have an advertising budget, etc etc than a mid-list author writing in another genre.

Take the Sunday book review section of the New York Times as a rough proxy of these things. Yesterday’s edition featured Mario Vargas Llosa, Tobias Wolff, Jimmy Carter, and Jim Crace in the main reviews. Carter’s book could be considered historical fiction, though it certainly won’t be marketed that way. Otherwise, all the books reviewed are lit’raryx. “And Bear in Mind” gives capsules of five books, one of which is not lit’rary (it’s historical). “Books in Brief: Fiction and Poetry” is five of five for lit’rary. There is one page devoted to “Crime,” on which five books are reviewed. Two of those reviews are even more than one paragraph. Of 19 fiction books reviewed, twelve are lit’rary, one will be presented as lit’rary, and five of the other six are consigned to a ghetto.

This exercise may be repeated as necessary. That’s the built-in advantage of writing lit’rary fiction.

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maurinsky 11.24.03 at 7:52 pm

I’m not even sure what differentiates literary fiction from genre fiction. I separate books by fiction or non-fiction, anything beyond that (Sci-Fi, Magic Realism, Biography, etc.) doesn’t matter much to me.

I read Ulysses and I found some of the words intoxicating, but I still couldn’t tell you exactly what it’s about. I read Lolita and thought it was a wickedly funny book. I like a lot of authors who’ve spent some time on the bestseller lists (John Irving, Michael Chabon, Tom Robbins), but I couldn’t make it through 1 Tom Clancy (although I did attempt it once), and put my second John Grisham down after I realized it was pretty much the same book I already read.

I’m not sure I read just for entertainment, but I do want to feel something when I’m reading it, and some of what I think would qualify as “literary fiction” can have a sterile quality that doesn’t make me feel anything.

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Invisible Adjunct 11.24.03 at 7:54 pm

“No, not all 18th century ‘theorists’ did scoff at Shakespeare – to put it mildly.”

No, certainly not all. After all, it was during the eighteenth century that Shakespeare acquired his reputation as one of the greats (eg, numerous lives of Shakespeare were published, the monument at Westminster Abbey was built c. 1740). But there were significant dissenting voices: e.g., David Hume, who attributed the lionization of Shakespeare to the barbarousness of English taste. Hume was surely wrong — or at least, he judged from a set of standards that most of us no longer share. But the point is, there *were* “highbrow” critics in the 18th-century who thought Shakespeare was rather “lowbrow.”

And then there was Dickens, whose place in the canon is now secure, despite his having been dismissed as “vulgar” and “low” by contemporary critics. Not saying King is a Shakespeare or a Dickens. But there may be more to King that first meets the eye. It’s possible that future generations will rate him more highly than the current gatekeepers to literary culture are inclined to do.

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Keith M Ellis 11.24.03 at 7:58 pm

Well, you folks need to read some good books. There’s not much published in the last hundred years that isn’t crap. But that’s always the case.

As I’m rereading War and Peace now, a handful of SF books, and have read some contemporary literature recently, I have to say that the gap between CL and, for example, War and Peace is much, much larger than the gap between SF and CL. CL is hugely overrated. Popular genre fiction, in the context of the social milieu under discussion, is almost certainly underrated.

Listen folks: almost all of what we’re arguing about is “fast-food”. The contemporary literature snobs condemning the genre fiction fans are like Chi-Chi’s patrons condemning McDonald’s patrons for their bad taste. The McDonald’s patrons, at least, aren’t pretentious snots.

Obviously, my sympathies here are with the genre fiction camp. I’ve read the great books, and thousands of quite enjoyable trashy books, and contemporary literature tends to fall into the nowhere inbetweenland of contemptible and overwrought mediocrity. And there’s so much posturing in the literary world, on the part of writers, critics, and readers. Surely that indicates there’s something rotten in Denmark. (And snobs would be well to remember that there’s always someone around who is more knowledgable, more cultured, and more poised than they. Such persons always show up at the most inopportune moment, ready to serve crow.)

Nevertheless, no, Neuromancer is unlikely the most influential book of the last 25 years. It’s the most influential science-fiction book of the last 25 years, which is damning with faint praise. Beloved might be the most influential book of the last 25 years.

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Keith M Ellis 11.24.03 at 8:00 pm

…Janwillem van de Wetering “Grijpstra and de Gier” series…

Ooh, I second that nomination. In the realm of mystery, I can think of few authors I’d recommend more highly.

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Keith M Ellis 11.24.03 at 8:04 pm

But there may be more to King that first meets the eye. It’s possible that future generations will rate him more highly than the current gatekeepers to literary culture are inclined to do.

I tend to think so and the comparison to Dickens is probably apt. Though King is very uneven, and has been retreading the same old territory yet failing to grow as a writer for years now, he has a particularly gifted (though narrow) insight. I’ve suspected that his books will be more successfully evocative of the twentieth century in a hundred years than will, say, Updike’s.

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Douglas 11.24.03 at 8:05 pm

I was going to comment on this:
“the allocation of prestige, money, attention and perhaps eventually immortality to the practitioners of the lit’rary genre sells our common written culture woefully short.”
but Ophelia already said it.

So instead I will attempt
“A mystery, western, horror, science fiction or fantasy writer who hadn’t published a novel in more than 20 years would not be feted, he or she would be forgotten.”
This says rather more about the fickleness of the readers than about any structural deficiencies in the lit’rary marketplace. If the readers do not celebrate, then why should the critics ?

Prestige and immortality can’t be sold or exchanged for anything useful (only in a desolate market where none come to buy, any rate). The popular writers already have all the advantages, and really should not be whining about critical appreciation as well. I am reminded of how Wilbur Smith kept trying to give the manuscripts of his dreadful popular novels to the University of Cape Town, and how the University resolutely refused to give them house room. Quite right, too.

But I do agree that the equivalency of ‘popular’ and ‘bad’ is made but not wholly justified, by some among the lit’erati. However, no-one is listening to them except other literati, most of whom are fully qualified to make their own judgements, so I don’t see that it much matters.

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Doug 11.24.03 at 8:17 pm

“What I feel about the authors of pretentious and misleading books is well expressed by the fact that Dante put the fraudulent below adulterers, gluttons, bad-tempered gits, suicides, sodomites, hypocrites, heretics and other riff-raff in his sketch of hell”

And more.

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Matt Weiner 11.24.03 at 8:27 pm

There’s not much published in the last hundred years that isn’t crap. But that’s always the case.
That means that there’s nothing whatsoever that isn’t crap. Which I think is an appropriate reductio of the “all contemporary literary stuff is crap.”
Whoever it is keeps using the word “lit’rary”: If the genres will forget about a work of the quality of Transit of Venus simply because the author doesn’t publish anything for twenty years, that’s the genres’ problem. In fact, you could argue that this is an advantage of non-genre fiction–the marketplace allows people to work over books longer. I love Ruth Rendell, but I find about every other of her books missable; ditto Wodehouse. (Of course, then there’s Updike and Oates.) I’m not too fond of many Pulitzer winners, BTW; I’d take Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog over a lot of them.
Chris bertram, you are an awful horrid man.

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Keith 11.24.03 at 9:00 pm

I’ve read Clancy and he is a bore. But so is Bloom. I have mixed feelings about King’s writing. While a good story teller his prose lacks that poetic quality that I considder to be the halmark of literature and so does quite a bit of both popular and high literature.

I guess the short of it is I like to read well written books weather they were written by best sellers or lonely starving Autours. Awards are overrated anyway.

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Doug 11.24.03 at 9:13 pm

Matt W, we’re perilously close to agreement; I’d better comment again.

I’ve been using that contraction to emphasize that the genre in question is in fact a genre, with its own tropes, conventions and sub-genres. That point seems well accepted here. The follow-on is that that genre benefits disproportionately from the current setup of the publishing industry. Literary awards, insofar as they do not look beyond the bounds of that genre, miss out on quality writing and mislead the reading public about what the best books are. The National Book Award in Fiction that isn’t Marketed as Historical, Horror, Western, Mystery, Espionage, Science Fiction, Romance or Fantasy. Not exactly a ringing name for an award.

The privileged position of that genre may well allow publishers to take a relaxed view of an author’s timetable. That luxury may not extend to the editors and publishers in different genres. If the Haydens stop by, they can tell us all what’s up. On the other hand, various smaller publishers seem to be having a go at keeping classic science fiction authors, such as Fritz Leiber, Cordwainer Smity or Harlan Ellison, in print. So maybe Crowley would have had an audience, even if he hadn’t published a novel since 1981.

I’m not arguing that all ‘contemporary literature’ is crap, even if the genre does conform to Sturgeon’s Law. I am arguing that it does not deserve its near-monopoly on reviews, awards and media attention.

(To Say Nothing of the Dog is terrific, and in a just world Passages would have been an enormous break-out blockbuster. In that other genre, fwiw, my taste runs to the sprawling, the strange, the Southern and the East European. Tibor Fischer, Viktor Pelevin, earlier Ellen Gilchrist, Vikram Seth, Ken Kalfus, Cormac McCarthy and, as promising newcomer, David Mitchell. In German, I like Heinrich Boll, Alfred Andersch, Vladimir Kaminer, Benjamin v. Stuckrad-Barre and Feridun Zaimoglu.)

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ophelia benson 11.24.03 at 9:31 pm

“While a good story teller his prose lacks that poetic quality”

That’s it exactly. He is a good story-teller (well, as far as I can tell from the movies anyway), but whenever I try to read him, I’m put off by, precisely, the prose. It’s not that it’s bad but it’s just so slack and baggy, so okay but absolutely nothing more. I think to compare him to Dickens is…bizarre, frankly. Dickens had his faults but he was an absolute blistering genius, too. King is just not – not in the same universe.

Good point about Hume. I just meant that Shakespeare was far from universally disparaged even in the dainty 18th century. There’s a myth floating around – I’ve run into it many times – that hardly anyone liked Shxpr much until maybe the 19th century. ‘Tain’t so. There were nay-sayers in his own day (some of whom later changed their minds, like Jonson) and ever after, but there were also always [apart from the period when the theatres were closed in Cromwell’s time – less than 20 years] yay-sayers, including among the highbrows.

In short, I don’t think either Shakespeare or Dickens is a good analogy for Stephen King. To put it mildly.

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reuben 11.24.03 at 9:33 pm

Thanks for the recs – maybe I’ll travel the great cities of the world in detective stories.
Cheers

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Matt Weiner 11.24.03 at 9:38 pm

OK, I’ll settle for mostly agreement. I go back and forth on the idea of literary vs. non-literary fiction–some days I think it’s useless, other days I say, “Look, I get an entirely different experience from reading a great ghost story than from reading a great literary story,” other days I think that something like Dinesen’s “The Supper at Elsinore” may transcend genre and attain literariness, other times I think that the distinction I just made is horribly pretentious. Mostly I think we shouldn’t tell each other what to read and write–or if we do, we should just say, “Make it good whatever-it-is.”
I wouldn’t say that lit’ry fiction is a single genre though–Bill Faulkner and Ann Beattie aren’t exactly from the same neighborhood. On your list, doesn’t Pelevin write SF and McCarthy Westerns? Except that they’ve got themselves off the genre shelves.
Chris B, I don’t really think you’re nasty and horrid, but Woolf, like Hazzard, is close to my heart.

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rea 11.24.03 at 9:47 pm

“Look, I get an entirely different experience from reading a great ghost story than from reading a great literary story,”

In which catagory falls Hamlet? :)

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Matt Weiner 11.24.03 at 9:55 pm

In which category falls Hamlet? :)
Same as “The Supper at Elsinore”–heck, it’s the same damn city. Remember, that is only one day’s opinion. Some days it seems worth drawing a distinction between Hamlet and M.R. James, others it doesn’t.

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Ophelia Benson 11.24.03 at 9:59 pm

Well exactly! Hamlet is among other things a damn good ghost story. Which is one reason I always think it’s an odd choice for the modern dress treatment – it’s so much spookier in Antient dress, or Elizabetho-medieval, and what with Goths and all, why bother to modernize?

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Ophelia Benson 11.24.03 at 10:06 pm

I forgot to say – I did a comment about this subject at B&W the other day. I didn’t get thousands of people commenting though…

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Doug 11.24.03 at 10:16 pm

Pelevin writes really strange things that make your head hurt in neat ways. The Yellow Arrow is set on a train that might be as long as Russia, but appears to be moving constantly. Lives of Insects gives Josef K a run for his money in metamorphoses. The stories in A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia run the gamut.

I’d say he’s much too skewed for the mainstream, except that he won the Russian Booker a while back. And a big chunk of the SF audience wouldn’t know where to begin with him.

About ten years back, Bruce Sterling had a go at capturing this aesthetic with the term ‘slipstream’ and a list of possible works that fit. That page also has thoughts on ‘category’ (marketing term) vs ‘genre’ (coherent aesthetic) that have some relevance to our discussion.

I suppose McCarthy does write Westerns, but you sure won’t find him sharing shelf space with Louis L’Amour.

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laura 11.24.03 at 11:45 pm

I’m sure I’m entering this too late for anyone to even read this, but dammit I have to get it off my chest.

The books being mentioned in this discussion say an awful lot about who’s reading this blog, insofar as three categories of novels seem to be emerging. There’s “literary” fiction, “good” “genre” or “popular” fiction, and “bad” popular fiction.

Based on my skimming of these comments, almost everything mentioned in all three categories has been by men. That’s fascinating when you consider that romance novels, for instance, constitute about 1/3 of all popular fiction sold and over half of mass-market paperback fiction sold. You’d think they’d at least enter a discussion of popular fiction. I’m not sure I’d want to read what y’all would have to say, but if you’re going to talk about this stuff, at least look around a little bit and don’t just talk about the lawyers whose books get made into movies.

As a reader of romances (and yes, I too have an education, since that seems to be something people are anxious to convey about themselves in this discussion), I find much of today’s “literary” fiction unreadable precisely because it is supposed to be written well. When I know that I’m supposed to evaluate the writing at the level of the sentence rather than the plot or the character, I do, and I find most of it lacking. I can’t turn my brain off and I sit there editing every sentence. I’d much rather read something that’s written fluidly and easily to convey a plot than something in which every sentence strains to hit the home run that will be used in reviews to convey the novel’s High Literariness.

And the books that keep coming up here as evidence that popular or genre fiction can be good — Neuromancer and Gene Wolfe in particular — are ones that I find completely unreadable. That’s both for the reason mentioned above and, I think, for reasons to do with gender. They are masculine or perhaps I mean masculinist in a way that I just don’t feel like dealing with in my off time.

Anyway, I think that in addition to thinking about gender, the typifications here should be adjusted. Someone suggested that the reason it’s a highbrow discussion is that it’s about books to begin with. I don’t think that’s right, but I do think there are serious category problems here, with the genre books beloved of people around here being way too far to the literary end of the spectrum to count as popular fiction, and a lot missing from the understanding of the less literary end of the genres.

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novalis 11.25.03 at 12:01 am

reubens, what about Barry Hughart’s Master Li novels? They’re excellent mystery/fantasy.

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JP 11.25.03 at 12:04 am

I see that Shirley Hazzard is a sensitive artist.

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Henry Farrell 11.25.03 at 12:19 am

Laura – in my defence I plead that I did mention a bunch of stuff towards the less literary end of the genre in my original post (mostly guys, I’ll admit). Not sure that I buy the masculinist vs. female reading tastes argument – lots of women I know who like Wolfe. But on romance novels, you have us dead to rights. I’m completely ignorant of this genre, but willing to be educated – who do you recommend?

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Ophelia Benson 11.25.03 at 1:38 am

Hm. I plead not guilty to the neglecting women charge. I tend to think of women when people talk about literary fiction, for example. I could list dozens of them – all okay, none brilliant. And I don’t think I mentioned any genre men either, because I don’t know from genre. So sue me!

Frankly, I think this whole populist anti-elitist guilt-trip thing is pretty absurd. I look within, I seek for any trace of a bad conscience about not reading romance novels. Whaddya know – it’s not there.

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Jeremy Osner 11.25.03 at 2:19 am

Laura — precisely the point of good prose is that it moves fluidly off the page, through your eyes and ears and into your brain. “Editing each sentence” might be a worthwhile activity for a reviewer but not for a reader. Sentences which are “straining to hit a home run” are poorly written.

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roger 11.25.03 at 2:29 am

Genre fiction, like sci fi, is as hierarchical and laden with establishment assumptions as literary fiction. Prize ceremonies simply confirm that. The school of pre-punk sci fi that flourished in Britain in the 60s, for instance, was violently shunned by the establishment. They regarded Ballard with horror, and weren’t about to give any awards to a book about auto-erotic — I mean, REALLY auto-erotic — fatalities. Same with Moorcock. As for Dick’s best work, besides Man in the High Castle — what awards did it win? The year Ubik came out, the Hugo went to John Brunner for Stand on Zanzibar (who, incidentally, was influenced by the early Brit school); Flow my tears, the policeman said, in 74 — a novel that, paired with Coover’s The Public Burning, tells you everything you need to know about the Nixon era’s peculiar paranoias — the Hugo went to Rendezvous with Rama — an Arthur Clarke lugubrious special.

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nnyhav 11.25.03 at 3:10 am

Rare indeed.

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Mr Spectator 11.25.03 at 7:43 am

Reuben – Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels. Don’t be put off by the execrable TV adaptations, but on the other hand don’t feel obliged to visit Wakefield either.

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laura 11.25.03 at 1:47 pm

Henry — I’m sure there are women who like Wolfe, I just never could get more than a few pages in even knowing that my dad loves him. I also don’t want to imply I don’t read sci-fi; in fact I do like a significant amount of it. I actually wrote my undergrad honors thesis essentially on why it was that I read romances and sci-fi for similar reasons but got a lot more grief about reading the former than the latter. I tarted that idea up to seem kind of academic, but that’s where it started.

Anyway, my personal favorites as romances go are Mary Jo Putney (historical or contemporary), Amanda Quick (Ravished, Mistress, and Reckless are among her better ones, to my mind), Susan Elizabeth Phillips (contemporary), Jennifer Crusie (contemporary), Joan Wolf (only if you can find her historicals; avoid her contemporaries). Jude Deveraux has her ups and downs — some of her books include hilarious commentaries on romance conventions, if you know the genre, while others are overly laden with things like angels and time travel. These are all single-title books; there’s no point recommending any specific series romance since they come and go from the shelves too quickly to keep up with. Being irish, perhaps you should stay away from the fairly significant irish bed and breakfast subgenre, exemplified by many Nora Roberts books.

Jeremy — We probably all have different standards for what qualifies as writing straining to write a home run, and admittedly that kind of writing is well spread out over genres. But it’s not that I WANT to be editing each sentence in my head, it’s that I can’t help it! For me, something about the standard writing style in romance novels really works when I want to relax. It is, as I said, fluid. But I recognize that others simply think it’s bad, and that may be the take-home point, that our standards are all so very different.

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Thomas Dent 11.25.03 at 2:14 pm

Henry seems to have misread the food analogy. I don’t claim that literary awards always do honour the exciting and new, but that they *should*. And I didn’t make the equation that “genre”=hamburger and “literary”=original recipe, which is evidently false.

I’m just saying popular fiction is rarely an original recipe: the great majority of currently very popular books are retreads on well-known themes.

This is relevant to what Stephen King said because he appears to be boosting popular fiction whether or not it’s original.

Evidently, the urbane and cultured Matt McGrattan was only pretending to be ignorant in dissing the middle-class novel…

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David Sucher 11.25.03 at 4:30 pm

“I’m just saying popular fiction is rarely an original recipe: the great majority of currently very popular books are retreads on well-known themes.”

Couldn’t one say that of a lot of very popular work e.g. Shakespeare and “MacBeth”? Nothing original in his plot at all; the guy cribbed the story.

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Pouncer 11.25.03 at 4:45 pm

First, let’s get Lois McMaster Bujold’s name into this thread.

Bujold Bujold Bujold.

There.

Okay, now, to denigrate Tom Clancy for hiring ghosts and elevate Alex Dumas for writing timeless thrillers is to expose either ignorance or disregard of Dumas’s methods. And in principle, what’s wrong with collaborative efforts? I’m rather enjoying Eric Flint’s “shared universe” of _1632_, isn’t everybody? Then there was _Thieves World_ and _Aces High_ … oh well, collaborative genre fiction CAN be dreck. But, to return to our sheep, proving that “Clancy” novels are a collaborative effort doesn’t establish that they are dreck.

Takes a second sentence to do that.

Over at the Jane Galt comments section I argue that character and story bolster longevity of a novel more than the craftsmanship. I simply extend that, here, in noting that GREAT story and GREAT character transcends AWFUL translation. So Antigone is still compelling, as are Captain Nemo, Jean Valjean, Doctor Zhivago, and Beowulf. “Literary craftsmanship” will carry a writer only so far. “Storytelling” — a la Stephen King — can, potentially, make a writer’s ideas immortal.

Bujold: _Mirror Dance_ Check it out.

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Henry 11.25.03 at 8:19 pm

Laura – thanks for the recommendations. I’m charmed to discover that there’s an Irish bed-and-breakfast minigenre – I have no intention of reading it (any inaccuracies would be annoying), but I’m very pleased to know that it exists.

Pouncer – the one Bujold book that I really enjoyed was the one where Miles gets married – A Civil Affair ??? A class of a romance novel, I suppose.

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Keith M Ellis 11.25.03 at 9:38 pm

…I argue that character and story bolster longevity of a novel more than the craftsmanship.

I agree. But then, I would.

I still contend that the people who complain most about bad writing in popular fiction are concentrating too much on the writing. They’re not seeing the forest for the trees. Yes, ideally, the really good books are well-written in every sense. But there’s not that many of those.

Furthermore, technical ability comes easier than talent. There’s far more art that is technically adept than there is that’s truly an expression of talent.

I think many writers of popular fiction could stand to be much better writers–but that doesn’t mean their books aren’t good.

Look at this in a different context: music. There is great variability in technical musical ability, and its presence is not at all a guarantee of quality composition. This is partly an influence on my own viewpoint in this discussion: as a musician, it took me years to learn to listen to–and judge–music without focusing solely on its technical merits.

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Keith M Ellis 11.25.03 at 9:46 pm

Frankly, I think this whole populist anti-elitist guilt-trip thing is pretty absurd. I look within, I seek for any trace of a bad conscience about not reading romance novels. Whaddya know – it’s not there.

I can’t say that it’s absurd because I’ve never read a single romance novel. This thread and the new post make me consider the possibility that there’s something I don’t know.

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cw 11.25.03 at 11:09 pm

The problem with neuromancer was that (if I remember correctly) it was informed with the broken hearted detective trope. This is a kind of teenage boy pose. If you knew someone sporting this world view, you’d probably avoid them. It’s the same with the book. It’s world veiw is stupid.

It has fun ideas in it though, so I’m not saying it’s totally worthless. But I think great literature is wise. A work of great literature has a genius world view. Maybe that’s what Bloom meant. If you read a book (like War and Peace) that has a genius world view, then maybe some of that world view will rub off.

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Keith M Ellis 11.25.03 at 11:26 pm

Well, Tolstoy’s worldview in War and Peace is historical determinism, and he beats it into you in a few unfortunate near-authorial lectures. I don’t think that’s what makes it great.

What makes both War and Peace and Anna Karenina great is Tolstoy’s remarkable insight into human nature and behavior. In particular, I think that most writers see their characters (and other people) as far more narratively coherent than is true in real life. Tosltoy accomplishes the amazing feat of capturing the strange interplay between coherence and incoherence of real personalities within the context of a narrative that, nevertheless, makes perfect sense.

As to your claim about Neuromancer and the “stupidity” of the “broken hearted-detective trope”…well, I don’t think that, generally, the protagonist’s worldview is the book’s worldview; and I don’t think it’s the case with this book. It seems to me a weak foundation upon which to build a critique.

It reminds me (a little) of someone who told me that they didn’t like Lola rennt because they couldn’t stand the two main characters who they thought were “scummy”.

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Anthony 11.26.03 at 12:27 am

Ophelia – Dickens is not a great stylist. He reads as if her were being paid by the word from an unlimited budget. But he does draw excellent characters, and can put more into a one-paragraph sketch than a lit’rary author puts into an entire chapter. His story lines are excellent, as well. That is why we still read Dickens today.

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cw 11.26.03 at 3:48 am

re keith m ellis:

I think that because tolstoy had a genius world view that he was able to create the characers that he did. We read his book we see (to some degree) the world through his eyes. We see how brilliantly he understands humand beings and their interactions. We feel his compassion. The lecures I agree are pretty dry. But maybe they fit in somehow. I haven’t read the book in a while.

As for neuromancer, like I said, I haven’t read that in a while either, so maybe my memory is faulty. But to clarify, in both neuromancer and war and peace, I’m not talking about the characters world view I’m talking about the author’s as revealed in the book.

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jo. 11.27.03 at 5:40 am

Harold Bloom said that he didn’t understand reading a book that wasn’t going to make one a better person.

It didn’t work. Harold Bloom has read an enormous number of books and he’s still a pompous gasbag.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I’ve got a PhD in English, I teach Renaissance lit, mostly drama, and I’ve never seen a bloody book that will make ANYONE a better person. Making people virtuous is not art’s job — although it can entertain people, stimulate people and enrage people. Popular fiction does that just fine: so does ‘serious prose’. Sometimes the one morphs into the other — drama was trashy garbage in Shakespeare’s day.

Oh, and most of the academics I know are seriously addicted to murder mysteries, myself included. And Wodehouse and Pratchett both make me do the Happy Dance.

jo.

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jo. 11.27.03 at 6:03 am

And of course, I just read the other postings on the thread (the one after the Bloom-bash) and now realize how delayed my comment is. Must remember to read before posting, since almost all of this has been said before, by many others.

People like Shakespeare, Dickens, and Dumas were, in their day, writing for a popular audience, yet their works make it into the “canon” (whatever that is).

sorry, all.

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Shaun Evans 11.29.03 at 6:53 am

It is amazing to me that such an extended thread about literature has avoided mention of Marxism and meta-analysis. So I’ll jump in.

Literary theorists, as a class, have a problem. A big one. Well-educated amateurs have opinions about their subject. Well educated amateurs rarely have opinions about physics, chemistry, economics, or physiology & medicine, to name four of the six Nobel prize categories. And since well-educated amateurs often read books, but rarely launch offensive wars of territorial conquest, the Peace prize is in a better position relative to Literature to defend its academic turf.

To be blunt, the gatekeepers of Literature have more unwashed barbarians pounding at their gates than most other academic disciplines. (I count myself among the unwashed masses for purposes of this Marxist analysis.)

As a member of Phi Beta Kappa* I feel perfectly qualified to opine on the merits of Joyce, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Gibson, King, Bujold, et al. I do not feel similarly confident holding forth on string theory, quantum computing, or the human genome project.

So, members of the literary establishment must create and maintain barriers, artificially if necessary, between themselves and people like me. It is a class imperative. You may agree. You may disagree. In no case should you delude yourself that you can change this situation. Gatekeepers are threatened by independent power sources. King is rich, and is a New York Times best seller. He will continue to be both, regardless of the views of the literary establishment. King is therefore a type of counter-revolutionary, and must be removed from photographs with the scissors of literary criticism whenever possible.

* “(and yes, I too have an education, since that seems to be something people are anxious to convey about themselves in this discussion)”. I really enjoyed that quote of Laura’s. It is partially responsible for this post.

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