I promised myself I wasn't going to respond to literary provocateurs any more - you know, the sort of blowhard who decides to get some undeserved attention by firing a potshot across the bow of genre fiction. Usually these potshots are made up of ill-formed generalizations and largely unexamined assumptions.

But the latest such broadside, from the New Yorker's Arthur Krystal, seems especially worthy of mild grumpiness. Krystal, who caused a stir a while back with a somewhat condescending essay about how genre fiction is gaining a newfound respectability, is back with a followup, responding to all his critics. And this time, he's just going for it. He makes some pretty ambitious claims, not only for the shallowness of genre fiction, but for the profundity of literary fiction. Here's Krystal, spoutingoff:

Born to sell, these novels stick to the trite-and-true, relying on stock characters whose thoughts spool out in Lifetime platitudes. There will be exceptions, as there are in every field, but, for the most part, the standard genre or commercial novel isn't going to break the sea frozen inside us. If this sounds condescending, so be it. Commercial novels, in general, whether they're thrillers or romance or science fiction, employ language that is at best undistinguished and at worst characterized by a jejune mentality and a tendency to state the obvious. Which is not to say that some literary novels, as more than a few readers pointed out to me, do not contain a surfeit of decorative description, elaborate psychologizing, and gleams of self-conscious irony. To which I say: so what?

One reads Conrad and James and Joyce not simply for their way with words but for the amount of felt life in their books. Great writers hit us over the head because they present characters whose imaginary lives have real consequences (at least while we're reading about them), and because they see the world in much the way we do: complicated by surface and subterranean feelings, by ambiguity and misapprehension, and by the misalliance of consciousness and perception. Writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know are not going to write horror tales or police procedurals. Why say otherwise?


Let's be clear about this: plenty of genre novels are comfort food of the sort that Krystal is describing. Some of them are pretty terrific, for reasons other than emotional complexity or challenging writing. That's not to say, however, that genre fiction is incapabable of breaking "the sea frozen inside of us," or that genre fiction can't contain an overwhelming "amount of life."

And Krystal's readers who responded that literary fiction often contains "a surfeit of decorative description, elaborate psychologizing, and gleams of self-conscious irony" were being much too kind. Those are all compliments disguised as insults - like saying "literary fiction is just too well written for our tiny minds." In fact, anybody who's read a large quantity of literary fiction will tell you that much litfic - including litfic by famous authors, published by respectable publishers - contains the following:

  • Trite, one-dimensional characters
  • Bland, awkward writing
  • Cliches, including cliches borrowed from Hollywood movies
  • An overemphasis on plot at the expense of charactierization

And so on. Which is to say, there is plenty of bad literary fiction, just as there is plenty of bad genre fiction. Every literary magazine publishes tons of fiction with one-dimensional characters whose inner lives are populated by cardboard cut-outs. Weak writing is weak writing, and every genre has it. Krystal already knows this, which is why he's so keen to stick to generalizations. [via Think Progress]