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Is it really possible for books to "transcend genre?"

Illustration for article titled Is it really possible for books to transcend genre?

The debate over "literary fiction" versus "commercial fiction" (with the latter category including speculative fiction) has gone on forever — but there's a new wrinkle. New York Times Book Review contributor Christopher Beha has a proposal for how the NYTBR can recognize really groundbreaking works of speculative fiction, among others.


Writing in Slate, Beha admits "literary fiction" is a genre, just like crime fiction or science fiction, and that a lot of it is mediocre. But he still disagrees with the calls of Jennifer Weiner and other "commercial" authors for the NYTBR to feature more reviews of popular fiction, instead of reviewing literary fiction that's every bit as formulaic. Rather, Beha argues the task of the NYTBR should be to review not "literary fiction," but "Holy Crap fiction" — with the latter defined as works that defy genre classification and expand ideas of storytelling.

Beha writes:

Books that one doesn’t know how to read, books that challenge our ideas about what fiction is supposed to be doing, are more interesting to talk and think about. And at least when it comes to fiction, these are the books that I want professional critics weighing in on, so these are the books that I want the TBR to cover. Unfortunately, the phrase we most frequently use to describe such books is the same phrase we use to describe members in good standing of the conventional genre called “literary fiction.” This is one reason I don’t really like the phrase “literary fiction.” It is also one reason I don’t like thinking about books as members of genres at all. Instead I like to think about individual books. If I have to think about genres I suppose it could be said that the genre of fiction I find most interesting to talk and write and read about—the one I think the TBR should be reviewing—is the genre that has the genre specification “does not conform to any genre specifications.” For our purposes I would call this genre “holy crap fiction.” In case I haven’t made this clear, lots of holy crap fiction isn’t all that good. Certainly lots of it is objectively worse than the average competent genre novel. But even bad holy crap fiction is far more interesting to talk about and read about than a competent genre novel, because it requires making sense of. A corollary to this is that there is no such thing as a merely competent holy crap novel.


He also admits that "One of my favorite holy crap novelists, John Crowley, often writes books that bear lots of resemblances to sci-fi/fantasy genre books, and because of this the work was slow to get recognized as the holy crap work it is." So there could be a systemic problem of deserving "holy crap" books getting categorized as belonging to a genre, rather than defying genre classifications. But in any case, Beha gets points for making a meaningful distinction between "literary fiction" and books that are actually groundbreaking or challenging.

But over in The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky disagrees, basically saying that genres are as much a matter of who's reading the book, and how it's packaged, as the contents of the book. (One of his main examples to support this is Philip K. Dick's Confessions of a Crap Artist, which was written as "literary" fiction but gets reviewed by a lot of science fiction outlets because Dick is primarily known as a SF author.) In Berlatsky's view, it's actually impossible to transcend genre because genres are nebulous clusters of affinities and cultural markers, and genres always contain things that really don't fit within their boundaries.

Berlatsky also argues that Beha "isn't really abandoning the lit-fic genre. He's just doing what metal fans do when they say some album is not metal." In other words, by trying to create a new category, "holy crap fiction," that's separate from boring, cookie-cutter litfic, Beha is just trying to purify and "reify" literary fiction.

Both Beha and Berlatsky have a bit of a point — the reason we have MFA programs and literary conferences and science fiction conventions and romance writer conventions is that these genres are created by and for communities of aficionados. At the same time, though, genres clearly aren't as nebulous as Berlatsky wants to pretend. The reason we have genres isn't primarily because of affinity, but because we expect certain types of things from a certain type of story — a murder mystery has to have a murder, for example.


At the same time, if someone was foolish enough to put me in charge of the NYTBR, after I finished screaming and tearing out all my hair, I would probably try to turn it into as eclectic a survey of good, interesting books as possible — including some stuff that defies genre classifications, and some stuff that sits comfortably within a known genre, while deepening its storytelling potential somehow.

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I think that one of the problems is that those who defend literary fiction are often dancing around a point that is very important to them: that of fantastic sentence level writing. If you have astounding sentence level writing, they're often willing to forgive a formulaic plot or genre trappings, which is how Whitehead managed to write a postapocolpytic zombie novel shelved in literary fiction and reviewed by the NYT, but Richard Matheson's post apocolpytic, essentially zombie (they're vampires, but are essentially braindead undead creatures) novel that is all about a racism and class is sci-fi. Matheson struggles under the weight of the very "literary" piece, unable to really take the concept of a man alone, trying to figure this out and really make it work on the page (despite the amazing concept and fun twist), whereas Whitehead is a lyric wonder, making each sentence pop, even though the plot builds to a formulaic big finish.

But if they admit that this is their barometer, they'll realize how ridiculous it sounds, and so we get this garbage, again and again. I would argue that most of talented genre writers out there are the equivelent of a graphic designer at an ad agency versus the top notch literary writers who are the equivelents of Picassos (in other words, both are talented and can make great work, but one is art that transcends, while the other is art that accomplishes a goal), and so there is some worth to the genre classifications as a way to attempt to clarify purposes, but it's a silly, ridiculous partition to have as a whole, of which the only point is to clarify if something is grouped with personal art versus commercial art, and, well, that's a pretty false divide too, isn't it?

I just wish that more outlets were more open minded and picked up more wonderful pieces of "genre" fiction while admitting that some of the stuff they're already looking at is "genre" as it is.