Sunday, December 19, 2010

Edward Docx, genre fiction, literary fiction

I just got back from Powell's and Kinokuniya in Portland with a sackful of books that include both James Church and Terry Eagleton, the Tale of the Heike and a new manga, and I find that I'm late to the party, as usual, I see. (Or is it that I'm crashing? I can never tell.) Edward Docx (who seems to be a British novelist, rather than a file I can't open with my old version of Office) fired a broadside against genre fiction last week in the Guardian.

He seems to have two main gripes about it. First is that it's badly written. I tend to agree with him about Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown, his two main whipping-boys. At the same time, I heartily agree with Laura Miller at Salon, who notes that cliché-ridden writing is not necessarily a drawback for some readers in some situations. Drawing on C.S. Lewis, Miller is defending accessible prose and those who read it- kind of echoing B.R. Myers' famous assault on the Cult of the Sentence from a decade ago. The gist is that not every reader is always, or even ever, up for prose that, sentence by sentence, tortures itself in an effort to avoid cliché. It's work to read, and some of us just like to read for pleasure.

I agree with Miller, but in fact I don't think she goes quite far enough: she's still buying into the same dichotomy that Docx is setting up, that "serviceable" prose, prose that "flows," that's easily readable, is artistically inferior - she just seems to be saying, lay off those who think that. They know what they like.

I'd go farther: I hold that sentence-smithing is only part of what goes into novel-writing. What goes into a novel? Sentences - syntax and grammar and style - of course, but also story - pacing and plot construction and character. And, beneath all that, there's the possibility, at least, of subtext, theme, ideas.

And none of these things presupposes skill at the others. Anybody who's read an academic book knows that you can have deep ideas but still be unable to express them in beautiful sentences. And anybody who's read Larsson or Brown knows that you can have a story that works for the reader without beautiful sentences. Likewise, one could point to any number of high-lit novels that prove you can have ideas and style without having to pay any attention to the mechanics of storytelling, or even the need to have a story to tell.

Why can't we recognize that since novels involve a lot of different skills, it's possible for novels to have different kinds of excellence? To say that Larsson and Brown are lousy sentence-writers but still manage to write interesting novels is to put the emphasis in the wrong place. They're not good sentence-writers, but they are excellent storytellers. There's real skill there. And the appreciation of skill is a large part of the apprehension of art, no?

In short, to say these novels are badly written, and to have that charge mean what Docx means, is to oversimplify what's involved in writing a novel. They are extremely well-written, I'd say - and the purely workmanlike nature of their sentences is part of that, allowing the reader to follow the plot (and whatever ideas the authors may have embedded in the plot) without getting hung up on individual word choices.

Docx's second point - and I'll admit that this is a pretty ballsy claim to make in 2010 - is that genre fiction is inherently inferior to non-genre, self-consciously literary fiction:
...even good genre (not Larsson or Brown) is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material. ...If you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise. Lots of decisions are already made.
I happen to think he's wrong, but I'm going to argue this point not by example but by analogy. Recently I was teaching an 18th-century Japanese comic book that was parodying popular sermonizing, using the metaphor of the kite. Ah, yes, the kite metaphor: I had this explained to me in Sunday School. You've seen kites high in the sky, straining against their tethers. They look for all the world like they're trying to get free and fly away into the ether, but are restrained by the string. The string looks like bondage. But in fact it's only the string that allows them to fly - cut the string, and the kite falls to the earth pretty quickly. Rules (the sermon goes) are like this - they may appear to be restrictions on freedom, but in fact they're the only things that allow us any freedom at all.

In the comic book in question, the parody came in when the author took this basically common-sensical metaphor and elaborated it beyond all believability, driving the point home with mock-pedantry for thirty pages. Very funny stuff. But at the same time it does make you think about the central metaphor, and how it is pretty common-sensical. (A mixture of parodic and sincere didacticism was this author's hallmark.)

And that's how I look at genre fiction. To Docx, the conventions of genre fiction look like rules that curtail the novelist's freedom and limit his/her potential. Certainly it may work that way for some writers - conventions can certainly be a crutch - but not all of them. For some writers conventions are the kite strings that allow them to soar - rules that spur creativity, or focus it, rather than kill it. To say that genre constraints interfere with the novelist's ability to write a good novel is like saying that Shakespeare might have been a great poet if he hadn't been constricted by the rules of the sonnet form.

1 comment:

Lemon Verbena said...

I completely agree with this. Especially with the idea that storytelling and sentence-writing are very different skills (I've always thought of Stephen King this way).

I've had a lot of conversations with Eric about stuff like this, and I really think a lot of it comes down to what we're looking for when we read, and there's nothing wrong with different people wanting different experiences out of books.