Thursday, November 20, 2008

Too Deep to be Popular? Or Vice Versa?

Crimespace currently has a couple of enthusiastic debates (here and here) about the endless dispute between literary fiction and genre fiction. Sides tend to form pretty quickly in such engagements. The “literary” side goes on about the “limitations” of genre writing, while the genre folks complain about the snobbery of the lits. I’m inclined to come down on the genre side, not solely because I write what would be called genre fiction, were anyone ever to publish it.

I was a musician in a previous life. Played in all my high school’s bands (literally), got a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education. Spent three years in an Army band before getting a Master’s in Performance from New England Conservatory. Free-lanced around for several years playing in small orchestras, brass quintets, concert bands, whatever needed a trumpet part. This has allowed me to play, and appreciate, a wide range of music, and verify first hand that the same discussion goes on between classical and popular musicians constantly. I can safely say there is a degree of snobbery toward more popular forms of the music from many of those who exist on the more exalted plane; the popular musicians are not imagining it. They have their own blind spots, often citing the inaccessibility of classical music. The musicians’ arguments are too similar to writers’ not to be analogous.

Classical musicians deride “jazzers” for their imprecision and simplicity of structure. Jazz advocates claim classical players don’t swing. This argument moves through musical genres: jazzers often look down on country music, and it’s unusual to hear a young rocker acknowledge his debt to R & B. All of them can improve their own work by paying attention to the other. Jazz players can create tighter ensembles by listening to orchestras; orchestral pops concerts would be much better if the orchestras actually could swing.

Writers who consider themselves either, neither, or both ignore the precepts of either at their peril. The genre writer who fails to appreciate the implications of a more literary approach will find himself describing a rainstorm, instead of, in John Gardner’s words, “evoking the sensation of being rained upon.” The literary writer who looks condescendingly upon genre fiction as having nothing to teach him can evoke plenty of rain, but may have trouble getting his characters to do anything practical or believable once they are wet.

It’s been credited to too many people to be anything other than apocryphal, but everyone benefits if we all accept there are only two kinds of music or writing: good and bad. Subject matter, genre, or style determines neither. Both sides need to learn from the other if each is to remain vital. Literary writers cannot afford to travel the road too many of their musical brethren have, eventually writing only for themselves and those who wish to be considered part of the cognoscenti. Messages and themes, no matter how profound, lose their vitality and importance if the audience that can appreciate them is too small to matter. Popular forms that appeal too often to the least common denominator will find themselves passed over as those fickle tastes inevitably change.

On the other hand, as John Connolly’s experience shows, “literary” writers aren’t always just snobs. Sometimes they’re assholes, too.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely right, Dana. The whole "literary-genre" thing makes my teeth hurt. What's THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN? What's THE LONG GOODBYE? RED HARVESTTHE LAST KISS? On the other hand, does junk stop being junk because it's "literary" junk?

Okay, there's a lot of genre crap. But there's a lot of crap on the literary side, too. Your point cuts through it all -- there's only good writing abd bac writing.

Peter Rozovsky said...

A wise statement with a suitably bang-up kicker. I shall look for an excuse to link to it.

By the way, my first real article was about the Klezmer Conservatory Band, led by Hankus Netsky, then and, for all I know, still, of the New England Conservatory. In fact, the band took its name from the school.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Dana King said...

Absolutely right. I just re-read RED HARVEST a few weeks ago, and read THE LONG GOODBYE every few years. TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN is on my TBR pile. What's good is good, regardless of its subject matter, or the subject matter.

Funny how this small world business works, even across disciplines. The Klezmer Band is still a big deal there, the Conservatory has always been quite proud of its connection.

Peter Rozovsky said...

It gets smaller. The day of my first interview with Hankus Netsky, I mentioned his name to my girlfriend at the time. It turns out that he had been a counsellor at music camp she attended in New Jersey.

What's good is good etc. is true to a point. We champions of "genre" literature need to insist that, say, a James Lee Burke writes fine stories that happen to be about crime. But we should also recognize the joys of writing within and against genre conventions. It occurred to me that French literary thinkers of the OULIPO kind would win applause for deliberately seeing what they could do within rigid, arbitrary rules, such as writing a novel without the letter e in it. Why should a writer not win respect for seeing what he or she can accomplish within genre rules?

Dana King said...

Peter, I agree. Poets are not looked down upon for writing ballads or sonnets or villanelles; the good ones are celebrated as triumphs in the form. Using Burke as an example again, there is nothing about the content or the conventions used that negates any of the beauty of hs writing. He tells a damn good story, too.

Declan Burke said...

Golly-gosh, but my heart skipped a beat there ... and then I realised you were talking about the other Burke guy. I really will have to get myself a psuedonym. Has anyone else first dibs on Stryker Ramore?

Peter Rozovsky said...

Or how about Striker Remora as a good name for someone who's just along for the ride? But I'd suggest an anagram generator as a source of pseudonyms. My name yielded the wonderful Zesty Provoker.
Detectives Beyond Borders
“Because Murder Has More Zest Away From Home”