Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Not a Bad Word

Krystal pays lip service to the notion that each idiom has its own standard, claims to be saying that "genre" is not a bad word:

"Quality comes in different forms: there is Cole Porter and there is Prokofiev; the Beatles and Bach; Savion Glover and Mikhail Baryshnikov—the difference between them is not one of talent or proficiency but of sensibility."

As in music and dance, so too in literature:

"A good mystery or thriller isn’t set off from an accomplished literary novel by plotting, but by the writer’s sensibility, his purpose in writing, and the choices he makes to communicate that purpose."

Krystal is actually correct here, in a way. The eschewal of the quirks (and associated dynamics) that constitute the sensational is indeed a matter of sensibility. His wrongness lies in imagining that the literary decorum being practised in fiction by the bourgeois for the bourgeois has any effect but the deleterious. Propriety leads to mediocrity, to banality. The failure is not however in the admitted "surfeit of decorative description, elaborate psychologizing, and gleams of self-conscious irony" -- as disingenuously self-serving a "fault" as "perfectionism" on one's resumé -- but rather in the triviality of what Krystal touts as grand ambition: the capacity "to break the sea frozen inside us."

Certainly it is a laudable achievement to crack the reader open emotionally, move them with the "felt life" of characters "complicated by surface and subterranean feelings, by ambiguity and misapprehension, and by the misalliance of consciousness and perception." But this frigid shell that Krystal imagines must be penetrated, this sterile solidification of ego binding self... what is this but the petit-bourgeois social angst of the Triple-M's -- the middle-class, middle-age and middle-brow? The project of punching through that sensibility to make the reader remember what it is to be alive is, I'm sure, of great import to those suffering that sensibility, but it is hardly the height of literary aspiration.

The difference of sensibility is, I suggest, the paralysing and self-involuting neurotic self-consciousness of those with little more to concern themselves with than themselves. The affair, the mid-life crisis, etc., etc., etc.. No surprise that the fiction pedestaled by propriety is one that can barely see past propriety, in which overcoming the problems born of propriety is pretty much the primary concern. No surprise that the petit-bourgoisie afford prestige to (i.e. privilege) the fiction focused on their trite issues.

Still, this difference of sensibility allows Krystal to wriggle out of his own (apparent) magnanimity, shuck the faux egalitarianism and reassert the superiority of the prestigious over the popular via a difference of effort, explicitly in the reading and implicitly in the writing:

"There may be a struggle to express what’s difficult to convey, and perhaps we’ll struggle a bit to understand what we’re reading... No such difficulty informs true genre fiction; and the fact that some genre writers write better than some of their literary counterparts doesn’t automatically consecrate their books."

The vapid collapse of all our literary conjurings at their subtlest and most complex to a mere act of communication that might be a bit hard is comical buffoonery. The "No True Scotsman" fallacy employed in an erasure of all subtlety and complexity in works of category fiction is not just comical but awe-inspiring in its bumptiousness. But so it goes with a waffleburper who's clearly as deaf to the music of Davenport as he is blind to the very existence of Delany (or to the other kinds of difficulty inherent in category fiction's idiomatic densities.) So the hierarchy of idioms is restored via the equation of the sensational with the superficial and the difficult with the deep:

"[M]ake no mistake: good commercial fiction is inferior to good literary fiction in the same way that Santa Claus is inferior to Wotan. One brings us fun or frightening gifts, the other requires—and repays—observance."

So we find ourselves neatly returned to that disavowed attitude in which "genre" is indeed a bad word, in which it signifies a literary material of essentially lower quality (the fun or frightening, the sensational.) Whether the term used is "genre" or "commercial," it's the quality of being immediately engaging that must be devalued to glorify work lacking that quality. Never mind the actual capacities of the sensational. If the sensational is the superficial, if the lesser effort in reading is due to a lesser effort in writing, this essentialist characterisation of category fiction sets unquestionable expectations of a shoddier product:

"One of the things we don’t expect is excellence in writing... Born to sell, these novels stick to the trite-and-true, relying on stock characters whose thoughts spool out in Lifetime platitudes... Commercial novels, in general... employ language that is at best undistinguished and at worst characterized by a jejune mentality and a tendency to state the obvious."

Such stereotyping is of course about as trite-and-true as thought can get. Except for the "true" part. There is no argument here, only assertion. With his inability to describe the difference beyond that woolly "sensibility," Krystal can't even articulate that he disdains the sensational, let alone why. The best he can do to counter the obvious judgement of prejudice is appeal to the authority of Chandler’s self-assessment, as if one category fiction writer "knowing his place" proved the essential truth of his caste: “To accept a mediocre form and make something like literature out of it is in itself rather an accomplishment.” It doesn't occur to Krystal that the "like" in that sentence is ambiguous; one could just as easily read it as "such as" as "close to" -- to "make something such as literature."

Since it would be déclassé to insult writers of category fiction who happen also to be Poet Laureate (Cecil Day-Lewis) or Booker Prize-winner (John Banville,) the value of their works must be grudgingly admitted: "Sure, their books are escapist, but their plots don’t excuse or cover for bad prose. In fact, their books can actually be better than much of what passes for literary fiction." But this does not mean they "qualify as great literature." They do however click neatly into the "exceptions" hole that any essentialist nonsense must provide as get-out clause, allowing such "exceptions" to be sourced in the superiority of the anti-sensationalist literature. All the better that the division is reinforced by those writers' use of pseudonyms for their category fiction works. And where writers publish work in the sensational genres under their own names, well, these too can be rhetorically exempted:

"It seems to me that Chabon, Egan, and Ishiguro don’t so much work in genre as with genre."

With the term "genre" as stand-in for the quirks (and associated dynamics) that constitute the sensational, it is of course fair to say that a writer is working with that toolkit. The prejudice and presumption lies in the idea that writers of category fiction are not doing the exact same. (Newsflash: they are.) The presumption and prejudice lies in the idea that writers of category fiction are working within certain imposed restrictions allowing only a formulaic result. (Newsflash: they are not.)

That is to say, the rhetorical trick here is to conflate publication in a marketing category with working in a certain mode with being bound within essential imposed parameters -- this is what "in genre" means here. Meanwhile a "proper" writer like Ishiguro is working with the material characteristic of a certain marketing category, with that particular flavour of the sensational, with the quirks characteristic of that certain genre, but their work is never -- Cock forbid! -- to be classed as in/of that genre. That would be to admit the actuality that the imposed parameters are not essential, that any and every category fiction writer could be said to be as much working with the sensational as they are working in a genre, because they too are entirely capable of disregarding these purported limitations.

No, genre is "not a bad word" to Krystal. But we must be very clear that a "proper" writer can associate with it without being of it.

Whatever. One might say that as the category fiction writers, even more than an Ishiguro, "relish its conventions and their ability to modulate them," they are all the more likely to push the envelope in modulating them. One might, but to do so would be to fall victim to the fallacy that works of the genres in question are constructs of conventions, variations on a theme, built within set parameters. Conventionality, with the connotations of formulae it carries, is another of those wrong-headed conceptions of "genre fiction" that we've foolishly bought into. Automatically, it sets a work in a genre as bounded within the phasespace of tropes and traditions, playing within a circumscribed sandpit, parameterised. It's an outside-in view of these genres, complexity and diversity built inwards with the template as boundary. But rather the works in question are constructs around one or more quirks, built outward from them, with no limit on where they might go. It's just that the typification of quirks, the distinct flavours they come in, allows us to broadly circumscribe works using this or that set of quirks in a certain way as of a certain genre -- like tragedy, say.

But that's another argument.



Blogger Trip said...

Gah, threw up in my mouth a little at that "break the frozen sea inside us" phrase. Seriously, it is not good writing, this.

(Let alone good thought, but I think we both believe only one of them really exists :))

And really, how many of Shakespeare's characters had frozen seas inside them? It's almost universally acknowledged (I move around in academic circles from time to time) that it's their verbal vibrancy that makes them great.

Or is it that the frozen-sea dilemma is being identified as the symbol of our times? Which times? A symbol? Gah.

7:03 pm  
Blogger Trip said...

Sorry for flooding the comments sections by the way. It's just that these few posts just hit a sort of a sweet-spot in my head and I'm having the urge to respond somehow.

7:05 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Heh, good craic isn't something needs apologising for. :)

And yeah, is there any attempt to "break the frozen sea inside us" in Gilgamesh? Is that what we're looking for in Chuck Palahnuik? I don't think so. Fuck knows, I don't feel like actually allowing myself to feel something is even a concern, let alone a priority. Cause it ain't a fucking problem. Compared to, say, "exploration of grief" (as per Gilgamesh, Hamlet & Catcher in the Rye,) Krystal's waffle doesn't score high on the universality quotient, methinks.

10:16 pm  

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