Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Soylent Green is Literary Fiction!

By Cornelia

So I hope you'll bear with me while I rehash the whole Genre vs. Literary thing for the bazillionth time, here. It's for a good cause, that being celebration of Doris Lessing's having won the Nobel prize for Literature--the announcement of which put the hugest smile on my face for days:

While it seemed to have made certain Literary Purity-Of-Essence Fascisti feel more like this:

I have long been a fan of her writing, thanks to my great-friend-and-book-guru Ariel Zeitlin Cooke's having lent me her own dogeared paperback of Lessing's gobsmackingly fine The Golden Notebook back in college:

Had Lessing limited herself to writing only in that vein, it's hard to imagine one would have heard so much as a lone sniff of disdain exhaled upon the stale-Freud-and-cabbage miasma cloistered behind the ivory ramparts of the canon's haute criterati.

But alas, Lessing has defiled herself by frolicking in the forbidden waters of genre. As such, the outcry against her anointment as Nobel laureate was as swift as it was knee-jerk.

"This is pure political correctness," whined Harold Bloom to The Associated Press. "Although Ms. Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable ... fourth-rate science fiction."

Coming, as it does, so hard on the heels of Ruth Franklin's recent obtusely neener-neener chastisement of Michael Chabon in Slate for having "spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it"

with the publication of his latest novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Bloom and his ilk's freakout du jour over the burgeoning legitimacy of genre seems to be reaching a new fever pitch--perhaps at long last disapparating into that upper register which only dogs are forced to hear.

I mean, God forbid we should find ourselves at the mercy of what Franklin dismissed as "a democratic reading experience... a culture in which fiction, in whatever form, could permeate the national conversation and be essential to people's daily lives."

At Bouchercon, I got to hear S.J. Rozan read aloud the cream of Ursula Leguin's stinging bitch-slap response to Franklin's puling:
There, again — the slow, squelching, sucking steps, and the foul smell was stronger. Something was climbing her stairs, coming closer to her door. As she heard the click of heel bones that had broken through rotting flesh, she knew what it was. But it was dead, dead!

God damn that Chabon, dragging it out of the grave where she and the other serious writers had buried it to save serious literature from its polluting touch, the horror of its blank, pustular face, the lifeless, meaningless glare of its decaying eyes!

What did the fool think he was doing? Had he paid no attention at all to the endless rituals of the serious writers and their serious critics — the formal expulsion ceremonies, the repeated anathemata, the stakes driven over and over through the heart, the vitriolic sneers, the endless, solemn dances on the grave? Did he not want to preserve the virginity of Yaddo?

Certainly, however, Bloom and Franklin are not the first to raise the alarm about the invasion of the potboiler...

... or even about the specific incursions of Michael Chabon against the supposed intellectual divide between the shining raiment of "true" literature and shabby low-rent hijab of mere genre.

Way back in 2004, Lev Grossman launched his own counter-attack in the pages of Time, following the publication of Chabon's The Final Solution, which he saw as "highbrow fiction being assaulted by lowbrow genre."

Grossman then wondered why

an esteemed, respectable literary novelist like Chabon want to sully his fancy-pants reputation with a mystery novel?...Pulitzer prizewinning Michael Chabon?... Byronic hair Michael Chabon?

When Sarah Weinman excerpted Grossman's piece on her Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind blog shortly thereafter, she remarked that:

Without getting into yet another debate about how the best fiction is simply that, whether it's rooted in the conventions of literary novels or the convention of genre novels... it seemed to me rather odd that Grossman neglected to mention anywhere that he was the author of one such "hybrid highbrow-lowbrow tale," CODEX. I mean, if a "literary thriller" about a mysterious manuscript doesn't count as the very thing that puzzles Grossman in his essay, what would?

Which I loved, as I adored Laura Lippman's response in the Confessions backblog later that same day:

Who benefits from the debate, that's what I want to know? Not genre writers. Not readers. So it must be the literary writers who keep beating this dead horse. Such pieces always make me feel as if I'm an ill-behaved dog running amok in the great marble temple of literature...

..."Stop her! She's peeing on the floor! She's drinking out of the toilet! She won't play by the rules -- except those tired genre conventions that mark her work as second-rate. Ohmigod -- she's humping Nadine Gordimer's leg. Get her out!"

In honor of Doris Lessing, I'd like to reiterate the response I was moved to write that day:

I think they're all just pissed off because they've turned "literature" into the kind of Filboid-Studge Latin whose precise declensions can only be enforced with Joycean pandy-bats viciously applied to the reader's tender palms and footsoles,

and meanwhile we're all having so much goddamn fun over here in Vibrant Street-Italian Vernacular Land it should be illegal.
I still applaud Walter Mosley's comment at LCC this year, when he was asked whether he worried about Harold "Thigh-Man" Bloom, that "that would be like a Great Dane worrying about a Chihuahua."

And I wouldn't hump Nadine Gordimer's leg for a fat seven-figure deal in Lee Child Dollars, though peeing on marble floors remains a constant temptation.

If you want to see how tired Lessing herself seems of the whole debate, check out her response to the news that she'd won the Nobel:

(hat tip to Galleycat for the link)


  1. I love this post - boy, do you have a way with words, Miss Cornelia ;-)

    Artistic elitism often brings to mind one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite movies, Tootsie. Bill Murray, as Dustin Hoffman's roommate, describes his play-in-progress thusly: "I don't want a full house at the Winter Garden Theatre. I want people who just came out of the worst rainstorm in history. These are people who are alive on the planet...until they dry off. I wish I had a theatre that was only open when it rained." Cracks me right up....

  2. Great post. Dead on visuals, especialy the old woodcuts, must have been a major effort to find them, match them up to your text.

    Loved your Walter Mosley quote. I never really understood why Mosely wrote "The Killing Of Johnny Fry." Now? Shit, I think he was simply throwing a big moon to all those elitist literati assholes who wouldn't piss in the shower even if piss was running out of their ears.

    Why would any writer, literary or genre, put verbiage before communication? Kind of defeats the purpose, no?

    As always, Cornelia, your quill is sharp, your mind: sharper.

    Jacky B.

  3. That is a GREAT quote, Rae, as yours always are.

    And Jacky, I think they wouldn't piss in the shower if the shower were on fire.

    You guys make me laugh. In the best way.

  4. Lordy! Wish I had said that!

    Tom, T.O.

  5. Wow,
    This post is so smart I feel like a redneck again. That's after a weekend in Nashville that had me feeling positively cosmopolitan. Now I'm back to redneck.

    Thank's Cornelia.


  6. Thanks, Cornelia, this is just great - and I loved that photo of the Great Dane (used to have two of them, so have a bit of a soft spot for the breed - if they were books, they would be best-selling genre fiction).

    Just shows that even if it is the bazillionth time one of us has touched upon this subject on Nekkid Awfors, there's always room for another go-round.

  7. Pshaw, Born. Redneck is as redneck does. I've been thinking today that genre is like Elvis on the Sun Sessions, and literary is like the way he sounded in Vegas after Colonel Parker got a hold of him.

    And Jackie, I have a feeling this debate will come back around on the guitar endlessly, but it's still fun to get my snark on.

  8. Isn't literary-wankfest a genre all of its own?

    "What kind of books do you write?"
    "Oh I don't believe in genres, I write literarture"
    "OK, that's fine, I'll just pop it here in the 'Wank' section"

    And I have to say I'd hump anyone's leg for a seven figure deal. Even Colonel Parker's, may God spit on his Elvis-ruining soul. Actually, I'd hump his leg for free, just to leave a mess.

  9. Cornelia, I think I love you.

  10. Methinks Harold Bloom hath a staff impaled 'twixt his downy cheeks. And if you think that means he has a stick up his arse, you're quite correct. :-D

    As long as people are actually reading books, who cares what kind of books they read. People need entertainment and emotional input. Not all literary works fulfil that need. A bloody great lot of genre does on the other hand. A lot of them make money too. :-D

    Stand proud, you lot!!


  11. Marcus, I think I'm going to have stickers made up that just say "wank" on them, so I can plaster them across "literary" section headings in bookstores across the globe.

    And JD, let's run away to Argentina. Or maybe Tahiti.

  12. Marianne, you are wonderful, as always!

  13. You'd think this useless debate would die a natural death, but no. Literary snobs should focus their brain power on something important, like achieving world peace, and leave the rest of us to enjoy reading whatever rings our chimes.

  14. Cornelia-
    I'd be careful with that LeGuin post. She jumped up and down on Cory Doctorow for posting it over at craphound-and the saga can be found at
    If any one writing today deserved a lifetime achievment award it's Lessing.

  15. I'm still smiling at the thought of Laura Lippman as a dog running around peeing on the marble floors...

    (and now that I think of it, whenever Harold Bloom opens his mouth I wish I were a dog who would pee on his foot...)

  16. I'd be careful with that LeGuin post. She jumped up and down on Cory Doctorow for posting it over at craphound-and the saga can be found at

    And Doctorow's apology is some of the most abject groveling I've ever seen. Hopefully Ms. LeGuin is over being mad about it.

    Apparently her major complaint was posting the entire short piece which she didn't regard as "fair use". Our Cornelia hasn't done that, so (again, hopefully) there won't be any trouble.

  17. Ta, Cornelia. *blush*

    So, I'm off to the World Fantasy Convention in a few weeks time - in Saratoga Springs, NY. If I see Cory, I'll give him my sympathies towards being roasted by Ms Leguin. Nothing like being royally told off by a living legend, is there? Totally mortifying.

    Anyway, the WFC convention baggie is usually a heavy duty large canvas tote - filled with books. Can't wait. :-D Does Bouchercon do anything like that? Just curious.

    Oh, and should I print out some little promo stickers for the Nekked Awfurs and leave them around the freebies table? Or just stick them on people as I see them? Cross genre pollinator - that's me. :-D


  18. "...the stale-Freud-and-cabbage miasma..."

    Nice one, Cornelia.

    I'm raising a glass to Ms. Lessing.

  19. Bouchercon always has a huge "party loot" bag of books. You should come to the one in Baltimore next year, Marianne!!

    And Louise, thank you!

  20. Cornelia:

    I'm about ready to sign up for Bouchercon. Just spending the week backing up files off of my dying computer. Sigh. Now for the Dino book deadline, and then back to writing mystery stuff... :-D


  21. The distinction between literary and genre fiction looks pretty feeble -- I suppose most people see Oedipus Rex (tragedy), the Aeneid (epic) and Milton's Lycidas (elegy) as both aspiring to literary distinction and belonging to well-recognised genres. Harold Bloom certainly would. What Bloom thinks about science fiction generally I don't know; what he said of Lessing, though, was not that her later work was fourth-rate because science fiction, but that it was fourth-rate science fiction. It would be perfectly possible for him to hold that view and also think that first-rate science fiction could be great literature.

  22. Ithaca, I completely agree with you about the thinness of those distinctions, but somehow I can't see Harold Bloom ever saying "Doris Lessing's been writing cracking good, first-rate science fiction for the last fifteen years. I'm pleased as punch to know she's been nominated for the Nobel Prize."

    Though stranger things have happened...