Mashed Up

A question from the Millions:

How do readers evaluate a genre-straddling book by the standards of one genre without using the other as an alibi?

It’s posed as a response to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, where the adherence to conventions of detective fiction is said to “obscure the promise of a brilliant premise”. I haven’t yet read the novel, so I don’t know to what extent this is a fair characterisation, but I do know it’s not the way I would approach evaluating a genre-straddling novel.

I’m using “genre-straddling” to describe those books that obviously sit in multiple camps, such as the Chabon (alternative history + detective fiction + “lit fic”, the latter defined as ‘a label no more a guarantor (or compromiser) of literary value than is “Western,” or “Sci Fi.”‘), or The Time-Traveler’s Wife (romance + sf), or Nova Swing (noir + sf), or Never Let Me Go (lit fic + sf). I’m not thinking of books that occupy blurrier territor, borrowing more fluidly from different areas of the literary gene pool.

I know what is meant by using a genre as an alibi, I think. It’s the sort of conversation that happens when a book like Never Let Me Go gets shortlisted for a science fiction award. On the one hand, I can see a valid argument against Never Let Me Go because it doesn’t work as science fiction: it is not extrapolative, the world it builds is not internally coherent. On the other hand, I can see a valid argument defending Never Let Me Go on the grounds that that’s not what the book is trying to do; but a rejoinder could be that that’s using a lit-fic assessment as an alibi for sf failings, that if that’s not what the book is trying to do then sf was the wrong tool for the job. In contrast, you can look at The Time-Traveler’s Wife and say that the romance works, and that the sf works, and that the combination of them works — the story is a romance that is made possible by the sf.

My problem, I think, is that such assessments don’t tell me much about the overall merits of the two books. The genre elements in The Time-Traveler’s Wife may be well-used, but they’re in service to a flabby book that doesn’t always feel in control of the effects it’s generating. The sf in Never Let Me Go may be terrible, but the book is also an extraordinarily nuanced portrait of repression and denial. This is not to say we shouldn’t be talking about labels: labels are useful, they provide places to stand, angles of attack, ways in. But one way in is not necessarily more valid than any other.

And yet, at the same time, the sort of synthesis you get when different genre elements play off each other and work in both directions can be immensely satisfying. To return to Chabon, I’d be interested to know from those who’ve read it if the potential of the premise is in fact obscured, or whether maybe the forn in which the story is told (pulpy plotting tricks) is at fault rather than the generic conent. Because it seems to me that in principle “detective story + alternate history” is an interesting combination: it means both the reader and the protagonist are engaged in solving mysteries as they move through the book.

4 thoughts on “Mashed Up

  1. To rise to the challenge: I don’t believe in the ‘genre alibi’ idea, I think that is a shortcoming on the part of the critic. If you are looking at a book you look at the whole book. There are virtually no books that are purely one thing, so you job (as a critic and also as a reader) is always going to involve assessing how the different parts balance, play off against each other, and so forth.

    As for the Chabon specifically, the detective story is actually our way in to discovering both the alternate world and the curiously hermetic Jewish world that are in balance within the book. In fact using a detective story this way is a very old and weary trick, you could say it is lazy writing since it has been done so often that it is almost a cliche. But because most readers have to discover the nature of two alien worlds, I think it is excusable, and Chabon does do it very well. In fact if you read the book ‘purely’ as a detective story (imagining such a thing were possible), it is a very satisfying mystery, with such genre requirements as the sprinkling of clues and the presentation of alternative theories handled with reasonable aplomb. There are a few coincidences which help to lead us to the right solution, but these don’t grate over much.

    What Chabon manages is a very tricky balancing act in which the more you learn about one part of the book (the alternate history, the detective story, the Jewish world) the more you come to understand about one or other of the other parts.

  2. I do think there is a slight weakness to the book in its inherence to hard-boiled detective traditions, in that constrains the plot resolution to a certain extent, and in that Chabon indulges along the way in, for example, a highly improbably escape sequence — and, as Paul says, there are one or two somewhat stretched coincidences. (But, as any admirer of Anthony Powell must quickly note, coincidences do happen in real life!) But I thought that a minor problem — indeed, as Paul says, it is a very well done mystery with a nice solution — and more importantly, again as Paul says, the various parts of the book interweave beautifully — the Jewish part, the detective part, the Alternate History, the love story.

  3. Halfway through the Chabon I am reminded more and more of Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth series. Hard-boiled detective in alternate wales (where Wales fought a Vietnam -like war in Patagonia in the 60s, where druids rule the town mafia-style etc.)

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