On Serious Literature

From the latest ansible. I’m not actually sure if this is by Ursula Le Guin, or by Langford after Le Guin sent him the inspirational quote: “Michael Chabon has spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it.” But either way it’s rather good.

Something woke her in the night. Was it steps she heard, coming up the stairs — somebody in wet training shoes, climbing the stairs very slowly … but who? And why wet shoes? It hadn’t rained. There, again, the heavy, soggy sound. But it hadn’t rained for weeks, it was only sultry, the air close, with a cloying hint of mildew or rot, sweet rot, like very old finiocchiona, or perhaps liverwurst gone green. […]

And topical, too.

UPDATE, 14/10/07: per Le Guin’s recent letter to Cory Doctorow, I have truncated my quote from OSL. You can (and should) read the whole thing at the Ansible linked above.

6 thoughts on “On Serious Literature

  1. Satire is probably the only sane approach to this whole ‘debate’. I haven’t read ‘The Road’ but I like McCarthy because he writes cool westerns.
    (Un)likewise, in Britain some of the supposedly top literary writers (Amis, McEwan) write sub-par genre fiction. In literary terms, there is no debate. In social terms, there is one. Therefore, in Britain at least, it is worth attacking definitions of the ‘literary’ because they are one of the supporting struts for the class system.

  2. I’m puzzled as to why any of McEwan’s work qualifies as “sub-par genre fiction”. I think he’s an exception writer, and his very occasional genre work has been pretty decent.

    Martin Amis (I assume that’s the Amis you mean) has certainly done plenty of definite genre fiction. But I personally don’t find it sub-par either — though I concede that one might well dislike, say, NIGHT TRAIN (a mystery) or YELLOW DOG (alternate history), even though I enjoyed both. But such dislike, it seems to me, would be based on their success or failure as novels, not on their failure as genre works. (That is to say, it seems to me their weaknesses are in no way due to generic elements.)

    (For that matter I don’t just dislike, I hate, Amis’s DEAD BABIES, which is set in the future. But again, I hate it not for any reasons related to genre.)

    Amis also seems to me, not entirely unlike Chabon, to be a mainstream writer who pretty much “gets” SF.

  3. I’m puzzled as to why any of McEwan’s work qualifies as “sub-par genre fiction”.

    I too was puzzled by that. I suppose you could consider The Innocent to be a historical trhiller if you squinted hard enough.

    Presumably genre = good, literary = bad was also satire?

  4. >Presumably genre = good, literary = bad was also satire?

    Didn’t say that!

    I would see The Innocent as sub-par Le Carre and The Comfort of Strangers as a really bad episode of Tales of the Unexpected. The case against Atonement is made by Christopher Priest (look under reviews on his website – note that Priest likes The Innocent)

    Maybe I was making an intemperate comment and it would be more accurate to say something like ‘some of our supposedly top literary writers employ sub-par genre elements’ (or perhaps misuse genre elements) but I still hold to the general point (and perhaps the main target should be the literary pages of the broadsheet press rather than writers) that the distaste expressed for genre and sf in particular is simply a snobbish class marker and in no way something that can be countered by argument: therefore, the appropriate response is satire.

    There is a more sophisticated argument that sf does things which ‘mainstream’ literature cannot (as advanced for instance by Fredric Jameson in Archaeologies of the Future) but it is probably better not to conflate with the situation referred to above. (and Ok I was doing that in the earlier comment but I was just letting go frustration at the whole context which seems to go round in unproductive circles)

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