In defence of (some) genre fiction

December 14, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

At first, it’s not clear what he’s on about. Writing in the Guardian, novelist Edward Docx expresses joy at wandering through a train and noticing numerous passengers reading books – good, old-fashioned, paper-and-glue books. His joy quickly sours, however, when he realizes that the passengers are all reading one of the three books in Stieg Larsson’s monumentally successful Millennium Trilogy. This becomes the jumping off point for a discussion of what Docx perceives to be the elevated merits of literary fiction as against the debased coinage of genre.

Docx starts off on shaky ground, beginning his diatribe by talking about Larsson and Dan Brown, two writers he admits are “mesmerisingly bad.” It’s true that the first half of Larsson’s first book (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – the only volume of the Millennium Trilogy I was able to get even partway into) is characterized by stilted dialogue, clumsy exposition, and enough arcane detail about transnational finance to make an economist weep with boredom. It is a badly written, tedious book (not all of this, surely, can be blamed on the translator). And Dan Brown’s writing comes perilously close to unreadability. Let’s grant Docx all of that. It remains curious that someone who wants to illustrate the reasons why literary writers are superior to their genre counterparts should begin by focusing on two authors he himself feels represent the bottom of the genre barrel. “We need to be clear-eyed here,” Docx avers, but by opening as he does, he knocks his entire argument out of focus. (Surely, if one wants to argue the merits of literary fiction over genre, it is only fair to choose the best examples of genre fiction to debunk.)

He then goes on to state that the reason genre fiction is inferior to literary fiction has to do with the conventions upon which it relies: mysteries, Westerns, sci-fi, and romance novels all cleave to particular rules, and in so doing limit the potential for innovation and surprise.

[E]ven good genre (not Larsson or Brown) is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material. That’s the way writing works and lots of people who don’t write novels don’t seem to get this: if you need a detective, if you need your hero to shoot the badass CIA chief, if you need faux-feminist shopping jokes, then great; but the correlative of these decisions is a curtailment in other areas. If you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise. Lots of decisions are already made.

So it follows that genre tends to rely on a simpler reader psychology. If you have a body on the first page, then you raise a question: who killed it and how did it get there? And curiosity will power readers a surprisingly long way. As will, say, a treasure hunt (Brown) or injustice (Grisham) or the locked room mystery format (Larsson). None of this is to say that writing good thrillers is easy. It is still incredibly difficult. But it is easier.

Sure, that’s the way writing works. What Docx forgets (or, more probably, chooses to ignore) is that’s the way all writing works, whether it be genre or literary. The detective novel has a set of conventions, true, but so does the family novel, or the coming-of-age novel, or the road novel. Writers make choices, it’s one of the most essential things they do. The minute a writer chooses a subject – a coming-of-age story about a 16-year-old girl living in the Midwest United States, for example – that writer is automatically limited in any further choices he or she may make. The form of the story can differ – it could be told naturalistically, or in an absurdist manner, or as a satire – but the fact of a 16-year-old girl in the Midwest means that the writer is no longer free to imagine the logic or the psychology that would apply, say, to a middle-aged man in Mumbai. These constraints are every bit as forceful for literary writers as are the conventions within which genre writers operate.

Nor is it clear that genre fiction relies on a simpler reader psychology than literary fiction, any more than it has to be less ambitious in its execution. Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves is a generic haunted house story, but it involves characters with a great deal of psychological depth and is narrated in such a way that even the layout of the words on the page becomes an integral part of the reading experience. It is high-concept, postmodern, and experimental, while always operating within the accepted conventions of a supernatural thriller. While it’s true the reader confronted with a dead body on the first page wants to know how it got there, that reader is also likely interested in the process by which the story unfolds, the psychological make-up of the various characters, the particulars of the setting, and all the other elements genre works share in common with literary ones.

Docx suggests that people who draw no distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction are being disingenuous and he may be right to a point, but he also elides the commonalities between the two, and ignores the fact that many literary writers work within various genres from time to time. He points out late in his piece that Crime and Punishment is a thriller. So too might he have pointed out that various highly literary writers have attempted genre stories, among them George Orwell, Henry James, Charles Dickens, Shirley Jackson, Thomas Pynchon, Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Isak Dinesen, Edgar Allen Poe, Haruki Murakami, Peter Carey, Ian McEwan, and William Faulkner. Indeed, two of the authors Docx mentions as worthy contemporary writers have dabbled in genre: Martin Amis’s novel Night Train is a hard-boiled police procedural, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is a work of speculative fiction.

This is precisely why Docx’s analogy to cooking is invalid. It draws a distinction where there isn’t one:

To enlist a comparison, one might choose to set up a vast and international burger chain and sell millions of burgers. Or one might choose to open a single restaurant selling line-caught eel lasagne one night and hand-fondled quail poached in liquorice the next. We all like burgers – me as much as the next man – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But let’s be honest: there is a major difference in both the production and the consumption of the two experiences. Again, we can see why bad literary fiction is so much more annoying than bad genre. We pay more attention to the restaurant that claims to have carefully sourced its ingredients and then used skill and imagination to bring those to the table in a manner that is original, surprising, beautiful, clever and delicious. Failure in this second case, therefore, is far more irritating. But equally, if you are in the burger-selling business, then although your burgers may appear different – you can flip them with bacon or jalapeño or even Stilton – the truth is that they are all fundamentally the same; you are in the burger business or you are not in business at all.

Clearly, Docx assumes an either/or situation: someone will either choose to flip burgers or open a high-end restaurant. There is nowhere in this conception for a chef like Mark McEwen, who regularly puts burgers (costing $35 or more) on the menus of his fine dining establishments One and Bymark. In the same vein, Docx makes no allowance for literary writers who might want to sully themselves by experimenting with genre stories, or for ambitious genre writers, such as Jim Thompson or Elmore Leonard, whose work is more psychologically incisive and stylistically impressive than many (not to say most) so-called literary practitioners.

I go on about this at such length because Docx is rehearsing arguments that have been raised before (and will no doubt be raised again) – arguments that arise out of a brand of literary snobbery that is empty at its core. In delineating the difference between literary and genre fiction, Docx invokes Isaac D’Israeli: “it seems to me a wretched national compulsion to be gratified by mediocrity when the excellent lies before us.” D’Israeli was right, but in today’s literary landscape, much of what is elevated as great literature achieves no more than mediocrity, while much genre fiction manages excellence. Calling out bad writers like Brown and Larsson is one thing: they would be bad writers regardless of the milieu in which they chose to work. But lumping all genre fiction into the same pile ignores a wealth of interesting, ambitious, and invigorating work.

Indigo, on-sale dates, and the Stieg Larsson fiasco

May 19, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Yesterday, yr. humble correspondent moderated a joint Book and Periodical Council/Book Publishers Professionals Association Ideas Exchange panel on the future of the bookstore (one reason among many for the lack of a short story post yesterday; there’s one coming later today, I promise). The panel discussion touched on the bookstore as communal space; the need for booksellers to pick up the slack from publishers in promoting books and authors; the way e-books and print-on-demand technology will change the appearance and nature of a physical bookstore; and issues surrounding parallel importation laws. Although the subject came up very briefly, no one said anything particularly substantive about Indigo Books & Music’s recent breach of protocol in deciding to release the highly anticipated final book in Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, a full 11 days prior to the publisher’s specified release date.

On Monday, Bookninja posted a piece asking readers to confirm e-mails that had started rolling in over the weekend stating that Larsson’s book was on sale in Chapters and Indigo locations, despite the fact that the book’s publisher, Penguin Canada, indicated that the book’s on-sale date was May 25. Readers quickly chimed in with additional information: apparently, there was no signed embargo on the book, but there was an understanding that Penguin’s on-sale date was May 25, and a general expectation (vain hope?) that booksellers would abide by this. In any event, Penguin’s director of publicity and marketing told The Afterword, “The book was not a strict on-sale,” meaning that there was no signed contract stipulating a one-day laydown. Regardless, if a publisher sets a specific on-sale date and a bookseller ignores that, there may be repercussions, such as restricted access to a publisher’s titles in the future.

The problem in this case is that many independents didn’t even have the book in their stores when Indigo jumped the gun, which means they lost out on the crucial first few selling days of the title. A Bookninja commenter from the Guelph indie The Book Shelf says that books were shipped to Chapters/Indigo warehouses a week prior to the specified release date, as per usual, but Chapters then couriered the stock to individual store locations, much to Penguin’s chagrin.

Even if there was not a signed embargo agreement, it was dirty pool for Indigo to release its stock more than a week before the publisher’s stated release date. As publishing moves further and further toward Hollywood’s blockbuster mentality, the first few selling days of a major release become more and more important, and independents that didn’t even have the title in their stores when Indigo put the book on sale lose out. One indie bookseller commenting on the Bookninja thread acknowledges that customers who had placed advance orders for the book called to cancel, saying that they had already picked up the title from Indigo over the weekend. Clearly, every lost sale hurts independent bookstores, which are already struggling in a highly inimical environment.

Penguin would be entirely within its rights to exact punitive measures against the big blue monster, such as restricting when (or even if) the chain receives stock of future titles. Naturally, Penguin will not do this. How can it? Indigo accounts for too large a slice of the bookselling pie in Canada. Penguin would be cutting off its nose to spite its face. It would be much easier to exact punitive measures against smaller independents, which may be ordering only 20 or 50 copies of a given title.

Interestingly, another independent bookseller on the Bookninja thread posted a screenshot of a letter from Random House Canada that reads, in part, “During 2009 we have witnessed a noticeable lack of respect from some of our customers in honouring the on sale dates assigned to our new title publications. For this reason we are implementing strict policies that will allow us to restrict shipments to those customers that choose to violate our on-sale dates.” The letter, which is signed by Duncan Shields, vice-president of sales, goes on to say, “We have been very lenient in the past but feel it is time to take such measures to ensure all of our customers have the same advantage when it comes to selling our books” (my emphasis). The letter was apparently sent in an e-mail with the subject line, “Fwd: Sensitive On Sale Dates letter for Independents” (my emphasis).

What is clear is that there is one set of rules for indies, and another for Indigo. Independent booksellers are being punished as a result of their relatively small market share. This highlights one of the dangers of a virtual monopoly in any industry, and should be a cause for concern among everyone who loves books in this country. As Lori Cheverie, a buyer at the Bookmark bookstore in Charlottetown, PEI, told Quill & Quire, “It’s such an unfair practice that the big guys are able to dictate when they sell a book and there’s never any repercussions about it, whereas if it were us, we wouldn’t get our next shipment [from the publisher].” It’s well past time that such unfair practices came to an end.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo film adaptation to open April 2: UPDATED

March 16, 2010 by · 7 Comments 

Received a press release today from Penguin Canada stating that Niels Arden Oplev’s film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s wildly successful thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will open in Canada on April 2. Alliance Films will distribute the film domestically.

From the press release:

Larsson, a Swedish journalist and social activist, died under mysterious circumstances shortly after submitting three manuscripts to his editor. The posthumously published series, comprising the novels The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, was met with great enthusiasm in the author’s homeland and throughout Europe.

This is as good a time as any to highlight the controversy surrounding Larsson’s novel, which yr. humble correspondent wrote about earlier this week on Quillblog. In effect, Larsson’s novel has polarized readers: on one hand, there are those who feel that Lisbeth Salander, the goth hero of the novel, is a feminist avenger, while on the other, there are those who feel that the descriptions of violence toward women in the novel are examples of authorial misogyny.

Writing on The F Word blog, Melanie Newman advances the latter viewpoint, in what appear to be persuasive terms (at least to someone who hasn’t read the book himself):

We’re told how one girl was tied up and left to die with her face in smouldering embers. Another victim is stoned to death, another choked with a sanitary towel, one has her hands held over fire until they are charred and then has her head sawn off, yet another is raped, murdered and left with a parakeet shoved up her vagina. A torture basement is uncovered, complete with cage and video equipment for recording the women’s last moments.

Newman points out that Lisbeth, who is anally raped by her legal guardian, has body image issues: she “is convinced that her ‘skinny body’ is ‘repulsive’ and that her small breasts are ‘pathetic.'” The second book in the series apparently opens with the revelation that Lisbeth has received breast implants that “had improved the quality of her life.”

You may remember yr. humble correspondent expressing sympathy with Jessica Mann, who last year swore off reviewing crime novels that trafficked in what she termed “sadistic misogyny”:

“Each psychopath is more sadistic than the last and his victims’ sufferings are described in detail that becomes ever more explicit, as young women are imprisoned, bound, gagged, strung up or tied down, raped, sliced, burned, blinded, beaten, eaten, starved, suffocated, stabbed, boiled or buried alive,” she said.

“Authors must be free to write and publishers to publish. But critics must be free to say they have had enough. So however many more outpourings of sadistic misogyny are crammed on to the bandwagon, no more of them will be reviewed by me,” said Mann, who has written her own bestselling series of crime novels and a non-fiction book about female crime writers.

A bare-bones synopsis of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seems to indicate that it represents exactly the kind of book Mann was referring to. In any event, Viv Groskop states in the Guardian that the film is less divisive:

It has been universally panned as anti-women. In her review in Harper’s Bazaar this month, Mariella Frostrup writes: “A potentially good mystery is lost in scenes – such as a violent rape – that dwell too much on what feels to me like Larsson’s misogynistic fantasies.” On the Arts Desk blog, Graham Fuller judges the film “scarcely feminist.” He writes: “In frankly depicting Lisbeth’s rapes and presenting an obscene array of photographs of murdered women in a killer’s lair, it comes across as glibly indulgent of those visual horrors.”

All of this is, of course, second-hand where yr. humble correspondent is concerned. I wonder whether it’s too late to give Larsson’s book a go; I almost feel as though the hype and the controversy have tainted any kind of objective response I might have been able to give the novel. Or, perhaps they provide a framework by which to assess the characters and their situations. I’m torn.

UPDATE: Not everyone hates the film adaptation. Roger Ebert is firmly on the side of those who think that the story is a feminist fable:

There are scenes involving rape, bondage and assault that are stronger than most of what serves in the movies for sexual violence, but these scenes are not exploitation. They have a ferocious feminist orientation, and although The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seems a splendid title, the original Swedish title was the stark Men Who Hate Women.