Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Genre and literary fiction

In a recent journal article, Andrew Hoberek discusses genre fiction and literary fiction, and a tendency, in recent times, for the latter to reclaim the ground of the former. There is, he suggests, a return to genre fiction, and he cites examples of McCarthy’s No Country and The Road, plus the work of Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead and even Pynchon (his latest, after all, not specifically mentioned by Hoberek, is a stoner crime novel, not only a genre novel, but a sub-genre novel).

This move, Hoberek suggests is a return to the pre-modernist canon of literary respectability, and it may even call into question how separate these two literary histories are:

From Henry James, the twentieth century, and eventually the creative writing program, inherit a commitment to both realist representation and continual stylistic innovation. What gets lost is the ability of a writer of James’s stature to pen something like The Turn of the Screw (1898), let alone the even more insistently generic fictions of James’s contemporaries like Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson – lost, that is, until the recent embrace of genre models by authors nonetheless committed to their status as writers of serious fiction.

There is an implicit criticism here of MFA programs. I think there’s a lot in that – there is undoubtedly a certain style of writing that is instantly recognisable as being produced from the MFA cauldron - overwritten, overstylised, somewhat predictable. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. The fault may originally lie in the programs but the remedy must come from the writers - who should, of course, insist on setting their own course. And the way that McCarthy, Chabon et al have produced their own individualistic work, not tied by convention or expectation, is presenting a lead.

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