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How Zombies and Superheroes Conquered Highbrow Fiction
October 18, 2011 8:51 AM   Subscribe

Realistic stories once dominated American literature, but now writers are embracing the fantastical. What happened?
posted by Brandon Blatcher (138 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
The entire science fiction and fantasy genre.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:53 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Highbrow fiction was fucking boring.
posted by The Whelk at 8:55 AM on October 18, 2011 [41 favorites]


Realistic stories once dominated American literature, but now writers are embracing the fantastical. What happened?

The fantastical sells better?
posted by magstheaxe at 8:56 AM on October 18, 2011


How Zombies and Superheroes Conquered Highbrow Fiction

Did they?
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:56 AM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Their reasons are good, but they missed something that this Awl article on contemporary Russian literature explicates very well:
“But you see, when you start writing out the details of everyday Russian life, the absurdity just overwhelms you. At some point, you give up. Your characters start flying around, they sprout fangs and tails. Because that’s the only way to stay true to the material. Russian reality is too phantasmagoric to fit into realist logic.”
Reality is getting far too strange, far too fast for "real" literature to get by on hardscrabble bildungsromans and so on. Our economic, technological and socio-political situation makes our lives are stranger than ever, in a way never documented by history.
posted by griphus at 8:58 AM on October 18, 2011 [15 favorites]


One book in particular helped break the genre barrier. By now, everyone has heard of Justin Cronin's fantasy smash The Passage, which combines a science-fictional apocalypse and bloodthirsty lab-engineered vampires with complex characters and top-flight prose.

Yes, it is just within the past few years that there was well-written fantasy. Nothing published before 2007 was both complex and fantastical.
posted by jeather at 8:58 AM on October 18, 2011 [20 favorites]


Yeah, did you see what they did to Borders? *shiver*
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:58 AM on October 18, 2011


Um. Deep breath now.

Realistic stories once dominated American literature


Realism, perhaps; not realistic.

Moby Dick
The Tell-Tale Heart
The Scarlet Letter
The Devil and Daniel Webster
...
Gravity's Rainbow
Pale Fire
Giles Goat-Boy


this list could go on and on and on until 2011.
posted by chavenet at 8:59 AM on October 18, 2011 [13 favorites]


Cable TV dramas are the new highbrow. Plus realistic fiction fans don't have the motivated passion that genre fans have.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:59 AM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Reality is getting far too strange

What was it? YOu know you're living in a strange universe when the phrase "Wow life seems like an absurd satrical SF novel" is a rote cliche.
posted by The Whelk at 8:59 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Pretty sure absolutley nothing has changed here.
posted by Artw at 9:02 AM on October 18, 2011


Highbrow = whatever rich people like.

There are now a lot of rich nerds.
posted by empath at 9:03 AM on October 18, 2011 [20 favorites]


I actually thought The Passage was kind of overwritten and dull.

Ask me about House of Leaves some time!
posted by Artw at 9:04 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


My brain is proudly zombie fiction free. Trotting out Chabon as an example of shifting patterns is pretty dopey, Kaviler and Clay is hardy genre fiction in any sense of the word.
posted by Keith Talent at 9:06 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think Colson Whitehead's book is precipitating a lot of these pieces; the Millions used Zone One as a jumping off point for their take on the literary/genre shift too.
posted by gladly at 9:06 AM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


House of Leaves is like Atlas Shrugged. Many people read it for the first time and go a little nutty for it, but most then leave it behind.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:06 AM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I try to avoid literature grounded in realism because the real world is fucking depressing. I'd much rather read about fantasy or science fiction, based enough in our world to make useful metaphors but removed enough that I can make the distinction between it and the grim reality that too many people are forced to survive in.

Or, you know, wizards fighting zombie robots just resonates better with me, or something.
posted by quin at 9:06 AM on October 18, 2011 [10 favorites]


Funny that Whitehead is the poster boy for this; his first book was about "Intuitionists" who could empathize with elevators vs. "Empiricists" who fixed them with tools and science.

It's a great book. But hardly a gritty realistic milieu to be shifted out of into some brave new world of zombies and monsters.
posted by chavenet at 9:11 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I still need to write that story about the secret ninja who was possessed by the ghost of a robot boxer from the future. I'll highbrow that shit up, you betcha. Tea everywhere, motherfuckas!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:11 AM on October 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


I still need to write that story about the secret ninja who was possessed by the ghost of a robot boxer from the future.

The entire novel is him reminiscing about a girl he knew who he once felt up under a bridge. The ghost robot boxer from the future is really more of metaphor.
posted by The Whelk at 9:12 AM on October 18, 2011 [11 favorites]


Well, first of all, clearly "highbrow" literature is not actually the subject here, despite the headline; this is basically a story about the embrace of genre (or really just SF/F) in the middlebrow mainstream of "literary fiction" as a bookstore and publisher marketing designation. And then, even if we grant that the author is right that something has recently changed in American middlebrow fiction, there really is nothing like a causal explanation here. Why does genre sell now when it didn't for Updike? That's the question worth addressing, and it's not really even asked here.
posted by RogerB at 9:13 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Speaking of wha' 'appen to high class entertainment...
posted by griphus at 9:13 AM on October 18, 2011


I think the easy answer is Donald Barthelme.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:14 AM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


So, um, I didn't even bother watching the new Walking Dead. I think Zombies are finally played out for me.
posted by Artw at 9:15 AM on October 18, 2011


Highbrow fiction was fucking boring.

I was just remarking on this the other day. My 12 year old's assigned reading for English seems ideally designed to make a 12 year old boy hate reading. Really? Complex social issues "tackled" thuddingly? Ugh.

If you absolutely must "tackle issues" in English (and I state right now that I disagree with that assumption), at least do it with a hilariously fun book like The True Meaning of Smekday. Racism and First Nation issues are addressed, but at both a low enough and high enough level that it's easy to read the book and not even notice, if that's not your thing. But once the small asides and larger themes and metaphors are pointed out they are obvious.
posted by DU at 9:16 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Reality is getting far too strange, far too fast for "real" literature to get by on hardscrabble bildungsromans and so on. Our economic, technological and socio-political situation makes our lives are stranger than ever, in a way never documented by history.

Arguably, the mainstream middlebrow author who is doing the most to engage these sorts of issues is William Gibson.
posted by twirlip at 9:17 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


He doesn;t even write SF anymore, his books are dated before they come out. It's all very strange.
posted by The Whelk at 9:19 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


i forget the exact quote , but Hitchcock once said exactly how i feel, about how he doesn't want a slice of life, but a slice of cake in his films. if i want realistic, i'll go outside and live it, or read a non-ficition book. Give me fun, something i can't experience in real life, that is where i will spend my money.
posted by usagizero at 9:22 AM on October 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


Our economic, technological and socio-political situation makes our lives are stranger than ever, in a way never documented by history.

And here I was thinking that the key lesson most serious readers take from science fiction is that we need to historicize the present in order to avoid exactly this kind of spurious presentist thinking.
posted by RogerB at 9:23 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh my goodness, this is a hugely inaccurate article...not so much that there is no shift in form but the history of that shift and its precursors are so totally, totally wrong.

1. Magic realism - a big, big thing in the eighties and nineties, whether in South American/Latin American fiction or in various Euro- and Canadian novels. And also in a bunch of novels by US writers of color - Maxine Hong Kingston, a really great series by an African American woman which I've read and read and whose name I am blanking on, for example.

2. Increased respectability of YA authors and increased adult readership.

3. Referring to Toni Morrison as an unclassifiable "isolado"? Really? How ignorant of African-American women's writing does one have to be to get there?

4. Donald Barthelme and his ilk. (Some of my best friends are ilks!)

5. Plus previous eras of the fantastic - the gothic, for example; the previous big SF moment in the sixties and seventies.

Could this article be any sillier an exploration of an interesting question?
posted by Frowner at 9:25 AM on October 18, 2011 [13 favorites]


This is all rather embarrassing. Zombies is a terrible subject to slum in. It's slummed the fuck out. Come up with something else. Vampires are big now, maybe I'll write a vampire novel -- but it'll be literary.

Maybe this is what bothers me: you are the defenders of a privileged marketing category. The category's claim to privilege is that it is Art. That's what we're supposed to appreciate about literary fiction and why we're supposed to think it's better. It's not merely commerce, not merely cheap thrills, etc. So isn't it death to admit that the new books coming out are designed to belatedly capitalize on shit pop-culture trends? Not that you can't write a good book about vampires -- but you're whispering, "This is a vampire book that also shores up your elite credentials."
posted by grobstein at 9:28 AM on October 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


JG Ballard said it in an interview way back when. You can't be true to the world anymore and write reality-based fiction, because for a writer to do so means he's claiming he's got a grasp on what's actually going on, and one of the conditions of post-split-atom humanity (everything since 1945) is that nobody has a grasp on what's actually going on -- we're all just surfing the chaos inherent in massive and sudden and fundamental CHANGE, making of it what we can ... hence sci-fi/fantasy etc becomes our most valid fiction.

(or words to that effect)

I'm personally bored to f***ing death of zombies, vampires, werewolves -- all standard bogeymen. We need a new monster.
posted by philip-random at 9:28 AM on October 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


People should just give up and write nothing but Centaur Erotica. It'll fly off the shelves.
posted by The Whelk at 9:29 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I just assumed this was due to us living in a total bummer of an era.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 9:32 AM on October 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


Harry fucking potter happened.
posted by telstar at 9:33 AM on October 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


this list could go on and on and on until 2011.

To be sure, what he means by "once dominated" is the post-Hemingway minimalism of a generation ago -- the sort of workshop-infused writing that was completely in vogue to the tune of drowning out anything else. As a fervent fan of Garcia Marquez and magical realism at that point, I really wish now I'd stuck to writing -- I might have formed a vanguard. I didn't know why it wasn't part of Western literature as such.

In retrospect, some of the rationales for the existence of magical realism -- such as oppressive societies with little economic or social mobility -- seem ever more relevant.
posted by dhartung at 9:33 AM on October 18, 2011


Incidentally, these are the reasons the author actually gives for the change:

1. Our day-to-day lives are becoming more science-fictional.
2. For writers, pop culture influences are now as important as literary influences.
3. Literary tastes are increasingly global.
4. Stories with mythic dimensions are timeless.
5. Financially—and aesthetically—genre pays.

I'm not sure 2-4 amount to more than "Younger authors are bored with Carver-style realism and want to try something different."
posted by twirlip at 9:34 AM on October 18, 2011


Is The Road science fiction?
posted by Silo004 at 9:35 AM on October 18, 2011


Harry fucking potter happened.

I'M HARRY FUCKING POTTER
posted by The Whelk at 9:37 AM on October 18, 2011


Anyway I thought ghosts were the new hotness, Ghosts! Spooks! Spirits!
posted by The Whelk at 9:37 AM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


The fantastical became fantastically profitable. Also, highbrow fiction sucks.
posted by Renoroc at 9:38 AM on October 18, 2011


... it's important to stress how rare genre interpolations were in late 20th-century fiction ... Discounting a few notable (and unclassifiable) isoladoes like Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Don Delillo

In other words, "discounting anyone who doesn't fit the (completely wrong!) argument I want to make." From Charles Brockden Brown to Poe and Melville to Flannery O' Connor to Pynchon and the metafictionists, there's always been a deep strain of the fantastic in American literature. The continuing popularity of the fantastic and of genre elements (quests, voyages, savages, lighting out for territories, etc.) are exactly the characteristics that have traditionally distinguished US lit from the British and European literature of society and manners! Personally, I like novels of manners, less so zombies, but to suggest that a turn to the fantastic or the incorporation of genre elements is something new in American "serious" fiction is to be about as wrong as you can be.
posted by octobersurprise at 9:38 AM on October 18, 2011 [7 favorites]


We need a new monster.
The Republican presidential convention is just around the corner.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:39 AM on October 18, 2011 [10 favorites]


Is The Road science fiction?

Not if you do enough Atwood style contortions... So yes.
posted by Artw at 9:41 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Atwood style contortions is my favorite martial arts style.
posted by The Whelk at 9:41 AM on October 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure 2-4 amount to more than "Younger authors are bored with Carver-style realism and want to try something different."

Younger authors didn't grow up in Carver-style realism. The world has changed and thus so has literature.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:42 AM on October 18, 2011


Technically, you don't even need to write a new book to shift your book's category. Check out the difference between Christopher Moore's covers for Bite Me: current cover and forthcoming paperback cover.
posted by gladly at 9:42 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


He doesn;t even write SF anymore, his books are dated before they come out. It's all very strange.

He's writing science fiction set two years in the past of a future he envisioned. I'd only be more impressed if he wrote his next novel in the form of a 250 page palindrome.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:45 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


All right all you folks had better stop shitting on Carver right fucking now.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:47 AM on October 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'd be willing to bet the the OVERALL ratio of Fantastic : Realism has stayed about the same that it always has been. It's just that this guy is noticing the new fantastic because it's prominently displayed on the new Books shelves in front of him at the store. Rather than filtered through his memory and bookstore economics as worth remembering or worth keeping in stock.

Confirmation bias is a hell of a drug.
posted by Gygesringtone at 9:47 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I say lets make Alchemists happen as the new trend. They're like wizards but they have to use peusdo-chemistry.

Since Shaun of The Dead gave us the Romantic Comedy Zombie Movie, why not plus that formula into more genres, Alien Space Battle Romantic Comed and the like.
posted by The Whelk at 9:47 AM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wow, that second cover is fuck ugly.
posted by Artw at 9:47 AM on October 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


Love this line: Discounting a few notable (and unclassifiable) isoladoes like Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Don Delillo, ... The author then inexplicably cuts off the list of exceptions.

Here, I'll help:

... and Pynchon and Heller and Vonnegut and Brautigan and Wallace and Winterson and Bolaño and Cortazar and Burroughs and Kafka and Gaddis and McCarthy and

Also, this is a strange argument to make when Franzen is arguably the mainstream 'highbrow' star of fiction writing.
posted by xod at 9:51 AM on October 18, 2011


> My 12 year old's assigned reading for English seems ideally designed to
> make a 12 year old boy hate reading.

Pretty much inevitable once they decided that reading art fiction was supposed improve you as a person. Like finishing your spinach.
posted by jfuller at 9:58 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


The period when literature was expected to be realistic was the aberration. Dante's Inferno is a self-insertion fanfic ghost story for goodness' sake.

We're all magical realists now.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:59 AM on October 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


It's just that this guy is noticing the new fantastic because it's prominently displayed on the new Books shelves in front of him at the store.







what 'store'?
 
posted by Herodios at 10:01 AM on October 18, 2011


Michael Chabon edited a collection of short stories a few years back. In his introduction, he talked about how when he was young, short stories were full of adventure: pirates, arctic survival, monsters, seventeenth century French gentleman soldiers, etc. etc.: they told stories. He went on to lament that short story-writing (and fiction in general) took a weird turn where it was all slice-of-life, kitchen-sink dramas that might have been interesting from some kind of Iowa Writers Workshop pov, but were boring as hell to actually read. So his collection tried to get back to stories that were more like the adventures of his youth.

I tend to think that the premise of the article is exactly backwards. It's not that fiction has become fantastical recently. It was always fantastical, except for twenty or thirty years recently. The better question is, why did so many writers in the twentieth century push for realism so much?
posted by nushustu at 10:02 AM on October 18, 2011 [7 favorites]


> what 'store'?

Used to be scary ghost stories, now scary ghost stores.
posted by jfuller at 10:03 AM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Younger authors didn't grow up in Carver-style realism. The world has changed and thus so has literature.

The world that produced Dr. Strangelove was not less crazy and surreal than the world we live in now.
posted by twirlip at 10:04 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


scary ghost stores.

This building is haunted by the dire specter of tower records.

(Wait, I should write that down ....ghost mall)
posted by The Whelk at 10:05 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's just that this guy is noticing the new fantastic because it's prominently displayed on the new Books shelves in

I'm thinking it's more that he needed a snappy hook for a piece about Whitehead's new book and turned to the tried-and-true "Life imitates Sci-Fi" angle. Anyway, zombies bore me to tears, pretty much, but you could probably get some mileage out of thinking about the way zombies have come to occupy the position of all-around savage in US popular and middle-brow culture. There's definitely a frontier thing going on there.

Pretty much inevitable once they decided that reading art fiction was supposed improve you as a person.

Who are "they"?
posted by octobersurprise at 10:08 AM on October 18, 2011


middlebrow gatekeepers, kind of like how they safety put art in museums so it can't bother you.
posted by The Whelk at 10:11 AM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Magical realism is awesome, that's why.

Zombies, vampires, werewolves, evil wizards; they're all a form of ghost story and other things that go bump in the night. We tell these stories to scare ourselves, because that's a fun thing to do but we also tell these stories because they seem somehow, no matter how remotely, possible. That kind of mystery, that kind of possibility is an attraction like no other - it's why we build planes for flying, machines for plumbing the depths of the oceans, our desire to escape the earth's gravity and explore our galaxy. And if our authors can write about these subjects while still revealing secrets about ourselves, our "human condition", then why the hell not?

I've read a lot over the years, of all kinds of novels. I like the "highbrow", the lowbrow, the in-between-brow. I like it all! I enjoy the rousing adventures, the complex who-done-its, the nobody on a quest, the truly odd. And right now, I am truly enjoying reading books like World War Z, Charlie Huston's vampire books (awesome!), Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, yes, The Passage, The Half Made World, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, The Hunger Games Trilogy, Harry Potter and Twilight (gasp, it's true! although these last two don't have the same quality as others in my list - they are still fantastic reads).

I'm currently reading The Night Circus and loving it. It reminds me of Mark Helprin's Winter Tale, but possibly better, or maybe just different. And I'm loving it for the same reason that I loved The Gunslinger: it's great fun, stuff that I could never imagine on my own and insightful enough that I feel I may have learned something about myself and humanity.

Bring it on, give me more!

You know what? It's about time.
posted by ashbury at 10:12 AM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


middlebrow gatekeepers

The people who wouldn't know their Oulipo from their Fiction Collective?
posted by octobersurprise at 10:17 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Realist fiction is just another genre. It has its place and readers. Typically middle-class, seeking to understand the times, to find order in the chaos of modern culture. To see other people dealing with the same problems you are. To understand other peoples problems. Television shows provide the same purpose, ever changing with culture, but always the same. I wouldn't call it "high brow" at all. High brow is the difficult literature.
posted by stbalbach at 10:21 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Realism was a new idea in literature, and it ran its course.

By the way, I think something similar is killing American independent movies. You can hardly scrape together the distribution - let alone the budget - for a decent independent genre movie anymore, so now America is mostly producing mumblecore and chamber pieces, i.e. realistic stuff that almost no one cares about. I don't mean to imply that all mumblecore is weak, but as a genre unto itself, yeah, it kinda is. When it comes to recent smaller movies, people gravitate towards material like Brick and Memento and Donnie Darko and Drive and The Descent and Shaun of the Dead, not interchangeable dramas about young people just livin' life.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:22 AM on October 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


what 'store'?

The one he buys his books at? I don't think it's too great of an assumption that a man who makes a living writing about (among other things) literature would go to a book store every now and then and would notice what's prominently displayed. That works for virtual stores as well as physical ones.


I'm thinking it's more that he needed a snappy hook for a piece about Whitehead's new book and turned to the tried-and-true "Life imitates Sci-Fi" angle.


That was only one part of the article, and even that was just part of the explanation for something he noticed.
posted by Gygesringtone at 10:28 AM on October 18, 2011


"give me more"

Charles Stross' The Atrocity Archives and its sequels. They're a mash-up of Ian Fleming cold war spy fantasy and Lovecraftian horror.

From the afterward to The Jennifer Morgue:

It's almost impossible to explain the Cold War to anyone born after 1980...it was a truly Lovecraftian age, dominated by the cold reality that our lives could be interrupted by torment and death at virtually any time; normal existence was conducted in a soap-bubble universe sustained only by our determination to shut out awareness of the true horrors lurking in the darkness outside it, an abyss presided over by chilly alien warriors devoted to death-cult ideologies and dreams of Mutually Assured Destruction.

posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:40 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Recently went to a SF workshop where I had the weird experience of being called a "mainstream crossover" writer despite the fact that I write about apocalypses and changelings. Someone even showed me a George Saunders SF story in the New Yorker to prove that one can write skiffy and be mainstream. My attitude is, "Whatever makes me the most money," followed by, "whatever gets me the most readers," though I suppose that's a decidedly genre attitude.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:00 AM on October 18, 2011


This is either very blinkered or very crafty:
Our day-to-day lives are becoming more science-fictional. Every day, newspapers produce more headlines from the frontiers of modern science. . . Of course, with these advances come anxieties about Faustian bargains and Pandora's boxes."

Relavant fiction -- The Exiles by Ray Bradbury:
The crew of a rocket ship headed for the planet Mars is dying and plagued by nightmarish visions and dreams. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Mars — [the ghosts of] supernaturalist authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Algernon Blackwood and Ambrose Bierce — are fading from existence as the people of Earth burn the last of their books, outlawed a century ago for their superstitious themes. Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare are there too, although Dickens bitterly resents his "ghettoization" among genre writers.

 
posted by Herodios at 11:12 AM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Is The Road science fiction?

The Road is literary fantasy (or something). The premise is, "Here is a world where human beings are the only living things on the whole planet. It works more or less like our world, so they eat each other a lot." That world couldn't really work, and the fantasy elements are only there so McCarthy can explore a particular mood.

Also, this article is very confused. I think maybe instead of a general trending away from realism, there's been more of an acceptance of works of non-realism as literature. But I'm not sure if that's completely true, either.
posted by byanyothername at 11:15 AM on October 18, 2011


Like a zombie, High-Brow fiction will return. Only deader and smellier.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:17 AM on October 18, 2011


I've always felt that some of the "Great American Novels" were basically genre fiction, at least when viewed from the comfortable remove of a few decades. Steinbeck, for instance, basically made his name writing Dust Bowl Farmer novels. Certainly he was addressing real circumstances at the time, but it's a world as alien to me as one filled with ravenous zombies. Phillip Roth has made a career out of writing Horny Jews in Brooklyn novels, while Carver's stories are dominated by either blue-collar and/or middle-class characters steeped in ennui. All of these writers had their own tropes of social characters to pull from and play with, a cast of characters which somehow seems less accessible to modern authors.

All those great novels of the mid-late 20th century that we hail as classics had characters that had well defined backgrounds and professions (the Okie farmer, the WASP private schoolkid, the traveling salesman) that set the stage for the reader without the author having to do much more than state where they were from and their last name. From there, the story could be about the trauma of those characters trying either fit that mold or break out of it. Those kind of easy classifications just don't seem as relevant anymore, or least that niche has been filled by more recent immigrants who still have that onus of conforming to a model on them (e.g. everything by Jhumpa Lahiri). Still, at this point, it seems like we're all expected to be individuals stories unto ourselves, disconnected from a physical locale, immersed in jobs with amorphous characteristics. Those easy character tropes just don't seem as universally acceptable anymore.

Also, I pretty sure everyone really did get fed up with middle-class ennui.
posted by Panjandrum at 11:21 AM on October 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


Also, this article is very confused. I think maybe instead of a general trending away from realism, there's been more of an acceptance of works of non-realism as literature. But I'm not sure if that's completely true, either.

I don't know. I think it's fairly accurate, though kind of stupid:
"If look at the best of literary fiction," he told me, "you see three-dimensional characters, you see exquisite sentences, you see glowing metaphors. But if you look at the worst of literary fiction, you see that nothing happens. Somebody takes a sip of tea, looks out the window at a bank of roiling clouds and has an epiphany."

Genre fiction, by itself, can be just as fallible.

"In the worst of genre fiction, you see hollow characters, you see transparent prose, you see the same themes and archetypes occurring from book to book. If you look at the best of genre fiction, you see this incredible desire to discover what happens next."
I mean, duh, really.

I think the best description of literary vs. genre fiction was in Nancy Kress's Beginnings, Middles, and Ends where she discusses the differences in endings of literary vs. genre stories. In literary fiction, the story is circular, and resolution hinges on realization of the truth of the world without any necessary change. Characters are often passive, as if the external world happens to them and they can only react. In genre, stories are about active characters altering the world around them. Resolution is achieved through deliberate modification of the world around you. This is why something like Kelley Eskridge's Solitaire felt very literary to me, and Ernest Cline's Ready Player One very genre, despite the fact that Eskridge's work was released by a genre press and Ernest Cline's has broad mainstream appeal.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:23 AM on October 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


I remembering that Gaiman short story where an author lives in a world of Gothic horror conventions and just wants to write "genre" stories about old people falling out of love over tea.
posted by The Whelk at 11:26 AM on October 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


Arguably, the mainstream middlebrow author who is doing the most to engage these sorts of issues is William Gibson.

I'm pretty sure that around the time of Cyptonomicon and Pattern Recognition there were articles arguing the death of SF as all it's authors were fleeing to contemporary settings.
posted by Artw at 11:35 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


In literary fiction, the story is circular, and resolution hinges on realization of the truth of the world without any necessary change. Characters are often passive, as if the external world happens to them and they can only react. In genre, stories are about active characters altering the world around them. Resolution is achieved through deliberate modification of the world around you.

I haven't read Nancy Kress, but put this way it sounds like she's giving the Devil all the best lines. Also, it re-inscribes a notion of "literary" fiction as dull ("passive"), which doesn't seem to have any useful explanatory value beyond describing her own taste. I think the biggest difference between "literary" and "genre" fiction (aside from all of the intangibles of art) lies in the manner of their marketing and consumption and in the cultural politics that surround them.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:47 AM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm more concerned about the current decay in aesthetics in contemporary fiction. I cannot face one more acclaimed novel that turns out to be nothing more than a screenplay treatment with some minor reformatting.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 11:47 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I cannot face one more acclaimed novel that turns out to be nothing more than a screenplay treatment with some minor reformatting.

I see you also read Robopocalypse.
posted by jeather at 11:50 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think there's been a change, but I don't think most people have pinpointed the locus of the change. Also, I don't think the change is as monumental as many people suggest. Rather, I think it's a cultural gain-in-respect for something people have always done but (sometimes) felt ashamed of doing, which is basically favoring melodrama over its opposite.

It's useful to divide narratives into two binary types (in reality, these types sometimes blur together, which I'll expand on, below). These types are melodrama and whatever the opposite of melodrama is. (Drama?) I wish we had a good name for it, and maybe the academics here could help me out with one. For reasons I'll explain, I prefer to call melodramas "Toy World" dramas. I call the other type "Gray World" dramas. "Gray" is a reference to "not black and white, but shades of gray..."

Even those labels are potentially confusing, because I would call "Nineteen Eighty Four" a "toy world" book (for the most part), even though the fictional world its set in is extremely complex and well-worked out. So when I talk about gray and toy world, I'm not talking about "world building." Books with super-detailed worlds can still be toys-world books (as I'm using the term), just as Mindstorm Leggos, though complex, are still toys.

Toy-world stories and Gray-world stories both tells us things we need to hear, depending on our moods. The message of toy-world stories is "The world may be dangerous, but it follows simple rules. Learn those rules, and you'll be okay." Toy world's also allows one to feel ethically sure-footed. There are people it's okay to unconditionally root for and people it's okay to unconditionally hate. This is a message that most of us need a lot of the time. We don't want to come home from work, after being yelled at by our boss, and think about how he's a person, too, and how a complex set of circumstances led him to yell at us -- and how, in his shoes, we might be yelling, too. We just want need to think of him as an asshole.

Toy World's are toys because they are simplifications of the real world, especially when it comes to character. Why did the bad guy kill all those people? Because he's a bad guy. The urge towards Toy Worlds is similar to the urge towards punitive jail sentences; the urge towards Gray Worlds is similar to the urge for rehabilitation. Who has not wanted both at different times in his life?

Gray-world stories say, "All people are connected. The best of us and the worst of us are, in the end, the same: all human. And all humans, including you, are controlled by their fears, hopes and desires." Taken to extremes, this sort of narrative says that you and Hitler are the same, but it doesn't just plop that statement in your lap. It goes to great pains to illustrate why you and Hitler are the same, going right back to his childhood if necessary, making it really clear how what drove him to kill was stemmed in events that could have happened to any of us. Gray-world stories also tells us about the days Superman just doesn't feel like fighting crime.

There are people who can't stand gray-world stories. They baffle me a bit, because I need both toy-world and gray-world stories, but I know such people exist. I've never met anyone who didn't have a need, at least occasionally (and usually it's way more than occasionally) for toy-world stories.

(There's actually a third type of story, which I call a "Mystery World" story. In Mystery World stories, the message is "you don't know anything," or "everything you know is wrong." And these stories don't then turn around and tell you what's actually right. Rather, they say, "the truth is unknowable." You can't know what's driving the world and you can't know what's inside anyone else's heart. The only truth is mystery. A writer who specialized in this sort of narrative was Harold Pinter.

Mystery-world stories make most people uncomfortable. They are the lest popular of the three types, and they don't tend to sell well. Toy-world and Gray-world writers flirt with mystery, but they rarely fully confront it.

Toy world's say "there's you and there's the bad guy." Gray-world stories say "the bad guy IS you." Mystery-wold stories say, "there's a stranger.")

Real-life is so confusing to most of us that we have a deep need for Toy-World stories. In a lot of ways, I think the Human Condition leads to a great outcry of "SIMPLIFY THINGS FOR ME, PLEASE!" When it comes to fiction, we want INTERESTING and EXCITING simplifications, but, still, we want simplifications.

So Toy-world stories are the most popular type of stories and they've always been the most popular type of stories. The ancient Greeks told them and we tell them, still.

Here's the change: they once had less intellectual cache than they do now. At some previous times in history, you loved comic books so much that you snuck them inside the covers of "War and Peace." Now you love them so much that you read them, openly. A guilty pleasure has become a pleasure, but both before and after the guilt it was a pleasure. Similarly, people had tons of sex before and after the Sexual Revolution. They just admit it, now.

Most genre novels are Toy-World stories: this is generally true of Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Western, Mystery, Horror, Romance, etc. (Generally, the high brows give themselves an escape route. For a long time, it's been Mystery novels. Most of them are clearly melodramas. Yet they've been acceptable in highbrow circles for years.)

It's hard to think of a TV-series that isn't set in a Toy World, though there are interesting examples of shows that flirt with gray. The one that pops into my mind is "Deadwood." However, for all the work it did to show the vulnerable side of its villains and the selfish side of its heros, in the end it gave us Hearst, who was someone we could unambiguously hate.

Similarly, George R.R. Martin's series is sort of a Toy World that dips its toes into a gray. Martin lets you love and hate characters for hundreds of pages; then he turns those feelings on their heads. That's fascinating, but its not the same as what happens in a full-fledged Gray World narrative, such as the ones written by Chekhov, Shakespeare, Franzen, Anne Tyler and John Updike. And Martin, for all his grayness, is always careful to include some characters that just seem downright evil. And some other characters, like Ned Stark, that though he had some blindspots and weaknesses, is a pretty traditional hero who you pretty unconditionally root for.

Basically, he continually gives you hope that some people are simple, either good or bad, smart or stupid, strong or weak. He plays tricks and games with expectations, but he doesn't tell you what Chekhov tells you, which is that there are no villains or heros: we're all frail humans, and we're all frail in the same ways.

I hope this doesn't come across as a criticism of any specific type of literature. Personally, I think so-called Toy World stories are incredibly powerful and important. But I'm glad there are more "complex" novels on my selves, too.
posted by grumblebee at 11:51 AM on October 18, 2011 [10 favorites]


I recently started listening to the New Yorker Fiction Podcast. The way the podcast works is that an author picks a favorite story from the New Yorker's archives and then reads it aloud. It's interesting that of the five stories I've listed to so far, four of them have have been fantastical, and the authors have talked about what an inspiration it was to have discovered them. There's clearly something going on there.

The last one I listened to was a Donald Barthelme story from 1965. I think it broke my brain. Based on that experience, I wholeheartedly agree that he's to blame! I'm going to have to read some Updike to cleanse my literary palate.
posted by diogenes at 11:54 AM on October 18, 2011


I haven't read Nancy Kress, but put this way it sounds like she's giving the Devil all the best lines. Also, it re-inscribes a notion of "literary" fiction as dull ("passive"), which doesn't seem to have any useful explanatory value beyond describing her own taste. I think the biggest difference between "literary" and "genre" fiction (aside from all of the intangibles of art) lies in the manner of their marketing and consumption and in the cultural politics that surround them.

It's actually explicitly clear in her book that she doesn't mean these descriptors to be pejorative; any implicit value judgment here comes from me, though I have a tendency toward more literary endings myself. "Passive" is not "dull," in any case, but rather a concrete descriptor of the way that many characters act, or fail to act, in both stories that are non-genre and non-Western ("active" as a value is in some ways inherently Anglocentric and male). Rachel Swirsky has a good defense of passive characters.

As someone who has come up against genre editors and readers asking repeatedly why my characters didn't react more actively against their terrible situations, but have had mainstream or literary readers happily absorb my intentions, I've found that it's a useful way to regard the differing expectations between lit and genre readers. Or, as the form rejection letter from Analog Magazine states:
—Science fiction readers are problem solvers! Stories with downbeat endings, in which the characters have no hope of solving their problems, are strongly disliked by Analog readers. In a good SF story, the characters strive to solve their problems—and even if they fail in the end, they go down fighting, not whimpering.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:57 AM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


that Gaiman short story where an author lives in a world of Gothic horror conventions and just wants to write "genre" stories about old people falling out of love over tea.

"Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire " in Fragile Things. Love it.
posted by Zed at 11:59 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Mm, my guess would be that this is an attempt to garner the younger adult male (dare I say "hipster"?) market share, which is more easily captured by !!slightly ironic zombies!! than by quietly ordinary yet luminous revelations over tea.

Also, it's not magical realism, not really. To me, the essence of magical realism is inserting magic like a deux ex machina into an otherwise normal world, instead of creating an entirely fictional universe.
posted by yarly at 12:07 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's also a really simple change, which is interesting because it's a feedback loop.

If you care about prose style, which many of us high-brow types do, it's hard (or it used to be hard) to find good genre fiction -- especially sci-fi and fantasy. For years, this was devastating to me. I would rather be reading a good yarn than anything else. When I was a kid, I wasn't too discerning about prose. It could be clunky and I wouldn't notice. I mostly cared about plot and cool ideas.

Gradually, because I started reading literary fiction, my prose-aesthetic become more refined. Eventually, I got to a point where no matter how cool the monster or spaceship was, and no matter how mind-bending the author's ideas were, I couldn't enjoy the book if it had shoddy wordsmanship.

I really and truly pined. I kept picking up sci-fi books and putting them down, crushed, after a few pages. Sometimes I went back to books I'd liked when I was younger (bad idea), only to find that I couldn't enjoy them anymore because they were so horrible written (in terms of prose style).

I started asking people for recommendations but no one could help me. The real sci-fi fans just didn't care that much about prose style. The literary types didn't care about science fiction. I was looking for the Jane Austin of sci-fi, and no one could tell me who she was or even if she existed.

I'm not sure what exactly changed, but for some reason a few established literary writers, like Atwood, started writing sci-fi. Which meant that literary people started reading sci-fi. Which meant that sci-fi had more cache. Which meant that writers -- stylists -- who normally wouldn't have considered writing it felt they could do so and still have respect. The bar got raised and a feedback loop started.

It's still not easy to find well-written sci-fi, but it's WAY easier than it once was. (It's not easy to find well-written ANYTHING.)

So partly the reason why sci-fi gets more respect is because it's better written than it used to be -- at least if "better" means better prose style. There are readers who care deeply about that, and they will never be happy with a book if its prose is clunky.

Sci-fi prose isn't necessarily clunky any more. Of course, there have always been examples of sci-fi writers who wrote good prose, but the general shift towards higher standards in the genre is pretty new. I think it largely started when Atwood wrote "The Handmaid's Tale." Whether you like it or not, it was a major literary author saying, "I'm writing sci-fi!"

Pulp magazines didn't specialize in well-wrought prose. American sci-fi is rooted in a pulp tradition. It is only just now emerging from that.
posted by grumblebee at 12:12 PM on October 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


FWIW, if you're interested in getting just a taste of what Kress has to say about literary endings, here's a google books link. Beginnings, Middles, and Ends is certainly worth a read.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:18 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


One thing that's different now is that blogging is the new home for realistic writing. If I want a story about people like me going through the meaningless trials and tribulations of life, I can go to livejournal, or blogspot, or hundreds of other blogs. We can have as many serialized realistic stories about the modern world as we want, without having to pay for a novel.
posted by happyroach at 12:25 PM on October 18, 2011


TBH most non-fic is way too eventful to be truely acceptable within the literature genre - stuff happens! That's almost like having a plot!
posted by Artw at 12:28 PM on October 18, 2011




One thing that's different now is that blogging is the new home for realistic writing. If I want a story about people like me going through the meaningless trials and tribulations of life, I can go to livejournal, or blogspot, or hundreds of other blogs. We can have as many serialized realistic stories about the modern world as we want, without having to pay for a novel.
posted by happyroach at 12:25 PM on October 18 [+] [!]


That really misses the point of fiction and the role of the author.
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:29 PM on October 18, 2011


TBH most non-fic is way too eventful to be truely acceptable within the literature genre - stuff happens! That's almost like having a plot!

Almost every piece of literary fiction I've ever read has a plot, in which things constantly happen. Chekhov is famously wrote "drama of inaction." (what an absurd term!) Yet in his play, "Uncle Vanya," in which "nothing happens," the title character makes a pass at the wife of his house-guest -- in the first act. The guest then tries to sell the house (the estate). Meanwhile, another guest, Vanya's friend, makes a pass at the same woman. Vanya walks in on them, catching his best friend kissing the woman he's infatuated with. Later, Vanya grabs a gun and tries to shoot the woman's husband. Later, he steals some pills and tries to kill himself.

When genre fans say "nothing happens" in literary fiction, I think they mean "nothing except for that relationship stuff." It is totally fine if that's not your cup of tea, but it's wrong to imply that there are all these authors writing novels about people waiting in line at the post office with nothing on their minds.

Another famous story in which "nothing happens" is "Catcher in the Ryle," which actually has a plot element on almost every page. The protagonist gets kicked out of school, gets beaten up, gets rejected, gets molested by an older man, etc. Those events aren't the same sort as fires-laser-beam or flees-from-zombie, but they're events. When people take creative-writing classes that are centered around "literary" writing, they are rebuked by their teachers if they write plotless stories in which nothing happens.
posted by grumblebee at 12:45 PM on October 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


Almost every piece of literary fiction I've ever read has a plot, in which things constantly happen. Chekhov is famously wrote "drama of inaction." (what an absurd term!) Yet in his play, "Uncle Vanya," in which "nothing happens," the title character makes a pass at the wife of his house-guest -- in the first act. The guest then tries to sell the house (the estate). Meanwhile, another guest, Vanya's friend, makes a pass at the same woman. Vanya walks in on them, catching his best friend kissing the woman he's infatuated with. Later, Vanya grabs a gun and tries to shoot the woman's husband. Later, he steals some pills and tries to kill himself.

Crime drama, init?
posted by Artw at 12:51 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Nicholson Baker has an entire sub-genre of fiction in which a character spends an entire novel on their way up an escalator or lighting a fire in the morning, and yet they are fascinating and hilarious and very good. Plot in terms of 'events of titanic import' is overrated.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:51 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


If I want a story about people like me going through the meaningless trials and tribulations of life, I can go to livejournal, or blogspot, or hundreds of other blogs.

Of course, you'll probably miss out on narratives that have been refined by going through multiple drafts, each one shepherded by a professional editor. You'll also miss strong narrative structure, chains of symbols and imagery that span the entire story, complex plotting with foreshadowing and, except for in rare cases, striking figurative language.

There's a world of difference between what you read on most blogs, even the well-written ones, and...

"About half way between West Egg and New York the motor-road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes--a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight.

"But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic--their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.

"The valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, and when the drawbridge is up to let barges through, the passengers on waiting trains can stare at the dismal scene for as long as half an hour. There is always a halt there of at least a minute and it was because of this that I first met Tom Buchanan's mistress."
posted by grumblebee at 12:54 PM on October 18, 2011


I forgot a HUGELY important historical data-point when I mentioned the flood-gate that Margaret Atwood opened. Equally important, and happening at roughly the same time, "Magic Realism" exploded onto the scene in America. From what I can tell, the main difference between Magic Realism and Fantasy is that the former tends to be written by foreign, literary authors and the latter tends (or tended) to be written by American and British pulp writers. Both involved made-up worlds and magic.

The seminal work of Magic Realism, "One Hundred Years of Solitude," was first translated into English in 1970. "The Handmaid's Tale" was published in 1985. I encountered both for the first time in college, in the late 80s.

I think the fact that "One Hundred Years" was both incredibly well-written AND foreign helped. Literary people could get their street creds reading it because it was written by someone from "another culture." But, in the end, they were reading fantasy.

I rarely hear anyone using the term "Magic Realism" any more (though maybe it's still evoked in academia). Writers like China Mieville seem to have merged that genre with more traditional fantasy, if there every really was a difference.
posted by grumblebee at 1:04 PM on October 18, 2011


Oh, sorry to thread-hog, but I just remembered something: in the late 80s, I took a creative-writing course at Indiana University. The instructor was a short story writer who was making a name for herself, writing for the "New Yorker." Her stories were all told in very typical, "New Yorker"-style realism.

She told the class that she would not accept any Sci-Fi or fantasy stories. She said, "It's not the sort of story that interests me, and I don't know much about those genres. I have nothing to say about them, and I can't help you write them. So please don't submit any."

She also gave us reading lists, examples of what she considered good writing, so that we could learn from the pros. SHE was the teacher who introduced me to "One Hundred Years of Solitude," in which a character gets shot and his blood goes winding through the town, in and out of people's houses, until it reaches his mother; in which the dead come back to life; in which people ascend into the air... She didn't for a second think of the book as as Fantasy, but she clearly loved it and recommended it to everyone.

And none of us students, at the time, even though we discussed the book for several class sessions, said, "Hey, isn't this Fantasy?"
posted by grumblebee at 1:14 PM on October 18, 2011


From what I can tell, the main difference between Magic Realism and Fantasy is that the former tends to be written by foreign, literary authors and the latter tends (or tended) to be written by American and British pulp writers. Both involved made-up worlds and magic.


I think the difference is right in the term: Fantasy tends to involve made-up worlds (or tropes familiar to made-up worlds, like wizards and werewolves) and magic, and magical realism tends to involve the real world (and tropes familiar to the real world, like folk tales and legends) and magic.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:14 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I rarely hear anyone using the term "Magic Realism" any more (though maybe it's still evoked in academia). Writers like China Mieville seem to have merged that genre with more traditional fantasy, if there every really was a difference.

It's still invoked in genre, too, fairly frequently.

"Horror," on the other hand . . . we call that "dark fantasy."
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:14 PM on October 18, 2011


I see you also read Robopocalypse.
posted by jeather at 2:50 PM on October 18 [1 favorite +] [!]


The Family Fang was foremost in my mind, but this bullshit is unrelenting.

posted by Lentrohamsanin at 1:19 PM on October 18, 2011


I think the difference is right in the term: Fantasy tends to involve made-up worlds (or tropes familiar to made-up worlds, like wizards and werewolves) and magic, and magical realism tends to involve the real world (and tropes familiar to the real world, like folk tales and legends) and magic.

Sure, there are differences, but they're only meaningful if they're important to you. They're not universally meaningful. And I don't buy that they're even particularly useful categories for most readers.

We don't tend to call sci-fi set on other worlds one name and sci-fi set on Earth by another name. There may be some geek, inner-circle labels (or academic, inner-circle labels) for those different types of stories, but to most people, both are simply sci-fi.

When you're in the mood for a fantasy novel, it may make a huge difference to you whether it's set in a faux Middle Ages with fairies or a modern, urban sprawl with fairies. And I'm not saying that difference isn't meaningful -- to you. But it's not terribly meaningful to me. If I'm in the mood for a fantasy, I'll probably be happy with either "Game of Thrones" or "The City and the City." As George R.R. Martin says, I just want a book with some "weird stuff" in it -- and I want to escape.

I think "Magic Realism" is, first and foremost, a snobbish term that somewhat arbitrarily separates a class of fantasy stories from Fantasy. But, again, if the difference is important to you, it's important to you.

I've gotten to a point where I don't differentiate much between Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Again, I understand the difference. I just don't care about it much. The difference doesn't affect me as a reader. If I'm in the mood for Fantastic Literature, you can hand me a book my Peter Watts or China Mieville -- either way I'll be happy.

In fact, I think of "Lonesome Dove" and "Memoirs of a Geisha" as Fantastic Literature. I know this is where I part company from a ton of people, and I want to make clear that I would never label those books as Fantastic Lit in ordinary speech, because that would just confuse people. And if a friend said he wanted to read a Sci-Fi book, I wouldn't hand him a Western.

But to me, personally, there's little emotional difference. My goal is to escape into another world. The world of "Lonesome Dove" (a quest story, similar to "Lord of the Rings" in some ways) is as foreign to me as the world of Middle Earth. And it's more foreign to me than, say, William Gibson's worlds.
posted by grumblebee at 1:31 PM on October 18, 2011


Sure, there are differences, but they're only meaningful if they're important to you. They're not universally meaningful. And I don't buy that they're even particularly useful categories for most readers.

I'm not arguing for granular genre categorization as a whole. I was just trying to clear up what appeared to be a confusion that you stated was yours.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:33 PM on October 18, 2011


I dunno, grumblebee. Seems like you're Atwooding it a bit. These are useful definitions with useful distinctions. Just because you define the words differently than most people do, doesn't mean that there aren't recognizable differences between them.

I think "Magic Realism" is, first and foremost, a snobbish term that somewhat arbitrarily separates a class of fantasy stories from Fantasy. But, again, if the difference is important to you, it's important to you.

In my experience, magic realism is more surreal, with fantastical elements left largely unexplained, used sometimes for metaphorical effect. Kelly Link is a good example of an author who frequently uses magic realism. As for stuff set within our world, but with an approach that's closer to traditional fantasy (with worldbuilding, etc.) that's usually just "contemporary fantasy" while Tolkieny stuff is "high fantasy" or "secondary-world fantasy." They're all subsets of the same genre, though.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:36 PM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I agree that the labels are useful to a particular reader if they help him either enjoying a story or in choosing what to read next.
posted by grumblebee at 1:40 PM on October 18, 2011


I don't think China Mieville really fits in magical realism (which is a perfectly good subset of fantasy, and "fantasy set in this world" is a good first approximation to a definition). Kelly Link, as PhoBWanKenobi, or Terry Windling's The Wood Wife, or Kate Atkinson's Human Croquet, and some Nalo Hopkinson. The first two are generally marketed in fantasy, so is the last, the third not so much anymore because now she writes mysteries. I don't think it's been used as "fantasy written by mainstream authors", at least not lately.

Just because we don't have good category names for specific differences in genres -- sf set on earth vs set elsewhere (vs set on both?) -- doesn't mean that many people don't use the distinctions. I think more readers care about subgenre (not just within sff -- there's all sorts of useful subgenres within mystery, for instance) than don't, which is why they are used on all levels, from publishers to bloggers. Not all distinctions matter at all times or to all people, but generally the difference between sword & sorcery and magical realism, or between thriller and cosy mystery, is relevant when choosing what to read.
posted by jeather at 1:47 PM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


(as PhoBWanKenobi mentioned)
posted by jeather at 1:52 PM on October 18, 2011


Not all distinctions matter at all times or to all people, but generally the difference between sword & sorcery and magical realism, or between thriller and cosy mystery, is relevant when choosing what to read.

We probably all agree that categories matter to most people when they choose what to read. The question is, what categories?

I have made a specific claim, which is that the distinction between "Magic Realsim" and "Fantasy" is too granular to make a difference to me, when I'm choosing a book to read.

You have claimed that this specific difference IS important to most readers (making me an outlier). I am pretty agnostic as to whether you're right or not. It would be interesting to take a poll. I suspect you'd have to take several in order to get meaningful data. A poll given to hardcare Fantasy geeks might yield different results than one given to the general public. But I am unsure as to what either poll would wind up showing.

The question is, if a person (Average Joe? Fantasy Geek?) asks you to recommend a Fantasy, and you give him "One Hundred Years of Solitude," is he likely to say, when he's done reading it, "That's not exactly what I meant by Fantasy"? Interesting question.

To me, that's the only way that genre labels really matter. This is impossible, of course, but I've always wanted to do an experiment where I found 100 people who had never heard of genres before. I would give them all a bunch of books to read and ask them to divide them into categories. I wonder what common ones (if any) would occur.
posted by grumblebee at 2:15 PM on October 18, 2011


The question is, if a person (Average Joe? Fantasy Geek?) asks you to recommend a Fantasy, and you give him "One Hundred Years of Solitude," is he likely to say, when he's done reading it, "That's not exactly what I meant by Fantasy"?

I would guess so. In my experience people generally mean 'fantasy' as a reference to a book with swords and spells, a tinge of fake English history, and probably at least one castle. Handing such a person 'A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings' would probably disappoint them severely.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:23 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Realistic literary fiction, the kind that MFA programs teach their students to mindlesssly churn out, is probably the most trite and formulaic stuff on the market these days. No wonder there's a backlash against it.
posted by naju at 2:25 PM on October 18, 2011


FOR EXAMPLE
posted by shakespeherian at 2:35 PM on October 18, 2011


In my experience people generally mean 'fantasy' as a reference to a book with swords and spells, a tinge of fake English history, and probably at least one castle. Handing such a person 'A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings' would probably disappoint them severely.

Do you think this applies to Fantasy fans, general readers or both?

If your Aunt Matilda, who only ever reads Updike novels and the like, asks you to recommend a Fantasy, based on a vague idea of what one is, do you think she'd be confused if you gave her Magic Realism?
posted by grumblebee at 2:36 PM on October 18, 2011


That thread is mostly filled with Fantasy fans. When someone becomes an enthusiast, he naturally looks at whatever he's into in a more granular way than Aunt Matilda.

You've convinced me that Fantasy fans would be confused if they asked for Fantasy and you handed them "One Hundred Years of Solitude." I'm less convinced that, say, my mom would be confused.
posted by grumblebee at 2:38 PM on October 18, 2011


I don't know if Aunt Matilda would be, but I would also answer that way if instead of Magic Realism I gave her The Wizard of Oz, Gulliver's Travels, Dracula, The Mote in God's Eye, Nineteen Eighty-Four, or Infinite Jest. All books have elements of the fantastical. That isn't what genre categorizations mean, though.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:40 PM on October 18, 2011


Or, hell, Macbeth.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:41 PM on October 18, 2011


While I agree that there has always been a lot of fantastical "highbrow" stuff out there, I wonder if SF and fantasy may have hit a resurgence - and increased market interest - with the intro of ereaders. There were a lot of very good genre books out there that I was embarrassed to read in public because of their covers. Now, an iPad looks like an iPad, no matter what you are reading.
posted by rtimmel at 2:43 PM on October 18, 2011


Reality is getting far too strange, far too fast for "real" literature to get by on hardscrabble bildungsromans and so on.
Exactly. Go through your favorite stories of just one generation ago and see how many plot points have been utterly obsoleted by technological and social changes since then. "Real" fiction rapidly becomes "historical" fiction, but instead of an interesting historical period setting it ends up feeling like it has an uncanny valley, "mostly like the modern world but not quite as good" setting. So either you make a clear switch to a historical setting (which requires research) or you switch to hard science fiction (which requires lots of research and analysis, and which will become dated in an even worse way) or you switch to fantasy (which requires lots of imagination). Writers being writers, imagination is probably usually the lowest hanging fruit on that list.
posted by roystgnr at 2:45 PM on October 18, 2011


That isn't what genre categorizations mean, though.

To average readers, they mean a way to choose which book to read next (a way to choose what will fit their mood) and, sometimes, a way to better understand what they've just read or are in the process or reading.
posted by grumblebee at 2:46 PM on October 18, 2011


Go through your favorite stories of just one generation ago and see how many plot points have been utterly obsoleted by technological and social changes since then.

Very few that I can think of. People still get lonely when they can't find a wife. They still get jealous when they walk in on their husbands kissing another woman. They still fly into rages when they get fired. They still get ulcers when they don't know how they're going to pay the rent.
posted by grumblebee at 2:48 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Colson Whitehead wrote a zombie book? Sweet!
posted by Mister_A at 2:55 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Exactly. Go through your favorite stories of just one generation ago and see how many plot points have been utterly obsoleted by technological and social changes since then.

Yeah umm..., This isn't what I took "Reality is getting far too strange [or absurd]," to mean.
posted by SollosQ at 2:57 PM on October 18, 2011


People should just give up and write nothing but Centaur Erotica. It'll fly off the shelves.

Centaur erotica you say?
posted by Mister_A at 3:00 PM on October 18, 2011


It might be entertaining, at least for nerds and pedants such as myself, to go through this thread and annotate every claim about the unprecedented and brand-new conundrums faced by contemporary authors with a similar claim about the unprecedented and brand-new conundrums faced by Ye Olde Classick Writers.

Exactly. Go through your favorite stories of just one generation ago and see how many plot points have been utterly obsoleted by technological and social changes since then. "Real" fiction rapidly becomes "historical" fiction, but instead of an interesting historical period setting it ends up feeling like it has an uncanny valley, "mostly like the modern world but not quite as good" setting.

Cf.:
By fixing, then, the date of my story Sixty Years before this present 1st November, 1805, I would have my readers understand, that they will meet in the following pages neither a romance of chivalry nor a tale of modern manners; that my hero will neither have iron on his shoulders, as of yore, nor on the heels of his boots, as is the present fashion of Bond Street; and that my damsels will neither be clothed 'in purple and in pall,' like the Lady Alice of an old ballad, nor reduced to the primitive nakedness of a modern fashionable at a rout. From this my choice of an era the understanding critic may farther presage that the object of my tale is more a description of men than manners. A tale of manners, to be interesting, must either refer to antiquity so great as to have become venerable, or it must bear a vivid reflection of those scenes which are passing daily before our eyes, and are interesting from their novelty. Thus the coat-of-mail of our ancestors, and the triple-furred pelisse of our modern beaux, may, though for very different reasons, be equally fit for the array of a fictitious character; but who, meaning the costume of his hero to be impressive, would willingly attire him in the court dress of George the Second's reign, with its no collar, large sleeves, and low pocket-holes? The same may be urged, with equal truth, of the Gothic hall, which, with its darkened and tinted windows, its elevated and gloomy roof, and massive oaken table garnished with boar's-head and rosemary, pheasants and peacocks, cranes and cygnets, has an excellent effect in fictitious description. Much may also be gained by a lively display of a modern fete, such as we have daily recorded in that part of a newspaper entitled the Mirror of Fashion, if we contrast these, or either of them, with the splendid formality of an entertainment given Sixty Years Since; and thus it will be readily seen how much the painter of antique or of fashionable manners gains over him who delineates those of the last generation.

Considering the disadvantages inseparable from this part of my subject, I must be understood to have resolved to avoid them as much as possible, by throwing the force of my narrative upon the characters and passions of the actors;—those passions common to men in all stages of society, and which have alike agitated the human heart, whether it throbbed under the steel corslet of the fifteenth century, the brocaded coat of the eighteenth, or the blue frock and white dimity waistcoat of the present day.
- Walter Scott, Waverley
posted by DaDaDaDave at 3:09 PM on October 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


They still get ulcers when they don't know how they're going to pay the rent.

Well, no, actually: that plot point is obsolete. In modern times, ulcers are caused by Helicobacter pylori infection.
posted by Mars Saxman at 3:16 PM on October 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


Well, no, actually: that plot point is obsolete. In modern times, ulcers are caused by Helicobacter pylori infection.

Quite right. Though, perhaps, stress weakens the immune system enough to allow Helicobacter pylori to do its dirty work. Has this been tested?

Much to my ouchiness, I am currently discovering that stress can advocate for shingles, which is proximately caused by the Chicken Pox virus.
posted by grumblebee at 3:22 PM on October 18, 2011


I remembering that Gaiman short story where an author lives in a world of Gothic horror conventions and just wants to write "genre" stories about old people falling out of love over tea.

It's worth mentioning that the title of this story is, "Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire," because that's a marvelous title.
posted by byanyothername at 3:25 PM on October 18, 2011


If I want realism I'll look out the window.
That said I like Nelson Algren but he adds a bit of Beat poetics. You need that Epiphany, revelation, or fable like quality.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 3:25 PM on October 18, 2011


Whoops, sorry Zed!

It's worth mentioning again, I suppose.
posted by byanyothername at 3:29 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Realism has the effect of granting primary status to the external, whereas in our experience, the internal is often the more important. The great filmmakers understand this trap -- that strict "realism" is, in fact, the least true interpretation of our experience of life; that a work springing from the imagination which adopts the guise of objective reality can only be a lie."

The State of Visual Narrative in Film and Comics by Peter Chung
posted by byanyothername at 3:34 PM on October 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


The author's thesis seems to be specifically that for a few decades in the late 20th century American literature was primarily realistic. I suspect that point is debatable -- that this idea of fiction dominated by realism would not bear out if we actually examined highbrow fiction of the era. But, as others have pointed out, American fiction has hazily influenced by the supernatural from jump.

This being the case, the question shouldn't be why is there so much supernatural in high literature right now. That's just par for the course. The question should be why did we abandon it for 20 years?
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 3:37 PM on October 18, 2011


American minimalists like Grace Paley

WHA-A-A-A?

Anyway:

I liked Whitehead's zombie novel, Zone One, and read it through quickly, but it's not as good as e.g. Lev Grossman's The Magicians -- Grossman is a guy from "literature world" embraces the genre without reservation, while Whitehead seems to want to hold it at arms length, reminding the reader that he's not really a guy who writes zombie books, he's really a writer of literature.
posted by escabeche at 3:45 PM on October 18, 2011


"It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there's not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination."
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
posted by Celsius1414 at 3:49 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Go through your favorite stories of just one generation ago and see how many plot points have been utterly obsoleted by technological and social changes since then.

You're talking communications technology. That wouldn't only or even primarily affect literary fiction. Mystery, thrillers, and horror – about who knows what, where, when – would take the biggest hits, if that were true. Also, lit-fiction readers aren't notably shy about reading older books (though they may have their preferences).
posted by furiousthought at 3:49 PM on October 18, 2011


Um...Richard Price, Chris Offutt, Tim Sandlin, John Sayles..realists fucking abound.
posted by jonmc at 4:48 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have made a specific claim, which is that the distinction between "Magic Realsim" and "Fantasy" is too granular to make a difference to me, when I'm choosing a book to read.

I would argue that Magical Realism (magic? magical?) is really a subset of fantasy under general definitions of fantasy. If I am choosing a book to read by subgenre (which is something I do not often do, though I very often choose to reread a book by subgenre), I'm choosing between magical realism and urban fantasy (but not the kind that's really just paranormal romance), or historical vs locked room mystery, not space opera vs science fiction in general. I'm not sure what you mean by too granular a difference. I obviously am not arguing that you do care about these distinctions, nor even that you should care about them, I just think that in general, most but not all readers do care about them.

The question is, if a person (Average Joe? Fantasy Geek?) asks you to recommend a Fantasy, and you give him "One Hundred Years of Solitude," is he likely to say, when he's done reading it, "That's not exactly what I meant by Fantasy"? Interesting question.
I wonder as well. I think it's entirely possible that some people would define fantasy narrowly, and narrowly enough that it would exclude magical realism, though probably if they were asked to make a definition of fantasy that excluded magical realism they would have trouble doing so.

I cannot imagine what kind of polls would get useful data on whether people use subgenres, if you could even get them to define them. It would be interesting, too, on how it broke down between various categories. My very low knowledge of romance suggests that people choose in that genre using subgenre -- things are marketed in those streams, right? -- and I don't imagine they are different than other readers.

Still, this would be interesting to know more about.

Go through your favorite stories of just one generation ago and see how many plot points have been utterly obsoleted by technological and social changes since then.

The Westing Game, alas, is a book that is meaningless in a world with search engines.
posted by jeather at 7:08 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Reality is getting far too strange, far too fast for "real" literature to get by on hardscrabble bildungsromans and so on. Our economic, technological and socio-political situation makes our lives are stranger than ever, in a way never documented by history.

This happened in every generation.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:13 PM on October 18, 2011


When it comes to recent smaller movies, people gravitate towards material like Brick and Memento and Donnie Darko and Drive and The Descent and Shaun of the Dead, not interchangeable dramas about young people just livin' life.

Scott Pilgrim is the first film that's accurately captured my life on screen.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:17 PM on October 18, 2011


One thing that's different now is that blogging is the new home for realistic writing.

I used to read a lot of Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Alice Munro, Barry Hannah, Russell Banks, etc. etc.

And you know what happened?

I started reading blogs. Yeah, the writing wasn't as great. But it wasn't really the blogs that drew me totally away.

I also started listening to podcasts. I'd listen to The New Yorker podcasts, where writers would read short fiction (mostly realistic fiction) aloud, but I'd also listen to the Moth and This American Life. I listen to Marc Maron, and other comedians. I am almost exclusively now a listener of "slice of life" journalism. If the stories are presented well, they are as powerful as any short story I read.

They aren't the same thing, and if I had an infinite amount of time, I'd do both, but my podcasts seem to have replaced the time I've had for reading fiction.

I don't have much patience for most sci fi and fantasy either. I'm wondering if other fans of realistic fiction have also gone the podcast route, and instead of reading, we're listening to any of the hundreds of thousands of quasi-journalistic podcasts out there.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 11:26 PM on October 18, 2011


Realistic literary fiction, the kind that MFA programs teach their students to mindlesssly churn out, is probably the most trite and formulaic stuff on the market these days. No wonder there's a backlash against it.
posted by naju at 4:25 PM on 10/18
[+] [!]


Not that I suppose it matters to y'all much, but this characterization of a) what MFA programs are actually like, and b) the kind of fiction produced in MFA programs at present is as grossly inaccurate as someone describing all video games as 2D shoot-em-ups. Not only is it a generation out of date and radically oversimplified, it's just wrong. From what I hear, this characterized the Iowa Writer's Workshop in the 1980s. It may still be like that in some places (PhoBWanKenobi can maybe speak to that), but I can tell you that at least here at Alabama there's basically zero nudging in any one stylistic direction, and that the kind of irreal fiction of all bents discussed in this thread are what incoming classes are already writing. Heck, it's what incoming faculty are already writing. The fait is, as they say, accompli.

If the market is suffused with trite and formulaic fiction, I would conjecture that that would be coming out what is maybe oversimplifiedly called 'the NYC writer' in this piece. MFA programs, or at least the one I'm in, are not market-driven like 'the NYC writer' is, and it's certainly not driven by the high-brow realism market.
posted by skwt at 1:22 AM on October 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is why something like Kelley Eskridge's Solitaire felt very literary to me

Can I just squee for a moment about how great that novel is? For me, it hit that sweet spot between genre and literary. I really love writers that reach towards that place from both sides--Aimee Bender and Jeff Vandermeer, Cat Valente and Steven Millhauser.

Also, though, I feel like Colson Whitehead writing genre-infused fiction is not new. I remember when I read The Intuitionist--which is really really great and you should totally read it if you're reading this thread--thinking, wow, this is basically science fiction. And then I read an interview with him in which he talked about loving science fiction novels.

I'm a little confused by some of the hostility directed towards the original article in this thread. I feel like it's saying a lot of things that genre fans have been saying for a long time. Especially the argument that fantastical tropes--ghosts, monsters, magic--were present in lots of classical literature and banning them is something of a modern aberration.

Mostly though I'm excited because it really does seem like there's an increasing openness to works that blur the boundaries between literary and genre, and those kind of mutants and hybrids are exactly what I love to read (and write!).
posted by overglow at 7:54 AM on October 19, 2011


This thread needs more Jonathan Carroll.

His books are an acquired taste for most readers, to be sure - but I find him to be the exact type of genre-bending American writer that captures the mindset of those looking for a different approach to coping with death, what role magic and superstition plays in people's lives, and what our dreamscapes actually look and feel like -- all without relying on the usual fantasy, horror and sci-fi tropes.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 12:35 PM on October 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


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