Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Literary fiction versus genre fiction

The Globe and Mail books section recently featured an article about how reading fiction is good for you.

I appreciate Keith Oatley's study that reading fiction is indeed good for the mind and soul by fostering empathy for others and expanding worldviews.  However, it's towards the end of the article that Oakley makes the specific case that only literary fiction (not any other fiction) can have the capacity to change you:

For his part, Oatley is convinced that the better the writer, the more powerful the simulation, and he makes a distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction.

“You can have a good read, but it is sort of like going on a roller coaster. The engineers have constructed it so you have a particular set of experiences. You get off, your heart is beating a bit, but you are still the same person,” he says of reading a thriller or detective story. On the other hand, “Chekhov was a great artist: The effect is different – the extent to which [the reader] can really inhabit another mind.”

The roller coaster may be fun, but the flight simulator … now that's art.

Does this mean then, that reading genre fiction would not have any of the same benefits – at all?  Does reading lowly genre fiction serve to merely excite the mind, rather than enlighten it?  Oatley says that in order to truly inhabit the mind of someone else, the story should contain three of six elements (the article doesn't list them; I guess you have to buy a book or something).  But what if a story contains the required elements but the characters you are inhabiting the mind of happen to fly spaceships, slay dragons, or investigate murders?

I’m sure if I were to only read Dan Brown or Danielle Steele, I would probably suffer some mental deficiency over time and perhaps become even more self-absorbed than usual.  But I can’t get over Oatley's (and the Globe & Mail's) condescending attitude towards genre fiction -- that is, fiction that is not in the lofty form of literature.  This kind of smug attitude seems all too common among those who read literary fiction primarily to be enlightened, and if they were to read any other fiction, it would be for simple edification, escapism or entertainment.  

For one thing, Oatley sings the praises of how Pride and Prejudice is "a wonderful example of the simulator effect", conveniently overlooking the fact that this classic novel is also a romance at heart. An extremely well-written romance, to be sure, but P&P nevertheless uses the same tropes found in any Harlequin paperback. Even Austen herself admitted that P&P was like a sparkling flight of fancy which stood apart from her other works.  Oatley is right in that the power of simulation depends on the talent and skills of the writer, yet he argues that thrillers and detective novels don’t count. So I guess Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith just don’t cut it when it comes to rewarding simulation then.

I just recently read my first Alice Munro book, a classic coming of age novel that was banned from schools because of its sexual content. Alice Munro is considered a sacred cow of CanLit, a master of storytelling.  Legions of fans revere her for the powerful realness and understatedness of her writing. But personally I found her book to be a snooze-fest.  It failed to have any of that simulator effect on me, and other than a few exceptional passages, the novel failed as a whole to stimulate my mind in any real way, suffering from too much description, a lack of plot and a meandering structure (which happen to be -surprise- the clichĂ©s of literary fiction).

At first I felt a little guilty. I consider myself a fairly well-read person who has read all kinds of books (modern and classic literature, romance, fantasy, sci-fi, thrillers, horror, non-fiction, etc), surely I’m missing something important by being bored with a Munro book (and a classic one at that)? But no, I realize that there are plenty of other well-read people who feel the same way.

For me, it’s not about being on a rollercoaster, it's about being engaged – the equivalent is the suture effect when watching a movie. How can I really inhabit another person’s mind (or appreciate the true artistry of literary fiction) if I’m bored to tears? Or worse, if I feel obligated to read literary fiction because it's considered important.  Literary fiction shouldn't be a chore, or like a root vegetable  (it's not about enjoying it, it's about what's good for you).  I get that literature can allow us to understand the human condition better, but I also like to be engaged with what I'm reading at the same time.

In many ways, Alice Munro writes more beautifully than Austen, yet her stories are much harder for me to engage with. What makes Jane Austen distinctive (and so popular) is her brilliant social insight wrapped up in the form of a tightly structured (and appealing) narrative. There are plenty of gifted writers who follow this tradition of mixing "high" (quality writing) with “low” (genre conventions) – Sarah Waters, Gil Adamson, Susanna Clarke, Laura Lippman (no reason why I only came up with female authors), but also Juno Diaz, Jonathan Lethem, Patrick O’Brian also come to mind -- who have made far more impact on my mind than any Munro or Atwood or literary icon of "serious" fiction.

The thing is, I don't believe there is a qualitative difference between literary and genre fiction, as it's apparent that literature borrows much from genre fiction, and all the better for it.  By the same token, genre fiction can provide a deeper understanding of human foibles.  Again, it's a matter of context.  Sherlock Holmes was probably considered pulp fiction in its day, but those books are now regarded as literary classics.  These books are most definitely detective novels, but they also contain sharp character studies of the protagonists - do they not qualify as wonderful simulators in Oakley's mind because the stories also happen to be driven by plot?  Certainly, reading about the friendship between Holmes and Watson must help readers understand, as Oatley says, "what goes on between people” in real life.

And I'll bet a lot of the simulator effect depends on how the reader responds to the work of fiction.  I'm sure if Oatley were to take MRI scans from me and an avid Munro fan on how we respond to Lives of Girls and Women, the mental synapses of the Munro fan would be firing while mine would be dormant.  But I'm sure my synapses would awaken if I were to read a Stieg Larsson book.  He is not a great writer, but he does a wonderful job of painting a picture of a bleak Stockholm and making the unrealistic yet very identifiable Lisbeth Salander come alive in my mind.  Does that make me, as a reader, less capable of empathy?  One person's response is not superior or inferior to the other; we're just different people with different perceptions and experiences.

I think that Oatley must have equated genre fiction with sensational writing (which elicits cheap emotions), and literary fiction with great writing (that provokes thought and intelligent emotions), overlooking the fact that great writing is not strictly limited to the lofty realm of literary fiction.  That is the only explanation I can think of to understand where his snobby attitude and silly arguments came from.

Perhaps I should pick up Such Stuff as Dreams, as I'd really like to see the type of reader cross-section that was used for these MRI scans.  Because at the moment, it strikes me as ironic how Oatley makes the case for fiction fostering greater empathy, yet he himself holds such close-minded regard for genre fiction.

Anyway, that’s my rant for the year!


Lantzvillager said...

Thanks for the rant. Those of us who have been reading genre fiction our whole lives have been so ghettoized as to keep our heads down in shame as we peruse the science fiction or fantasy (or what have you) sections.

We scratch through our sweaty t shirts as other customers traipse gaily to the register with their Jonathan Franzen, Elizabeth Gilbert and David Mitchell books.

I have been pleasantly surprised at how much more genre fiction has broken through to the mainstream on recent years. Whether its the massively popular Potter or Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell or even the Dragon Tattoo books.

meezly said...

and thanks for the comment, Lantz/Mt Benson! yes it's great that fantasy and scifi have become much more acceptable in the mainstream. but I'm not sure if the literary elite would deign to call any of it "art". it's not all that different from the 19th c. or early 20th c. mindset when photography and film first came on the scene, and the elite dismissed it as not art.

Anonymous said...

Good "Literature" is not defined by critics. It is whatever the individual enjoys reading. If a person gets pleasure out of Harlequin romances, then Harlequins are literature.

I have read most of Hemmingway's work. Some of it I would classify as some of the best that I have read, and some I would classify as a waste of my time.

Unfortunately, today, whether or not something is classified as literature has more to do with the marketing of the author than it does the merit of the writing.

There are times when I simply want to relax and not have to work at what I am reading, and there are other times when I want to read something a little more challenging. But this doesn't mean that the more challenging novel is more literary than the one that is easier to read. Maybe the one is easier to read because it is simply better written, better plotted and better constructed.

meezly said...

@Anon - yes I totally agree. it's obvious there is just as much mediocre or terrible literary fiction, as there is in genre fiction, just as there is genre fiction of as much artistic merit as anything deemed as "literary" fiction.

I believe that Oatley's study is flawed in that he seems to think the reason that readers are getting positive results out of a Chekhov or Austen story is because it must be "art". He does mention that it also depends on the writer, but then why dismiss genre fiction then? I would like to know what samples of detective fiction or thrillers that were also used in this supposed study. This is why I should probably read that Oatley book.

But the G&M article is also to blame in its support of Oatley's opinion that genre fiction is inherently inferior to "literary" fiction. it's just so wrong.

Vellum said...

If you want a good examination of what makes a work of "classic" literature "classic", you might look at the first chapter of Jane Tomkins' "The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860". She basically argues that what we call "classic" is almost entirely based on circumstances (for instance, that when we read a "classic" we expect to read one), and that at all but the most literal levels, the works we read as "classics" aren't even really the same books as they were when they were written.

The whole "capital-L" literature is a weird phenomenon to me, but it bears study.

meezly said...

thanks very much for the Jane Tompkins reference, Vellum. sounds right up my alley as I'd like to read Tompkins arguments against what makes a literary work a "classic" as defined by the establishment or the elite.

I think the only point of difference is that Tompkins is arguing that certain works of sentimental fiction should be considered literature based on its historical context, not only on artistic merit.

what I'm questioning in that article that got my goat so much is that well-written fiction that is considered "genre" can inspire the same empathy effect Oatley thinks seems to belong only to "literary" fiction as defined by a narrow-minded cultural hegemony.

I think it's possible to inhabit the mind of a character (and gain empathy points) whether that person lives on a farm in rural Ontario, travels through time, or performs autopsies as a profession because the power of that gift lies in the hands of the writer, as well as in the individual experience and appreciation of the reader.

No one should define how you should feel when experiencing any form of cultural creation.

but yeah, that Tompkins book is going into my list. thanks for that!

meezly said...

seems like Margaret Atwood has a new book out called 'In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination' where she examines her rela­tionship "with the literary form we have come to know as science fiction."

According to the blurb on goodreads, the book also features Atwood's "musings about the form, including her elucidation of the differences (as she sees them) between “science fiction” proper and “speculative fiction,” as well as “sword and sorcery/fantasy” and “slip­stream fiction.”

I won't be too surprised if spec fic comes out the elevated winner. As one reader commented "Not really into Science Fiction, but I would read the encyclopedia if she wrote it", which shows that sci fi as a category just has this tag of inferiority.

I can kind of understand why an established literary writer like Atwood would not want to be associated with the "sci fi" tag as this would alienate their small-minded readers of "serious fiction", even though the writer also loves sci fi. So I appreciate that sci fi is at least in the title of her new book.

I'll have to see what Atwood has to say in her comparisons, and hopefully it won't cheese me off too much.