Arthur Krystal Revives The Genre Fiction v. Literature Debate

The debate over whether genre fiction can ever count as literature is back, this time in the form of an essay from Arthur Krystal at the New Yorker. I don’t much agree with the piece, because I think it’s totally ludicrous to say that “Writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know are not going to write horror tales or police procedurals. Why say otherwise?” when environments of stress, grief, or transitions between old worlds and new ones are precisely those that expose the reasons that reasons cannot know. But I actually think it’s a great example of the dodge people like Krystal perform to justify treating genre as lesser than an amorphously-defined “literature.” He writes:

The science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, for instance, announced that literature “is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.” Is that so? A novel by definition is “written art”? You know, I wrote a novel once, and I’m pretty sure that Le Guin would change her mind if she read it…

What I’m trying to say is that “genre” is not a bad word, although perhaps the better word for novels that taxonomically register as genre is simply “commercial.” Born to sell, these novels stick to the trite-and-true, relying on stock characters whose thoughts spool out in Lifetime platitudes. There will be exceptions, as there are in every field, but, for the most part, the standard genre or commercial novel isn’t going to break the sea frozen inside us. If this sounds condescending, so be it. Commercial novels, in general, whether they’re thrillers or romance or science fiction, employ language that is at best undistinguished and at worst characterized by a jejune mentality and a tendency to state the obvious. Which is not to say that some literary novels, as more than a few readers pointed out to me, do not contain a surfeit of decorative description, elaborate psychologizing, and gleams of self-conscious irony. To which I say: so what?

What he’s doing here is clever: essentially, Krystal is holding genre responsible for the worst stuff written in its name, while literature doesn’t have to be responsible for, say, romance novels, or Nicholas Sparks weepies. Genre is determined to be genre because it includes certain kinds of plots or takes place in certain kinds of settings. Literature is a determination of quality. Treating them as if they’re similar categories for sorting out novels, film, or television is a brilliant dodge on the part of people who don’t want to recognize that genre fiction can be literature. Why they’re resistant to that recognition is the really interesting question.