Sunday, July 08, 2007

On the death of genre fiction

What happens when you write a review of an alternate history novel that not only grants a number of backhanded compliments to the author, but slams genre fiction in its entirety?

`Michael Chabon has spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it.' (Ruth Franklin, Slate, May 8 2007)
You leave yourself wide open to a zinging rejoinder from Ursula K. Le Guin:
... 'But it was dead, dead! God damn that Chabon, dragging it out of the grave where she and the other serious writers had buried it to save serious literature from its polluting touch, the horror of its blank, pustular face, the lifeless, meaningless glare of its decaying eyes! What did the fool think he was doing?' ...
Read the whole thing, though; it's worth it. The novel in question is Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Literary snobbery at its most obvious.


  1. Fascinating. Love Ursula Leguin's response. As a reader and a writer (who hasn't particularly noticed that genre fiction is dead :-), I find labeling books rather baffling. I'm much more interested in rich, complex stories, fascinating characters, and good writing, than in how the books are pigeon-holed.

  2. That exchange calls to mind a session I attended at BEA in June, specifically on fantasy and science fiction, but it could apply to any "literary vs. genre" discussion. There was a bookseller on a panel with a couple editors and authors, and he spoke of how he found it nearly impossible to sell science fiction to anyone who didn't come into his store specifically looking for it. Customers assumed that all SF = Star Trek-type novels. Some of the authors/titles mentioned in both the Slate and Le Guin pieces were mentioned as counterexamples... that is, SF (or alternate history) novels that didn't get the "genre" label. The bookseller found that when he reshelved SF books in the general literature/fiction section, he had an easier time selling them to non-genre readers.

    I can see why readers find them useful, but (as a historical fiction fan) I'm used to ignoring labels, and to visiting just about every section in the bookstore for novels I might find interesting.

    And nope, genre fiction isn't dead, not by a long shot :)

  3. So that's what the smell in my local bookstore is! All that decaying genre fiction.