Friday, March 14, 2008

Grade A Genre Snobbery Spotted In the Wild

It's Tournament of Books time again. I'm quite fond of this competition, which strikes me as being as sensible a way to award excellence in literature as any other. Plus, with more than a dozen judges each publicly listing the reasons for their selection, one is practically guaranteed good rant fodder. So far, the 2008 tournament hasn't offered anything on the scale of Dale Peck's magnificent refusal-to-judge-while-excoriating-the-entire-Western-literary-scene, but Elizabeth McCracken sure does her best when asked to choose between Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao--which on top of appearing on very nearly every best-of-year list a few months ago recently won the NBCC award for best fiction--and Laura Lippman's mystery novel What the Dead Know. Unsurprisingly, the Díaz carries the day, but amid McCracken's explanation of her reasons for choosing it one finds the following gem:
Don’t get me wrong: I like murders in fiction. A lot. And I don’t mind the trappings of genre; I adore genre straddlers like Lethem, Lehane, and Kelly Link. But I want glorious language first, depth of character a close second, and everything else after. Cram all the Pinkertons, Shamuses, Cold War spies, werewolves, unicorns, and rainbows you want in a novel; I’ll read it as long as it has great language and interesting characters. (Not vampires, though. I can’t abide vampires.) But a straight crime novel? Clearly it was going to be Díaz in a walk.
Intellectually I know that, for the sake of my health at least, I should stop getting worked up over yet another iteration of the 'but this is good/well then it's not SF' attitude. And it's not as if you don't know the counterargument to McCracken's unthinking dismissal of genre already--while she's certainly not wrong that genre writing tends to prioritize plot over language and character, there are plenty of genre works that excel on both those counts, and many literary works that don't deliver on either. What really gets me about this particular instance of genre snobbery, though, is that it's really not that common to come across so sweeping a dismissal. One more often encounters reviewers who, while praising a single genre work or writer, hasten to dismiss the field lest they catch genre cooties (see this recent example regarding J.G. Ballard), but McCracken actually comes out and says that good writing and complicated characters are antithetical to genre writing, and that their absence is part of the definition of genre. It's good, every now and then, to be reminded of just what level of ignorance and snobbery those of us who love and believe in genre fiction are up against.


Trish said...

Did she actually read What the Dead Know?

springer said...

Far more troubling was The Savage Detectives being bounced in the first round.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I haven't read that book (or the book it lost to) so I'm not that bothered. And I was pleased to see that Tom McCarthy's Remainder beat out McEwan's On Chesil Beach in today's round.

Seriously, though, the ToB is about as far from a meritocratic competition as you can get and clearly everyone involved knows it and is just having a bit of fun. I'm not fussed by the choice McCracken made so much as by the opinions she expressed while doing so.

Post a Comment