I’m still working out my relationship with the blog as a critical organ… I guess, in a way, we all are. My thoughts, as visitors to this site may have noticed, tend equally toward the associative and the forensic. And yet, as a gift to you, the reader, I’d like to carve out a space in which I can share some of my less strenuously worked-out thoughts about the state of the art of fiction, and about culture more generally. (Lucky me, you’re probably thinking.)
These “ideas,” if I can call them that, may turn out on closer inspection to be completely bogus. And yet I’m feeling the need sporadically to turn the power of the blog as an instrument of feedback away from such epiphenomenal questions as, “Doesn’t John Colapinto seem weirdly peevish and thin-skinned this week” and toward less sexy developments that may still have some bearing on American culture a year from now… or a decade from now. That is, I propose to engineer a column on literature here at The Millions that advances beyond “link-bait,” even as it stays brief, casual, and interactive. I want to invite other writers working online, or stuck in the cubicle farm, to pick up on and respond to my less topical provocations, here or elsewhere, just as they might respond to a public gaffe by a former child star, or a book review in The New Republic.
I’d like to call this column “Inter Alia,” which is Latin for “among other things.” It will appear irregularly, like a meteor shower (or perhaps more likely, an unwanted guest). It will be about the length of what follows.
Inter Alia 1: Genre Madness
I’m going to raise a few questions, by way of experiment, about the continued relevance (or irrelevance) of notions of genre. It seems to me that the canonization of Philip K. Dick by the Library of America is a healthy development, and not just because it encourages snobs like me to consider speculative fiction alongside the main body of “realism” in our reading lives. It is also (I think) a manifestation of a long trend, with younger American writers gleefully sinking their teeth into the pop tropes of what was previously dismissed as “genre fiction,” and “genre” writers like Dick being hailed for their literary merit. (Let’s set aside for the sake of argument the high-low brinksmanship of Modernists like Joyce and Borges, similar in degree but different in kind). Kelly Link’s Small Beer Press, e.g., has done a lot to remind us that the postmodern leveling of “high” and “low” culture distinctions is not just political – it can be fun. Simultaneously, “Literary Fiction,” as Gerald Howard and others have argued, is moving from being a descriptor to being a genre in and of itself, with its own generic conventions. Call it lit-fic: a label no more a guarantor (or compromiser) of literary value than is “Western,” or “Sci Fi.”
Michael Chabon, it seems to me, is one of several 40-ish writers working toward a unified-field theory that harmonizes the best of lit-fic and its discontents. And yet, notwithstanding the wisdom of John Leonard, who suggested at a panel recently that getting too hung up on a book’s genre is a form of stupidity, I find myself struggling with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. On one hand, it’s a staggering feat of imagination, and often a great read. On the other, the stylized cliffhanger chapter endings (cribbed from gumshoe novels and children’s books and Saturday matinees), the sometimes cartoony dogpile of figurative language, the comic book characterization, and the almost parodically rococo plot seem to me to obscure the promise of a brilliant premise: an alternative postwar history that turns Alaska into a Jewish homeland.
This may be nigglingly small-minded, and would be a mere footnote to a longer review. Chabon clearly invested years in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and has taken significant risks, and I think he deserves a wide readership. But I want to be honest about my reading experience. If this were a children’s book, like Summerland, or a melancholy lieder, like The Final Solution, I might swallow my resistance. But Chabon wants me to take to heart the adult sufferings of his hero, Meyer Landsman, and this particular book’s generic patrimony interferes with my ability to do so. I keep feeling dismissed from the suspension of disbelief, like Adam and Eve booted from the garden. I keep feeling reminded of the book qua book. Am I just hung up in an old-fashioned need to classify, as I once accused Michiko Kakutani of being? Or are there certain compositional principles underlying the successful genre mash-up, the way a mash-up mp3 requires that two songs have affinities of key and tempo? And if so, how do writers put them into practice? How do readers evaluate a genre-straddling book by the standards of one genre without using the other as an alibi? Discuss.