Essays

What About Genre, What About Horror?

By posted at 7:33 am on March 9, 2010 49

coverGenre, genre, genre, whole days go by when I am asked of nothing else, especially those moronic questions about horror that should have been swept out of civilized discourse at least thirty years ago: Tell us now, if you can, for we are really terribly curious about this, why is it, do you think, that reasonable people should pay good money to be, well, frightened? What, you know, can the appeal of such… unpleasantness… actually be? And on a more personal note, please, we’re all so curious… if you wouldn’t mind… what scares you? Okay, in reverse order, then: pretty much the same kind of thing that frightens you, what did you think I’d say, giant lizards? And, moving on to the first question: What are you trying to suggest, that you are not, have never been, implicated in this particular transaction? How certain are you, anyhow, that what you call “unpleasantness” is not a necessary, even crucial, part of our experience? Maybe you should lock yourself up in your heart long enough to work out your actual relationship to matters like shame, loss, envy, panic, brutality, greed, insecurity, loneliness, failure, whatever you find particularly unpleasant. Because that, dimwit, is where you live, especially if you really hate the whole idea of familiarity with such crappy, low-rent feeling states.

Let’s be honest, down there in the gutter is where most of us live better than half the time anyhow, probably a lot more than half. And if we are talking about those states of consciousness kept on back-burner low-simmer, we have to jack the figure up to maybe ninety per cent of the time, maybe ninety-eight. At this point, some impolite character like me comes along and says, It’s too bad you find this stuff so unacceptable when it takes up so much of your life, hmmm, couldn’t you maybe revise your category stances and define all this prime-time, tight-focus actuality in a different way? Because let’s face it, you don’t spend your life hang-gliding from one emotional peak to another, do you. The only way you recognize an emotional peak when you are fortunate enough to experience one is that it feels so different from the rest of your life, hmmm, let’s make that little noise again, hmmm, it’s so expressive of almost unwilling mentation. Why, we could say, it’s almost as though we were designed to be struggling and limping our way through the lowlands and gutterscapes, it’s like, you know, that’s the point, the struggling and limping, the gutterscapes so foul so fragrant. The point. The more you take in, the more you see. Shame shock blood pain grief suffering… you might even say, that’s the good part.

Oh, not really. Please. If that weren’t so perverse, it’d just be silly.

Um. Well, yes, perverse, I agree, but not at all silly. Yes, really: the good part. Meaning, the room where you and your life sit opposite each other in the dark, blinking and squinting, hoping the grimace on the blood-smeared face across the room is a brave grin. Or “plucky,” if that’s the way you think.

Well now, come on, that’s completely ridiculous. That’s just… genre, is what that is. And you accuse us of thinking in clichés!

Okay: genre genre genre, here we go. Crime novels and horror stories huddle down here in the gutter, right?, while real literature lives in the fragrant uplands and on the radiant peaks where plotting is at most secondary and life proceeds by instinct and intelligence, by fine intuition and a lively moral consciousness, owing nothing to formulae and the requirement to gratify the lazy reader’s expectations of suspenseful suspense and exciting excitement. One is disposable, the other immortal. However… well, just for beginners, let’s admit that literary fiction is a genre, too, shall we? Expectations guide its readers, that of respect for consensus reality and the poignancy of seemingly ordinary lives, of sensitive character-drawing and vivid scene-painting, of the reversals and conflicts characteristic of the several sub-genres of literary fiction: the academic novel, the comic novel, the adultery novel, the comic academic adultery-novel,  the experimental novel, the novel of foreign travel or inward journey, of unexpected encounter, of breakdown, of alcoholism, of youth, of middle age, of a hundred different things so well-known and encoded that the fonts used for the titles and the authors’ names tell you as much as the flap copy.

You know what else those fonts can tell you? This isn’t an exact science, let me admit, but they suggest how many copies the publisher thinks he is going to sell. It’s all there, right on the jacket: this book is a challenging yet comforting work of fiction in which the sensitive and ironic young protagonist experiences painful yet comic difficulties writing his first novel in a French fishing village. Soon, pages of his manuscript disappear from his desk and begin to turn up in the locations they describe. We hope to unload at least ten thousand copies of this well-written, pallid piece of post-modern, post-Jamesian crapola, but five is about what we expect. Title and author’s name “charming” in crumbling white letters, sans serif, all lower case, title just below jacket center and to the left, author’s name two lines down, tabbed farther left and irregularly spaced, some letters slightly askew. That says: five is about what we expect. The author will soon find that he no longer has a two-book contract.

Which is to note that publishing companies tend to signal complex decisions about marketing in ways both deliberate and inadvertent. Bookstores organize their inventory by sorting them into categories, and publishers try to make it easy for them. Genre jackets feature bright colors and embossed lettering, the author’s name in immense fonts bannered across the jacket bottom underneath some thematic kabuki. That’s how you know they are crime novels, all that vulgar hoopla on the jacket, even the “good taste” crime jackets look crass and shiny. In bookstores, you spot them right away, and that’s the point. Genre fiction came into being because publishers discovered from the pulps that there was a market for it, and it stays viable because it’s like food, people keep buying books by Robert B. Parker and Michael Connolly to get the same delightful taste in their mouths over and over, as if the books were made of maple walnut ice cream. (I’d say that people bought three decades’ worth of John Updike and Philip Roth novels for the same reason, and that a completely different set of readers have kept returning to William Gaddis and Thomas Bernhardt for an earned anticipated nourishment that cannot really be compared to ice cream.)

coverNow, as fantastically reliable as he was in delivering the desired goods, Robert B. Parker grew awfully soft in his later years, but Michael Connelly has remained true to his original impulses, to put on display the underbelly of L.A. while tracking an idiosyncratic detective’s solution of a complex crime or series of crimes. While remaining a very reliable and pleasurable crime writer, however, Connelly never rises above that category. Because Connolly is both wholly serious and honest about what he does, he would find the idea of “rising above his “category” risible. He should, anyhow—he’s earned that much, the right to an absolute respect for his own work. It is worth noting that both Parker and Connelly are rooted in Raymond Chandler, who may be the only American crime writer ever really to turn genre crime fiction into art, and he managed to do it only once, in The Long Goodbye.  He knew he’d done it, too: you can feel it in his letters, the evolution from an earlier edgy, wary defensiveness into, late in his life, a self-doubting, self-questioning master’s sense of accomplishment. Though Ross Macdonald came very close a couple of times, none of the writers who followed along after Chandler ever wrote anything as resonant, complex and sad as The Long Goodbye. None of them, not even Macdonald, ever could, in large part because they were all using a borrowed template that grew thinner and thinner with every generation.

Macdonald, Parker and Connelly worked or work in a genre that provides convenient situation-patterns, a condition that is made possible because the designations  “crime” and “mystery” identify and to some extent predetermine the content of the fiction they cover. Crime writers and academics of genre fiction like to denigrate horror by pointing out that unlike “mystery,” “western” or “romance,” “horror” specifies no content beyond the emotion it is intended to arouse. I think this absence of specificity is not at all a limitation but the reverse, a great enhancement. That no situational templates are built into horror grants it an inherent boundarilessness, a boundlessness, an inexhaustible unlimitedness. If the “horror” part is not stressed all that overtly and the author spares us zombies, vampires, ghosts, haunted houses, hideous things in bandages, etc., what results is fiction indistinguishable, except in one element alone,  from literary fiction. That crucial element could be called point of view, or angle of vision. It is whatever dictates the way in which everything is seen. For further details, return to my first paragraph. Consult your heart, go on, lock yourself in and think about loss and loneliness, about grief, these hard, necessary facts. Where do you live, really, in what kind of world? The question can never be answered in a way that is not unsettling.

[Image credit: Windell Oskay]





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49 Responses to “What About Genre, What About Horror?”

  1. Robin
    at 9:09 am on March 9, 2010

    Nice essay, but the definition of literary fiction is far too narrow and far too self-serving. Much literary fiction, for instance, is just as plot-oriented and just as visceral as genre fiction, and I have no idea what Straub means by saying that literary fiction concentrates on things like “consensus reality.” Certainly Lolita or The Great Gatsby or As I Lay Dying or Invisible Man or Earthly Powers or The God of Small Things or White Teeth or The Robber Bride or A Suitable Boy or We Need to Talk About Kevin, to take some obvious examples by some very different literary writers, carry us quite a long ways off from the definition of the “literary genre” that Straub offers. I agree with Straub that there’s a weird resistance to taking the best horror writing as seriously as, say, the best detective writing is taken. Still, Straub doesn’t help anyone take horror fiction more seriously by trying to lock literary fiction into a little box of his own devising. He shouldn’t imitate the very narrow-mindedness he’s attempting to break while making his argument for, say, Stephen King or Shirley Jackson or Straub himself. If the best horror writers are as good as the best writers of the literary genre (a genre that doesn’t exist, or at least not in the terms that Straub describes), it’s because good writing can show up almost anywhere, by any kind of writer using any kind of approach.

  2. Joel
    at 9:41 am on March 9, 2010

    I agree that literary fiction is really another genre much like horror, crime, or romance. The trouble with any fiction writing is exactly what the last paragraph highlights. A reliance on prescribed elements that define a genre.
    Literary fiction enjoys a better reputation in terms of surface quality. The infallible reputation of the literary genre doesn’t mean it is infallible though. Literary grade fiction doesn’t suffer from an overuse of zombies, mummies or the odd rabid dog. Is does suffer on occasion from over wordiness, pretension and the shot gun blast of consciousness. The differences seem to be the amount of scrap in the heap.

  3. DN
    at 10:52 am on March 9, 2010

    “Literary fiction” is a genre like “sci-fi” or “horror.” In “literary fiction” as in all genres, there are works that transcend and works that do not. Or: most of every type of thing is garbage, but some is really great. Walk the shelves of any bookstore and on any given shelf there are probably one or two books that you would like and a whole lot that are just cheap imitaitons of other works.

    It is easy to hold up “As I Lay Dying” and say, “See literary fiction doesn’t follow any rules”–but this isn’t a fair test. It is like when someone says the 60s are better than the 90s because Dylan is better than Creed. We can all pick great works and put them against terrible works to prove our point.

    The fact of the matter is that there are great works on every shelf in a bookstore. Often those works that transcend our traditional notion of genre are plucked out of it and placed in the “literary fiction” section anyway. Etc. Etc. Etc.

    I’m not defending genre, I’m just saying don’t be blind to the garbage all around you.

  4. Levi Stahl
    at 11:10 am on March 9, 2010

    My take on why horror is more denigrated than crime fiction (to say nothing of literary fiction) is simpler than Straub’s: because it specifically defies what he describes as “consensus reality.” Crime fiction, on the other hand–and even some sci-fi–can (and does) claim to represent the world we all live in, essentially unchanged, just seen from a different, darker, dirtier, more vulnerable point of view. It’s escapism that pretends it’s not. Horror, on the other hand, begins with the premise that the reality we’re all agreed upon is not the only reality–the parameters our materialist consensus has set out for it leave out many, many scary and important aspects.

    It’s easier for a crime writer to tell himself, or a crime reader to tell himself, that, even as he’s working within genre conventions, what he’s really doing is taking a hard look at reality; a horror writer doesn’t have that luxury, and his prestige will always, I think, suffer for it.

  5. Robin
    at 11:18 am on March 9, 2010

    DN, I think you should maybe read a little more carefully what I actually wrote. I never said or suggested that literary fiction is in bulk better than genre fiction. I think the opposite is true: precisely because genre fiction has some clear rules, the writers who do well in genre fiction tend to be good at following those rules, and deserve to be praised for that. I certainly didn’t suggest that literary fiction is better than genre fiction just because As I Lay Dying is a great novel. (Under your reasoning, by the way, Straub should have been disqualified from mentioning Raymond Chandler and forced to defend Tom Clancy.) All I said is that the definition of literary fiction offered by Straub is false, because he has given a definition that doesn’t begin to recognize the range of literary fiction out there. If you like, I’m happy to pick an example of bad literary writing that doesn’t fit Straub’s definition: for instance, almost everything by Joyce Carol Oates. This isn’t a very interesting game anyway, trying to define what is and isn’t literary writing or what is and isn’t genre writing. If you read the last line of what I originally wrote, you’ll see that you and I are mainly in agreement, and that you’re fighting with someone who’s on your side.

  6. Richard Thomas
    at 1:15 pm on March 9, 2010

    First, God Bless you, Mr. Straub.

    People need to stop worrying about what categories things fit into and just enjoy them. Does it matter if you are frightened by Flannery O’Connor or Stephen King? William Gay or Peter Straub? If it works, it works. SO many universities are down on “genre” fiction, wanting to make us all into these literary giants. How many writers can make a living writing ANYTHING? Look at the best seller lists – what’s on top? Mystery, detective, horror, pulp, and yes, some lit too.

    People like Peter Straub fight to elevate dark fiction to a higher place, along with writers like Benjamin Percy, the aforementioned Gay, Stephen Graham Jones, Brian Evenson, Blake Butler, Mark Gaitskill, AM Homes, so many. It’s a fight we wage every day.

    In the end, I think all of “us” need to get along, lit and genre, high-brow and low-brow, and everything in between. Less exclusion and more inclusion. There is nothing wrong with reading Cormac followed by King followed by Pynchon followed by Grisham by Bradbury by Saunders by whoever the hell you enjoy.

    Read fiction in The New Yorker and Playboy and The Paris Review and Esquire. Just read, and turn other people on to whatever it is you’re really digging.

    My two cents, anyway. :-)

  7. DN
    at 1:21 pm on March 9, 2010

    Robin, you are right. I’m sorry. I wasn’t really respoonding to you, or anyone, so I shouldn’t have mentioned your comment. I apologize. I am an alright guy, I promise–just got carried away in my own bubble.

  8. Lincoln
    at 2:05 pm on March 9, 2010

    You’ll have to count me on the side of people who don’t think it makes much sense to call “literary fiction” a genre akin to sci-fi or horror or anything else. All those other genres you can sum up pretty quickly and accurately and people will know what you are talking about. There is no way to sum up literary fiction that would include everyone from Borges to Kafka to O’Connor to Sorrentino to Barthelme to Bolano to Bernhard to (I could go on and on).

    This is not, I don’t think, a question of people “transcending” their genre, as DN suggests. It is more that the sub-genres of literary fiction do not fit together. There is really nothing that links a Borges story to a traditional domestic realism novel or a Oulipo literary game to a southern gothic story.

    Straub’s definition, which hinges around the idea that the work centers on “ordinary lives” automatically makes you think of a billion examples of literary works that aren’t about ordinary people.

    It makes more sense to say that “literary fiction” is a problematic term with multiple and perhaps conflicting definitions. Because what literary fiction really means is artistic fiction. So a work of fiction can be BOTH genre fiction and literary fiction in many people’s eyes. Raymond Chandler is often listed as a literary author or in the literary section of bookstores, but we would still call his work detective fiction.

  9. Lincoln
    at 2:14 pm on March 9, 2010

    I tend to think the problem is that there is a conflation between what is pulp and what is genre.

  10. DN
    at 2:28 pm on March 9, 2010

    Lincoln, I think where we differ is that I would not class those authors you list as being in the genre of “literary fiction.” What I was trying to express was that there are tropes and expectations for popular, literary fiction just as there are with crime fiction and fantasy. That is what I was failing to say in my first post.

    You say you can’t sum up “literary fiction” as a genre that includes Kafka and Bolano, etc, but I think you would have just as hard a time classifying, say, “sci-fi” as a genre when comparing Gene Wolfe, Samuel Delaney, Octavia Butler, Isaac Asimov, etc.

    There is good and bad of everything and the bad, or mediocre, ossify what was great about the good into cliches. All fiction, music, film, etc., does this. “Literary fiction” isn’t exempted just because Nabokov was awesome.

    Now, I recognize that maybe I am changing the meaning of some terms here, but when I hear the term “literary fiction” I do not think of Thomas Pynchon or Kathryn Davis or Lydia Davis. I think of the type of earnest, well-written book that does well as a movie. I’m sorry if I am being dismissive here.

    I guess the problem is that we would agree that writing within the tropes and confines of any genre is bad, but whenever a work exceeds those, it gets plucked out of the confines of that genre and not counted with its rank. It is like this:

    “Pickles don’t taste good,”
    “This pickle tastes good.”
    “Then it isn’t a pickle.”

    I don’t know why I am carrying on so–I don’t even read “sci-fi” or “horror” or any other “genre” fiction.

  11. Jerrod Balzer
    at 2:36 pm on March 9, 2010

    Giant lizards ARE pretty scary.

  12. Lincoln
    at 2:43 pm on March 9, 2010

    dn:

    By what standard would you not classify them as such? Those authors (or contemporary authors like them) blurb each other, are studied together in classes, sit side by side on the literary fiction shelf of a book store, are published side by side in the same literary magazines, etc. If I read a genre fiction magazine I’m going to get that genre’s fiction and it will be fairly similar, but if I open a copy of McSweeney’s or Tin House I’ll find a wide range of writing akin to what I listed. Even the New Yorker, which has a (I think unjustified) reputation for being narrow and boring in its fiction still publishes people like George Saunders, Roberto Bolano and so on.

    I certainly don’t disagree that most of what is published as literary fiction or in literary magazines is crap though. Most of everything is.

  13. DN
    at 2:48 pm on March 9, 2010

    Including most of my comments.

  14. Richard Thomas
    at 2:49 pm on March 9, 2010

    Well, DN you need to change that.

    Start with William Gay’s story “The Paperhanger” if that eases you in. Or just about any short by Mary Gaitskill. I’m sure you’ve read Flannery O’Connor (any short), and maybe Cormac McCarthy (The Road, Outer Dark, etc.)? If not, read them, they’re certainly dark and horrific. Brian Evenson (anything), Stephen Graham Jones (All the Beautiful Sinners), Blake Butler (Scorch Atlas), that’s a great mix of contemporary genre-benders there. Of course I’d personally suggest Straub’s Ghost Story, King’s The Stand or It (both very long) or The Long Walk (very short), Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. So many great books, no need to avoid them.

  15. greg gutierrez
    at 2:53 pm on March 9, 2010

    A wonderful essay. For me there are often no clear lines between genres. In many ways genres are illusions. And what wonderful illusions they can be.

    Greg Gutierrez
    Zen and the Art of Surfing

  16. Nick Mamatas
    at 3:09 pm on March 9, 2010

    If I read a genre fiction magazine I’m going to get that genre’s fiction and it will be fairly similar, but if I open a copy of McSweeney’s or Tin House I’ll find a wide range of writing akin to what I listed.

    Not necessarily the case—for one thing, you may find a Borges story in a mystery magazine (say, Ellery Queen’s, back in 1948), and that issue of Tin House you pick up might have a story by genre writer Kelly Link (as did TH’s 2007 Fantastic Women issue).

    You’re just playing the usual game of pointing to the best of “literary” fiction—McSweeney’s and Tin House—and comparing them to some notional middle-of-the-road genre magazine, and then, shocker!, the best of A is better than some imaginary average example of B. And this rather leaves aside the fact that both the magazines you name do publish genre pieces as well.

  17. Lincoln
    at 3:30 pm on March 9, 2010

    Nick:

    No, that is really not the game I’m playing. As I said above:

    This is not, I don’t think, a question of people “transcending” their genre, as DN suggests. It is more that the sub-genres of literary fiction do not fit together. There is really nothing that links a Borges story to a traditional domestic realism novel or a Oulipo literary game to a southern gothic story.

    My only point here is the term “literary fiction” is not used in the same way as the term “Sci-Fi” or “Romance” or whatever. What I’m saying is we are comparing apples to oranges. It is just a different kind of term.

    When Straub lists his definition for literary fiction he simply defines domestic realism. His definition doesn’t include magic realism, avant-garde fiction, southern gothic or any of the other styles that are grouped under the term literary fiction.

    I only used Tin House and McSweeney’s because they are famous and people would be familiar with them. I could name a ton of lower tier journals that would make the same point too.

  18. Lincoln
    at 3:32 pm on March 9, 2010

    And just to clarify, I’m certainly not saying that this makes literary fiction automatically better than genre fiction. I’m saying the terms dont’ really compare and if anything the term literary fiction might be unfair and problematic, since great genre works (Raymond Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, etc.) get snatched up and called literary.

  19. Emily St. John Mandel
    at 3:45 pm on March 9, 2010

    It would be nice if we could move beyond the tired idea that literary fiction is by definition all but plotless. As Robin notes, it’s just not accurate.

    Now if you’ll all excuse me, I need to go analyze the fonts on my dust jackets.

  20. Nick Mamatas
    at 3:46 pm on March 9, 2010

    Lincoln,

    I would suggest that those ton of lower-tier literary journals in fact do NOT publish stuff along the lines of Borges and stuff along the lines of domestic realism and Oulipo-based material and Kafkasque material, etc. Most of the journals I’ve ever seen have fairly strict aesthetic agendas, at least within particular issues. (Some, like Conjunctions, an issue of with Straub edited, have narrow agendas but at least alter those agendas on an issue-by-issue basis.) Not only are Mc and TH among the best and most popular, they are among the most adventurous—there’s probably a relation between those three attributes, of course.

    You are correct, of course, that literary fiction is a rather large umbrella of sometimes competing and sometimes parallel traditions. But so too is something people often call “speculative fiction”—which would also include some Borges, and some naked propaganda for the space program, and Robert Aickman, and Vonnegutesque satires, and Joyce Carol Oates (who publishes seemingly at whim, of course) etc.

    Heck, we can just narrow is down to “fantasy”: what do Lovecraft and Tolkien really have in common, traditionally or aesthetically? And they’re hardly the opposite ends of the fantastical spectrum either.

    Now, of course, there are genre magazines with narrow focuses, but there are also literary magazines with focuses just as narrow. That was my objection: you picked the magazines with the broadest “literary” focus and compared them to some notional genre magazine that would only publish a fairly narrow range. Actually existing literary magazines are almost all narrower in focus than mcSweeney’s; actually existing genre magazines are almost all at least somewhat broader in focus than what you give them credit for.

  21. Nick Mamatas
    at 3:47 pm on March 9, 2010

    of WHICH Straub edited. I wish The Millions allowed comments to be previewed.

  22. DN
    at 3:55 pm on March 9, 2010

    Richard, thanks for the suggestions. I’ve read most of that stuff, or at least the obvious (Ghost Story, O’Connor, Gaitskill). I love Stephen King and think that the Dead Zone is one of the best novels ever written, period. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to read Cormac McCarthy, but that’s just my own thing. The other suggestions, I will check out. With horror fiction, my disappointment is that I can never find horror novels as satisfying as horror films, but maybe I am trying the wrong works. It seems that maybe one issue with horro fiction, at least in execution, is that there is a drive toward resolution or revelation that detracts. An in ability to leave ambiguous or unresolved. The beginning is alwasy so much more satisfying and horrific than the end. I would love for a horror novel to be able to not bring the plot to a conclusion, but leave it open. I don’t think this is a failing of horror as a genre but just a fact of execution. I imagine that publishers frown upon unresolved plots.

  23. John Williams
    at 3:57 pm on March 9, 2010

    I don’t think Straub is talking about just domestic literary fiction. He says “the several sub-genres of literary fiction,” and includes in that list “the experimental novel.” And while it’s true that it’s hard to draw a line between Borges and O’Connor and Fitzgerald, it’s also true that it’s quite easy to see in many experimental stories just how the author is nodding to the experimental styles of, say, Barthelme, Borges, or someone else. Even though the fiction I read is almost entirely what Straub would call “literary fiction,” I take his point — it has its conventions. And so do its sub-genres. Just because someone truly singular may come along and explode them every once in a while, that doesn’t make the general point less true.

  24. Ryan
    at 3:58 pm on March 9, 2010

    Lincoln, I think you are both very accurate in your comment and very inaccurate.
    You say:

    “Those authors (or contemporary authors like them) blurb each other, are studied together in classes, sit side by side on the literary fiction shelf of a book store, are published side by side in the same literary magazines, etc.”

    And this is precisely right. These are all indicators of a “genre” , specifically “literary fiction”. But, you might say, what are the tropes of literary fiction as a genre, such that Borges and Updike can be classified together? The truth is there aren’t any. Or, there are, but only such that can be stretched wide enough to be meaningless. Literary fiction is a genre because of marketing and nothing more. It is the same with mystery, horror, romance, etc. If I like x and y books sitting on the “Literature” shelf, then I might like z. The only thing that ties x, y, and z together is that their publishers think I will buy the other if I like the one.

    Look at it this way, how is Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man a science fiction novel? Well, you might say, it has time travel in it. But, so does Slaughterhouse-5. As well as The Time Traveler’s Wife. Are the last two science-fiction? Some people say yes, some people say no. But if I go to a bookstore, where am I going to find them? Time travel is a trope most associated with science fiction. But it does not define the genre. While science-fiction might have spaceships, ray guns, and aliens, etc., these things no more define the genre than a private eye and femme fatale define film noir. I mean, where’s the private eye in Sunset Blvd.? Where’s the femme fatale in The Night of the Hunter?

    The problem comes when, to take the film noir example, you try to redefine these films based on quality. That is, the only metric that would separate Sunset Blvd. and Night of the Hunter from Gun Crazy or Crimewave, is that the former are “great” films that transcend the genre and thus can no longer belong, while the latter are merely good examples of such genre. However, “great” isn’t a genre. The problem, though, is that it has been associated with literary fiction, such that quality is a defining feature of the genre. Which makes no sense, because quality (and shit) can be found in any genre.

    For example, what makes Cormac McCarthy’s The Road not a science-fiction book? The only thing is that it was marketed as literary fiction, and shelved in that section. That’s it. “Post-apocalypse” is a trope associated with science-fiction. There are good examples (Riddley Walker) and bad examples (Brin’s The Postman). But they’re all science-fiction, except when they’re not marketed as such.

    These pointless genre battles often crop up, I suspect, not so much as the defensiveness of genre fans (be it mystery, science-fiction, horror) to be taken seriously (which I do think forms a part), but more often literary fiction fans defensiveness to admit that their taste is more defined by marketing than by quality. That is, all genres have great examples and shit examples, but “literary fiction” is the only genre that defines itself solely as the former. But the truth is, its just marketing.

  25. DN
    at 4:00 pm on March 9, 2010

    Southern literature comes to mind as literary fiction that is incredibly narrow in scope, or at least as it is collected and marketed. I remember being very frustrated in college with Southern Lit–that is, you weren’t writing Southern Lit unless you had some folks in a station wagon dwelling on the blood of the earth and the history of a family’s fortunes after the Civil War. Reading lit journals that focus on Southern Lit (at the time) often felt like reading the same cliches over and over.

  26. Lincoln
    at 4:08 pm on March 9, 2010

    Ryan, I think we are actually in total agreement here:

    And this is precisely right. These are all indicators of a “genre” , specifically “literary fiction”. But, you might say, what are the tropes of literary fiction as a genre, such that Borges and Updike can be classified together? The truth is there aren’t any. Or, there are, but only such that can be stretched wide enough to be meaningless.

    My point is that literary fiction is not a term like “horror” or “detective fiction.” It isn’t a genre term. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything really, but if it does it means something other than genre, namely a certain level of artistry. Again, I’m saying that it is problematic, but I don’t think claiming that “literary fiction” = domestic realism makes much sense.

  27. Lincoln
    at 4:12 pm on March 9, 2010

    Nick: You are of course correct that there are literary magazines both big and small that have strict aesthetics. There are also literary magazines both small and big with very broad aesthetics. But the aesthetics are not merely domestic realism, there are journals dedicated to other styles. And in addition, literary authors will target there submissions by aesthetic so that their domestic realist story goes into journal X and their Saunderish satire goes into Y and their Barthelmeish experimentation goes in Z, etc.

    My question do dn and anyone else, is that if all the authors and journals we are discussing are not “literary fiction” then what are they?

  28. Ryan
    at 4:21 pm on March 9, 2010

    Lincoln, you say: “Again, I’m saying that it is problematic, but I don’t think claiming that “literary fiction” = domestic realism makes much sense.”

    I agree completely. Saying that is like saying science-fiction = aliens, horror = monsters, mystery = detectives. However, these latter views have often become the dominant and stereotyped view, such that, if I recommended Evenson’s The Open Curtain to friend saying that it’s one of the best horror novels I’ve ever read, they might reply that they don’t like zombies or Stephen King. Clearly, it’s their loss for not being an open-minded reader, but you can hardly blame them when “Horror” as such is always marketed as zombies and vampires and the Saw movies.

    The problem is that treating “literary fiction” as something different in kind to other genres reinforces the stereotypical, popularly received opinion that “genre x means y and z” while “literary fiction means good”. I think that “literary fiction” is a marketing classification and nothing more. But I also think that “horror” is a marketing classification and nothing more. Treating them as something else, the former is “quality” the latter is “genre” often prevents readers from reading great works that they wouldn’t normally.

  29. Nick Mamatas
    at 4:50 pm on March 9, 2010

    And in addition, literary authors will target there submissions by aesthetic so that their domestic realist story goes into journal X and their Saunderish satire goes into Y and their Barthelmeish experimentation goes in Z, etc.

    I can’t say that I’ve noticed too many authors who write domestic realism and satire and experimental fiction and and and…I’d love some names. Not being sarcastic here; I am always eager to find ambitious authors, especially of short stories.


    My question do dn and anyone else, is that if all the authors and journals we are discussing are not “literary fiction” then what are they?

    It is literary fiction, in the same way hard science fiction by Hal Clement and avant-horror by Thomas Ligotti are both, broadly, “the fantastic.” Yet, one could not predict that a Hal Clement fan would also groove to the short stories and weird prose poems and fictional essays and tales-as-instructional-guides of Thomas Ligotti simply because both are “fantastical.”

    In the same way one might use “sci-fi” to only mean stories with spaceships in a conversation, Straub used “literary fiction” in one of the paragraphs in his essay to mean contemporary American realism. That he ably made a distinction between the “ice cream” of Roth and Updike on the one hand, and the not-at-all-ice-cream of William Gaddis and Thomas Bernhardt on the other, tells me that Straub knows that there is more to literary fiction than domestic realism and isn’t conflating the two except for momentary comic effect.

  30. David
    at 8:12 pm on March 9, 2010

    You know, it’s funny, as I was reading this, and the comments that have followed, I was thinking of something entirely else, Freud’s theory of heterosexual development. Freud posits homosexuality (and all the other sexual “deviancies”) as forms of developmental ‘non-realisation’ – stuck in the prior stages – whilst heterosexual development winds up as the culmination of said development, enclosing all those prior stages within it. Two things, first off: I’m seriously truncating the actual inner complexity of Freud’s own ideas about “deviancies” (my account, as it is, is more to do with ‘Freudianism’ than Freud proper) and I’m also not intending to make some point by point comparison between sexuality and the novel. However, as the comparison makes clear, that privilege of heterosexuality as that which encloses the deviancies as immature phase of itself, non-realisations, is something I wish to work with in this different context. What strikes me as resonant here is the notion that literary fiction is writing in its fullest developmental phase, with ‘genre’ relegated to that which is stuck in the prior stages. This is partially why I’ve always found the praises that certain writers, like Hammett or Ligotti, get in which they ‘transcend’ the genre is, at the very least, gentrifying. I do think Lincoln makes a quite excellent point when he argues that the sub-genres of literary fiction do not fit together but I think I’d argue that this is quite the same state of affairs with genre itself. Ryan has made the point already really fantastically above, so I’m going to cite him:

    “Look at it this way, how is Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man a science fiction novel? Well, you might say, it has time travel in it. But, so does Slaughterhouse-5. As well as The Time Traveler’s Wife. Are the last two science-fiction? Some people say yes, some people say no. But if I go to a bookstore, where am I going to find them? Time travel is a trope most associated with science fiction. But it does not define the genre. While science-fiction might have spaceships, ray guns, and aliens, etc., these things no more define the genre than a private eye and femme fatale define film noir. I mean, where’s the private eye in Sunset Blvd.? Where’s the femme fatale in The Night of the Hunter?”

    Exactly. The supposedly syntactical ‘elements’ that compose a genre’s discreteness break down upon any close inspection. However, what I suspect is that what the literary withholds from genre is precisely ‘artistry’ and I don’t think the distinction between pulp and genre quite resolves this, only repackages the bogus distinction. The art claim for literary fiction, for one thing, imports some concept of a maturity in writing. But genre reacts to the word quite distinctly, though no less maturely, from what we call literary fiction. Genre uses language with immense dexterity, I believe, but not so much in a sort of ‘well wrought urn’ mode. Rather, its brilliance is in its mobilisation of language movement and in the creation through arrangements of scenarios, a syntax of them, powerful styles. If, despite the acres of difference between them, such that there’s much passionate antipathy between adherents of each writer, there does seem a greater kinship between Hammett and Chandler than O’Connor and Borges, then I’d argue that this is due not to literary fiction’s greater diversity but is due (along with the misimpressions of marketing, another great point Ryan makes) to the commitment we still have, despite the apparent obliteration of high and low cultures under postmoderism, to relegating the un-urnlike to less than literary rather than what is truer to say of it: that it is anti-literary, another vector altogether. Which is why many of those cross-over books that are deemed literary actually often avoid what’s most profound about them: namely, how they fuck with the literary. Indeed, literary fiction may be able to offer a string of names to show its vast differences but despite everyone from Borges to Kafka to O’Connor to Sorrentino to Barthelme to Bolano to Bernhard do belong together, as their list-ability demonstrates, in terms of the argument that their linguistic acts are the apotheosis of writing. Of course, this is not to say that the language text itself is somehow normative but I do believe our response to the language text as the deepest layer of the literary is definitely normative, not least in terms of the inspirations which inform those texts attentions to style and structure (Alain Robbe-Grillet was deeply influenced by Hammett, for instance, and he veritably invented the notion of the ‘new novel’). Also, too, genre writing can be quite languagey itself. Take, for instance, this passage from King’s latest, Under the Dome, where a light aircraft runs into the ‘dome’ which inexplicably appears out of nowhere:

    “The Seneca exploded over Route 119 and rained fire down on the countryside. It also rained body parts. A smoking forearm – Claudette’s – landed with a thump beside the neatly divided woodchuck.
    It was October twenty-first.”

    What’s quite wonderful about this in terms of the way it’s written is the quite conscious corruption of its own metaphor: where fire raining has a distinct dramatic unity, this is crudened immediately by the rain being turned into a rain of body parts, which in its lumpy thingness is likened to the grotesquery of the ‘neatly divided’ woodchuck, which could double here as a metaphor for the writing of genre itself, cleanly sliced critter. Capped with the disquietingly aerating, the inexpressive yet watchful eye of the date. This is what ‘genre’ does quite constantly on the level of language, corrupts the liquidity of writing, lumps, stirs, jumps, cuts, designs cleanly sliced critter, to achieve all kinds of uncanny effects. Given all this, I really think that there is a deep sense in which we need to do away with the developmental supremacy we hand automatically to literary fiction, even when we say genre works ‘can’ be ‘as’ good as that fiction. It really binds in not just genre but also the sources and pursuits of writing itself.

  31. R. Michael Burns
    at 8:18 pm on March 9, 2010

    As a horror writer myself, I have also often heard the phrase, “You’re such a good writer — why do you waste your time with horror?” As if the genre (which is defined, as Straub points out, by emotional viewpoint, not by specific content) is inherently invalid.

    I think “literary fiction” is a genre, at least as bookstores treat it.

    Of course, one could easily say that many well-respected “literary” works are horror. Take Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for example. If the overwhelming emotion of that novel isn’t horror, then I must not understand what horror is. (Beloved even has a strong supernatural element to it, moving it even further into that genre category, if I dare say so.)

    I believe that writers with integrity tell the stories that interest and move them. Its the marketing side of things that insists on labels and pigeonholing, which then gives some people the opportunity to dismiss whole “categories” of work on the basis of arbitrarily defined “genres.”

  32. Paula Ray
    at 10:03 pm on March 9, 2010

    Book marketing is like a fashion show, everything on parade is stuffed into a size two, even if it requires starvation. We all know real people, real writers, are rounder than that, no matter which peg you cram them into, there will always be that overflow poking out of the top. You can’t use old rusty pipes to lasso a piece of art; you have to use something flexible. There is nothing flexible about labels. Quite frankly the word genre and straight-jacket have a lot in common, in my humble opinion. Meh, what do I know, I’m a no name poet.

  33. Tom B.
    at 11:34 pm on March 9, 2010

    I’d say Straub is wrong that Chandler was the last person to elevate genre crime fiction to an art. James Ellroy has done that several times in his still-ongoing career, starting with LA Confidential, and continuing through stylist experiments like White Jazz to his latest, Blood’s a Rover. But crime fiction does have some restraints that most writers haven’t been able to overcome — if they even want to try.

  34. Tom B.
    at 11:34 pm on March 9, 2010

    Uh, should be “stylistic” experiments, not stylist. Yep, a preview option would be nice.

  35. Misty Dahl
    at 6:01 am on March 10, 2010
  36. [links] Link salad can’t always get what it wants | jlake.com
    at 7:15 am on March 10, 2010

    [...] What About Genre, What About Horror? — Peter Straub on gene. (Nicked from nihilistickid.) [...]

  37. Sloganeering.Org » Blog Archive » Are You Tough Enough To Read This Book?
    at 10:04 am on March 10, 2010

    [...] Peter Straub has written an interesting piece for The Millions, where he makes some excellent points about the relationship between genre and literary fiction, and suggests that horror, done correctly, is as free of barriers as literary fiction is supposed to be. Also, I suspect that Straub is sick and tired of fielding questions from an apparently endless parade of effete, fussy mandarins, because he goes at them (well, their effete, fussy, straw man stand-in, anyway) with a rhetorical hatchet. [...]

  38. Peter Straub on Genre « amber noelle sparks
    at 11:11 am on March 10, 2010

    [...] 10, 2010 · Leave a Comment This is just so excellent. I love Peter Straub. And I love that he wants us to stop hating on genre, please.  I feel the [...]

  39. Kelly Roberts
    at 1:19 pm on March 10, 2010

    Good for you, Peter Straub. I made pretty much the same argument in an article for PopMatters (“Airplane Books, Junk Literature, and the Western Canon: All Novels Are Lies, Some Lies Are Better”). With very few exceptions, I find contemporary literary fiction intolerably self-absorbed, gimmicky, and just plain unreadable. Give me horror or sci-fi any day of the week. And I’m so glad Straub talks about Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye”, one of the greatest American novels ever written.

  40. Peter Straub asks: What about genre? « [ GriffinWords ]
    at 7:27 pm on March 10, 2010

    [...] Link to the full article. [...]

  41. middle school yearbooks
    at 9:03 pm on March 10, 2010

    well,for me it’s quiet interesting to watch.. such movies,brings the creativeness
    of the writer.

    to be able to give what it should give..

  42. What about horror? « Do Geese See God?
    at 2:25 pm on March 14, 2010

    [...] Peter Straub swashbuckles literary effeteness and the ghettoization of horror fiction in this essay at The Millions. While he scatters around plausible characterizations of class-bigotry and parochialism in the [...]

  43. Monday Morning Stepback: At What Point in the Writing Process Do Writers Think About What Will Sell? « Read React Review
    at 6:00 am on March 15, 2010

    [...] great post at the Millions: What About Genre, What About Horror? (hat tip Ann Somerville) let’s admit that literary fiction is a genre, too, shall we? [...]

  44. >>Nostalgia For Infinity - Linkfest: March 4th – March 10th
    at 8:07 am on March 15, 2010

    [...] The Millions: What About Genre, What About Horror? – “Genre, genre, genre, whole days go by when I am asked of nothing else, especially those moronic questions about horror that should have been swept out of civilized discourse at least thirty years ago[...]” Now this is how you write an opinion column. Tags: writing genre horror literature rant essay [...]

  45. Literary Fiction Bashing: Enough is Enough « Pens With Cojones
    at 9:16 am on October 13, 2010

    [...] writers as overly sensitive and liberal (What Literary Fiction Means to Me). Genres are neglected (What About Genre, What About Horror?). Everyone has a problem with literary [...]

  46. Book Marketing is Like …: 5 Similes That Made Me Laugh | Good Book Marketing
    at 7:20 pm on December 27, 2011

    [...] is stuffed into a size two, even it if requires starvation.” – Poet Paula Ray, commenting on “What about Genre, What about Horror?” at the Millions.  She also quipped the very quotable, “You can’t use old rusty pipes to lasso [...]

  47. WHAT DOES LITERARY MEAN? | Nathan Boutwell
    at 3:38 pm on May 27, 2012

    [...] read more about the idea, from a different perspective, check out Peter Straub’s rant: http://www.themillions.com/2010/03/what-about-genre-what-about-horror.html Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeOne blogger likes this [...]

  48. Mention in Guardian article « Robert Jackson Bennett
    at 4:06 pm on November 9, 2012

    [...] Straub once argued that Horror is a strong, versatile genre because it’s based on reaction rather th…: I think this absence of specificity is not at all a limitation but the reverse, a great [...]

  49. Ephemeral Horror and the Diffusion of Genre Markers | The King of Elfland's Second Cousin
    at 8:31 pm on November 13, 2012

    [...] Straub is right (hat tip to Robert Jackson Bennett for pointing this essay out) when he says that horror is the only genre whose defining characteristic is absent from the text: horror gets categorized as horror because of the reaction it produces in the reader, not because [...]

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