The Inanity of the Erudite

THE INANTITY OF THE ERUDITE: That’s just my  long-winded way of saying clever people can sometimes be very VERY dumb.

This thought is prompted by a piece I just read in Guardian On-Line about the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction.  My paper today is full of approving comments about the article, by novelist Edward Docx, and I thought I’d check it out. Over the years,  I’ve read so many pieces chewing over this so-called divide between genre writing and literary writing, and I wondered if this guy had something new to say.

No he did not. His entire argument is a blend of sophistry, stupidity, and ignorance.  Here it is.

Docx’s argument fails on every level.  It is just exasperating to see such muddle-headed thinking in a reputable portal.  And yet the guy is clearly very clever! He references the modern writers he loves -  Franzen, Coetzee, Hollinghurst, Amis, Mantel, Proux, Ishiguro, Roth – and it’s a damned good list. He’s clearly well read.  I’ve read some of those writers, but not all.  Hollinghurst and Ishighuro are great.  There’s actually no such writer as ‘Proux’ (in Britain we call this paper the Grauniad, because of its frequent typos) but Annie Proulx is certainly a fab writer.  I’ve never read Philip Roth or Hilary Mantel and I know I should. I read one Cotezee and didn’t rate it that highly.    I HATE Martin Amis, so there you go. Jonathan Franzen is flavour of the moment; maybe he’s fabulous.  But I’ll refrain from having an opinion about his work UNTIL I’ve read it.

So, Docx knows his stuff; he reads widely and deeply within the genre in which he writes ie literary fiction.  Good for him.  But there’s no excuse really for the way he generalises about genres of which he  knows very little.  Because all he’s doing really is flattering the common bigotry among some members of the ‘litarati’ against popular genre fiction. At the same time, he’s being deliberately provocative in order to generate debate and increase the sales of his own novels – which is fair enough! But though he writes well and wittily and readably, I really think there’s no excuse for the stupidity he manifests.

Here is my list of the stupid things he says, and my views on why they are stupid.

1)  Dan Brown and Stiegg Larsson are guilty of ‘amateurishness’, and their books are ‘mesmerisingly bad’. 

To prove this point, Docx quotes some bad writing from both authors.  It IS really bad writing, let’s be honest about it. But that doesn’t mean these guys are amateurs.  Brown served his apprenticeship as a thriller writer over a period of years before hitting it big with The Da Vinci Code. And, though it’s a bad book in my view (crap characters, terrible dialogue, terrible prose, ludicrous ending) it’s still a magnificent piece of storytelling.  Each page is structured to snag and snare the reader; each chapter poses a mystery to be solved in the next chapter, like a computer game where you move from level to level  (as one critic observed.)  And Brown boldly mixes fiction with dense amounts of fact in a way that is daring, and remarkably successful.  It’s a bad book but a great piece of storytelling; when I read it, I couldn’t put it down.  So ‘mesmerisingly bad’ may be fair comment, but to call Brown an ‘amateur’ is like saying Jeffrey Archer is a model of probity.  STUPID.

And Stiegg Larsson is an entirely other kettle of fish.  He’s a raw writer – he was not a professional novelist when he started out, he was a journalist, and it shows.  Some chunks of his Millennium trilogy are ponderously written. He gives us too many facts. Some chapters read more like travelogue than prose fiction. And yet! He has a story to tell, and displays passion in his telling. Rather than being guilty of ‘cod feminism’ as Docx says (what an utterly cheap and nasty gibe!  Larsson put his life on the line for his principles, and campaigned vehemently against the oppression and enslavement of women by traffickers and pimps – Docx is just another bloody writer!)  Larsson is driven by genuine idealism.  And that passion and idealism are part of what seize the reader.  We love his books because the stakes are high, the politics is murky, and he makes us care about what he cares about. Also, his storytelling, though baggy and a bit repetitive, is brilliant.  He conjures up a complex series of interlocking worlds, he runs stories in parallel to exhilarating effect, and he blends the realistic with the thriller-exaggerative with consummate care. This guy is a damned good writer; anyone who doesn’t realise that doesn’t know how to read books.

Docx’s sneer, however, is the disdain of the literary stylist for the writer who has a rough-and-ready prose style. And fair enough,  if I were compiling my own list of great writers, the quality of their prose would be a major consideration for me. 

But to counter Docx, here is an another example of bad prose style (or so I would argue)  from an English public-school-educated author:

Keith Talent was a bad guy. Keith Talent was a very bad guy.  You might even say that he was the worst guy.  But not the worst, not the very worst ever.  There were worse guys. Where? There in the hot light of Cost Check for example, with car keys, beige singlet, and a six-pack of Peculiar Brews, the scuffle at the door, the foul threat and the elbow in the black neck of the wailing lady, then the car with its rust and its waiting blonde, and off to do the next thing, whatever, whatever necessary. The mouths on these worse guys – the eyes on them.  Within those eyes a tiny unsmiling universe.  No. Keith wasn’t that bad.

And here’s an example of fine prose, also from an English public-school-educated author:

The first time I ever laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.  The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one.  He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white.  You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young man in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and no other.

The first quote is from London Fields, by that esteemed literary talent Martin Amis; the second is from The Long Good-Bye by one of the greatest of genre writers,  Raymond Chandler.

Both conjure up a seedy milieu, and both describe a character who exists in that milieu. But Amis SHOWS OFF.  He piles repetition upon repetition upon repetition upon – you get the idea.  Bad guy; worst guy; worst guy; worst ever – it’s random repetition, with no poetry.  Then he loses himself  in a massive rambling sentence that makes no sense and obeys no rules of grammar:  we’re invited to visualise a ‘worse guy’ standing in CostCheck, but then comes the phrase, ‘the scuffle at the door’.  It doesn’t work; is the ‘worse guy’ RESPONSIBLE for a scuffle at the door? The prose doesn’t say so! and why is this worse guy putting his elbow in the neck of the wailing lady?  If he’s a pimp and she’s a whore, he might grab her arm – but an elbow-strike?  And is the wailing lady’s neck  black because she’s of African extraction, or it just her neck that’s  black?  Is she perhaps  a pie-bald whore with a broken neck, wailing even though her larynx is shattered? What exactly are we being asked to visualise here? And then we reach my favourite line: ‘Within those eyes a tiny unsmiling universe.’  Okay, metaphorically speaking, eyes can smile; but universes CAN’T. They just can’t! Trust me on this, I’m an SF writer!  So the fact the universe in the eyes of this bozo isn’t smiling is actually a GOOD thing, not a bad thing.  And by the way, the tone is all wrong; it doesn’t evoke its milieu in any way, nor does it give me any real sense of what this idiot Keith Talent is like.

Compare that with the Chandler quote.  It’s deceptively simple, but full of poetry.  Amis uses the word ‘car’; Chandler creates a poem out of ‘Rolls Royce Silver Wraith.’  Say it out loud; Cole Porter would have loved that line.  He writes with calm matter-of-factness , but then tells us that Lennox is dangling his left foot as if he didn’t know he had one; and suddenly we can see it, and also feel it. The negligent insouciance of the guy is so great he’s forgotten he has a foot!  And there’s no universe in his eyes, smiling or otherwise, but you can tell by his eyes he is ‘plastered to the hairline’, a phrase I only know from here but which I love.

Then the last line, which gives the lie to the notion that the hard-boiled writers of the pulps only ever used terse, Hemmingwayesque prose:  it’s a long sinuous line that goes on forever, with the plainest of words, creating a rhythm like music:

‘otherwise he looked like any other nice young man in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and no other.’

All of which demonstrates that some genre writers write beautiful prose, and some literary writers perpetrate shit prose. BUT THIS IS NOT THE POINT.

The point is, you can’t judge writing entirely by the quality of the writing. Chekhov is a fine writer, with beautiful dialogue; Eugene O’Neill is a clunky writer who spews out masses of hugely expositional dialogue. They’re both great writers!  ‘Greatness’ in writing is a combination of many things; the quality of the prose, the quality of the story, the richness of the ideas, the power of the ideas, and HOW MUCH WE DO OR DON’T LOVE IT.  I honestly think that Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest is a greater novel that Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, because it speaks more to ME.  But they are, however, both brilliant books – one a ‘genre’ piece, one written before these genre/literary distinctions came into force, but which is essentially a literary novel AND a crime novel. 

2. Genre fiction is inherently mediocre.

Docx argues: ‘in my view, we need urgently to remind ourselves of – for want of better terminology – the difference between literary and genre fiction; because, to misquote the literary essayist Isaac D’Israeli, “it seems to me a wretched national compulsion to be gratified by mediocrity when the excellent lies before us”.’

This is when I start to get seriously annoyed.  We all – those of us who write blogs – spout bollocks from time to time,  because it’s fun.  But this goes beyond the realms of acceptable bollocksness. THIS IS NOT AN ARGUMENT.  It’s just bigotry.  Or rather, sophistry;  Docx’s sentence begins by attempting to define the difference between literary and genre fiction, but does nothing of the sort; instead it uses the excuse of a quotation to lob in the words ‘mediocre’ and ‘excellent’, with the clear but utterly unproved implication that literary = excellent, genre = mediocre.  It is the argumentative equivalent of tarring and feathering;  the word ‘mediocre’ is affixed by linguistic sleight of hand to the phrase ‘genre fiction’, and bingo, a prejudice has been birthed.

To argue back against this drivel, it’s necessary to propose some definitions and clarifications. 

Firstly, genre is a taxonomy, not a value judgement.  Thus, Bleak House is a detective novel because it has a detective in it; 1984 is a science fiction novel, because it’s an extrapolative novel of the future.    A novel with monsters and ghoulies, however, badly written it may be, is a horror story.  If you’re an academic writing about fiction, you need some way to differentiate; genre definitions allow you to do this. Or, if you’re in a bookshop looking for novels of the kind you love, then the genre markers – CRIME, SF & FANTASY etc, help you in this endeavour.  The fact the books are published at all is some kind of quality threshold; but but only to a degree.  But genre is, basically, a genus.

In addition, however,  any academic study of literature ie FICTION has to make some attempt to define a ‘canon’ of best books.  Because otherwise, what’s the point of being an academic? You diss the crap books, praise the best; that’s the job. 

 However, because language is a sloppy thing, we also use the word ‘literature’ as a value judgement not just as a genre taxonomy.  So we might talk about ‘the genre of literary novels’ (which consists of various traditions), in a wholly neutral way. But we might also say, ‘The novels of Gene Wolfe/Raymond Chanlder/Fill Your Own Name In Here are great examples of their genre, and they are also great literature.’  In that context, literature = excellence.  Which is fine; that’s the way the word is being used.

To argue however that all genre fiction  is mediocre shows such a stunning degree of ignorance that I’m tempted to write to Mr Docx’s mum and tell her to scold her errant child.  It’s like dismissing jazz as the inferior of 20th century classical music. 

But how do we define what is and isn’t a ‘great’ genre novel?  Well, of course, that’s where the fun and games begin. Everyone has their own opinions.  But I would argue that – as in all matters to do with genre – it all depends on context. 

So let’s say our context is an academic one.  I no longer teach at a University, and when I did my courses were more vocational than academic (ie screenwriting.) But even so, I’ve studied English literature at University. And in my days as a part-time academic, I’ve published articles on movies and genres;  and I believe I get the idea of what literature academics, at their best, should do.  They should inform; illuminate; and describe.  And part of that task is to define a ‘canon’ of best works and DEFEND IT in argument. 

There was a time when having a canon of ‘great works’ was considered elitist; phooey. Please don’t take ALL the fun out of life.

But a canon of 20th century literature that excludes Margery Allingham,  Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Orwell’s 1984,  Theodore Sturgeon,  Gene Wolfe, Philip Pullman, Stephen King,  Ursula LeGuin, and Neil Gaiman – to name just a few! come on guys, don’t send me abusive emails just because your name isn’t mentioned there -  would be a piss-poor sort of a list.  Of course, you can only truly compare like with like; but these are all literate and literary writers with wonderful prose styles, whose works reach beyond the quotidian into the realms of the sublime, and, you know, blood, all that shit. If I were teaching English at a University, that would be the beginnings of MY canon – mixed in of course with all the established literary greats of that century. 

And yet – if I were to make a list of my FAVOURITE genre writers, it would include all the above, but also some others.  Would I make a case for Robert E. Howard being a major 20th century writer, deserving of a place in the canon?  Well, after a few drinks maybe, but perhaps not.  But on the other hand – he’s a great writer.  Fabulous prose style. Resonant ideas. Great stories. In fact, maybe I’m just being snobbish; discuss!

The ‘discuss’ bit is what makes academic studies alive and vital; everything can be discussed, and should be.  So if you’re an academic and you want to argue that Conan the Barbarian is one of the great cultural artefacts of the 20th century – then go ahead! I truly want to hear that argument.

But the point that Docx totally doesn’t grasp is that OTHER PEOPLE ARE ENTITLED TO LOVE WHAT THEY LOVE.  I was at a forum recently run by the excellent group Spread the Word at which a distinguished poet and dramatist called Malika Booker stood in front of a large audience of book-lovers and argued, with incredible passion and erudition, that romantic fiction is the greatest genre ever. Because it’s the genre that SHE loves.  She carried an arm full of books with garish covers up to the podium; she spoke with total authority; she even explained the various plot models of the different sub-genres of romantic fiction – ie nurse/doctor romantic fiction, contemporary romantic fiction,  etc etc.  Her summaries of the story archetypes were hilarious, and she grinned sheepishly as it became apparent how dumb these things sound when spoken out loud. But the point remains; SHE IS RIGHT.  This is a lady who is clearly extemely well read, has established herself as a literary figure of real credibility, and yet for soul-food she turns to books in the romantic genre, many of which would be considered ‘trashy’ by readers from outside that genre.  You can make fun of these books, without doubt; you could quote passages of bad prose, I’m sure.  But that doesn’t gainsay the fact that these stories MATTER for millions of readers.  And though I don’t ever read these novels – I’m talking Mills & Boone here, not the more ‘respectable’ stuff! – I understand that in the context of ‘people who read genre novels because they love to read’, this is a very important genre.

This is why and how  Docx falls on his arse.  He thinks the academic context is the only context.  He thinks life is like a football game in which nerdy bookish people get to pick the team.  WRONG.  The academic context is only one of many contexts – and it’s a good one! It’s one perspective from which one can discuss works of fiction.  But when you’re in the book shop and you’re desperate to buy a book to read on holiday that will enthrall you and allow you to be oblivious to the fact that your Spanish hotel has rats and no swimming pool – well, then the Best Book may well be Dan Brown or Stiegg Larsson. 

3. ‘We need to be clear-eyed’.

This is one of the stupidest things Docx says, and I’ll quote it in full:

We need to be clear-eyed here because although there is much written about this subject, there is also much theatricality to the debate. And this serves to hide (on both sides) a fundamental dishonesty. The proponents of genre fiction are not sincere about the limitations even of the best of what they do while being scathing and disingenuous about literary fiction (there’s no story, nothing happens etc). Meanwhile, the (equally insincere) literary proponents say either: “Oh, don’t blame us, it’s the publisher’s fault – they label the books and we really don’t see the distinction”; or, worse, they adopt the posture and tone of bad actors delivering Shakespeare and talk of poetry and profundity without meaning a great deal or convincing anyone. Both positions are bogus and indicative of something (also interesting) about the way we talk of literature and culture more widely.

What is he actually saying here?  And who is he referring to?  Why are proponents of genre fiction not sincere about the limitations of even the best of what they do?  What limitations?  Every great novel is limited by not being that which it isn’t; der!  And okay I guess I have read pieces sneering at literary fiction – I did it myself above, writing about Martin Amis! But the argument surely is that there are charlatans out there who are acclaimed as great writers without even being all that good.  But Salman Rushdie, for instance, is a great literary writer who DOES writes books with a story; stuff does happen in his novels, and then some! I would say the same about Ishiguro.  These are great writers; and they write fictions which sometimes can and sometimes can’t be described by genre categories. (Though Midnight’s Children is certainly ‘magic realist’, and Remains of the Day is a ‘period novel’, if you do want to categorise them – the label doesn’t make them better or worse.)

4.  Genre writers are rich bastards and impoverished geniuses like me are jealous of them

Well okay, Docx doesn’t ACTUALLY say this, but it’s implied in every paragraph of his diatribe.  In particular, he says:

This is why genre writers cannot claim to have everything. They can take the money and the sales and all that goes with that. And we can sincerely admire them for doing so. But they should not be allowed to get away with suggesting that these things tell us anything about the intrinsic value or scope of their work.

Oh come on!  Firstly, we genre writers CAN say anything we darned well like, thank you very much.

And secondly, some ‘literary’ writers are stinking rich; while many genre writers earn less in a year than Martin Amis spent on his teeth.  Docx is muddling up two things here; the concept of ‘genre’, and the concept of  ’best-seller.’  Different things.

5. Burgers are all the same

I can’t be bothered to quote this in full – scroll down the piece if you want to read his actual words.  But he embarks upon an elaborate metaphor about ‘line-caught eel lasagne’ and burgers which is meant to prove, er, that line-caught eel lasagne is better? I’m sorry; I feel the vomit in my mouth just typing the words. Would anyone eat such a thing?

Burgers, for the record, do in fact differ considerably; there are good burgers, and there are mediocre burger; and there are the rat burgers you get at fairs which give you stomach poisoning. And there are lamb burgers, some with coriander, and (ENOUGH ABOUT BURGERS – ED.)

The only thing I can glean from this metaphor is that, at the end of the day, it’s all about snobbery.  A gourmet meal at the Manoir aux Quatre Saisons is better than fish and chips in a newspaper on the beach at Brixham, in the world according to Docx.   But do you know what? It isn’t. Sometimes simple food is nicer than poncey food. 

6.  Genre writing is inferior because it has more constaints

This at least is a decent argument. I don’t agree with it, but I accept it IS an argument. Here’s the argument in full:

‘even good genre (not Larsson or Brown) is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material. That’s the way writing works and lots of people who don’t write novels don’t seem to get this’

I’ve read a few comments referring to Shakespeare and sonnets in relation to this generalisation; I don’t think there’s an awful lot more to be said about it. I guess what he’s arguing is that those who write literary fiction deserve extra credit because they have to work ‘without constaints’, like a tightrope walker without a net; and that when it fails, it’s REALLY bad.  But frankly – really bad genre novels are also REALLY bad.  And you don’t get extra marks for trying and failing.  You only get credit when you try and fail, then TRY AGAIN and succeed.  Otherwise, failed writers would rule the world.

So, six stupid things! Grrr.

But at this point, I have to say - just in case Docx is reading my piece – look, I’m sorry if the tone of this blog is intemperate, and downright rude.  I’m sure in real life Docx is a lovely guy; and I’ve been told his novels are very good.  And he HAS  had the gumption to get a controversial opinion piece into the Guardian, and hence amp up his profile and his sales – and good luck to him there!  But I’m not being insulting just for the hell of it; I am genuinely affronted that such bad arguing is being treated seriously in a reputable paper.  The debate deserves better than this.

And in all honesty, I do have to concede that my own literary reading is pretty infrequent these days – there aren’t enough hours in the day!  I mainly read genre, and mainly SF and fantasy.  Because that’s my area of work. So if someone more well read than me insists that Jonathan Franzen is indeed an infinitely better writer than, say, Fritz Leiber, then I will yield to that opinion quite happily. But I know that Fritz Leiber IS a fabulous writer; a great storyteller; and a fine stylist.

But is he a GREAT writer? Worthy of inclusion in the canon of English literature? Should the works of the creator of Grey Mouser and Fafrhd be included in the syllabus of courses in 20th century literature, along with the novels of E.M.Forster and D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce?

Well, you know, maybe they should.

Discuss…

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