Criticism has changed. Today no one dares set out the differences between master and amateur, between good and bad literature. Publishers don’t want to get involved; they are almost guaranteed to lose money on a good writer, and make money on a bad one. Critics hold their fire, scared of being accused of elitism. Critics have had the rug pulled out from under them in any case. No longer bound by ethics or competence, they don’t even know what they’re supposed to talk about anymore. University literature departments don’t set out the differences – literature has turned into cultural studies in any case. Literary theorists have little to say on the subject – literary theory is on its deathbed, and the offshoot that tried to establish “aesthetic” values long in the grave. Critics writing for daily newspapers don’t set out the differences – they’re poorly paid, and literature doesn’t get much column space in newspapers full-stop. Literary magazines are so few as to be of no use, and when and where they do exist, they are so expensive that bookshops don’t want to stock them. Tracy Emin’s bratty retort – What if I am illiterate? I still have the right to a voice! – is the revolutionary slogan of a new literary age. The only thing that reminds us that literature was once a complex system with in-built institutions – of appraisal, classification, and hierarchy, a system that incorporated literary history, literary theory, literary criticism, schools of literary thought, literary genres, genders, and epochs – are the blurbs that try and place works of contemporary literature alongside the greats of the canon. Vladimir Nabokov is the most blurbable of names. But if so many contemporary books and their authors are Nabokov-like, it just means that literature has become karaoke-like.
Justin from Staffer’s Musings recently wrote a thoughtful response to the mission statement of The Kitschies, the self-described “annual awards for those books which best elevate the tone of genre literature.” Justin wonders, and rightly so, whether the attempts of authors, critics, and bloggers to “elevate” fantasy fiction are costing the genre its heart and soul:
What worries me though, is the growing trend among genre commentators to laude novels that walk and talk like the mainstream at the expense of the rest. This is akin to the pretty girl taking her best friend to prom and ditching him for the quarterback. Who exactly are we trying to impress?
Fantasy is about divorcing from reality. Not to escape, but to shirk the baggage that the real world brings with it. It frees us to explore themes and ideas unhindered. I fear that in a misguided attempt at recognition by the mainstream literary community we’re ceding that freedom. I hope I’m wrong.
I worry about exactly the same thing. I worry that we are embracing novels that have little to do with the genre because they are well-written, rather than pushing for better written fantasy novels. In an era where mainstream fiction has embraced some of the content and techniques of genre fiction (any of the excellent work of Michael Chabon, for example, or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), the fantasy genre has tried to expand to encompass the literary mainstream, in a transparent attempt to lend itself critical importance. But spread too thin it risks dissolution; better to take this opportunity to strengthen its core, taking advantage of the trends to lead readers to books firmly within the fantasy genre, rather than trying to claim the laurels for fringe efforts.
Staffer’s Musings got it right:
When I made my list of best SFF books of 2011, I didn’t put Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife on the list, even though it was the best book I read last year. I didn’t do it because, in my mind, it isn’t genre. It’s got some magic, or supernatural plot devices, but only by happenstance. It is not a Fantasy novel, rather Obreht wrote a mainstream literary novel with a hint of fantasy. Looking at The Kitschies list, I see a few of that variety…
The literary mainstream is diverse enough that you can find novels that deal in the slightly odd or semi-fantastical, if that’s your desire. And many of those books are excellent. But when I think of fantasy, I think of the traditional subgenres and in particular hardcore secondary world epic fantasy. I want to see creativity and reform from within the structures of fantasy, not a gradual shift toward magical literary fiction. It’s not that I’m a philistine, it’s that I don’t look for topical commentary, existential angst, or literary revolution in genre fiction. I look for creativity within a set of rules (though it’s fun to see them bent and broken in the right places), and an engaging story that entertains while evoking a sense of wonder in me. Fantasy is story-telling, not auteurship.