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Thread: Good books don't have to be hard
September 2nd, 2009, 02:06 PM #1
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Good books don't have to be hard
The WSJ did a great article this weekend on falling book sales and the reason people don't like "true literature." He discusses the Modernist movement (Joyce, Kafka, Faulkner) and while he acknowledges their contributions, he wonders why we can't have good writing and a plot, too.
Surprisingly to me (that a critic noticed this), he mentions that there is currently a place great writing is being combined with great plot, and it's fantasy and science fiction.
September 2nd, 2009, 02:16 PM #2
September 2nd, 2009, 06:25 PM #3
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Good article. I enjoyed his tracing of the history and influences of modernism. One thing I will object to is his blaming of falling book sales on "difficult" novels. "Literary" works have been ghettoized for a long time. It makes me very amused to see people seeking approval from the literati when in terms of sales and readers the group you most want approval from is romance readers, followed by mystery readers. Stephen King, Dean Koontz, John Grisham, and Michael Crichton are adult writers and they love plot (and people love them). The abandonment of adult fiction for YA isn't a matter of people seeking out plot so much as YA being hot--meaning publishers want to publish books as YA. Stephenie Meyers didn't intend Twilight to be YA, its where her publisher decided to place it because they thought it would sell best there. A lot of books that previously would have been published as adult fiction are being published as YA and unsurprisingly the readership is following them. I have no doubt that if Terry Brooks and David Eddings had been published today they would have been YA.
September 2nd, 2009, 09:05 PM #4
Well actually, it's not considered a good article by many in the field. In fact, it's created another controversy, along with the slagging given to genre fiction in Scotland, although most are trying not to be too hard on Grossman, because they know that he meant well, even though he doesn't get it at all, in my view, I'm afraid. The best response for me so far has come from Jeff Vandermeer: http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2009/0...eally-like-us/
But you can get a rundown of others' thoughts in the SFF blogosphere through SFSignal: http://www.sfsignal.com/
September 3rd, 2009, 01:37 AM #5
A good article, I enjoyed the small history lesson because I'm fairly ignorant on the whole topic, but I have to agree with Vandermeer that it makes some unnecessary generalisations to create defined sides which can oppose each other.
September 3rd, 2009, 05:18 PM #6
The best response for me so far has come from Jeff Vandermeer: http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2009/0...eally-like-us/
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Later, Vandermeer claims Grossman only likes easy authors who are "not too surreal", etc., ignoring the list of authors that Grossman gives, which includes Gaiman et. al.
Vandermeer's rant just sounds like sour grapes. He's no Stephanie Meyer in sales, but he has always consoled himself by thinking his writing was so good people can't like it. When Grossman shattered that myth, he had to hit back.
September 3rd, 2009, 06:05 PM #7
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Grossman makes points I've made similarly before. Modernists introduced a dogma that many cannot see past. I will take popular romantic 19th century reading over early 20th century modernist reading most any time. The language is richer and carefree. Sometimes the purple prose and grandiloquence becomes excessive but there is a vitality in them that is not enervated by the exacting rules and formalisms brought by the modernists.
He also points out the exact behavior of Vandemeer, who dismisses it as crap and refuses to ask why it sells.
September 3rd, 2009, 06:28 PM #8He chastizes Grossman for "inferring not only that Stephenie Meyer is a good writer..." when he says nothing of the sort.
September 3rd, 2009, 09:40 PM #9
Are Vandermeer's books that self-congratulatory regarding his supposed witticisms and wisdom? Is this 'evil monkey' something that's recurrent on his blog, or simply a poorly-constructed strawman-creating device? I think Grossman's question of 'why' are these authors popular is a very important one. It's a shame Vandermeer chose to ignore that and instead wrote a mocking little rant that truly said nothing but "they really like me, and I don't like that".
September 3rd, 2009, 09:41 PM #10
September 3rd, 2009, 09:43 PM #11
I don't agree, Phil. I don't agree with Vandermeer about Stephanie Meyer, either, but it was part of him being funny, not jealous. (Yes, he's used evil monkey before.) What I do agree with is his talking about tribalism, how it's not an effective way of looking at literature or SFF and never has been, how genre and literary (as defined by Modernists in Grossman's musings,) are not different animals, how SFF has plenty of stuff that is just like the Modernists as defined by Grossman. (But Neil Gaiman is not a surrealist. He has plots. He is a dreamy lyricist though.)
But not all SFF is about plot, and not all SFF is easy, or suspense or romance, for that matter. Grossman makes the mistake of -- since literary critics have tried to turn genre into a uniform "type" of story -- going along with that idea and saying that the genre "type" should now also be considered literary again, even more so because it is popular. Grossman also tries to claim that the Modernists invented and were the uniform total for a while of perceived literary fiction, which is not true. And for the purposes of his comparison, he goes along with the hoary fictional myth that "literary" fiction is seldom popular and genre "commercial" fiction almost always is.
He's trying to do a good thing and say that genre fiction is literary, but he's going about it in the wrong way because he's trying to present genre fiction -- particularly SFF -- as a stylistic and uniform movement. And genre fiction isn't that at all. Genre stories are completely varied in their style, tone, structure, etc. And yes, they are varied within the category market. And it is this that prominent members of the community, not just Vandermeer, are responding to. That and the idea that books with plot are "easy" -- which Grossman objects to as a synonym for trash, but still will be read by others as "trash."
Grossman has now responded to these comments at PW's Genreville blog, and very well, I thought. http://www.publishersweekly.com/blog...310048531.html He has acknowledged that in trying to do the comparison, he simplified things and in the wrong way. But while he understands that the division of things into two boxes isn't so clear-cut, he still thinks it's kind of there. I have to disagree with his response #7, which implies that the Modernists never wrote genre, which is not correct, that genre fiction was never considered literary by critics and academia in the 20th century, which is not correct, etc. He's still trying to make it all simplistic, and that hurts us.
But it's okay, Ursula LeGuin will forgive him for where he's tried to place her work in the universe. She forgives everyone, if sometimes gently skewering them and rolling her eyes. Everybody understands that Grossman is a good guy (well except perhaps for some rabid fans who sound like they were rude,) and that he's trying to get more respect for category market fiction, for books with action in them. He's a critic, an advocate, an ally. He just went about it wrong, because like so many, he tried to put everything in one bucket. (And because like so many, he's proposing that the term literary has nothing to do with the business of fiction publishing, but with people's perceptions of style, plot and structure. As Vandermeer points out, perceptions of tribalism have a lot more to do with how books are characterized, rather than what's in them.)
Last edited by KatG; September 3rd, 2009 at 09:46 PM.
September 4th, 2009, 05:01 AM #12
I have to disagree with his response #7, which implies that the Modernists never wrote genre, which is not correct, that genre fiction was never considered literary by critics and academia in the 20th century, which is not correct, etc. He's still trying to make it all simplistic, and that hurts us.
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September 4th, 2009, 06:07 AM #13
From Vandermeer's article:
Nothing against Grossman—seems like a nice guy, and Ann said she really enjoyed him on a panel at WorldCon—but he’s inferring not only that Stephenie Meyer is a good writer but that there’s something about her writing that we should encourage just because it sells well.
A compelling argument, though, don’t you think?
Imply: to express indirectly <'his silence implied consent'>
Infer: to derive as a conclusion from facts or premises <'I inferred from his silence that he consented'.>
Incidentally, Vandermeer told me to **** off when I pointed this out. Nice one. Somewhere around here there is a thread about what would make you stop reading an author. Telling potential readers to **** off when they have the temerity to point out that you got something wrong is high my list.
Last edited by JunkMonkey; September 4th, 2009 at 07:19 AM.
September 4th, 2009, 12:47 PM #14
You can screech that Vandermeer is not sufficiently polite all you like and not buy his books if you like; it doesn't change that he has an excellent point, in my opinion. What he's talking about -- dropping imaginary tribalism on both the general fiction and SFF fan sides-- works. It works with Clarke, Gaiman, Lethem, Chabon, etc. Grossman wrongly presents this as a new movement in fiction, rather than simply a jettisoning of false beliefs and perceptions about fiction, past and present.
Grossman's mistake was to agree that the imaginary culture war could be real (presumably to get those invested in the idea to listen,) and agree that there are two tribes, but that both tribes should be seen as good, and that the one tribe was now using the attributes of both tribes for a revolution of real goodness. He based the definition of the tribes on issues of style and structure -- how the books are written rather than content, and declared the Modernist ideal to be the main sum of "literary" in non-genre general fiction in the 20th century, which was not the case. He leaves out the difficulties of people's perceptions of category SFF versus general fiction SFF, and marketing and packaging of both, both from fans and non-fans.
He also accepts as fact for the purposes of his essay: 1) the mythical idea that the genre tribe is universally popular, "fun," and is popular because it is a uniform movement that uses uniform style and structure, in this case plot, by which he doesn't actually mean plot, but a type of plotting; and 2) the mythical idea that "literary" fiction is universally not so popular, or so popular anymore, because it is a movement with uniform style and structure. (#2 is actually a still fairly effective marketing ploy in fiction publishing for selling "literary" fiction.)
"Literary" is not a sub-genre or genre of fiction. It is not one clearly defined movement with a clearly defined, monotone style and structure. Literary is complicated. Literary on one level involves marketing and the way books are sold and placed in stores and in the bookstore, and people's (often mistaken) perceptions of that. It involves the culture of social classes, (which includes racial issues,) which up to the 1970's dominated Western fiction publishing and still lingers, and how that effects perceptions. It is also about subjective evaluations of language use, style, theme, structure, plot, etc. on which there is no agreement. Which is why some genre writers are literature professors, and many genre works -- some published in the category markets when they developed in the latter half of the 20th century and others published in general fiction in the 20th century and before and after -- are studied as literature in universities and high schools and were thirty years ago. There are scholars who specialize in LeGuin. Literary isn't a box in which only one style or focus is allowed; literary is an ocean and we argue with each other about the drops of water.
But we invent imaginary dividers, boxes, tribes, because that's tidier and you know where you stand then. Which is why Margaret Atwood, when she writes a science fiction novel, doesn't think she's writing a science fiction novel. She believes that science fiction is a movement, with particular requirements as to style, content and structure that its readers demand, and since she doesn't have what she believes to be the required aspects of that imaginary movement, her book can't be science fiction. This is a woman who hosted the televised tribute to Stephen King as a literary award recipient, as a major man of letters, mind you. She's not hostile, she just doesn't think she belongs to the science fiction tribe for her SF books. Which then requires LeGuin to roll her eyes, forgive her, gently correct her, and give her a nice review of her new SF novel.
But it's not just the other "tribe" that does this. There are numerous SFF fans and critics who are convinced that genre is a uniform movement, a style, a sensibility that dominates the field -- and mistakenly believe that this is a main factor in how SFF imprints pick most or all of their titles. They ignore the wide range of styles and structures that I'm always going on about -- and this is part of the point that Vandermeer was making. There are other fans who think SFF works published in general fiction can't be part of the tribe, can't be "genre" because they don't necessarily have the "right" style and weren't published in the category market and the author didn't show up at a convention yet, and this is also what Vandermeer is talking about.
Grossman proposed in his piece that the cultural wars be ended because they were unfair and all the tribes are good. He also insulted past SFF writers as non-entities in the 20th century, which was not the case, and the rest of them by saying they were the fun, simplistic books sold in supermarket racks, which is again an imaginary and simplistic division. He's saying that the cultural wars were imaginary and real at the same time. He had the right idea and good intentions; he just went about it the wrong way.
But that's okay. Because while jettisoning the notion of a culture war and tribes works best to get rid of the myths once and for all, it does also work with some people to pretend that there is a new "movement" in "genre" fiction, particularly "genre" SFF, that should now be seen as literary, as good. Come on over and check it out is never a totally bad message, especially when it's delivered by an esteemed Time Magazine critic who's just written a fantasy novel that he is happily selling to both general fiction and category market crowds. It's a lot better than the imaginary not-SFF SFF fiction idea we've been sighing under for so long.
So he gets his lashes with a wet noodle from the "tribe," he did his mea culpa, and maybe next time, he tries it again without the tribal nonsense. Or not, he's a free guy. But sorry, while category SFF is a community, it's not a tribe and it's not a movement.
September 4th, 2009, 03:27 PM #15