So I came across this post in the NYT by Gary Gutting from June about relativity in choosing your reading pleasure. Gutting referenced this post in the New Yorker by Arthur Krystal which posits that, if long-lived (and a little lucky) any genre writer can become a literary lion. In the end, it seems that what separates the genre writer from being a literary author is the number and kind of flourishes we use in our work.
Are genre novels inherently inferior?
…the standards we appeal to in support of comparative judgments within a genre (complexity, subtlety, depth, authenticity and so on) could just as well be used to judge one genre, overall, better than another.
Does Hammett’s Red Harvest have less complexity, subtlety, depth, authenticity than, say, Les Miserables? And how many of the giants of literature – like Dickens – started out as less than adored by book critics? And if rhetorical flourishes are to be the yardstick, then what of Steinbeck and Hemingway?
When I’m asked what I write, I generally see the look of interest fade quickly to dis-interest, if not distaste, when I reply ‘urban fantasy.” I could probably get a better reaction if I said, “mystery” (with vampires and ghosts), since mystery has become what I’d call a respectable genre. Or maybe I’d get a better reaction if I said, “urban fantasy like Harry Potter.” But Rowling’s work and mine are alike only in being under the same, very wide, umbrella, so to link them would be misleading.
Though Urban Fantasy has become a potential Promised Land of best seller-dom (HP, 50 Shades of Grey, Twilight), it’s more than fair to say that hasn’t made it quite respectable. Not as respectable as The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee (here’s the New Yorker Review), which is “A haunting and often heartbreaking epic whose characters explore the deep reverberations of love, devotion and war.” This was the 2011 Pulitzer Prize Fiction winner, but I had to look it up on the Pulitzer site because I’ve never heard of it, stuck as I am in my genre ghetto.
Can a book’s worth ever be known to anyone but its reader? And will it always be relative? Then how are some books considered “serious” and others not?
We all know that being judged good enough for the Pulitzer Prize is not the same as everlasting glory and riches. It matters what you wrote before and what you will write after. Rex Stout may end up being more remembered by readers than Chang-Rae Lee.
So why would Lee’s book have more cachet than Stout’s if mentioned at a cocktail party? And it probably would, although there would be more people enjoying the conversation if it were about Stout than about the latest Pulitzer Prize winner. That’s the weird thing to me. More people will probably have read Stout and enjoyed his books than have read a prize winner, but his books wouldn’t be considered “serious.”
Why is that?
Here’s what HarperCollins is doing for Michael Chabon’s (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”) new book, “Telegraph Avenue” – morphing an indie bookstore into a record shop.
What’s the difference between Chabon’s work and Lee’s? Is it more ‘accessible’? Chabon’s work would still be considered more serious than Stout’s, right? Is that why he gets a quarter of a million marketing stunt budget?
Still pondering here…