Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Genre Rant!

Below is the first sentence of Joyce Carol Oates' New Yorker review of The Pesthouse by Jim Crace.

"Long the province of genre entertainments--science fiction, dystopian fantasy, post-apocalyptic movies--the future has been boldly explored in recent years by such writers as P.D. James (The Children of Men), John Updike (Toward the End of Time), Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake), Doris Lessing (Mara & Dann), and Cormac McCarthy (The Road)."

So what is Ms. Oates saying here? It sounds to me as though she's saying that if the writers she lists write about the future then their books are not genre because they are not genre writers. Even though these books are science fiction & dystopian fantasies--in fact all the books she lists are dystopian fantasies with science fiction elements.

Science fiction/fantasy is clearly considered by most people as genre literature (along with romances and westerns). Why then do the novels listed about--science fiction and fantasy all-- get to not be genre? Because their writers are too important? Because their authors have written novels without genre elements? Because their writers are too literary?

This is not the first time I've gnashed my teeth over this bias, and it won't be the last. And I'm not the only one gnashing either. Still, I would think that Joyce Carol Oates would know better. She has written many books that could clearly be labeled as genre (horror) and sometimes have been.

Madama Oates does not give The Pesthouse a glowing review, and from her comments it sounds very hackneyed, your standard future-where-the-world-is-poisoned--everything is rusting--
and-everyone-is-ignorant and have-forgotten-all-the-rules-of-humanity-law-and-
good-grammar. Still, thanks to the lit cred of its author, it was worthy of a review in the New Yorker, while Winterlong--my favorite dystopian future novel--wasn't. Elizabeth Hand, you know, is a genre writer.


Paul Witcover said...

Hear, hear!

Liz said...

You have obviously completely misconstrued my work, which is pre-apocalyptic, post-realist, ur-topian. NOT genre at all.

If you continue to insist upon calling me a genre writer, you'll be hearing from my lawyers.

Admin said...

Oates has written extensively in "genre" cateories, particularly "mystery" and "horror." The distinction she's making is between the broad categories of entertainment fiction and literary fiction. Genre fiction is predominantly entertianment -- there are exceptions. Most "literary" authors don't write in genre categories -- there are exceptions, which she mentions. Oates has said that there are no inferior genres, only inferior practitioners.

Ysabeau Wilce said...

Not the lawyers! I grovel at your feet, oh mistresses of mistresses, my lady of pain, please forgive your humble worm-like servant for her terrible slander...

Liz said...

Oh, all right.

Clute just suggested that Oates might be getting senile. Perish the thought!

Unknown said...

Oh, I loved Winterlong. That's my favorite Hand book.