Friday, November 18, 2011

A Question of Style

Last January, I wrote about the qualities of literariness and goodness, both in terms of books and television ( It's something of a ramble, but I eventually end up with perhaps one distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction, that of denseness of narrative. I also stated out loud (wrote out loud?) my firmly held belief that the idea of literary fiction is made up, a marketing ploy to entice readers to read things they might not otherwise be interested in and perhaps also to mollify authors who don't wish to be pigeonholed. However, having written this, I am still vexed by the question…or perhaps I'm more vexed by the rigidity with which such an artificial distinction is imposed.

A good friend and regular reader recently pinged me with his own question along similar lines. Determined to better learn the storytelling craft, he had picked up what has long been regarded as a classic literary novel but was feeling less than satisfied in its greatness: "why is this considered a classic?" he asked me. I was momentarily stymied because I had to admit that I hadn't read the novel so couldn't speak to its merits, but he filled the pause with his own idea: "The story seems pretty straightforward, so maybe it has to do with the style?" And I immediately thought of my old straw man, Mad Men, a critically acclaimed and award-winning TV show that seems to me to be pretty mundane when it comes to the story but all about style.

There's a danger here, though, in talking about style as if it is the same for all works in a genre; style is patently not static. So it's difficult to pin down attributes of the classics or current literary fiction that characterize those genres, though there do seem to be some common elements—robust language and meaning-packed sentences (whether they are short or long). But if you read any genre fiction, you know there are works that have these elements as well, which is one of the reasons I have long held that the distinction between literary fiction and genre is totally artificial. But my friend's other distinction is important as well, that the classic he was reading wasn't a great story in his mind whereas most of the genre fiction he has read has great plots, as if the emphasis was on storytelling. And I think we need to make a distinction here regarding quantity and quality of plot—in the blog entry I cite above, I talked about the complex plots of a lot of literary fiction, that is, the interweaving of a number of plots. As a reader, I sometimes find that entertaining, but that speaks nothing about how interesting those individual storylines are. What is often more compelling is fewer but more engrossing plotlines in a story, and very often genre fiction is single-minded in its plotting.

To be fair, I don't want to swing over too far the other way by generally declaiming literary fiction as not being interested in storytelling, because there are many examples that prove otherwise. But is there more emphasis on style than on plot? That's an interesting question, one that would probably require a lot more reading and a lot more space than I have here to work out. But let's assume for a bit that it is generally true.

One of the things I noted in the earlier blog entry was the feeling that I am supposed to think that something is good as I am reading/watching it. I still find this a difficult concept to pin down but I do think it has to derive from the style. It's easy to see when a plotline deals with portentous issues and have that fact register on the conscious checklist we keep as we read or view things. But style is supposed to be more subtle, working nearly subconsciously, so that the construction and choice of words move you to feel one thing or another. And perhaps because I enjoy paying close attention to such influence, I am better able to perceive that effect taking place and so somewhat feel the piece telling me that it is employing its style. And having associated effective use of style with good writing, I "feel" the piece telling me that it is "good." I'd be interested to know if anyone else has ever felt this effect.

So why don't I feel this effect when I'm reading/watching good genre fiction? Again, plot is not as subtle as style, so it's easy to see the good stuff—an obvious good quality will obscure a subtle good quality and even conceal a subtle mediocre one. Or, to say it less obtusely, a ripping good story carries me away so I don't pay close attention to style issues. And when the plot isn't so good, I do see the style working itself out and appreciate it.

But all this makes me just circle around to my opinion that the genre-ness of a work shouldn't make any difference to perceptions of its quality. I was rereading a blog entry from Steven Grant from a few years ago, and I found this to be particularly strong:

Genre is milieu. That's it. There isn't one genre that's not wide open with possibilities or places any inherent restrictions on literary quality, except where they attract adherents who aren't interested in such things and enforce a self-censorship based on tradition and fannish fixation. (

In other words, good writing including good style can appear in any genre. A little earlier he says

Whatever the genre, the associated trappings, not the ideas or execution, become the genre, though most book editors insist on at least a minimal level of literary competence…. This is the exact opposite of literary fiction, where idea and execution are both paramount….

Genre is the setting. I could quibble with that, but I think it's true enough that the quibbles themselves are based on the setting as well. And if literary fiction is, purportedly, genreless, then it can only rely on execution. But here's the truth that sticks in the craw of proponents of literary fiction—it can't be genreless (no fiction can be) and so sometimes end up using settings that move it into a genre. And there's another movement taking place that also disrupts the argument that those proponents try to make: the authors themselves openly talk about their indebtedness to genre.

So I've resolved this whole issue to my satisfaction, and like most epiphanies, it seems so obvious. But at the same time there are heretics who will not be convinced, as always. And for those, I feel a little sad since it's likely that the value of what they enjoy is more wrapped up in its perception than any of its inherent qualities.

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