The Buried GiantIf you’re like me and grew up reading Raymond Carver alongside Raymond Chandler and Marvel comics alongside Flannery O’Connor, you know it is a great time for fiction. In 2015, the walls between genre fiction and literary fiction are mostly in ruins. The New Yorker devotes issues to science fiction and crime, the Library of America collects work by H. P. Lovecraft and Kurt Vonnegut, the National Book Foundation awards medals to Stephen King and Ursula K. Le Guin, and MFA and Clarion grads debate George R. R. Martin and Junot Diaz alike. If you are a teenager now, the concept of the genre wars could feel as anachronistic as cassette tapes and landlines.

Except, somehow skirmishes in the genre wars keep flaring up. Even today there remain holdouts, fighting Hatifled-and-McCoy-battles on blogs and twitter over ancient insults. The most recent argument occurred last week over Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, The Buried Giant. In a New York Times interview, Ishiguro wondered if readers would understand what he was trying to do: “Will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?” Ursula K. Le Guin, among others, took great umbrage, arguing that not only was the book fantasy, it was failed fantasy: “It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, ‘Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?’”

At Salon, Laura Miller wrote about how the book is not fantasy but rather a meshing of modern realism with medieval romance. At Flavorwire, Jonathan Sturgeon agreed: “…The Buried Giant is not a genre work: its inspiration predates fantasy literature. It would be inane, even absurd, to retroactively apply the fantasy label to Homer’s Odyssey because it has monsters.” On Twitter, Peter Mendelsund, who designed the jacket, had yet another label to apply:

twitter Ishiguro

Finally, Ishiguro came out to say that he hadn’t meant to insult fantasy: “If there is some sort of battle line being drawn for and against ogres and pixies appearing in books, I am on the side of ogres and pixies.”

As is typical in the genre wars, everyone seems to be talking past each other. The idea that Ishiguro “despises” genre—as Le Guin suggests—seems suspect. In the same interview that sparked the controversy, Ishiguro said that the atmosphere of The Buried Giant was inspired by western and samurai movies; he doesn’t seem concerned if his work is construed as genre. He does seem worried, however, that readers of his previous novels might come to The Buried Giant with the wrong expectations. All writers worry about how their books will be received, and Ishiguro had a similar problem with the science fiction-tinged Never Let Me Go being attacked by some for not being SF enough and by others for being too SF.

I don’t think genre labels are meaningless. Indeed, genres can be vital traditions for writers to work in and draw inspiration from. Genre distinctions are real—genre mash-ups wouldn’t exist without readers being able to distinguish between the genres being mashed—but genre, like so many labels, is better understood as a spectrum than separate boxes. Some works are clearly operating in a specific genre tradition, while others mix different traditions, and yet others simply play with a few elements while doing their own thing.

Part of the problem is that both the genre and literary worlds have incoherent and contradictory definitions of the words “genre” and “literary.” This often leads to a pointless game of appropriation, where literary critics and readers say that the best genre writers have “transcended genre” and should count as literary fiction, while, at the same time, genre fans declare that famous literary writers belong to genres they never considered themselves a part of. Raymond Chandler is “really” literary fiction while Italo Calvino is “actually” fantasy. (The most absurd proprietary claim I’ve ever encountered was a SF fan arguing that Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America—an otherwise realist novel that imagines what would have happened if FDR had lost the 1940 election—was by definition science fiction because all alternative history books are posited on a theory of multiple realities resulting, for some reason I can’t remember, from teleporting wormholes.)

The problem with this appropriation game is that it eschews any understanding of history, tradition, influence, or context in favor of “winning.” It turns criticism into politics instead of a means to better understand and appreciate books.

This is where I think Le Guin—who is one my favorite fiction writers—falters. She simultaneously defines Ishiguro’s work as fantasy, and then claims that it doesn’t work as real fantasy. Well, then maybe Ishiguro was correct all along in saying the label didn’t fit. If Ishiguro tells us his influences were westerns, samurai films, and 14th-century chivalric poems, what does it matter if the result can or can’t be labeled fantasy? Do the labels “fantasy” or “realism” advance an understanding of what he is doing?

Le Guin is right about the literary world having a tradition of genre snobbery. She talked about some of that history here at Electric Literature with Michael Cunningham. There was absolutely a time when genre work was walled-off from the so-called “literary” world, with literary critics and magazines thumbing their noses at certain genres (fantasy, horror, romance) while absorbing others into the canon (Victorian gothic, magical realism, southern gothic). Indeed, even a decade ago—when I began submitting fiction— it was common for literary magazines to openly state they weren’t open to genre fiction and for creative writing classes to disallow vampires and aliens. There are still a few stubborn holdouts, but they are a dwindling group.

But if the genre world has been marginalized, they’ve also walled themselves off. It is just as common to see genre fans call literary fiction “mundane fiction” and scoff at the “lack of imagination” of literary writers as it is to see literary fiction fans assume that all genre fiction is formulaic and poorly-written. Jonathan Lethem had a great essay about the fact that while the literary fiction world erred by not recognizing the likes of Delany, Dick, and Le Guin, the SF world made an equal error in ignoring the likes of Thomas Pynchon, Angela Carter, and Don DeLillo. The ignorance has been mutual.

Fortunately, “has” is the key word here. These battle lines and distinctions feel increasingly anachronistic. Nowadays, Karen Russell writes about werewolves and Colson Whitehead writes about zombies while NYRB reviews A Song of Ice and Fire. Yes, it is harder to win a Hugo if you are thought of as “literary” and harder to win a Pulitzer if you are thought of as “genre,” but we really do live in a time of genre-bending and omnivorous reading. Writers feel increasingly comfortable to write in any genre they desire, as well they should.

27 Responses

    • Jacob (Goby) Russell

      One might add, that genre is more a commercial than a cultural or aesthetic distinction. It’s about where to shelve the books in stores, how to classify them for Amazon’s lists. Capitalism is the enemy the arts.

      Reply
    • tay be like

      I think the distinctions are necessary. It’s a matter, not of any inherent value in the work of fiction, but of the intent of the authors and the expectations of the readers. When you walk into a bookstore and you go down the isles looking for a specific kind of book, you don’t want to be disappointed. Imagine some young kid going down the young adult fiction isle and reading the back of the book and thinking “oh that sounds interesting” but then he goes home and reads it and is like “wow this is boring.” Somebody slipped some hardcore postmodern literature in there and he just wasn’t looking for or expecting it. Genre is good because it gathers specific audiences into markets. So people that look for more experimental, verbally inventive, idea centered books will go into the literary fiction isle and the authors who write books with the intent to be on that isle are writing for that audience. Someone who goes looking for a hard SF book can find a place where writers will write that kind of book will be gathered. If you have no genres, then you force authors to write for a generalized audience, to appeal to every reader with no expectations whatever about the kind of book they are reading and that leads to stagnation.

      I read both commercial/genre fiction and literary fiction. When I am looking for a fun read I know where to go. When I’m looking for an insightful read I know where to go. I don’t expect my literary fiction authors to write for pure entertainment and I don’t expect my commercial fiction writers to have anything serious to say. If either of those things happen, I am pleasantly surprised but the key thing is that they are not necessary. I go to the different genres for different things and I judge them purely on how well they meet my expectations.

      Reply
    • Timothy Wong

      When it comes to a genre – or generic conventions – like Science Fiction and Fantasy – there’s often a literary critical problem with how to read the works as *contemporary* novels.

      The best book on the subject is

      Fredric Jameson – “Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions”

      http://www.versobooks.com/books/243-archaeologies-of-the-future

      The problem concerns a type of mimesis which is not written according to the conventions of post 19th century realism.

      Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars Trilogy” and “Science in the Capital” series are quite clearly commenting on contemporary events.

      Robinson’s “Years of Rice and Salt” managed to be wonderfully prescient about the years *after* the book was published.

      Ursula le Guin is often mentioned alongside Gene Wolfe.

      Along with Steven Erickson, they are writers who use imaginative literature to deal mythical, religious, philosophical symbols and philosophy.

      And hence their mimesis of the contemporary world is mediated through their inventions of non-realistic forms.

      When considering le Guin as a commentator on her times, most readers point to “The Dispossessed”.

      Especially the book’s fascinating subtitle: “An Ambiguous Utopia”

      (see also Samuel Delany’s title “Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia”)

      And then her later neo-romantic “Always Coming Home”

      http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/birs/bir101.html

      Reply
    • Timothy Wong

      A “philistine” way of reading Fantasy and SF still persists. Namely, reading these works as “escapism”, mere entertainment. “just a story”.

      I think that “professional” literati – critics, reviewers, academics etc – who have an influence on literary reception really need to emphasize these books as *contemporary* works.

      Whose mode of mimesis is just as “realistic” – or documentary – as those works in the tradition of the post 19th century realistic novel.

      On mimesis see e.g Erich Auerbach. Theodore Adorno.

      See also Margaret Ann Doody. “The True Story of the Novel”.

      For these reasons, I was especially disappointed in Le Guin’s remarks.
      She seems to have misunderstood her own genre! And the nature of the mimetic moment contained therein.

      It seemed to “turf-warring” on her part.

      Le Guin seems to think that Ishiguro is “supposed” to be a “realist” novelist. And he should stay put there.

      I’m surprised that the Isiguro novel hasn’t been compared to Russel Hoban. Perhaps if it was, then Le Guin might see the point.

      Le Guin also seems to have forgotten about the tropes and typical techniques of Modernism.

      Will Self and China Mieville have a very great deal in common. E.g both novelists of the city of London.

      China Mieville depicts London either in fantastic terms: “Un Lun Dun”

      Or by a different name: “New Crobuzon”.

      Especially if we bear in mind that Mieville is both a very political writer, intellectual and person, it is impossible to avoid seeing Mieville’s politics in his “Bas-Lag” novels.

      Reviewers of SF and Fantasy works need to think and to draw out the contemporary historical documentary contained in these books. Far too many reviews of SF and Fantasy are just cultist fan-based enthusiast.

      Of course, a great deal depends upon the writer him/herself.

      China Mieville and Kim Stanley Robinson are clearly writers who know a lot and think very deeply.

      J.K. Rowling is just a commercial generic hack. With very little to say.

      But this decidedly *not* true of Ursula Le Guin!! Nor of Fay Weldon, Doris Lessing. Mageret Atwood.

      I’d like to see a mini-revolution in the way in which SF and Fantasy are read and received.

      Gene Wolfe and Steven Erickson are *much* more than merely commercial generic hacks.

      But because of the genre in which they work, they will not receive attention for such things as “prestigious” mainstream literary prizes etc.

      But only such things as the Hugo and the Nebula.

      Once again, I highly recommend Frederic Jameson’s “Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire called Utopia and Science Fictions.”

      Reply
  1. Rodrigo Juri

    So, you think, as Ishiguro sayd in first place, that fantasy literature is something to be ashamed of. Great!

    Reply
    • Lincoln Michel

      No, I don’t think that at all. Also, I literally just finished reading George R. R. Martin’s The World of Ice and Fire last night so I promise I’m not anti-fantasy!

      Reply
  2. Jacob (Goby) Russell

    As posted on my blog: Without the critical deference given to ‘realist fiction,’ that 19th C. reactionary trend that has dominated Establishment Literary Fiction (think: James Wood) the genre walls would crumble–all of them, for they exist primarily on one side–to defend the imagined purity of Literature, and on the other, to defend against it’s stultified pretensions. And while we’re at it, lets break down the walls between poetry and prose, a distinction that hardly existed before the emergence of the novel. All real literature is poetry!

    Here’s to the future of Transfiction!

    Reply
    • Lincoln Michel

      I don’t think the literary establishment is quite that rigid. There is way more support for realist fiction than I would personally like, but the 60s and 70s were filled the decades of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and Don DeLillo types. And the lit establishment has long embraced Marquez and the magical realist along with other non-realist writers.

      Reply
  3. Nalo Hopkinson

    The thing is, it’s not just a matter of marketing categories. There are definite reading protocols required for reading fantasy and science fiction (genres in which I write, BTW). If you read, “The woman flew across the room,” in order to be open to the possibility of the story having been written in some kind of fantastical mode, you have to be able to simultaneously hold in your head the notions that 1) “flew” might be a metaphor for moving quickly by realistic means and 2) she might literally have flown through the air via some means that the story will hopefully reveal later on. And since F&SF also use metaphors, just as mimetic fiction (fiction that mimics reality) does, you also have to be given a coherent enough sense of the rules of the world created by a work of the fantastic that you can discern metaphor from the “reality” of that world. Readers who are unfamiliar with or allergic to F&SF can get mired in “but that’s not physically possible!” and can find themselves unable to surrender to the reading protocols. (I recall a copy editor who dutifully pointed out all the places where I was potentially confusing the reader by making it “seem” as though the cat in my story could fly. By the protocols of mimetic fiction, she could only understand all my deliberate depictions of the cat’s wings as metaphor. It’s a very common reaction from people who don’t read any F&SF.) Some readers take quite naturally to reading the literature of the fantastic and can become bored by mimetic fiction. They get irritated when/if plot threads are abandoned and they find the inflexible realism oppressive. Some readers can happily code switch between modes. So signalling becomes important to setting reader expectations. If a book cover shows a robot in a mini skirt, it preconfigures which of my genre protocols I kick in when I begin reading the story.

    Reply
  4. Timothy Wong

    When it comes to a genre – or generic conventions – like Science Fiction and Fantasy – there’s often a literary critical problem with how to read the works as *contemporary* novels.

    To my mind, the best book on the subject is

    Fredric Jameson – “Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions”

    http://www.versobooks.com/books/243-archaeologies-of-the-future

    The problem concerns a type of mimesis which is not written according to the conventions of post 19th century realism.

    Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars Trilogy” and “Science in the Capital” series are quite clearly commenting on contemporary events.

    Robinson’s “Years of Rice and Salt” managed to be wonderfully prescient about the years *after* the book was published.

    Ursula le Guin is often mentioned alongside Gene Wolfe.

    Along with Steven Erickson, they are writers who use imaginative literature to deal mythical, religious, philosophical symbols and philosophy.

    And hence their mimesis of the contemporary world is mediated through their inventions of non-realistic forms.

    When considering le Guin as a commentator on her times, most readers point to “The Dispossessed”.

    Especially the book’s fascinating subtitle: “An Ambiguous Utopia”

    (see also Samuel Delany’s title “Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia”)

    And then her later neo-romantic “Always Coming Home”

    http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/birs/bir101.html

    Reply
    • Jacob (Goby) Russell

      “When you walk into a bookstore and you go down the isles looking for a specific kind of book, ”

      Precisely.

      Marketing. If the intent of the author is about nothing more than that, let them take up accounting.
      As for how to read–if one is even semi-literate, the book tells you how to read it, otherwise it’s nothing more than rote convention and … again, marketing, the convenience for reviewer who would do well to take up another trade.

      Reply
      • Lincoln Michel

        Yes, I think that in 2015 people are pretty genre literate. Even if you’ve never read, say, a fantasy novel, surely you’ve seen Harry Potter or LOTR or Game of Thrones or any of the other popular TV shows and films.

      • Timothy Wong

        (Ummm. My above comment seems to have turned up on the wrong thread. I meant to post as a comment under the article about Ursula Le Guin. And about the genre about fantasy and SF.)

        A “philistine” way of reading Fantasy and SF still persists. Namely, reading these works as “escapism”, mere entertainment. “just a story”.

        I think that “professional” literati – critics, reviewers, academics etc – who have an influence on literary reception really need to emphasize these books as *contemporary* works.

        Whose mode of mimesis is just as “realistic” – or documentary – as those works in the tradition of the post 19th century realistic novel.

        On mimesis see e.g Erich Auerbach. Theodore Adorno.

        See also Margaret Ann Doody. “The True Story of the Novel”.

        For these reasons, I was especially disappointed in Le Guin’s remarks.
        She seems to have misunderstood her own genre! And the nature of the mimetic moment contained therein.

        It seemed to “turf-warring” on her part.

        Le Guin seems to think that Ishiguro is “supposed” to be a “realist” novelist. And he should stay put there.

        I’m surprised that the Isiguro novel hasn’t been compared to Russel Hoban. Perhaps if it was, then Le Guin might see the point.

        Le Guin also seems to have forgotten about the tropes and typical techniques of Modernism.

        Will Self and China Mieville have a very great deal in common. E.g both novelists of the city of London.

        China Mieville depicts London either in fantastic terms: “Un Lun Dun”

        Or by a different name: “New Crobuzon”.

        Especially if we bear in mind that Mieville is both a very political writer, intellectual and person, it is impossible to avoid seeing Mieville’s politics in his “Bas-Lag” novels.

        Reviewers of SF and Fantasy works need to think and to draw out the contemporary historical documentary contained in these books. Far too many reviews of SF and Fantasy are just cultist fan-based enthusiast.

        Of course, a great deal depends upon the writer him/herself.

        China Mieville and Kim Stanley Robinson are clearly writers who know a lot and think very deeply.

        J.K. Rowling is just a commercial generic hack. With very little to say.

        But this decidedly *not* true of Ursula Le Guin!! Nor of Fay Weldon, Doris Lessing. Mageret Atwood.

        I’d like to see a mini-revolution in the way in which SF and Fantasy are read and received.

        Gene Wolfe and Steven Erickson are *much* more than merely commercial generic hacks.

        But because of the genre in which they work, they will not receive attention for such things as “prestigious” mainstream literary prizes etc.

        But only such things as the Hugo and the Nebula.

        Once again, I highly recommend Frederic Jameson’s “Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire called Utopia and Science Fictions.”

  5. You’re Still Bound by Time: An Interview with Shya Scanlon

    […] In a recent posted over at Electric Lit, Lincoln Michel made the observation that the fracas over genre in The Buried Giant (Ishiguro’s public expression of anxiety and Le Guin’s subsequent public taking-him-to-task) seems almost quaint. He points out, rightly I believe, that instead pointing to any real raging debate, the exchange showed their age. I believe this is more or less true. At least, it’s becoming true. […]

    Reply
  6. Rolling links 2 | Book Shape

    […] nice piece by Lincoln Michel at Electric Literature on the contested border between genre and literary fiction prompted by Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and comments the author made about fantasy in an […]

    Reply

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