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July 20, 2009

LitFict and Sentences

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

In case some visitors think that, in my many rants about the book-fiction world (sample one example here), I have overstated the intellectual set's commitment to literary fiction, let me present Yale's "The American Novel Since 1945." Take that course and you'd learn little if anything about postwar crime, horror, romance, or western fiction. You'd discover next to nothing about erotic fiction or humorous fiction. You'd remain clueless about the enduring influence of writers like Mickey Spillane and Jacqueline Susann. (I bet you also wouldn't wake up to the history of the postwar American publishing business.) Yet you'd emerge convinced that you'd "done" the postwar American novel. And you'd have Yale's imprimatur bolstering your confidence about that judgment.

And, in case some visitors think I've overstated the intellectual set's commitment to writin' -- ie., fussing with words -- let me present The Teaching Company's "Building Great Sentences." Take that course and you'll be unlikely to discover much about how to create living-breathing characters, or how to come up with fictional situations that might conceivably pique a reader's interest. Your sentences will glitter, though.



DIMLY-RELATED UPDATE: Sarah Weinman shares some welcome news about the recently-deceased crime-fiction giant Donald Westlake, a hero of mine. Rege Behe offers a well-judged tribute to Westlake.

posted by Michael at July 20, 2009


"Take that course and you'll be unlikely to discover much about how to create living-breathing characters, or how to come up with fictional situations that might conceivably pique a reader's interest."

That's a bit like saying that a tennis player who's working on his serve is not working on his positional play, no?

Posted by: LemmusLemmus on July 20, 2009 2:12 PM

It is a bit like that. I'd agree that your point is a valid objection if not for one thing -- the intellectual and academic set doesn't offer a more comprehensive view of the many other elements that go into writing. For them, it's (almost) all writin'. They're like a tennis academy that teaches nothing but how to serve. So it seems fair to poke them a bit for being unbalanced, no?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 20, 2009 4:47 PM

Course should probably be called The American Literary Novel Since 1945 or something like that. As for it's breadth, you can only fit so many books into a semester.

Posted by: JV on July 20, 2009 5:17 PM

JV -- I have a sneaky feeling that the Yale prof 1) doesn't know much about commercial fiction, let alone about the book business; and 2) despite her ignorance of commercial fiction, is quite content in her conviction that "literary fiction" is all that really counts anyway.

Could be wrong! But she'd be about the millionth intellectual-literary person I've met who's like that. It's not an unusual type.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 20, 2009 5:43 PM


are you saying that (to take two names from the "American novel since 1945" reading list) don't care about character and plot? I wouldn't agree with that.

Posted by: LemmusLemmus on July 21, 2009 2:03 AM

That's quite an impressive list of postwar American literary novels, but it unaccountably omits Wan-Yi Colon's Tell Me Why the Mockingbird Flees the Moon. Its seemingly inconsequential, apparently random quotations from the 1893 Farmer's Almanac belie a deep structure of unicameral consciousness.

For more on this important topic, see here.

Posted by: Rick Darby on July 21, 2009 2:02 PM

Less interested in the meaning of the "since 45" syllabus than I am in the work of the prof: lots of post-mod decon stuff there from the look of the titles of her works. A friend of mine in Canada was doing grad work in English lit and apparently at that time (not that long ago), you more or less had a traditional Eng Lit approach, by which I mean the whole Euro-semiotic-deconstruction stuff hadn't taken hold almost at all. It seems that the mania for Foucault, Derrida et al was more of a south of the border phenomenon.

The reason I bring this point up is that there are two objections to the lit establishment today: Michael's about lit-fic, and criticisms of academic English depts for destroying their students ability to read with any skill or insight (and for other things too, like destroying their ability to write sentences).

Nothing to add really, except that I get the impression that the bulk of Michael's ire is directed at the non-academic lit-fic world, with its remnant of elitism of the old Partisan Review Dwight MacDonald sort (you know, "middlebrow" as a sneer), and not so much at the academic self-deconstructors, who, IMO, have had a far more destructive impact precisely because they have actively harmed students' ability to read and write...and therefore to think.

Posted by: PatrickH on July 21, 2009 2:52 PM


that should have read

are you saying that Roth and Nabokov (to take two names from the "American novel since 1945" reading list)...

Posted by: LemmusLemmus on July 21, 2009 3:30 PM

LemmusLemmus -- My two points, at least in this little posting, are:

1) Where teaching appreciation and history go (ie., the Yale course) ... The intellectual/academic world 'way overvalues litfict and massively underrecognizes popular/commercial fiction. I like a fair amount of litfict myself. But talking about book-fiction generally while COMPLETELY overlooking popular/commercial fiction is like talking about music without giving even a single nod in the direction of popular music. Imagine giving a course in "American Music Since 1945" and never once mentioning the Beach Boys, Aretha, Springsteen, or Motown. Ridiculous, right? Does this attitude represent snobbery? Ignorance? Neglect? Fun to think about.

2) Where teaching the activity of writing, and especially fiction-writing, goes (ie., the Teaching Company lecture series) ... The academic world 'way overvalues the fussing-with-words part of writing, and massively undervalues everything else that goes into the creation of an engaging and persuasive writing-performance.

Rick -- Wonderfully done!

PatrickH -- Agree with you totally about the destructive effect of decon and such on the academic study of lit, as well as on young minds. That's been pretty well covered by lots of other observers, though; also, I'm many years away from being personally involved in academia. So I've chosen to push a more generalist angle that I hope brings a somewhat more fresh light to bear on the topic of how our intellectual class is mis-serving us where readin' and writin' go.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 22, 2009 1:27 AM

Or science fiction.

Or techno-thrillers.

Or fantasy.

(Two of last week's 15 NYTimes fiction best-sellers have fantasy elements.)

Or historical fiction.

Or, for that matter, "chick-lit".

Of the 15 titles listed in the syllabus, exactly two were NYTimes #1 best-sellers (''Lolita'' and ''Franny and Zooey''). Roth and Morrison had other novels reach #1.

There have been about 480 American #1 novels since 1945). Of these, the largest slice were mysteries and thrillers. The authors with the most titles are Stephen King (30), James Patterson (28), Danielle Steel (27), John Grisham (19), Mary Higgins Clark and Patricia Cornwell (15).

I'm not suggesting that the list should be based on mere popularity, but if the subject is "the American Novel", then the most widely-read American novels should get some attention. It's not as though lit-fic would be wholly unrepresented: besides the four authors mentioned about, Cheever, Irving, Updike, Vidal, and Vonnegut made #1.

Definitely there is a divergence betweem what the "elite" approve of and what people actually read (or at least buy).

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on July 22, 2009 2:28 AM

Michael, I'm coming up against some of these same issues as I prepare to teach a fantasy/SF course in the fall. Friends and colleagues keep pointing out to me that the "fantasy" portion of the class could be as far-ranging as Ionesco or the lais of Marie de France, or that science fiction has roots in ancient Greek prose adventures, Swiftian satire, and so on. They're not wrong, but their impulse to turn a genre fiction course into a course that's 90 percent "sources and analogues" and 10 percent modern genre fiction suggests to me that they still don't think genre fiction can stand on its own. Now, I'm a bit of a contrarian, so I've responded to all this input by starting the science fiction half of my class with the founding of Amazing Stories in the 1920s and the fantasy half with the Pre-Raphaelites and then the pulps. We'll talk at length about the deep histories of these genres, but we'll start with novels and short stories between 1926 and 1999, not treat them as afterthoughts.

The thing is, though, not all opposition to genre fiction in the classroom comes from academics; some of it comes from fans, whose loose canons of influential works overlap only sometimes with the list of books praised by professional scholars and critics and who don't see an English-department syllabus as the last word on legitimacy. Just in the past week or two, science fiction scholar (and writer) Adam Roberts griped on his blog that the books nominated by fans for this year's Hugo Award were competent but mediocre...and the fans have been letting him have it. I plan to bring up this kerfuffle in my classroom, but as someone with only one foot in the academic world, I don't mind if that literary-vs.-genre debate hasn't been institutionalized in English departments, because anyone with even a passing interest in the subject can follow the debate online...without paying an admission fee of $200 per credit hour.

Posted by: Jeff on July 22, 2009 6:55 AM

Jeff, I second your point above. I took a sci-fi course at university, and it featured, yes, scads of those "sources and analogues", and whatever sci-fi was included was the usual suspects, precisely those authors who, for one reason or another, had received some critical esteem from the lit establishment and just as importantly were not popular with the mainstream (overwhelmingly young male and nerdy, aka GUYS LIKE ME) sci-fi audience.

So we had Welles and Stapledon, but no Van Vogt, Clarke, Asimov, or even Bradbury, none of the original giants, not one. We had lots and lots of (guess who!) Stanislaw Lem, a great writer whom I love, but not a popular writer of sci-fi (at least in North Am) and also someone who openly disdained the sci-fi mainstream here.

And of course, cyberpunk, which was just emerging when I took the course, was nowhere in sight. I suspect that today William Gibson would make the cut, but for his newer almost zero-sci-fi books not for Neuromancer or Count Zero or any of his early shorts: Johnny Mnemonic (which I read when it first appeared in Omni Magazine--remember Omni? Sigh.), New Rose Hotel, or the great genre-defining Burning Chrome.

And don't even talk to me about fantasy! Shelley, Rider Haggard, Le Fanu, Stoker (horror not fantasy, the last two, Haggard too really), POE POE POE POE POE POE POE. And maaaaaybe, some of the earlier, forgotten fantasy writers like James Branch Cabell. But no Tolkien (god forbid! Everybody had already read that thing!). No Roger Zelazny, despite some favourable attention from defenders of high-brow lit-fic like John Gardner. And certainly none of the major blockbusting doorstopper trilogy/tetralogy/cubic exponential epicosities that grew out of Tolkien.

That the doorstoppers were bad almost to a one doesn't change the fact that Tolkien himself should have been included. But nothing. No recognition that a book that sells TENS OF MILLIONS of copies and not only enters but MASSIVELY PENETRATES popular culture might deserve a bit of a look in a course on fantasy, even simply as a social/historical curiousity.

But no. Nothing.

Do I sound bitter?

Posted by: PatrickH on July 22, 2009 10:58 AM

Hmm. Many years ago, at York University in Toronto, I took a course called "Modes of Fantasy" which covered both the "sources and analogues" angle, AND the more popular, recent fantasy and science fiction. It was taught, too, in a rather creative way, as were many of York's first and second-year courses. The profs were a team of 5 or 6, with different specialties, ranging from early 19th C. literature (to cover Mary Shelley), to Renaissance history (to cover Thomas More's Utopia), to 20th C. popular fiction. That's the way to handle these things.

Why mention this? Well, the trouble with teaching courses that include both popular and "serious" fiction, Michael, is that few professors have the range of knowledge to do both. This is partly because they were themselves taught to over-specialize, but it's also partly because of the huge quantity of material that must be covered. York's way of handling this problem was very effective. I never encountered it at other schools. Perhaps it was an imitation of the English model of having "lecturers" instruct people in particular subjects, while the day-to-day teaching was carried out by "tutors"?

Posted by: aliasclio on July 22, 2009 12:19 PM

While I agree with Michael's larger point (and am thrilled my university at the time still went the classics route rather than the po-mo deconstructionist dirt road (though we were introduced to it)), I actually think that's a fine reading list.

So, I would add a second course and include these:
- Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (though my fave of his is "Texasville" and it would be easier to read in time for the class)
- Robots of Dawn by Issac Asimov
- The Shining by Stephen King (or maybe "The Stand" - though it's a big novel to tackle in one class)
- Slaughterhouse Five or the Children's Crusade : A Duty Dance With Death by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
- Fletch by Gregory Mcdonald
- The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
- The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks
- The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice
- The World According to Garp by John Irving
- Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
- Plum Island by Nelson DeMille

What would the other fine commentors on this post have on the list? (Trolling for stuff I may not have read.)

Posted by: yahmdallah on July 22, 2009 12:20 PM

Via Anne Thompson, I see a Westlake-authorized graphic novel adaptation of "The Hunter" was released last week:

Posted by: Bryan on July 22, 2009 1:46 PM

Comment bait :)

61 Essential Post-Modern Reads

Lots of good stuff on there.

Btw, clio's description of her multi-lecturer class sounds ideal. Almost no one has the breadth of knowledge and, more importantly I think, interest to cover everything mentioned in this comment thread.

Posted by: JV on July 22, 2009 1:51 PM

I'm in my early 40s and, other than the glaring lack of scifi and Fantasy, the novels on that list are pretty representative of what my peers read. I've never met anyone in my life who talks about Mickey Spillane or Jaqueline Suzanne. They're just not relevant. Stephen King is an author that really needs to be reckoned with if you're not being a snob.

Posted by: vanya on July 22, 2009 2:19 PM

I have fairly eclectic tastes and you're just as likely to find me reading Mickey Spillane and Louis L'Amour one week as you would reading "literary" works the next. I don't see what's so bad about learning how to construct better sentences. One of the joys of reading (and I mean real reading, not just sort of "processing words through the eyeball," as one does reading a lot of pop-lit that's 90% dialogue), is reading beautifully-constructed sentences. One of my favorite "academy-approved" novels is THE GREAT GATSBY, which is full of beautifully-structured sentences, and yet the characters are very vivid and the storytelling excellent. It's true you won't learn plot, characterization, etc., from a course in sentence-structuring. But that's like saying you won't learn calculus from a course in algebra.

Posted by: Bilwick on July 22, 2009 3:58 PM

Bilwick -- Nothing wrong with learning how to write pretty sentences, of course, just as there's nothing wrong with learning about literary fiction. I'm not objecting to either. Why would I? What I'm objecting to is the way the intellectual set focuses on lifict and crafting pretty sentences to the near-total exclusion of everything else that might be profitably looked at.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 22, 2009 4:51 PM

Just to be clear, is the "comment bait" thang about my comment? And is that now a bad thing?

Posted by: yahmdallah on July 22, 2009 9:23 PM


You wrote:

"The academic world 'way overvalues the fussing-with-words part of writing, and massively undervalues everything else that goes into the creation of an engaging and persuasive writing-performance."

You can't teach talent, especially the storytelling instinct. You can teach people to recognize style and consciously manipulate technique.

Plot is central to genre fiction. Bestsellers, as Norman Spinrad has observed, are about their own plots.

Litfic is about style.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on July 23, 2009 2:42 AM

I'm with Peter W. Storytelling is really an entirely different ability than lit-fic sentence crafting. I've used this analogy before, but some very sophisticated musicians couldn't write a pop music tune to save their lives. They can improvise through time changes, chord changes, modulation-o-polyphonisticated sequences too fast for even FUTURISTISH DIGITALIFIED technology to capture, and yet couldn't compose a tune anybody could or would whistle, hum or even try to sing.

It's the same with storytelling and lit-fic. Storytelling seems to have something innate about it...seems difficult to teach. Lit-fic does strike me as a set of techniques that could be more or less mastered. I've heard stories of writers deliberately just writing and re-writing and re-re-writing sentences, just to get a feel for how to do good ones--John Irving did that, apparently. Fun stuff too, some of these exercises. Like the ones in the back of John Gardner's Art of Fiction.

Maybe that's part of the appeal of lit-fic to writers. It's something they can get good at through sheer effort. It would also explain why their finished published work so often lacks the storyteller's touch: they don't have the innate talent for telling stories...which is why they got into lit-fic in the first place.

Posted by: PatrickH on July 23, 2009 9:13 AM

Peter L., PatrickH -- I know what you mean. I'd add two things to the observation, though.

1) What a weird state of affairs, no? I mean, "Anna Karenina" is great not just because Tolstoy wrote pretty sentences but because he created some memorable characters and situations, and told an engrossing yarn. Given the self-evident fact that most fiction that has lasted has done so at least partly because of the characters, situations, and yarns, how weird that the lit-fict world peddles the idea that worthwhile fiction-creation is ALL about the word-fussin'.

2) The "Creative Writing" package has the virtue of being very teachable, as you point out. I may differ with you a bit on the "storytelling can't be taught" point, though. It's taught, and very competently so, in screenplay courses all over the country. I agree that, as with most art-talents, there's an innate knack-thing that you're either born with or not. Some people just have a funny ability to come up with cool hooks and such more often than others do. It's weird and cool and impressive when you encounter it. But the craft of storytelling (creating arcs, suspense, pacing, tension, etc) -- ie., how to develop your ideas into narrative form -- is a teachable craft in much the same way that figure-drawing is. And, as with figure drawing, almost anyone can pick it up and, with study, practice and application, become moderately competent at it.

It's a funny (and bizarre, once you think about it) development that the developing-a-story part of book-fiction-creation has split apart from the fussin-with-words part of book-fiction-creation. In the first category: TV, movies, and popular fiction. In the second: litfict, which (partly because it's preoccupied with arcane style concerns, and partly because it turns its nose up at matters of character and yarn creation) is always dancing on the edge of becoming academic and irrelevant.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 23, 2009 10:43 AM

yamdallah, your comment wasn't posted yet when I wrote my "comment bait" thing, so no, definitely not directed at you.

Posted by: JV on July 23, 2009 12:28 PM

I think you're confusing market value with aesthetic value. There is a difference.

Further, you are totally mistaken if you think "literary types" (whoever that is - you never say) have a problem with clear writing or that they discourage strong storytelling and the like. That was NOT my experience in a major University English program only a few months ago. Every instructor was open to all approaches to both criticism and writing. I suspect you've constructed for yourself a Straw Man argument.

Does it really sting you that Jackie Collins doesn't win prizes? Really? And what exactly is your problem with Salmon Rushdie other than the fact the he DOES win prizes? I found Rushdie's writing to be pretty exciting and lucid. I found Jackie Collins to be lazy and dull. It's not all a matter of taste, but I don't really understand your impulse to exhault the lowbrow and deride the highbrow as a given.

I agree that Elmore Leonard is a fine writer who should have an armload of prizes by now, but get over it. The prize committees have ALWAYS missed the boat. And you're kidding yourself if you confuse popular taste with literary merit. There are many other criteria besides box office, all of which you ignore.

And your faux folksiness is really annoying.

Posted by: Ray Butler on July 23, 2009 5:14 PM

Ray -- You're opinionating like a schoolboy. Small hint: liking Salman Rushie, dissing Jackie Collins, and making an exception for Elmore Leonard demonstrates either of only two things -- either you have a cliche taste set, or you've embraced the brainwashing your Major University's English Program was selling. (The lit and intellectual set love making an exception for Elmore Leonard.) No matter which is the case, I wouldn't be too proud of it, let alone forward about it. Explore the larger reading-and-writing world for a few years and get back to me. I urge you to be open about what you encounter. Much of it is likely to contradict what you've been taught and told.

To repeat my first main argument: Discussing The American Novel Since 1945 without taking note of popular and commercial fiction is like discussing American Music Since 1945 without taking popular music into account. It's absurd. I can't imagine a decent objection to this argument, but everyone should certainly feel free to take a whack at it.

To repeat my second main point: Where teaching (and thinking about) writing goes, the intellectual set overemphasizes word-fussin' and underemphasizes the many other elements that go into creating a persuasive writing performance. This isn't a very controversial assertion, by the way. "Story" and "character" split off from "literary writing" long ago -- as "serious writing" got more and more preoccupied with word-fussin' and chic themes and strategies, story and character moved over into movies and popular fiction. Understanding this is basic to understanding recent literary history. And even where nonfiction writing goes, the inadequacies of the sentence-centered usual thing have been well covered by people like Mark Turner.


Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 24, 2009 11:21 AM

JV thx

Posted by: yahmdallah on July 24, 2009 11:47 AM

The real failure of the sentence-fetish lit-fic types isn't their inability to tell stories. Anybody can--to use your screenplay example, Michael--study Syd Field, take some workshops, and get the art or bag o' tricks of scaffolding a story. It's that they lack the ability to draw you in, to hold you there ("entertain" etymologically). And that requires the ability to write characters that the reader cares about. Gets involved with. Hates or loves or laughs at...but gets frickin' involved with. Emotionally involved.

I suspect that it is this ability that is the innate part of the storytelling talent I talked about above. Now, the ability to write characters that interest and engage readers involves some degree of (don't gag!) empathy, at least in the sense of being interested in people, lots of people, flawed people. Interested even in boring people (who can be very interesting indeed).

This is why, from the point of view of workshops, storytelling really can't be taught. You can't inculcate an interest in people through a course or workshop. Exercises might get you to structure a plot appropriately...but no amount of workshopping can give you the empathy, the heart, the soul, needed to write emotionally engaging fiction.

So it's not a talent exactly that the lit-fickers are missing. It's a trait of personality. And you can't be taught personality, except as a simulacrum. And no simulacrum of personality is going to help you when you sit down in front of a blank white space and start writing.

Posted by: PatrickH on July 24, 2009 12:39 PM

@Ray B.
"And your faux folksiness is really annoying."

I find that swipe a little ironic. On one hand you are, by implication, siding on style over substance, but then snark at a well-honed style (which I enjoy, btw).

Just sayin'.

Posted by: yahmdallah on July 24, 2009 12:50 PM

PatrickH -- Yeah, I think that's a really good point. LitFict seems to encourage an "art is about showing off your Genius" attitude, where popular/commercial fiction has more of a service orientation -- it's more oriented towards delivering pleasure and entertainment.

I'd add only that, where "unteachable" talents go, there's a certain unteachable something even to writing pretty sentences and to making cool lit-fict moves. Some people seem to have a weird in-born knack, and some don't.

In the case of lit-fict, you're showing your knack and skills off to an in-group -- whether it's to your workshop or to the "literary world." Some people make a life of that, and that's swell, and some people like that kind of thing and that's swell too. But really why should anyone else care?

In popular-commercial fiction, if you have some skills, a knack, and some determination you might actually succeed at entertaining some civilians -- your work might be of some interest to a non-coterie crowd. Which can be a nice thing too. Why the lit-fict world is contemptuous of this kind of accomplishment remains a bit of a mystery.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 24, 2009 3:21 PM

"The real failure of the sentence-fetish lit-fic types isn't their inability to tell stories. Anybody can--to use your screenplay example, Michael--study Syd Field, take some workshops, and get the art or bag o' tricks of scaffolding a story. It's that they lack the ability to draw you in, to hold you there"

I'd say that's a matter of personal taste, Patrick, as I find myself very drawn into the lit-fic writers I enjoy. Mostly it's their ability to illustrate and bring to life an inner world, a bit of the subconscious. I love that shit, when done well, and find it far more satisfying than plot-driven writing. Some of which I happen to enjoy as well, but on a different, and for me, lesser, level.

Posted by: JV on July 24, 2009 4:47 PM

Why the lit-fict world is contemptuous of this kind of accomplishment remains a bit of a mystery.

Mostly I've found people who prefer lit-fic aren't actively contemptuous of popular-commercial fiction, they just don't get anything out of most of it. And again, I can't think of a single person I know who reads lit-fic exclusively. As I stated in my previous comment, most of those people, myself included, enjoy lit-fic for one purpose and pop-fic for another. On the contrary, it's people who mainly enjoy pop-fic who are contemptuous of lit-fic, as is shown again again in these posts. Aside from you, Michael, everyone here who is on the side of pop-fic has voiced, not just a preference for pop-fic, but outright contempt for lit-fic.

Also, I think your characterization of those who prefer lit-fic as an "in-group" or "coterie" is way off. Again, you're coming from a Manhattan POV, which is the center of book publishing, so maybe all you run into really are an in-group, but I can assure you there are many, many people way out here in the sticks who have no stake either publishing or teaching, and yet still prefer lit-fic. In other words, we're civilians too.

Posted by: JV on July 24, 2009 4:56 PM

JV -- I have some appetite for Lit-Fict myself, though very little for workshop-style Lit-Fict, which is sadly what the majority of the novels are these days. Nothing against the stuff, just against the way critical-intellectual attitudes overemphasize it and insist on seeing all book-fiction through that one particular lens.

That's a nice bunch of level-headed buds you have. I suspect that they're a pretty rare bunch too. The LitFict fans, writers, editors, and critics I've known have been overwhelmingly 1) ignorant of, and 2) contemptuous of and antagonistic to commercial/popular fiction, while the commercial/popular fiction fans, writers and editors who I've known have been far more open-minded, "there's room for all of us," and live-and-let-live. They may chuckle at the pretentiousness of the LitFict scene when they give it a thought, which isn't often. But they're almost never outright hostile to it. It's a big world, after all. But until Further Studies Are Done I'll leave it at that.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 24, 2009 6:37 PM

I'll have to take your word for it then, Michael, because both my personal experience and what I read here whenever this topic is brought up is diametrically opposed to your assertion that pop-fic fans are a live-and-let-live bunch while lit-fic fans are ignorant of and dismiss pop-fic.

Posted by: JV on July 24, 2009 6:48 PM

JV, I too love and read a lot of what could be called lit-fic. I do not read much genre writing, which is on the whole pretty damn bad. And badly written. And not even entertaining.

The thing about some circles of lit-fic is that they claim overtly to be the best writers, base that judgment primarily on their ability to craft sentences, and deny to popular writing the importance it has, not just as a mass phenomenon, but as a source of much valuable writing. Remember, Michael's post was in response to a course about lit-fic calling itself "The American Novel Since 1945". It's that bit about "...the..." that grates.

Well done lit-fic is a joy to read. Even if it's just a matter of savouring sentences. That can be done without having to accept a self-description by a subsection of our writing and reading culture of its own centrality, or to accept its claims to the authority to make pronouncements about what "THE" novel or story or writing is.

I don't see that lit-fic circles have the authority to make those claims. Or for that matter, the authority to even assign themselves that authority!

Posted by: PatrickH on July 25, 2009 11:58 AM

I think calling well-crafted sentences "pretty sentences" diminishes the importance of sentence structure. Staying with my example, THE GREAT GATSBY, there are sentences in that book that are not onlly well-crafted, but add to the power of the book. The final sentence, for example.

The first time I noticed the connection between good prose and literary impact was a novel I have referred to before, WARLOCK, which was "literary" (as I think you would use the term), but also a Western which utilized most of the tried-and-true sensational aspects and devices of run-of-the-mill pop Westerns. There was one scene in which a character is preparing for his big showdown, which he knows he probably will not survive. The scene involved him doing ordinary things like washing, dressing, and cleaning and loading his six-shooter. But the way it was written was, to me, beautiful; not just the content, but the prose. I even copied out the passages by hand (long before I knew this was a common learning device for aspiring writers) to try to figure out how the author, Oakley Hall, got so powerful effect. If it had been, say, Elmore Leonard writing the passage, it wouldn't have been half as powerful.

Posted by: Bilwick on July 25, 2009 3:57 PM

I co-sign PatrickH's point. It's up to Us in a large sense to decide what the rewarding writing of our age is and has been. Certainly the intellectual set deserves its input -- but so does the popular audience, so do the writers themselves, and so does your next door neighbor. And then history may decide otherwise, or maybe just forget about our era entirely.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 27, 2009 5:31 PM

While I'm in practice mostly a genre reader, I think the disgruntlement on the American Novel is a somewhat specious argument. Surely the point of a volume on "American Physics since 1945" is not to showcase the most popular physics experiments being done in the US?

Likewise, the mere fact that a novel has sold many copies does not mean it holds any particular interest. Should we also decry the canonical lack of D&D novels, Doom novels or Star Trek novels? (In the case of Star Trek, there is at least a novel that SF fans tend to grudgingly admit is a pretty good read*.) I'd say the individual qualities of the work are what makes it interesting.

And finally, if the problem is that readers of genre fiction are stung by the disdain of litfic readers, why not show them what they are missing? There should be plenty of depths to be delved. To get started, Harold Bloom at least mentioned two SF authors in his book on the Western Canon: Gene Wolfe and John Crowley. (Crowley turns up in this list: John Bayley has sung the praises of Patrick O'Brian's work. ( ) Philip K Dick has been published in a Library of America set. H.P. Lovecraft too, and he's getting other attention from here and there (e.g., Houellebecq's book). And of course, there have been some recent competent forays into SF by the literary crowd too: NEVER LET ME GO and ORYX AND CRAKE, for instance. (I guess I should also mention that Nobel prize winner Harry Martinson thought ANIARA, his actual 1970s space opera, to be his best work.) It's not an airtight chamber.

* If you wondered, it's HOW MUCH FOR JUST THE PLANET, John M Ford.

Posted by: Thomas Lindgren on August 8, 2009 6:13 PM

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