Genre Wars from a Different Angle

The last thing I want to do is get into another installment of the Genre Wars, but it seems the discussion is on many people’s minds of late, what with the National Book Critics Circle’s recent panel (and News-Observer book critic J. Peder Zane’s response), an ongoing discussion at Laura Lippman’s Memory Project and David Montgomery’s associated thoughts.

As always, there’s a lot of food for thought but I want to focus on something Zane said:

My fear – no, make that prediction –
is that literary fiction will be increasingly marginalized as general
interest publications focus on “books people actually read.”

the effort to attract more readers will diminish interest in book
pages. Of course there are many fine genre writers who deserve – and
receive – critical attention. But one of the main reasons reviewers
don’t focus on their work is that there is only so much one can say
about books that, like sitcoms, are formulaic and predictable. The best
efforts of Michael Chabon, Lorrie Moore or Jonathan Lethem  provoke far more interesting responses than the works of Patterson or Steel.

on the latter will force editors to run shorter pieces – how much can
you really say – that revolve more heavily on the least interesting
aspect of criticism: Thumbs up or thumbs down.

To which I say, yes and no. If I got a Danielle Steel book to review, I’d be the first to admit that I wouldn’t really know what to do with it – not only is it not my cup of tea (to say the least) but Zane is correct; there isn’t much in the way of critical thought in terms of the text. In terms of social context and popular fiction phenomena, maybe, which is about the only reason I’d have for reviewing a James Patterson novel. Criticizing the writing and his penchant for collaboration is beside the point, because he’s less a crime writer than a packager who owes more to his advertising days (and maybe Daniel Weiss, the founding father of Alloy Entertainment) for inspiration and marketing tactic.

But Zane neglects the “in-betweens,” the books that are classified as popular fiction – and thus subject to ignoring by many of my fellow NBCC members, rightly or wrongly – but deserve the appropriate level of critical analysis. And that’s where the real point of this post comes in, which is to wonder where those voices are and why, to be frank, there are so few like me.

One of my so-called resolutions for 2007 was to crack more markets and freelance more heavily, and so far, this has borne out. I freely admit that luck and timing has a whole lot to do with this (and that as newspaper space dwindles, those markets could dry up in an instant) but to a lesser extent, it’s also because there simply aren’t that many people willing or able to become critical experts in this genre. I’ll namecheck the obvious print reviewers – Montgomery, Oline Cogdill, Hallie Ephron, Dick Adler – and add other folks who ought to be reviewing for pay more regularly, like James Clar, Anthony Rainone, Jennifer Jordan and Maxine Clarke, but compared to the number of people who review literary fiction, this is but a couple of handfuls.

I feel like there’s some sort of sea change at work, especially with Adler’s revelation of a serious illness that may take him away from all forms of writing. Or maybe I’ve locked myself into some work-related ivory tower and there are standout emerging critical voices in crime fiction from enthusiasts who are confident in their opinions and well able to articulate them fully so that, should they send out clips to appropriate venues, they could get noticed. Or maybe crime fiction criticism is destined to be author-driven with the accompanying nervousness and foibles. Lord knows I have my fair share of quandaries and conflicts of interests.

And that explains my concerns here. I can’t review everybody. Neither can the fine people I’ve mentioned. So where are the new passionate voices who think about this genre in ways I haven’t even begun to explore but hope to engage with? Who’s going to come along to counteract antiquated notions of what genre criticism is and what books benefit from more than just a thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach? Where are the B.R. Myerses and John Leonards and James Woods of our world?

Because if we’re going to rise above the so-called genre wars – if indeed, that’s something worth considering instead of ignoring altogether –  then maybe we have to think that much more critically about the genre we belong in. Real criticism, not just subgenre dismissal for lack of understanding their context and roots. Reader reviews have a place; so, too, do the fanzines and the long-range reviews offered by January Magazine and blogs and other online venues. But I sense a hole waiting to be filled, and I’m doing the best I can even though I know I can do more. I’m only one person here, and I can certainly use all the critical help I can get.