Should literary authors take genre fiction more seriously? Michael Chabon thinks so.
My friend RJ, a wonderful poet and an extraordinarily kind man, recently informed me he wouldn’t be attending the release of my first YA fantasy novel because he dislikes the genre. Fair enough, I thought. Every reader is allowed his or her own tastes. A few days later, a public radio host said on air that having read my poetry, he expected that the prose style of my novel would be more interesting than it is. When I explained that my main goal in the novel is to tell an engaging story so I want the prose to be as transparent as possible, he seemed disappointed. Then, in one of those serendipitous contradictions that make life interesting, a reviewer in an arts journal based in Los Angeles said he was relieved to see a novel written by a poet with a clear prose style:
One pleasant surprise in The Green Mage is that the language doesn’t strain to be overly or idiosyncratically poetic. When the characters include an irate she-dragon and a king robbed of his powers by a mesmerizing black stone, we’re already in augmented reality, and illusions are best maintained by telling the story plainly. Which Simms does, often to powerful effect.
I’ve been curious about the disdain that many writers and readers have for genre stories — crime, fantasy, romance, western, science fiction, horror, alternate history, and inspirational stories — ever since I encountered the prejudice as a student in a workshop forty five years ago. On the first day of class, the teacher announced that we shouldn’t submit genre fiction for the assignments. Instead, as implied by the reading list attached to the syllabus, we should write in the naturalistic manner of his heroes Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Alice Munro. Although I admired these writers, and still do today, I was a rebellious young man and didn’t like being told what to do, especially in my art, so I wrote stories that were, I’m afraid, weak imitations of Latin American magical realism. Jorge Luis Borges’s enigmatic Ficciones was my model, and Gabriel García Márquez’s extravagantly imaginative One Hundred Years of Solitude was my bible. The teacher seemed to tolerate my rebellion and put one of my stories on the weekly worksheet for class discussion where, of course, his minions tore me apart. One of my fellow students, condescension dripping from his lips, accused me of writing “fantasy.”
In fact, this tussle between devotees of mainstream “serious” literature and those of genre fiction, sometimes disparaged as “bubble gum for the mind,” has been going on for quite a while. Mark Twain, who created a huge oeuvre including what we would now call YA fiction (Tom Sawyer), science fiction (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court), and fantasy (The Mysterious Stranger), was often criticized for appealing to popular taste, rather than attempting to create high art. In 1885, he wrote in his notebook, “My works are like water. The works of the great masters are like wine. But everyone drinks water.” Today, highly-regarded writers as varied as Cormac McCarthy (western novels), Elizabeth George (mysteries), and Elizabeth Kostova (horror) have embraced the conventions of genre fiction while Booker Prize winner John Banville publishes crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. Mainstream writing that borrows plot elements from genre novels is often referred to as “slipstream genre” while Black speculative fiction, such as that of Octavia E. Butler, includes elements of science fiction, fantasy, and horror that critique social structures leading to oppression.
Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale received a mostly positive response when it was published in 1985 although Mary McCarthy in a New York Times review expressed reservations about Atwood’s use of science fiction to make a serious point about the role of women in Western society. Atwood herself may have harbored reservations as well since she has through the years waffled on the literary merits of the genre, insisting she was not writing about “wormholes in space” but rather about current social issues — “speculative fiction” as she prefers to call it. This disavowal led to a public spat between Atwood and Ursula Le Guin in which the latter pointed out that a writer can’t have her cake and eat it too. Atwood’s attempt to distance herself from the genre led science fiction critic David Langford to quip: “The Handmaid’s Tale won the very first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987. She’s been trying to live this down ever since.” Despite her misgivings, Atwood can’t escape the fact that she’s been writing novels in the slipstream genre, making use of the conventions of crime fiction, historical romance and horror, as well as science fiction, for decades.
And yet, the prejudice against writers of genre fiction persists; for example, James Anderson, whose tight imagistic prose should provide an edifying example to every novelist, was asked at a recent writer’s conference whether he planned eventually ‘to create something serious,’ or whether he would continue to write mysteries.
Since my own books consist mostly of poetry collections and college textbooks, the question of whether serious literary people should write genre fiction is not an academic one for me, and in fact points to a late-life digression in my writing career that began during the Covid epidemic when I was quarantined in my home, desperate to find a way to occupy my mornings. My first novel Bicycles of the Gods, published in 2022 when I was 68 years old, is in the genre of Apocalyptic Religious Fiction (Jesus and Shiva visit Los Angeles as twelve-year-old boys) and my second novel The Green Mage (2023) is YA fantasy, the first in a trilogy. So for my literary career, such as it is, the die has been cast. Obviously, I’ve decided that it’s perfectly fine for me to write genre novels, but should other poets, as well as writers of mainstream fiction, consider this path? And more crucially for this third-tier author (take a bow), will the small following I’ve managed to attract as a poet follow me into the wilderness of genre fiction? Will readers accept a poet who writes fantasy? Will Hollywood? Although the chances of one of my novels being made into a major motion picture are slim, the selling of film/tv options is a frequent windfall for many fiction writers.
Certainly some poets have been successful, both artistically and commercially, in combining their ambitions in poetry with forays into genre fiction. My mentor Stephen Dobyns has published a dozen award-winning collections of loosely metered poems that encompass domestic drama, religious allegory and political argument. His poem The Gardener, which recounts the melancholy of God after His retirement from managing the world, is a post-modern classic. And Dobyns’s moving farewell to poetry Santiago in Winter (published exclusively by Vox Populi) is an admirably sustained elegy for a blind clarinetist who performed every evening in a public square of Santiago, Chile. In the course of his career, Dobyns has also written a series of mysteries featuring the private detective Charlie Bradshaw, as well as thrillers such as The Church of Dead Girls. When I asked Stephen why he chose to write mysteries and thrillers, he said he needed the money to support his family. And indeed, genre novels usually do sell better than poetry collections, and two of Stephen’s novels and one of his short stories have been adapted into films, but I think Stephen didn’t, at least in that conversation, want to consider the pleasure he derives from reading thrillers and detective novels. I remember hearing him mention years before, for example, how much he enjoyed Georges Simenon’s immensely popular novels featuring the detective Jules Maigret.
Another writer who had an admirable career straddling the fence between the popular and the literary is Ursula K. Le Guin. Most people who admire her sci-fi novels, such as her 1969 classic The Left Hand of Darkness, an increasingly relevant parable about a planet populated by androgynous people, don’t realize she had a complementary vocation as a poet. One of my favorite poems of hers, To The Rain, is an invocation to the mother-goddess rendered in an incantatory alliterative meter:
Mother rain, manifold, measureless,
falling on fallow, on field and forest,
on house-roof, low hovel, high tower,
downwelling waters all-washing, wider
than cities, softer than sisterhood, vaster
than countrysides, calming, recalling:
return to us […]
Le Guin was able to bring her poetic gifts into a popular genre without betraying those gifts. However, most writers are not as sure-footed as Le Guin. The manifold misadventures of hapless poets trying to work in popular mediums are as instructive as Greek myths. Here’s a true story:
In the 1990s, a friend of mine, a poet whom I’ll call Orpheus, was denied tenure at his midwestern university, so when he was offered a chance to move to Los Angeles and take a job writing episodes of the television series Law and Order, he jumped at the opportunity since the salary was more than seven times what he was making as an assistant professor. He, his wife Eurydice and their four-year-old daughter Calliope moved to Los Angeles, excited by the prospect of starting a new life. But shortly after Orpheus arrived at the offices of Wolf Entertainment in Universal City, he was disappointed to discover that very little creativity was required to create scripts. Police procedurals are necessarily formulaic, but with L&O the formula had become a straitjacket for the writers. The producers insisted on almost identical “ripped from the headlines” scripts every week, changing only details of the crimes. The recurring characters, half a dozen New York City detectives and prosecutors, recite the same lines with only minor variations from one episode to the next. This cookie-cutter dialogue satisfied the fans and made a lot of money for Wolf Entertainment, especially when the formula was cloned and spun off to create six more American television series, a British series, and a feature film, but creating the cut-and-paste scripts required almost no imagination. The franchise, Orpheus came to understand, was nothing more than a license to print money.
So, as a distraction from the mind-numbing tedium of his job, Orpheus started knocking around with people in the industry. He went to parties where he mingled with celebrities and their hangers-on, consuming free drugs and alcohol. He justified his behavior to Eurydice and himself by claiming he was doing research for his new novel, a roman à clef that takes place in Hollywood. But as one would expect, the novel was never written, and the ‘research’ destroyed his marriage and nearly killed him. He became addicted to cocaine and was fired from the L&O job for inviting his dealer to make deliveries at the Wolf Entertainment offices. Eurydice left him, taking Calliope back to their hometown of Pittsburgh, and Orpheus, broke and emaciated, followed them, checked himself into rehab, and a few weeks later moved into a halfway house. I met the former poet at a 12-step meeting where he was trying to start a new life, hoping eventually to win back the trust of his family. Since he didn’t have a police record, he was able to secure a trainee position at a bank. Orpheus described himself as “the oldest intern in America” and laughed bitterly when I suggested he go back to writing.
As I write this essay, Hollywood writers are on strike over the issue of royalties on streaming rights, and as a proud former member of the American Federation of Teachers, I support their right to strike; however, the truth is that most American literary workers barely scrape by with side-gigs, day jobs, freelance work and adjunct teaching positions, and if we were to go on strike, no one would notice. Like musicians, we get by with a little help from our friends, and like Orpheus, most of us would be ill-suited to survive Hollywood. Aside from the mortal dangers and moral hazards of living a fast life, a writer’s creativity can be eroded by working in the entertainment industry. In an online class I attended, the late James Patterson advised his students to stay away from Hollywood: “If they offer to turn your novel into a movie, take the money and run. Don’t try to adapt your novel into a script because they’ll take whatever you write and make a crappy movie out of it. Or they’ll just sit on it for years and do nothing. Hollywood will break your heart.” This advice came from a writer who’d made a fortune from film and broadcast rights. No one knew genre fiction or the economics of the writer’s trade better than Jim Patterson, and he firmly believed that Hollywood destroys writers.
Notwithstanding the soul-eating reputation of Hollywood, a number of writers have nevertheless managed to build successful careers in the film industry. Dorothy Parker, for example, put her razor wit to good use on over a dozen pictures including Hitchcock’s Saboteur and William Wyler’s The Little Foxes — the script received one of the film’s nine Oscar nominations. Parker’s most enduring work as a screenwriter was William A. Wellman’s 1937 film A Star is Born, nominated for Best Screenplay, which has led to several remakes. F. Scott Fitzgerald turned to Hollywood on more than one occasion to dig himself out of financial trouble. Most of his work on movies was uncredited, but his time at the studio gave him plenty of fodder for his final, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon. Although Raymond Chandler is best remembered for creating the private detective Philip Marlowe, Chandler didn’t work on any of the Marlowe adaptations of his novels. Instead, his first screenwriting assignment was a collaboration with Billy Wilder on the iconic film noir tale Double Indemnity, nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar in 1945; two years later, his solo script for The Blue Dahlia garnered him a second nomination. In 1951, Chandler co-wrote one more immortal picture: Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train from the novel by Patricia Highsmith. William Faulkner was hired by the director Howard Hawkes to work on the film versions of Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. Faulkner spent several more years in California turning out scripts; his droll demeanor provided the model for the bibulous screenwriter W.P. Mayhew in the Coen Brothers’ 1991 film Barton Fink:
Mayhew: Me I just enjoy making things up. Yessah escape. It’s when I can’t write I can’t escape myself, I want to rip my head off and run screaming down the street with my balls in a fruit pickers pail.
Michael Chabon, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay, his novel about golden age comics creators struggling with inspiration, sexual identity and the Holocaust, has had a successful career injecting literary sophistication into popular mediums. The key to his success, it seems to me, is that he hasn’t so much straddled disparate approaches as rejuvenated whatever he touches, making literary writing more engaging and accessible and genre fiction less hackneyed and formulaic. He makes it look easy to spin gold from cliché. Chabon has been at this task his entire career. His first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), written when he was a college student, borrows from the conventions of the gay coming-out novel, a sub-genre popular at the time. In 2007, he published the Hugo-winning alternate history novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Both of his essay collections Manhood for Amateurs (2009) and Maps And Legends (2008) deal with geeky, science-fictiony topics. He also found time to edit two anthologies of pulp science fiction by some of today’s best authors, McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales and McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories. Sometimes he makes use of a fictional alter ego, a quasi-Lovecraftian horror novelist named August Van Zorn. In a 2009 interview in Gizmodo, Chabon refuses to accept the distinction between mainstream fiction and genre fiction. These divisions, he claims, have been created by the publishing industry in order to target their marketing to specific audiences, and novelists have no obligation to respect categories created for commercial purposes:
I think, in the end, it is largely a marketing issue. Personally I would prefer to see bookstores shelve all fiction together regardless of genre. Or maybe just have two sections, “Good Stuff” and “Crap.” Into Crap we will consign all novels regardless of genre or reputation that trade in cliche and dead language. If I ever own a bookstore I will do it that way. Only I will just leave out the Crap section.
In recent years, Chabon has shown he also doesn’t recognize the division between authors who write serious books and those who write and produce popular television shows. As the showrunner of the first season of Picard, the latest installment in the Star Trek franchise, Chabon brings to the production his remarkable ability to adapt popular heroes of genre fiction into complex characters who have inner conflicts and contradictions. In a 2020 interview for Variety, Chabon is enthusiastic about appealing to his fellow Trekkies by embracing the much-loved epic cycle that’s been in the telling for almost sixty years:
It is a show with a nearly 80-year-old actor playing a 94-year-old man who is if not in the final stages of his career, in the latter stages of his career, who has a period of great dismay and disillusionment in his immediate rear view, who has allowed himself to let ties that were formerly very important to him slip or fade away, and who has now re-engaged with the greatly changed world in which he finds himself. That is the story we’re telling.
Clearly, genre fiction and literary fiction shouldn’t be seen as rival siblings contending for readers’ allegiances, but rather as a pair of artistes learning from one another as they perform side-by-side in the big tent of the American imagination. Ursula Le Guin was not only one of the most popular sci-fi/fantasy authors of her generation, but also a gifted poet. And in addition to Michael Chabon, Stephen Dobyns and Elizabeth George, there are many other highly regarded poets and writers who employ the conventions of genre fiction to create a host of novels, films and television shows.
© 2023 Michael Simms
“To the Rain” © 2018 by Ursula K. Le Guin. From So Far So Good: Poems 2014-2018 (Copper Canyon Press, 2018). The first six and a half lines of the poem are quoted here for educational purposes only.