Does Literary Fiction Exist? And, James Franco

IS “literary fiction” just another genre? Over the years I’ve engaged in numerous discussions with writers, fans, and fellow journalists on the matter. Generally I’ve been sympathetic to the side that says that demeaned genres — science fiction and hardboiled detective fiction especially — can be as smart, well-written and thematically ambitious as what we usually call literature. Michael Chabon has written on this issue and demonstrated it in his own work. Go back to writers as different as Raymond Chandler or Ursula K. Le Guin and you see the brilliance of genre in full flower.

What I hear less often is a smart, non-stodgy defense of literary fiction and its values. That’s why I’m pleased with two new essays. The first is a Guardian piece by novelist Anita Mason. She writes:

Now, if a book slots easily into its genre, it’s because it’s been designed that way by a writer who knows exactly what he or she is doing. That, I suggest, is an important difference between literary and genre fiction. Not that writers of literary fiction don’t know what they’re doing, but there is a difference in the level of planning. A genre novel is governed by limitations, and the whole of the writer’s skill is directed towards creating the best possible novel within those limitations. A literary novel is governed by nothing – nothing I can think of, not even the requirement to be comprehensible – and the whole of the writer’s skill is directed towards creating the best possible novel. This involves, at some point, a surrender to the unknown… This is why no one wants to talk about literary fiction. It’s too embarrassing. Critics avoid the term because it sounds old-fashioned, writers dare not use it of their work because it sounds pretentious. There’s a vogue for saying that literary fiction is just another genre. But it is trying to do something different, and there is need for a term that acknowledges that.

Her essay is one of several on the Guardian’s site tacking this not-entirely-answerable question, but she deals with it honorably and tries to defend the seriousness of literature.

An essay by Dana Gioia, the poet/critic, former NEA chair and old friend of mine, just went up online and deals with a similar subject; The piece, “Why Literature Matters,” is from 2005, but remains pertinent today. He starts with the rough, pragmatic beginnings of America, in which the arts and literature initially played a very small part before blossoming later.

The American arts continued to develop for another century. By the mid-Twentieth Century the United States boasted world-class traditions in literature, art, popular music, modern dance, and theatre. But a strange thing has happened in the past quarter century. While the Cold War ended and income rose to unforeseen levels, while college attendance ballooned and access to news, entertainment, information, and government spread, the interest young Americans showed in the arts actually diminished.

He focuses specially on reading, arguing that, “That such a longstanding and fundamental human behavior should slip so swiftly, especially among young adults, signifies deep transformations in contemporary life.” What are the consequences? Gioia looks at the business world, education, our historical sense and civil society. “Reading is not a timeless, universal capability. Advanced literacy is a specific intellectual skill and social habit that depends on a great many educational, cultural, and economic factors.”

ALSO: What brings us the same pleasure as a $2000 raise? Visiting a library, says a British study. “The results of a study commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to measure which activities make us happier” says a story in the Guardian, reporting that a library visit is “equivalent to a £1,359 pay rise.” The irony is not lost on scribe Lucy Mangan: “Faced with figures like that, especially from research it demanded and paid for its very own self, a ministerial department would have to be mad not to look again at any policy that had, since last year, resulted in an estimated 493 libraries around the country being closed, palmed off to volunteers or facing closure.”

FINALLY: I’ve got friends who know him and think he’s smart and substantial. And I join the chorus in my love of Freaks and Geeks. But I also enjoy this Daily Beast piece220px-James_Franco_4,_2013 that asks, “Why Does the Art World Coddle James Franco?” (Some of that very coddling has taken place here in Los Angeles.) He has a new show in New York that puts him inside Cindy Sherman’s most famous photographs.

Yet many art world insiders consider actor/serial dilettante Franco’s work nothing more than a joke, though few will admit that for the record, and even then, elliptically. A paparazzi-magnet, Franco’s presence in myriad exhibitions reflects an insecure art world’s seemingly harmless infatuation with celebrity and hunger for validation. In exchange for photo ops  with the likes of MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach—because who outside the art world even knows who that is?—Franco’s pratfalls are humored.

Are people tired of Franco yet? Or is he a real talent? Maybe it’s some of both.



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  1. says

    This prompted me to peruse about half of The Drowning Pool – 133 pages or so – to see how many similes I could count. (I’m using the Vintage Crime Black Lizard edition from May 1996). I counted thirty four and no doubt missed a few. I haven’t done the legwork, but I think some of the later books might have a slightly higher ratio. That’s a lot, but in any case I would argue that many of Macdonald’s similes are so strong that they infinitely enrich the work. Not only that – they are so strong that they put many “serious” writers of fiction to shame.

    • says

      By coincidence I read Macdonald’s The Barbarous Coast about a week ago; it’s one of the few I didn’t get to in my feeding frenzy on his work a decade or so ago. It reminded me of how strong and understated a writer he was. Right now reading a recent/popular thriller, which seems showy and shllow by comparison.

  2. says

    In studying the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald I’ve tried to identify certain characteristics, themes, motifs, images – call them what you like – that crop up frequently throughout the various books. I don’t claim that the following are particularly important or have any special significance or meaning; nor do I say this is a comprehensive list. They are simply some things I’ve noticed in more than one of the novels. Some of these appear in quite a few of the Archers. In time I hope to post the results of reading through each of the books individually while searching for these ‘repeaters’.

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