Monday, February 20, 2012

Reading is Pleasure: Genre or Literary Fiction

We read fiction books because they give us pleasure. Our minds are caressed by the splendid use of language, delighted by clever dialogue, seduced by intriguing stories and ideas.

One can come up with all kinds of rational-minded, literary and intellectual reasons for why we like books. But in the end, it is because they make us feel good or they make us think in a certain way, which makes us feel good. Some people like to read a book that makes them feel bad or sad or scared, but they read the book because they want to feel that way. They believe they will derive some pleasure from going into those emotional states or they believe that eventually they will feel better from having experienced those states.

“Genre” fiction is often said to have less value than “literary” fiction because it is supposedly written more for entertainment than for literary achievement. Michael Chabon doesn’t believe this and defends genre fiction in his essay, “Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands” from his non-fiction collection, Maps and Legends. There’s an interesting interview with Michael Chabon on the Los Angeles Times Hero Complex site written a few years ago about this subject. As Chabon says, the majority of genre fiction is lowbrow crap, but the majority of literary fiction is highbrow crap.

Chabon was greatly influenced by many genre writers, as was I, and I feel a kinship to him. I have had a hard time categorizing my novel, Jack & Dora Do L.A., partly because it has fanciful elements (partly because it has explicit sex, something else that is prejudiced against, which I will discuss in an upcoming post), yet is mostly a romantic comedy drama perhaps in a similar catogory to Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Chabon has ventured into this allegedly questionable area of genre fiction with some of his own work, such as Gentlemen of the Road and The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

Chabon also talks about how reading puts us into a certain pleasurable state that’s connected with our mindset in childhood and early adolescence. I couldn’t agree more. Like Chabon, my interest is in good books, no matter what the genre, that will give me the sort of free, dreamy pleasure that I remember from childhood summers.

I understand the suspicion toward much genre literature, which is badly written, with more emphasis on surface thrills and often a lack of care for language, style and meaning. But I have equal suspicion for books that are heavy on style or overwritten, with little regard for the reader. No matter how important a work is supposed to be, I have no interest in reading it if I derive no pleasure from the experience.

On the genre side, this is why I so love Fritz Leiber, one of the greatest fantasists of all time. His fantasy series of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is an incredibly imaginative series of tales with style, wit, humor and passion. I have derived countless hours of pleasure and joy from reading and re-reading them, and I would never consider them less important than any “literary” fiction. Another writer of incredible imagination, poetry and style was the science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith. Dashiell Hammett and Robert E. Howard were two of the most consummate storytellers to ever write. Within half a page, you are completely lost in the world and story they have created. The brilliance of their style was that you couldn’t detect any. There are, of course, many other great genre writers.

On the supposed “literary” side, Gore Vidal, Shirley Jackson, Michael Chabon and John Fowles come to mind as brilliant writers who entertain. And few novels are more readable than Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov. But some novels are very difficult to read, yet give much pleasure as well. A perfect example would be Justine by Lawrence Durrell. Again, there are many others great and entertaining “literary” writers.

What these writers all have in common is that they give us pleasure. They may also help us to find some comfort or meaning in our lives, make us feel less lonely, and perhaps help us better understand reality and our place in it. And that also gives us pleasure.

Robert Szeles
(pronounced saylesh)

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