Sunday, February 15, 2015

Genre fiction: escapist or ‘morally complex’?

Jonathan Franzen has two occupations.

He is, first of all, a pretty decent literary novelist (if not a very prolific one). I enjoyed The Corrections immensely. I also liked his later novel, Freedom (though not quite as much).

However, Jonathan Franzen is also a professional snob, as indicated by his recent remarks concerning genre fiction and the people who read it.

"Most of what people read, if you go to the bookshelf in the airport convenience store and look at what’s there, even if it doesn’t have a YA on the spine, is YA in its moral simplicity. People don’t want moral complexity. Moral complexity is a luxury. You might be forced to read it in school, but a lot of people have hard lives. They come home at the end of the day, they feel they’ve been jerked around by the world yet again for another day. The last thing they want to do is read Alice Munro, who is always pointing toward the possibility that you’re not the heroic figure you think of yourself as, that you might be the very dubious figure that other people think of you as. That’s the last thing you’d want if you’ve had a hard day. You want to be told good people are good, bad people are bad, and love conquers all. And love is more important than money. You know, all these schmaltzy tropes." 

Personally, I’m glad just to see people reading, versus watching professional sports, listening to rap music, or tuning in to cat skateboarding videos on YouTube.

Moreover, it is fundamentally wrongheaded to dismiss all genre fiction as morally simplistic, as Sarah Seltzer discusses over at Flavorwire:


One must be wary of over-generalizing. No one is going to make the case that Clive Cussler’s novels are anything but escapist entertainment. That is, in fact, all they are.

However, crime fiction (read some of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels) is often riddled with philosophical ambiguities and moral complexity.

At the other side of the spectrum, not all literary fiction is as profound as its advocates claim it to be. A number of reviewers panned Haruki Murakami’s bloated literary novel, 19Q4, as “overhyped” and filled with pointless navel gazing.


After struggling in vain to get through 19Q4, I tended to agree….