Traditions and Criticisms

Traditions and Criticisms

English MusicLiterary traditions are useful things. They’re constructions of literary critics, sure, but useful constructions. A well-articulated tradition can show how different writers deal with the same idea or theme, demonstrating different approaches to a given problem or artistic ideal. It can show affinities between writers, sometimes bringing out resemblences between different figures in such a way as to cast new light on everyone involved. At the grandest level, the whole history of writing in a given language or from a given nation can be seen to be part of a tradition, showing the evolution of a language or the concerns of a people.

The problem with the idea of a tradition is that it can also lead to ossified thinking. A set of writers can be fixed as a canon not to be questioned, examplars of an ideal that can only degenerate. Or a critic might focus on works written within one tradition alone, ignoring works from beyond that tradition. And, as a result, ignoring the existence of other traditions entirely.

I’ve been thinking along these lines since I recently stumbled across an article at the Atlantic website. Written a few months ago by Joe Fassler, it tries to explain why ‘literary’ fiction is suddenly full of ‘genre’ elements (Fassler takes the distinction between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ for granted; I’m less sure). I thought the piece failed to establish its premises and then failed to make a convicing argument based on those premises. And those failures, I think, come from a limited idea not only of what literature is, but of the existence of the muliplicity of literary traditions within the Anglophone world.

The article claims that genre elements are infecting “the literature section” of the bookstore. Says Fassler:

To understand why this is significant, it’s important to stress how rare genre interpolations were in late 20th-century fiction. In the 1980s and 1990s, serious writers trafficked in realistic tales, simply told. Led by their patron saint, Raymond Carver, American minimalists like Grace Paley, Amy Hempel, Richard Ford, Anne Beattie, and Tobias Wolff used finely-tuned vernacular to explore the everyday problems of everyday people.

Discounting a few notable (and unclassifiable) isoladoes like Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Don Delillo, our literature unfolded in diners, standard-issue automobiles, and the living room. Even those writers who did not subscribe to a Hemingway-influenced minimalist aesthetic—John Updike, Phillip Roth, Jane Smiley—still wrote about modern-day people in believable situations. In the 1990s, a new generation of writers took this tendency one step further, hyper-focusing on the stark realities of lesser-known contemporary subcultures (see Annie Proulx, Chris Offutt, William T. Vollmann, and Denis Johnson).

This makes little sense on the face of it. If it’s an attempt at irony, it’s too straight-faced to work. It seems like an attempt to define a tradition, but it overstates its claim so dramatically it becomes more of an illustration of the limitations of the critic’s perspective. It may, in fact, be best viewed as a nervous attempt to claim pre-eminence for the tradition it wants to define, the tradition of realist American fiction. The idea that this one tradition encompasses all “serious” writing is difficult to accept, though, however one chooses to define “serious.”

The Plot Against AmericaTo move, as Fassler does, from “serious writers” (implicitly any writer anywhere in the globe with literary ambitions) to “American minimalists” with no apparent awareness that the two things are very different is one warning sign that Fassler’s overvaluing the tradition in which he’s interested. The claim that “serious writers trafficked in realistic tales, simply told” is another. These claims are wrong not just because they ignore individual writers, but because they ignore whole traditions of writers, traditions beyond the one Fassler accepts as “serious.”

A genre fan will immediately think of writers of ‘literary’ fantastika such as (say) Le Guin, Wolfe, and VanderMeer, all of whom turned out major works during the 80s and 90s. There’s one broad tradition, and you can isolate different sub-traditions within it as you like. But more than that. Even without leaving literature written in English, one can find writers pretty universally considered ‘serious’ writing non-realistic work. Consider Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, Angela Carter, J.G. Ballard, Peter Ackroyd, A.S. Byatt, and Iain Sinclair. All British, at least in part, though not all neccessarily part of a single tradition; still, I think enough of them can be grouped together that it’s fair to say there’s at least one tradition of the fantastic Fassler’s ignoring. Even in America, considering work already sanctified by mainstream critics, ‘serious’ in this context would have to include Vonnegut, Pynchon, Auster, and David Foster Wallace — a tradition of postmodern surrealism. One can certainly say that these writers aren’t traditional genre writers; my point is that they’re not realists in the tradition of Carver and Hemmingway either, which is the specific tradition that Fassler uses as his definition of ‘literature.’

The next paragraph does try to deal with writers who don’t even remotely fit into the tradition Fassler’s interested in, though it’s a rudimentary attempt. Toni Morrison, Don Delillo and Margaret Atwood are shoved off to the side as “unclassifiable,” as “isoladoes.” Given the number of times Morrison’s work has been discussed in terms of a tradition of magic realism, that’s surprising. Not as surprising, though, as the suggestion that Atwood’s “unclassifiable.”

SurvivalFull disclosure: as a Canadian, I’m angry at this intellectual maneuver. I don’t much care for Atwood’s writing, but there’s no doubt that she has a significant place in the history and development of Canadian literature in the late 20th century. Fassler seems first to be claiming her for a tradition of American writing, then rejecting her from the tradition he’s constructing. This is nonsense. Atwood literally wrote a whole book (Survival, her history of Canadian literature) explaining how she is specifically not in sympathy with American literature, but is instead a writer coming out of an English Canadian tradition. In fact, as a Canadian writer, her work aligns nicely with that of other CanLit writers, like Robertson Davies or Timothy Findley, who’ve used fantastic or genre elements in their fiction.

In other words, Fassler is going beyond simply ignoring the tradition of literary fantastic fiction; he’s ignoring the (Anglophone) literary tradition of another country. It’s a tradition that is not his own, and therefore outside of what he seems prepared to understand as ‘literature.’ (One might also argue that his presentation of Morrison as an ‘isolado’ effectively ignores the tradition of African-American writing. I suppose it’s possible that for Fassler, ‘serious’ African-American writing is necessarily mimetic.)

This limitation of perspective can’t help but make the rest of the article incoherent. “Today’s serious writers,” Fassler says, “are hybrid creatures—yoking the fantasist scenarios and whiz-bang readability of popular novels with the stylistic and tonal complexity we expect to find in literature.” He’s implicitly arguing that readability and fantasy have traditionally been at odds with complexity. The statement seems to me to be unsupportable unless you accept the idea that American realist writing is the only kind of serious writing, and is a contentious generalisation even then.

The RoadFassler acknowledges Cormac McCarthy’s 2007 Pulitzer-winner The Road as an example of a sf-inflected literary novel, but avoids noting McCarthy’s work in literary westerns — that is, his work as a writer experimenting with genre. Even odder, when Fassler suggests that Michael Chabon and Junot Diaz are writers using genre elements, the books he cites as examples — Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay and Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao — aren’t genre stories. They’re realist stories about characters either helping to shape genre forms or else shaped by them.

Then, to explain the change in the realist tradition he’s talking about, Fassler interviews three writers of what he considers to be ‘literary’ fiction, who’ve recently added genre elements to their work: Benjamin Percy, Colson Whitehead, and Justin Cronin. He ends up with five reasons why he feels fantastic elements are infiltrating the work of novelists who would otherwise be writing mimetic fiction. I feel it’s an unsatisfactory list. His points are either bland truisms, vague enough to apply to almost any time in at least the last twenty years, or are simply contradicted by the writers he speaks to.

Fassler says firstly that “our day-to-day lives are becoming more science-fictional,” which doesn’t really explain a turn toward fantasy and the magical. More to the point, it’s a statement that’s been true for at least two hundred years. And it’s not clear that the pace of change is really accelerating. Consider the technological upheavals seen over the course the twentieth century: automobiles, antibiotics and modern medicine, television, atomic power, the birth-control pill, space flight and then a manned mission to the moon … the opening years of this century haven’t been bereft of science-fictional changes, but surely those changes aren’t any greater than those of the past century. Fassler notes that new anxieties have come with new technologies, but those anxieties seem to me to be much less intense than the Cold War fear of global thermonuclear warfare.

Zone OneFassler’s second point is that “for writers, pop culture influences are now as important as literary influences,” which simply seems like a restatement of the article’s theme. Still, this is probably his most perceptive passage — he makes a reasonable point here that a new generation of writers is reacting to a new kind of media environment, and were shaped by a specific media environment as children. Sadly, his next point, “literary tastes are increasingly global,” is vague, lacking any kind of historical perspective; he waves a hand in the direction of magic realism, but doesn’t explain why he sees it as having an effect on writers now as opposed to thirty years ago. Fassler’s fourth point is the old chestnut that “stories with mythic dimensions are timeless,” which is a) true only if the story’s well done, and b) ignores the way the best mimetic fiction can reach a timeless mythic dimension as well, whether Othello or Bleak House or for that matter the Book of Ruth. That last point is crucial, because it speaks to an impoverished understanding of what a myth is; Fassler reacts here to the surface of stories, not to the core driving them, which to me is where the mythic dimension is to be found.

Finally, Fassler argues that “financially—and aesthetically—genre pays,” although the quotes he gives from the three writers he spoke to flatly contradict the financial aspect of the argument. Aesthetically, the writers give very sensible, pragmatic observations about their work. Cronin: “Vampire comic books, the original Bram Stoker, this stuff has never gone away. It never will. It’s great material, and it’s constantly reinventable.” Whitehead: “I think if you do your job, then people will come to it — whether it’s about elevator inspectors, or John Henry, or zombies.” Percy: “I’m trying to take the best of what I’ve learned from literary fiction and apply it to the best of genre fiction, to make a kind of hybridized animal.” Fassler’s surprise that elements from outside of the tradition he recognises can have aesthetic value contrasts strongly with the practical perspectives of these writers. I’d argue that it’s a surprise that comes from over-identification with the single tradition of realist fiction.

Fassler does acknowledge the existence of “genre writers with undeniable literary merit” in the final sentence of his piece, suggesting that the use of fantastic elements by writers accepted as ‘literary’ will help solidify the place of exceptional genre writers in contemporary canons. I don’t know how true that is. Sure, as fantasy elements enter, and alter, the realist tradition, critics oriented to realism ought to develop a greater understanding of the traditions shaping their own. But surely there’s no lack of critics already aware of the multiplicity of literary traditions. Fassler’s conclusion feels slightly archaic, a critical thought trying to catch up to the reality of literature.

The PassageI think the article shows some of the dangers in approaching literature from the perspective of a single tradition. Firstly, it’s difficult to grasp whatever is outside the tradition; secondly, if the tradition’s a living tradition, then it’s almost inevitably going to be finding new elements as it continues to develop. Which is to say that an analysis of past accomplishments won’t necessarily help understand present or future achievements. Fassler’s piece suggests that the realist tradition has left him without the critical tools to analyse fantasy. Which is after all to be expected. Fantasy’s something outside that particular tradition.

Of course it’s difficult for a critic involved in one tradition to come to grips with a tradition outside their own. It’s not just a function of unfamiliar techniques and the assumptions a story may make; there’s the practical question of how one goes about learning these things. Where do you start? Where would an American start reading Canadian literature in order to understand it? Or where would a critic grounded in realism start reading fantastika in order to understand that? What guides do you take to lead you into the mass of unfamiliar writing, and how do you know how reliable they are?

It is difficult. But it’s also necessary, I feel, or at least desirable. I think the more a critic’s aware of different traditions, the more perceptive that critic will be. And I think the critic, or indeed the creative writer, will also be better able to make sense of their own tradition, whatever tradition it is that most calls to them, however they may define that tradition; because a tradition that lives will always be in the process of changing, of taking on other influences. Fassler presents the hybridisation of fiction as something new and unusual. I think it’s something that happens in any living literature.

The WildingAs I said, the idea of a literary tradition is nothing more than an intellectual construction. A living tradition, though, is an idea that’s always in the process of change; of development from a number of different angles. And the boundaries of any tradition will always be in flux, a fuzzy set of fictions that could be one thing or could be another depending on how you choose to look at them. Some writers will cross from one tradition to another, as with John Crowley moving from the fantastic to (at this point) more mimetic fiction, or as with Michael Moorcock moving from one form to another as he likes. Some fictions will look like one thing, but feel like another; Jeff VanderMeer had an interesting blog post not too long ago about stories that aren’t actually fantastic, but feel as if they are. Depending on how one views a given tradition, one can view these writers, and these stories, as examples of the tradition or as outside of it, but the point is that the borders of a tradition are necessarily porous, and any definition of a tradition can only be tentative.

Not only do traditions change, but they can in fact be defined by their ability to change. Being stuck in one tradition means being unable to see how and why change happens; it means being unable to see what’s happening, much less what’s coming. Nobody can know every tradition, or every form. No-one can read everything in a single lifetime, and it’s difficult to pick and choose when we can’t even know how much we don’t know. But if we find a tradition we know changing, if the writers we know are adding new and unfamiliar elements, it may be a sign that there’s some other sort of writing out there that we ought to be exploring. At the very least, it’ll be a reminder that there’s always more powerful writing out there for us to find.

Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.

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Matthew, interesting article. Fassler reminds me of a dumber version of one of my professors.
The problem, of course, comes from arrogance. The belief that whatever tradition being championed is the only legitimate “literature.” Clearly, Fassler is not as well read as he should be or is so self limited as to hamper his critical faculties.
This is, I think, a deadly problem for literary studies and criticism to deal with. Literature is always in flux and demands a certain level of adaptability. Otherwise, literary criticism will remain in the same doldrums that its been in for over a decade now.


Roth’s “Plot Against America” and Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One” were dreadfully boring. In some ways it takes real genius to make turn such exciting basic premises into such painfully dull reading. That perhaps is the problem with “literary” takes on “genre” ideas – it is hard to satisfy either audience.

Happily, The Road and The Passage were great reads, albeit very depressing.

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