On Literary-Genre Writing: Who Me?

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7 May 2010

Notice the hyphen in this blog title — not a slash, nor a conjunction, but a hyphen.  Allow me to explain…

1.
An interesting and timely convergence: I’ve just finished reading Daphne du Maurier‘s Rebecca — thanks to fellow Millions contributor Emily Wilkinson for the recommendation — along with a review of Long for This World in the Philadelphia City Paper – which is bundled with a review of  fellow Millions contributor Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel The Singer’s Gun.  That’s quite a vortex of convergences, actually — with the Emily vectors criss-crossing and bracing the whole thing like a Norman Foster structure. But that’s not the convergence I’m speaking of, primarily. Read on…

2.
Rebecca was gripping; I really couldn’t get enough, fast enough.  Some of you may also know the novel from its 1940 film version, directed by Alfred Hitchcock under David O. Selznick, and starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.  As I read, I was aware of two things: that I was reading genre fiction, and that the novel is stunningly well-crafted.

When I use the term genre fiction, I am mostly referring to certain conventions of plot and structure: in the case of Rebecca, we have a complex and intricate blend of a few different genre plots — a murder mystery, a romance between a wealthy older man and a young woman, a courtroom drama, a (possibly) homoerotic thriller/horror, and a coming-of-age story.  Each of these threads is fueled by impeccably wrought suspense, which is channeled through an “unreliable” narrator, i.e. memories from the past relayed through an unknowing (live-time) consciousness.  From the moment the novel opens, Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again — the reader’s mind is filled with questions — about the subdued, world-weary narrator, about the “he” that is her companion, about how the past, like a vicious sea tempest, has swallowed these two characters (and others), tumbled them about, and spit them out on shore.

Rebecca is lauded as du Maurier’s masterpiece and has had an enormous readership over the years; but at the time of publication (1938), the novel was received with mixed reviews. It’s been criticized as melodramatic formula fiction with one-dimensional characters.  According to Wikipedia, The Times wrote that “the material is of the humblest…nothing in this is beyond the novelette…”, and du Maurier was contrasted with more intellectual female writers such as George Elliott and Iris Murdoch.

Me, I am obviously a Rebecca fan (and, by the way, I am also crazy for Elliott and Murdoch); plot, I often tell my writing students, is nothing to worry over.  Borrow a plot, steal a plot, there are — as EM Forster wrote — only Two Plots anyway: somebody goes on a journey, or somebody new comes to town.  Within your plot, write well: tend to your sentences; become masters of inventive, crisp, language; know your characters and your settings intimately, make them concrete, dimensional, specific, real.

The only problem, to my mind, with a familiar plot is if the characters act inexplicably, unconvincingly, or too predictably (which is a different kind of unconvincing, I think) within it.  And it’s the characters in Rebecca — each of them mysterious, prismatic, moving targets, and beautifully differentiated — along with mesmerizing descriptions of Manderley (a grand English estate) and its milieu, which propel the novel’s unsettling emotional movement, scene by scene.  It’s a dark novel — its hero and heroine both flawed and on some level doomed — with no easy or happy ending; the Hollywood Production Code of the 1940s in fact mandated that Hitchcock/Selznick change major elements of the story to meet prescribed standards for “cultural acceptability.”

3.
Back to The City Paper, and Emily #2.  Here is the gist of the review, by Justin Bauer:

Chung is good at assembling [...] conventions: Long for This World includes a wedding and a funeral or two, a few generations of a family gathering in a single house, and simmering cross-cultural conflict between the modern demands of youth and the dictates of tradition.

These elements aren’t mere empty gestures. Like a useful cliché, most exist because they get at something universal; this is the case not only with soapy family dramas, but also romances and science fiction and cop thrillers. For some novels, it’s enough to animate these relationships and shared experiences with the specifics of a situation or a culture. But Chung’s story  [...] uses these commonalities to develop a circle of delicately drawn characters out of a series of resonant snapshots.

Chung builds her narrative out of those isolated, telling moments. They’re not obviously stitched together, and she moves freely between different characters’ histories and perspectives. But it’s Jane whose particular vision provides a key to the whole. Her debate between love and lust, responsibility and self-gratification, defines her relationships to family and lovers and work. Even as Chung refracts this debate across other scenes and characters, she maintains her photographic style, careful in its reserve, with no unnecessary disclosure.

And here is a bit from the review of The Singer’s Gun:

“Emily St. John Mandel’s strange, spare novel also features a single central character working to define himself despite the legacy of family, and, like Chung, Mandel co-opts the structures of a specific genre to highlight this.

The Singer’s Gun wears the trappings of a thriller, with an FBI investigation, a femme fatale and a double cross or two. But Mandel avoids tension, intentionally [...] she concerns herself much more with careful description and boredom and waiting than with tension. The criminal stuff is important as a canvas, but by removing the velocity of the thriller form, that canvas lets Anton carefully unpack the deeper issues of morality and obligation that his author’s really interested in.”

Fascinating, no?  Readers who remember my bust-up over at The Millions when I wrote about genre fiction (carelessly, inaccurately — it was my first blog post for a significant audience ever; quite the learning experience) might be particularly amused by these convergences.

I confess I would not have expected Long for This World to be described as “conventional” or “like a useful cliche,” though now, given what I both think and preach about plot, it makes perfect sense.  When readers have told me that they “couldn’t put it down” or have described it as a “page-turner,” I’ve been surprised.  Pleasantly, though — since my greater worry was that the book might be inaccessible in its fragmented-narrative form.

4.
I feel, in the end, in good company.  I keep a running list of books that I feel are both genre-influenced page-turners and emotionally complex; familiar in terms of universal story lines / uses of conventional literary tropes, and also rich in language and characterization.  Rebecca joins this list, as does The Singer’s Gun (which is on my to-read pile); others include Edith Wharton‘s The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, Sarah Waters‘s Fingersmith, Balzac‘s Pere GoriotCormac McCarthy‘s The Road, Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina, and Elizabeth Bowen‘s The House in Paris.  Read these, is what I most wanted to express in that original post at The Millions; be entertained, absorbed, and also challenged, transformed, enriched; it needn’t be either/or.

4 Responses to “On Literary-Genre Writing: Who Me?”

  1. ECW Says:

    I think that a lot of great novels are generic to some degree because basic human needs, longings, and behaviors haven’t really changed all that much since the 17th c when the novel first came on the scene. But I also generally find it really hard to quantify what makes a book like Rebecca, say, transcend mere mystery/thriller status. In college we had to read a Harlequin romance against Emma and explain why one was literature and one was not. I kinda bombed on that one. As on a similar assignment which asked the difference between pornography and pornology (philosophical porn like Sade). If you really want to put your students through the ringer, I suggest a version of this assignment.

    A good read! Emily

    • sonyachung Says:

      Emily, I love that assignment idea — though it sounds like maybe it was a little too instructor-centric!

      DP, Raymond Chandler’s on my to-read list, as are Richard Price and Neil Gaiman. Jennifer Egan actually writes genre-esque novels as well.

      Jane, Await Your Reply is also on my list!

      So many books, so little brain…

  2. Danny Says:

    As for literary-genre, or literary/genre, or whatever, a lot of McCarthy’s stuff is literary/western. Vonnegut is literary/sci-fi. But the main genre that comes to mind when I think of literary folks who’ve dabbled, is mystery. I just finished Michael Chabon’s “Yiddish Policeman’s Union.” And last year I read Paul Auster’s “New York Trilogy.” Poe is accused of being both literary and of having invented the detective story. And literary people often like Raymond Chandler. I’m about to read G.K. Chesterton’s “the Man Who Was Thursday,” which I see on a lot of literary lists. At Borders, a couple of Jonathon Letham’s novels are in the Mystery section. And I’m told, by literary folk, that John Le Carre’ is fairly decent.

    Still, I just don’t see anything genre-esque about “Long For This World.”

  3. Jane Says:

    I read Rebecca for the first time when I was about 12. I’ve read it a few times since then, for pleasure and also to look at its structure. I recently finished Chaon’s Await Your Reply, which is described in some reviews as a “literary suspense” novel. Indeed it is both, but mainly it’s just good. I do think it is more “literary” than “suspense”–using suspense as a genre category–because of the complex structure and the careful attention to language. This is not to say that suspense novels can’t have those things (I’m writing one & I hope it does!), but for me a differentiating factor is how the plot is developed. But there is a lot of room for discussion there, too. Which is why I like your piece so much Sonya!–it raises interesting issues about genre (used in the broad sense) without putting things into neat little boxes.


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