One Person’s Literary “Junk”

Last week, I was having a little back-and-forth discussion online with a friend and former professor (a brilliant teacher and scholar from whom I learned just about everything I know about Shakespeare). She was exploring ways to bring her theatre students to an appropriate rubric for analyzing theatre–a tough task. A colleague of hers, a professor of English, suggested some criteria, then claimed that she uses such criteria not only to analyze theatre, but “to distinguish junk fiction from literary fiction.”

Oh boy.

The recent literary boxing match between Jodi Picoult/Jennifer Weiner and Jonathan Franzen (or, to be fair, the attention paid to Jonathan Franzen; he himself has been very classy about the entire flap, admitting that his detractors have a legitimate grievance) has brought a great deal of attention to the gender inequity in critical attention paid to new books. But it seems to me that, the gender issue aside, there’s another bias at work. That bias, put pretty coarsely by the professor mentioned above, assumes “literary fiction” is the only truly important fiction, and that anything outside that category (i.e., commercial fiction) is junk.

Before moving on, let’s straighten something out: “literary fiction” is not some long-standing tradition in American or English literature. In fact, the term has been in use only since the 1960s, when critics found it useful to have a term for fiction that is largely about the author’s use of language, not the author’s use of plot and character. Plot and character as primary forces, then, are left to commercial fiction. In the past 50 years since literary fiction was deemed a category of its own, the term has become synonymous with “serious” or “culturally significant.” Commercial fiction, which finds itself subdivided into science fiction, mystery, thriller, chick lit, crime, and perhaps dozens of other categories, is the subject of much pooh-poohing and even outright derision in the writing world.

But I’d argue that we may need to think a bit more about what we mean by seriousness in fiction. Take a writer most people would agree is literary: Cormac McCarthy. If McCarthy doesn’t demonstrate masterful skill with language, then no one does; his work in Blood Meridian had Harold Bloom calling the book the most significant novel since Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. But I wonder how many readers can honestly recall the story at the heart of Blood Meridian. For my part, I remember McCarthy’s juggernauts of sentences, and scalping. Lots of scalping.

I’m certainly not of a stature to argue with Mr. Bloom, but I would be hard-pressed to say that Blood Meridian is a greater achievement than McCarthy’s most commercial book, The Road, the plot of which so many found moving, unsettling, and chillingly possible, but the language of which was uncharacteristically spare and plain. In The New York Review of Books, Michael Chabon argues that The Road is–wait for it–science fiction. If we adhered to the common wisdom on the matter, post-apocalyptic sci fi like The Road shouldn’t have literary merit, and the book surely shouldn’t have won the 2007 Pulitzer. Where’s the seriousness of language? The attention paid more to style than to character and plot? Why aren’t we using The Road to prop up the broken legs on our armchairs from which we philosophize about the great seriousness of Blood Meridian? Because McCarthy’s story and characters stick with us. Stories and characters (yes, those building blocks of commercial fiction) endure beyond artful turns of phrase.

Young Adult novelist Chris Abouzeid puts the matter beautifully, reminding us about what will remain when our nitpicking about seriousness and literary merit are over:

… let’s not fool ourselves.  There will be stories told in the clumsiest, most conformist, even trite manner imaginable that will endure longer than most of our beautiful sentences.  There will be tales we’ve heard a hundred times before that will thrill us simply because the circumstances are different, or the characters are new, or the times have changed.  Maybe language will be part of that difference.  But if not, it doesn’t matter.  In the decomposition of literary bodies, words are the first to go.  What’s left is the enduring beauty of story.

4 Replies to “One Person’s Literary “Junk””

  1. The Road, to me was Cormac McCarthy’s most disappointing book. The father and son were never in too much trouble with the marauders, disposed all to easily of those that did threaten, and were saved in the end by a veritable deus ex machina.

    Even Blood Meridian didn’t make much sense to me, ultimately. A lot of brutality, minimalist writing, paper thin characterization, and the killing of The Kid in the end, for what? Because he had an inkling of humanity and was thus not one of the gang. What’s the point?

    I really wonder how important he will be fifty years from now.

    But Chris Abouzeid sounds to me like a Wall Street tout talking up his book. Very few badly written written books endure on account of their stories, because stories are told and retold. Only the ones told very well, and in the most masterful of language survive. Story telling is a common talent but writing well is not.

  2. Thanks, Tim, for coming by my blog.

    It seems almost as if we read different versions of The Road–I find that nearly being devoured by cannibals ranks pretty high on my list of serious trouble, and living on the run while just barely escaping starvation doesn’t seem too easy to me. But perhaps you are a faster runner and of a heartier constitution than I am. I’m not at all sure that death now qualifies as a deus ex machina ending, though.

    I too question whether McCarthy will have a lasting place in American literature, though my wondering has more to do with the fact that we in the Western tradition have a terrible track record when it comes to predicting which pieces of literature will endure (Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, if the critics were correct, should be in oblivion today).

    I would encourage you to take a moment to read the Abouzeid piece (to which I provided a handy link) before you lambast him for being a “Wall Street tout.” You’ll find he doesn’t talk up his book–or even mention it–at all. Instead, he’s written a pretty thought-provoking piece on the importance of plot and structure.

  3. Oh man, my writers group has been having this debate every other week since we started meeting (we have a couple of people who like both literary and fantasy). Our pendulum swing oscillates from “literary is the only writing worth writing” to “literary is just another genre, like sci-fi.” At the beginning the discussion was often heated. We’ve mellowed since, as we all at least respect each other’s work, and tend now to look at stories in terms of what they’re trying to accomplish and how well they do it. And ultimately, to me (and Henry James if I recall), that’s what really matters.

  4. Joe, that sounds like a conversation that could use some wine and cheese. 🙂 I agree with you that respecting the work is important. Too often this debate is dominated by fist-pounding and false intellectualism (or false populism, for that matter). But I think if we took the time to ask what the text is trying to do, then consider whether it accomplishes that end (and, maybe, whether that end is a worthy one), we get a bit further in looking at actual material rather than advancing our own (sometimes dubious) aesthetic goals.

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