Monday, October 13, 2008

"Mixing Genres": Polito's List

Critical Mass has Robert Polito discussing the mixing of genres: "Many of my favorite books from the last few decades" he says "tend to operate along the seams of poetry, fiction, and essay." He offers a list too long to reproduce here but there are four matching my own favourites: Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, David Markson’s Reader’s Block and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. All very different books of course (and, as it happens, all without Poetry), which makes the Mixing Genres genre more attractive to me. Yet such variety within a genre implies critical taxonomy is more hindrance than help.

A hindrance toward what end? Well, toward regarding each book as two singular encounters: the reader's and the writer's.

One recurrent theme or nagging concern on this blog is the excessive concern for genre. This is also because it hinders. This doesn't mean I'm against genre as such. For example, my two most recent blog-reviews have been of science fiction novels: Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods and Thomas Glavinic's Night Work. The former received much flak from the science fiction community for its use of the genre because the author herself apparently disdained its relevance to the novel, and the high praise for the latter was tempered by reviewers' issues with the length of the book. What my reviews do in part is to show how the books themselves answer or mitigate such criticisms. Unfortunately, remarkable books like Glavinic's and those listed by Robert Polito tend to be denied prominence in the mainstream not out of anti-genre snobbery but because they do not meet generic standards. This includes the standards set by literary fiction as misrepresented by the Man Booker Prize. Judge Giles Foden's scandalous misreading last year of Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year really was the last straw for that prize. Louise Doughty's comments this year were just flogging the poor, dead animal. (We can hope the Warwick Prize will eventually supercede it).

Misunderstandings and wrongheadedness continue apace. Last Summer there was an academic symposium in London on ‘Science Fiction as a Literary Genre'. The Valve's report on the event includes a summary of a paper in which "more-or-less said that sf was THE literature of modernity and concluded that what was modern about it was the absence of Modernism." I presume this means the formal adventurousness of definitive modernist works like Ulysses and The Waste Land is absent from novels such as those by HG Wells. This is plausible if one sees literature as a manifestation of culture in which mass market products herald (albeit in hindsight) the direction of the same culture; it's the familiar stuff of Cultural Studies and its horror of autonomy. In this way it can make statements like this:
both popular sf and High Modernist art are responding in similar ways to a similar cultural logic: that, in a nutshell, High Modernism is sf. Proust’s Recherche, say, whatever critics have said about it, is actually a time-travel story deeply indebted to Wells’s Time Machine.
"Whatever critics have said about it". Priceless!

The down-playing of formal innovation is acceptable as it's easy to fetishise its importance. Only, the shock of the new should not be replaced by schlock for the pew. Dutiful readers seeking the very best are nowadays recommended either kitsch contemporary novels that have "already been compared to Nabokov and Proust" or anachronistic triple-decker historical epics. The focus should be instead on what escapes savant pastiche and prolix copyism.

Criticism is also a genre and I enjoyed the ambiguity of Adam Thirlwell's Miss Herbert (a.k.a The Delighted States). The TLS reviewed it under Fiction while most treated it as literary criticism. The author himself says he likes to think of it as an inside-out novel. It's at least two of these. I want to write about the book before too long as I have a major issue with it ignored by all the reviews; something that will help me to explain what British fiction in particular lacks in comparison to European modernism. Despite that, I am pleased that a work as troublesome to classify as this can still be published in an increasingly philistine and intolerant climate.

Are there any other books like this to add to Polito's list?


  1. Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds; David Markson's This Is Not a Novel; "sudden fictions" by Lydia Davis and Robert Kelly; Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual and Species of Spaces; pretty much anything by Michel Leiris or Raymond Queneau...

  2. I'm not sure that he'd fit Polito's list- I think he probably manages to piss nearly everyone off, such as the Russian literati cognescenti(?), but Victor Pelevin at his best is kind of all over the place- with sometimes the most thrilling of essayistic tangents. From his long short-story The Yellow Arrow:
    "Watching the hot sunlight falling on the tablecloth covered with sticky blotches & crumbs, Andrei was struck by the thought of what a genuine tragedy it was for millions of light rays to set out on their journey from the surface of the sun, go hurtling through the infinite void of space and pierce the kilometres thick sky of Earth, only to be extinguished in the revolting remains of yesterday's soup. Maybe these yellow arrows slanting in through the window were conscious, hoped for something better- and realised their hope was groundless, giving them all the necessary ingredients for suffering."



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