So, in the National Post today, Mark Medley, the Books Editor, interviews Junot Diaz and Michael Chabon together. (They both ordered the niçoise salad, he reports – you do have to eat smart on tour).
Diaz is quoted at the very end: ‘… because they’re genre writers they’re not going to get a f-king profile in the New York Times.’ (The discreet dash in f-king is the Post, not me!) Diaz and Chabon earlier were asked if the response to genre fiction wasn’t at least improving and both thought not. Diaz said, ‘I don’t think it’s changing at all, I think it’s worse … Name me a genre writer who’s won a Guggenheim. Name me a genre writer who’s won a National Book Award.’
(Mark Helprin comes to mind for a Guggenheim, but that’s not the point, and he only wrote one major fantasy.)
I hate the fact that I am older than both those guys. Been there, seen that? Diaz is whip-smart and a very fine writer. But I think he’s wrong in refusing to acknowledge that even if the speed may seem geological at times, literary culture is evolving just as popular culture is.
It is possible to see writers like those two, or Atwood, McCarthy, Jennifer Egan, Justin Cronin as ‘colonizers’ of genre from mainstream and there’s no question it is easier getting credibility moving in that direction than from being rooted in genre (any genre), but the mere fact that colonization of this sort (I’m using the word reluctantly, I prefer to talk about the blurring of borders or boundaries) happens carries a message.
So does the growing awareness within genre that writing that aspires to excellence isn’t some kind of lame pandering to the Muggles, to steal a J.K. Rowling term. Yes, there are holdouts in all camps. SF writers and readers who are irked and turned off by literary focus or ambition. Academics and judges and critics who reflexively avert their sensitive eyes from the dismal horror of genre books (or even the stressing of narrative verve) … and there always will be! But the numbers and percentages are changing for the better. I absolutely believe that. (I also believe that genuinely excellent work is as rare as it always has been, and we do ourselves no favours by trumpeting the capable – or the merely new – as brilliant.)
Change in what is regarded as canonical or important is going to be slow. It isn’t even so terrible that it is, actually. Trends can carry too much momentum, distort our judgement. (Same is true of the law … it needs to lag a bit behind fast societal shifts, lest it bounce around too much when the society shifts back again.)
Yes, major awards for truly genre-grounded works are rare. Yes, when certain critics find themselves admiring a fantasy they must posthaste name it magic realism. (A pet peeve here.) But my own sense was and is closer to what Medley seemed to be looking for and not getting from his two interview subjects: change is happening, the landscape is evolving, just to stay with my ‘geological’ metaphor. It is better now than five years ago, and was better five years ago than twenty-five.
Also, for what it is worth, I kind of doubt the ’12 other novelists writing zombie novels’ that Diaz mentions (in the context of Cronin’s exalted status) all merit individual profiles in the NY Times. I also doubt he’d really argue they do. The emergence of some writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers in a given time as either pop culture or high culture ‘stars’ can involve many elements, and talent is only one of them.
Still, go read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Talent may be only one element, but it shines in both those books.