Novelist J. Robert Lennon wrote recently on Salon.com that young writers should avoid reading much contemporary literary fiction because most of it is terrible. (The essay, in fact, is headlined: "Most Contemporary Literary Fiction Is Terrible
.") It's a well-argued piece, worth reading, but what really caught my attention was this passage:
But a fiction writer ought to engage with other parts of the culture, too. This includes reading outside one's genre I happen to favor sci-fi and mystery, but I think it's fine for literary writers to read YA, romance, fantasy or whatever they please. Literary writers are in the privileged position of being permitted to raid any genre for tools to subvert and repurpose.
The emphasis there is mine, on a sentence I find troubling. I certainly support Lennon's contention that writersall
writersshould read widely, and read what they enjoy. What's problematic to me is that word privileged,
as if writers of "literary" fiction inhabit in some class superior to writers of other genres, and they're the only ones permitted to reach down and rummage through the toolboxes of their inferiors, and then only for purposes of upending genre conventions.
This is a limited, and limiting, view of genre. It implies that no genre but literary fiction can amount to more than the sum of its tropes, and that the tropes of genre fiction are only useful to the literary writer insofar as they can be employed to ironic or postmodernist ends.
Both those implications are false. Central to Lennon's essay is the proposition that most of contemporary literary fiction is stuck in an insular, navel-gazing loopin other words, that it continues to reinforce and perpetuate its own tropes. A few works might break out of that cycle and transcend it, but if we accept that most works in the category are stuck inside a constraining boundary of accepted elements, then we are defining literary fiction as a genre. And if any works in that genre are capable of transcending its limitations, then why can't works in any other genre do the same?