Anita Mason's Confusion of Genre

Anita Mason has a contribution to the long running genre debate here at the Guardian entitled “Genre fiction radiates from a literary centre”. I think her attempt to constitute this supposed center self-deconstructs spectacularly, but in a manner that is instructive and worth teasing apart.

This metaphorical representation of the literary as the universal and indeterminate hub from which determinate “rule-governed” genres “radiate” does not cohere with her criteria of demarcation between the literary and the non-literary. On the one hand, the literary can be anything; is governed by no determinate rules. On the other, dense psychological characterization is necessary for the literary since, she argues, Brave New World, and Consider Phlebas fail the test of literariness due to their lack of this attribute.

Well, you can’t have it both ways. Despite Mason’s peremptory reading of The Drowned World, Ballard’s oeuvre is famously unconcerned with character and “plot”, such as it is, incidental to one of the most profoundly literary treatments of the condition of modernity in prose. Few modern novels present a more literary and unitary treatment of their subject than Crash, for example, where a brilliantly intricate chain of metaphors and symbols explore the contingency of desire in the face of technical change.

On these grounds we would also have to exclude postmodern fabulists and experimental writers such as Pynchon, Barthelme, Robb-Grillet and Christine Brooke-Rose. So Mason’s Ptolemaic rhetoric of centrality is just a blind for her anthropocentrism. The universe of literature, I hope, is post-Copernican and limitless.

4 thoughts on “Anita Mason's Confusion of Genre

  1. Heaven forfend genres be specific channels of communication to specific groups of people, for if this were the case, then it would mean that only a very homogenous group had access to the Ur-Typology of the human condition, and one might be forgiven for thinking that her position is more a matter of signalling some kind of moral and epistemic superiority. It is certainly the case that literary works are very easy to distinguish, and actually quite predictable in their tactics and themes. It certainly services a dedicated and likely the most politically homogenous audience in publishing. Unless one believes ink is magic, the only way to claim that these meanings are more valuable is to claim this population possesses semantic authority over us. Perhaps this nonsense is the reason why so many identify against this population, and therefore their politics as well. Perhaps cultural exceptionalism is a political liability.

  2. As you indicate, Scott, the “literary novel” described by Mason is a generic form that she passes off as a exemplary and universal, when by her own admission, it is narrowly preoccupied with a certain type of psychological realism and emotional nuance. It’s interesting that she selected Atwood’s Oryx and Crake as a near-literary apocalyptic novel. I started it with the best intentions but found it unreadable. The speculative elements seemed plodding and the prose, just ordinary. I really don’t remember being interested in any element of it at all. As a piece of world-making, it lacked the linguistic estrangement that we find in the best SF – not just Ballard, but Gibson, Gene Wolfe – but I suspect that I’m not Atwood’s target audience.

  3. Yea, what a crock, when she says: “A literary novel is governed by nothing – nothing I can think of, not even the requirement to be comprehensible – and the whole of the writer’s skill is directed towards creating the best possible novel. This involves, at some point, a surrender to the unknown.”

    What bothers me about her appraisal of genre is that she sees it in some literary terms rather than the truth of it: it’s a commercial or consumerist term used to classify authors and books into commercial categories for economic reasons rather than some ultimate justification of literary worth. What she should have meant is sub-genre, the category of repeatable works read by non-readers, the romance novel being one of those that is an example in which an author through modern computer applications can transform character, setting, and plot over and over in repeatable adaptations.

    Dam, what else would she consider following rules than the progenitors of the novel form: Cervantes, Fielding, Sterne, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dickens… and, its culmination in D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, and James Joyce…. with it epitaph in Beckett, Pynchon, DeLillo?

    I wonder if she had ever read Lukacs or even, Northrup Frye both of whom subsumed all genres under the literary canon: from fabulation to realism, the one a formalist the other the last of the structuralist critics…

    I remember reading Milan Kundera twenty years back when for him such notions of the unknown were subsumed under the rules of moral codes: “A novel that does not uncover an unknown segment of existence is immoral.” Kundera – A theory of the novel… Andre Gide could not have said it better: “Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.”

    Isn’t that it, we keep repeating ourselves till we get it right, till we open those unknown unknowns to the light of human thought and affective relations. It’s not the novel that has no rules it’s us who have forgotten the rules of our own minds: those centered not in some humanistic or anti-humanistic discourse, but in the very neurons of our own dark thoughts.

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