Interviews & Train Trips

Some links for Friday:

Amtrak just did a test run of a train-based writing residency. SIGN ME UP.

An interview with Ben Marcus at Salon. 

An interview with Bennett Sims. My favorite part is definitely Bennett’s commentary on the (false) dichotomy of “genre”/”literary”:

The relationship between ‘genre’ and ‘literary’ is pretty confused right now, and I’m sympathetic with readers who are impatient to just deconstruct that dichotomy and move on. What seems to be happening is that more and more literary writers are deciding to explore traditionally generic subject matter. It’s not uncommon to see reviews of the latest ‘literary mummy novel’ or ‘literary space opera,’ and if you were to ask critics to clarify exactly what they mean by ‘literary’ here, they’d probably provide one of two descriptions: either a stylometric checklist (lyrical prose; psychological depth; complex characterization) or a genealogy of influence (‘It’s the kind of mummy novel Lydia Davis might write’). As a reader, I tend to find the second class of description more helpful: it gives me a better idea of what the book might be like, and it doesn’t reinscribe as many insidious biases about genre (with that first description, on the other hand, you end up implying—whether intentionally or not—that run-of-the-mill mummy novels somehow lack lyrical prose and complex characterization).

A lot of contemporary conversations about genre seem to be spinning their wheels in these biases. Psychological realism was the dominant mode of literary fiction for so long in America that our intuitions about subject matter are deeply entrenched: whereas stories about human beings make for serious works of art, stories about time travel or vampires or apocalypses make for formulaic entertainment. So whenever critics describe something as a ‘literary vampire novel,’ they can seem to be using ‘literary’ as a synonym for ‘good’ or ‘aesthetically ambitious’: as in, ‘It has vampires in it, but don’t worry, it’s well written.’ This has the unfortunate effect of reducing ‘genre’ to a Judge Potter-y pejorative, which people reserve only for the vampire novels that they don’t like. As a result, genre readers are forced to continually advocate on behalf of their own canons, pointing out the existence of other well-written, aesthetically ambitious vampire/mummy/space-opera novels (as well as the existence of generic [i.e., shallow or formulaic] suburban-adultery novels). Complicating all this is the fact that ‘genre’ and ‘literary’ have also come to designate structurally distinct culture industries, with parallel publishing institutions and networks of prestige. So if two authors write about time travel, it might matter in the short term which of them attends Clarion or an MFA, appears in Lightspeed or The New Yorker, is reviewed in Strange Horizons or The New York Times, wins the Nebula or the National Book Award: all this could determine which community of readers they’re marketed to. That seems to be where we’re stuck these days, which is why it still feels natural to describeA Questionable Shape as a literary zombie novel. ‘Literary’ marks both its stylistic affiliations and the institutional channels through which it was produced. For what it’s worth, I usually find myself describing it to people as ‘the kind of zombie novel Nicholson Baker might write.’

And lastly, my interview with the incredible Karen Joy Fowler is up at The American Reader. 

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