“A Story Is a Story Is a Story” (by Tom Tolnay)

Tom Tolnay’s short fiction has appeared in a variety of national consumer magazines, in literary magazines, and in magazines in the mystery and fantasy fields such as EQMM and AHMM. This week he talks about the recurring attempt to separate what is “literary” from “genre” fiction.  In addition to writing both literary and genre fiction, the New York author is a book publisher (www.birchbrookpress.info) who specializes in poetry collections, short-fiction anthologies, and books relating to aspects of popular culture. All of which gives him an especially broad perspective on this issue. . . . —Janet Hutchings

Just when we were beginning to think that “top-gun” literary critics of the English-speaking world had succeeded—once again—in burying the fantastic notion that there isn’t nearly as much of a disparity between “serious” literary fiction and “superficial” genre fiction as we’ve been led to believe, yet another commentator has unearthed this issue. This time the disinterment was performed by “critic-at-large” Arthur Krystal in the May 28, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, that weekly standard-bearer of scrutiny into all things “serious”—art, dance, film, music, poetry, sculpture, theatre and, certainly not least, fiction.

As is often the case when this perspective resurfaces, Krystal proffers examples of “important” (read: literary) writers who have confessed that, in the privacy of their quarters, they have been known to delve into what he characterizes as “guilty pleasures.” That is, these compound, extended sentence-makers shamefacedly read works by the likes of Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald, Robert Heinlein, Elmore Leonard, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs, or, may God forgive them, Stephen King! (And who can say which other of these “popular” authors are being read surreptitiously by profound scribblers who have not come out of the closet in this regard?)

Digging back into the history of this argument, Krystal quotes accomplished Milton scholar Marjorie Nicolson (who, in 1929, was commenting on behalf of her intellectual colleagues) as being “weary unto death of introspective and psychological literature.” Nicolson maintained that many of her fellow intellects “befriended” characters like Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Father Brown, Dracula and company essentially because even deep thinkers apparently yearn for a good yarn. By this day and age, the best writing in the mystery, science fiction, thriller, and fantasy fields routinely incorporates sophisticated introspection and psychological depth as a detective closes in on the suspected murderer, or the double-agent’s life hangs by that well-known thread. In addition to introspection and psychology, moreover, contemporary readers of mystery and science fiction and other so-called genres can usually count on being treated to a traceable story line, though not necessarily in the traditional order of beginning, middle, end.

Writing in the same magazine as Krystal, in 1944, Edmund Wilson, chief literary guru of that period, attempted to drive a stake into the heart of the unwilling-to-expire hypothesis (that genre and literary fiction are much closer than is acknowledged) by trashing the works of contemporary mystery authors. He contended that Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Nine Tailors was “the dullest book I have ever encountered in any field,” and that Margery Allingham’s Flowers for the Judge was “completely unreadable.” True, Wilson grudgingly offered nods of tolerance in the direction of John Dickson Carr and Raymond Chandler. Ultimately, however, Wilson concluded that reading mysteries “is a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking.” (Of course we have since learned that smoking is not a “minor harmfulness.”) More recently in this ongoing duel, a preeminent literary critic of our times, Harold Bloom, picked up the broad sword to slash National Book Foundation judges for honoring Stephen King for “distinguished contributions to American letters.”

Krystal’s essay cites a review of an unnamed book in the NY Times Book Review last year, attributed to Terrence Rafferty, which expressed “Disappointment with a novel that tried and failed to transcend the limitations of its genre.” In Rafferty’s view the book demonstrated the difficulty of finding “an expressive equilibrium between literary fiction and genre fiction.” Serious fiction, Rafferty asserted, “allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way.” These comments inspired a quick response from the accomplished science fiction/mystery/literary author Ursula K. Le Guin, who wrote that this widely accepted notion had never been particularly useful, and was, by this time, “worse than useless.” In The New Yorker of June 4-11, 2012, Le Guin tossed these thoughts into the swordfight: “Science fiction can be imaginatively demanding and intellectually complex, but academic prejudice left readers untaught in how to read it.”

It could be argued that literary fiction is simply another genre, with its own objectives, parameters and, especially relevant in this context, fashions. Good readers have been noticing for many, many years that the most rewarding components of all well-written fiction regularly extend beyond the borders of their respective, narrowly defined disciplines. So frequently does this spilling over occur that these riches of language often go uncommented upon in “popular” fiction for the simple reason that they’re expected. Such gems may appear in the form of vivid descriptive passages, in enlightening insights into human idiosyncrasies, in speculations that turn out to be future truths, in the establishment of moods which foreshadow what is going to happen.

Among the habitually cited differences between the categories of literary and so-called “genre” fiction is the presence of a discernable story as opposed to a narrative which “allows itself to dawdle”—or, often, to jump about in time, place, situation, and with characters who, because of having been jerked about, are sometimes rendered less than plausible. And disjointed tales of this strain are frequently framed within the minds of their narrators. This latter tendency has been acknowledged as a negative by at least one prominent, currently published literary fiction magazine, Glimmer Train: the sisters-editors, Susan Burmeister-Brown and Linda B. Swanson-Davies, advise authors submitting fiction to Glimmer Train to avoid internalized mental acrobatics, reflecting their ongoing commitment to unearth stories in which something actually happens.

Perhaps the first tales conveyed by mankind are connected to the images found scratched or painted onto the walls of caves. The need to relate these “stories,” if I may take the liberty of characterizing them as such, surfaced among individuals within primitive societies without, I daresay, benefit of creative art or writing courses, and it would seem that today’s assortment of Homo sapiens have yet to outgrow the need to impart and to receive stories in a straightforward way, whether in print, on screen, in a personal diary, or verbally over a beer in a tavern. Krystal reminds us that so-called literary writers, like so-called genre writers, have a story to tell, too—or at least something to say. Nevertheless, in the fiction one comes across in literary periodicals being published these days, that essential human need for story frequently goes unfulfilled. It’s as if it has become fashionable to think that story, per se, is gratuitous in a sophisticated “modern” piece of fiction.

Fashions in fiction sometimes emerge as an outgrowth of university writing programs, reflecting the styles of the better-known members of their respective writing faculties, and not infrequently these patterns become reinforced by the publications which are produced under the auspices these institutions. Too often, or so it seems from the vantage point of a writer who has published fiction in several of these divergent fields, “serious writers” seem to be engaging in wordy high-wire acts to a great extent for the sake of “experimentation,” without regard to what everyday readers may be seeking: a solid story, depth of character, engaging circumstances and, why not, a soupcon of emotional substance. For a writer to satisfy his/her own needs before the needs of readers is, it seems to me, a kind of self-indulgence that’s comparable to the way jazz trumpeter Miles Davis used to turn his back on audiences while playing a concert.

Many have suggested this distancing of the literary from the needs of the general reader may be part of the reason short fiction has fallen into disfavor with editors at most of the largest circulation magazines in America, including high-brow monthlies like The Atlantic, where short stories used to appear unfailingly every month. Today stories show up in print in that publication only a few times a year, and especially if those “fictions,” as they are called in the literary industry, relate to some non-fiction, newsy issue; the post-9/11 story published in The Atlantic many months ago is an example of this approach. Even at Esquire, one of the prime outlets for exceptional fiction for the past several decades, the editors have let it be known they prefer fiction that is almost indistinguishable from non-fiction reporting! A noteworthy exception to this pattern is The New Yorker, which publishes at least one short story every week, regardless of theme or style. (In its June 4-11, 2012 issue, there are four short stories, along with a section of commentaries by half a dozen science-fiction writers, including Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, William Gibson.)

When the publication of short fiction was commonplace at the most widely read magazines in America, preposterous as it may sound to writers today, it was actually possible to earn a good living writing short stories. (F. Scott Fitzgerald became relatively wealthy by publishing short stories in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Companion, Colliers, Redbook, Hearst’s International. Even specialty magazines such as Sports Illustrated were publishing fiction by John O’Hara and other “serious” writers.) It would seem that neither writers nor readers have benefited much from the attempt to codify what does and does not belong in the different categories of fiction.

Among the many reasons for the decline of short fiction in mass circulation magazines is the contemporary fascination with the “factual.” But if we take a closer look, just underneath this apparent social demand I think we’ll also find that pervasive American desire to boost profits. Non-fiction articles in commercial magazines on, let’s say, trendy sneakers or youth-enhancing cosmetics, are ready-made to plug directly into advertising sales. A short story can’t be exploited in this way because it’s a gateway for readers to experience how people deal with what arises as they move from birth to death; fictional stories have nothing to do with the brand of sneakers or lipstick a character might wear. Such stories have to do with what it means to be human.

Less than a century after Chekhov permitted pivotal characters to wander off without sewing up loose ends in a few of his stories, subsequent crops of literary writers seem to have adopted a strategy of eschewing that which might too closely resemble conclusiveness in their stories. In an interview in the Spring, 2011 issue of The Paris Review, among our most prestigious and longest-lived literary quarterlies, Ann Beattie said: “Stories don’t really have conclusions…. For most of my stories, intellectually I could contrive a superior ending, but I try to resist that temptation.”

Today’s readers are expected to intuit endings. A kind of literary puzzle. Fair enough. For as Art Taylor commented in this blog space recently, elusive endings can serve to engage readers, who, by participating in the process, become in effect an integral part of the story. At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that, instinctively, human beings desire a sense of completion in all that we do and, therefore, in much of what we read. We want not only to know how something ended but that it did indeed end, just as our lives do indeed end.

If those images scraped into the walls of prehistoric caves were in fact an early form of graphic storytelling, we might see, for example, a hunter, with spear in hand, standing over a wild beast he has slain: the story of what our earliest ancestors needed to do, and did do, to survive. Such cave pictures might well have reflected the needs, desires, fears, and visions for the future of these primitive peoples, while leaving behind, in the process, the story of how they had lived.

For all the experimentation we see in modern fiction, and for all the multiplicity of genres of storytelling, when it comes down to it, a story is a story is a story.

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6 Responses to “A Story Is a Story Is a Story” (by Tom Tolnay)

  1. Art Taylor says:

    A nice essay, some great contributions to this ongoing discussion. I find myself always wanting to contribute something worthwhile each time this topic of literary & genre comes up, and I can never seem to get all my thoughts articulated clearly — either in my mind or on the page — so very much admire your ability to be both comprehensive and concise, and I wish I could post a comment here that would add something more! (I did have an odd moment of vertigo toward the end, reading along, completely engrossed, and then suddenly seeing my own name pop up unexpectedly. (!!!) Thanks for glancing back at my post as part of your own.)

    • Tom Tolnay says:

      Hello, Art, thanks for taking the time to respond to my comments on what I happen to consider an issue of some significance, at least in the realm of fiction–wouldn’t it be nice if, over the years, the collective thoughts of all those who participate in this “debate” actually helped alter the “rules” of our literary culture at some unknown time in the future? If we’re going to dream, why not dream big? Best regards.

      • Art Taylor says:

        So true! This issue has been debated for so very long, and yet….. Someday the walls are gonna come down!
        Glad to be in touch — here at least! 🙂

  2. I am reminded of Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography. Toward the end (I can’t find the passage) he assesses the worth of English novelists of his time (George Eliot comes out on top, Dickens not so well), and is very humble about his own place, which he thinks is not so great, certainly not for the ages. In the course of all of this he speaks of Hawthorne, who in his view is very very important and he, Trollope, is just not in the same universe as Hawthorne.

    But then he quotes a review of one of his own books, a review that Hawthorne wrote. And Hawthorne said something like this: when i long to read something that i will enjoy, I do not read a book like one of mine. I read Trollope.

    Isn’t that nice!

    Gwendolyn Jensen

    • Tom Tolnay says:

      Hi, Gwen, many thanks for your good “find” in connection with this general issue. I imagine Hawthorne’s comment wasn’t meant to disparage Trollope’s work, which is what is going on in the “genre vs. literary” fiction debate today. I suspect that Hawthorne simply didn’t want to read books for pleasure that were as “dark” as his own works, preferring to read Trollope’s novels because they were “lighter”–lighter, but nevertheless of considerable quality. Thanks again. Tom

  3. Josephine says:

    Thank you, you have really opened my eyes.
    This is going to sound strange, but I think we may be first cousins, that is if you are my aunt Evelyn’s son. I’m the daughter of her brother Christopher.
    Well if we are, in fact, cousins I just want to say hello cousin!

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