Genres: useful and destructive

Our managing editor, Courtney Algeo, has declared 2012 the year of genre. For the entire year, she will read and write on a new genre each month. Reading along and providing his own commentary will be Josh Wodarz. (Maybe you'll find that you want to jump in and party on, too!)

First up was Neil Gaiman’s
American Gods. Josh contributed this response to Courtney’s first review.

There’s a statement by Douglas Adams that always comes to mind when I think about genre and fiction.

He said, “There’s nothing worse than sitting down to write a novel and saying, ‘Well, okay, I’m going to do something of high artistic worth.’”

He the went on to muse that Ian Fleming’s James Bond books had set out to be literate but not literary and that Fleming had achieved this, demonstrating a high level of craft and that he “knew how to use language, he knew how to make it work, and he wrote well.”

I first read that statement by Adams around the first time I read his friend Neil Gaiman’s Americans Gods, and as such the two are always linked in my head. It’s not just the time frame and friendship of the two authors though, it’s the fact that I’ve always inferred that Adams meant that high levels of craftsmanship can elevate an end result to art. He may not have meant it of Fleming, but I believe such a statement is true about American Gods.

American Gods is the work of a master craftsman.

Though it was Gaiman’s first true solo novel from the ground up, it’s clear that the book is the work of an experienced and dedicated writer in the prime of his career. Thematically some may see it as the same ground as his comic book Sandman (gods in the modern world, what happens when gods die/quit, etc.), but then again it is practically his final say on the subject unfettered by the amount of editorial interference that can be common in the comic book world.

I do not easily get weak in the knees over language, but it is Gaiman’s language that I think elevates this book beyond mere craftsmanship, showing a mastery of understatement and loaded, symbolic sentences. Stephen King recently mused what his career might have been like had the infamous Gordon Lish edited his work in the same manner Lish had edited Raymond Carver. Mr. King, I respectfully present you with a glimpse into that world: American Gods. King is a skilled craftsman himself and he has created some works that I would say are worthy of being considered art, but possibly not as much as he could have.

Other skilled craftsmen that have elevated their work frequently:

  • JG Ballard
  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • Cormac McCarty
  • Margaret Atwood

All of whom have written their fair share of genre books—quite a few, in fact. All of them, along with King, can be found in whatever section passes for “Literature/Literary Fiction” in your chain bookstore and most likely your library as well. Yet, you will not see Neil Gaiman there.

Genres are both useful and destructive. They guide readers to books they might enjoy and they allow others to marginalize authors and works.

To some in the “literary fiction” crowd, genre works can be seen as less than. To those in genre, “literary fiction” is a genre itself…and one that thinks way too much of itself. Both attitudes are a disservice to the written word. Gaiman has been a wildly successful writer in various genres and media. Had his career began writing more down to earth books about a college professor’s writer’s block or a book of social criticism dealing with generations of a family or a large, overly complicated treatise on entertainment or consumerist serial killer fantasies and then wrote American Gods, he may have won a PEN or a Pulitzer for it. I guess if your first novel is a superbly written examination of belief in modern society that manages to bypass the complications and hang-ups of Abrahamic religions by filtering it through old world mythology and fantasy you’re not supposed to be considered a “serious writer.” I think Gaiman is probably happy with all the other awards American Gods swept up and the even further success of The Graveyard Book, which due to its dual Carnegie/Newberry awards will be in elementary and middle school libraries in perpetuity.

That’s okay. I’m pretty sure Jonathan Franzen doesn’t think elementary school readers are serious readers anyways.

Do you bleed red ink?

Obey, reincarnate, and run fast