Thursday, May 24, 2012

In Defense of Genre Fiction

In his recent article for Time Entertainment, "Literary Revolution in the Supermarket Aisle: Genre Fiction Is Disruptive Technology," Lev Grossman addresses the fairly long-standing perception that genre fiction is inferior to literary fiction, and he addresses it magnificently. (1)

In particular, Grossman raises a couple of key points that resonate with other things I've read, or have been reading, recently. The one that was most interesting to me is that genre fiction is not merely a form of escapism. On the contrary, the severity of genre fiction subject matter instead suggests that it is a means of confronting everyday problems by observing them in new configurations. He states:
We seek out hard places precisely because our lives are hard. When you read genre fiction, you leave behind the problems of reality—but only to re-encounter those problems in transfigured form, in an unfamiliar guise, one that helps you understand them more completely, and feel them more deeply. Genre fiction isn’t just generic pap. You don’t read it to escape your problems, you read it to find a new way to come to terms with them.
This eloquent excerpt pretty much completely describes my theory of the historical relationship between horror and society. I have always felt that horror-booms have a tendency to occur in tandem with stressful periods in history, when people need to cope with the uncertainties that they face. It is therefore helpful to consider things like horror-booms as specific cultural responses to periods of destabilization and the anxiety that inevitably accompanies them. (2)

Michael Baxandall's articulation of the relationship between art objects and their circumstances of production is particularly helpful to conceptualizing this idea. For Baxandall, art objects can perhaps be thought of as solutions to specific problems. Consequently, the job of the art historian—or, more broadly, the cultural historian—is to reconstruct the relations between the problems (social circumstance) and their solutions (art objects), and to hopefully do so without interjecting too much of one's own personal perspective into the reconstruction. (3) Of course, the term "problem" as deployed by Baxandall does not necessarily have to carry a negative connotation, but in the case of horror—and other "escapist" genres like science fiction and fantasy—I think the problem that is being responded to is often a negative or, at the very least, unsettling one.

Nevertheless, the main point in all of this—a point that Grossman expresses more than once—is that genre fiction (horror, fantasy, sci-fi) is not something that should be treated as a lower order of cultural production. (4) In fact, it fulfills a very important function in society. Developing and pursuing an interest in genre fiction, and its related cultural products, is part and parcel of how human beings deal with the stresses of living. The practice, and what it can suggest about both contemporary and historical societies, is worthy of serious study—not derision.

1) Lev Grossman, "Literary Revolution in the Supermarket Aisle: Genre Fiction Is Disruptive Technology," Time Entertainment (May 23, 2012).
2) Fantasy and science fiction should also be considered in this context. Though perennially popular genres among specific groups of people, there seem to be marked increases in their widespread popularity at certain times in history. It would be interesting, for example, to study the history of supernatural television shows broadcast in the US from the perspective of periods of social, political, and economic crisis.
3) Baxandall ultimately defines "problems" in a far more narrow fashion than I am comfortable with, but his metaphor is nevertheless eloquent and instructive. Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 14-15.
4) This is a statement that can be applied to other cultural products as well: action films, comic books, pop art, etc.

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

After a long hiatus—during which I completed comprehensive exams, drafted a dissertation prospectus, applied and was approved for PhD candidacy, taught a forty-student stand-alone course on Asian Art, and participated in a pair of awesome (but demanding) seminars—I'm trying to get back to using this blog as originally intended. Summer break is here, and that means it's time to get cracking on the secondary sources reading list!