Funny the first thing I should read after a class in which I tried (and failed) to say what I think about genre fiction and literary fiction is Michael Chabon’s “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story.”
I put the two of them on the board, genre fiction here, literary fiction there, and made a pointy hat between the two, as if to say the best of them are indistinguishable from the other. I also said, “Genre fiction wants to entertain.” I might have said, “It can do more than that. But that’s the main thing it wants to do,” I can’t remember. The discussion veered off onto Dan Brown and John Grisham and then spiralled away the way they do so that I wound up feeling we got only close-ish to the core things there are to say about the matter. And then this essay by the author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Wonder Boys, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union:
“Entertainment has a bad name. Serious people learn to mistrust and even to revile it. The word wears spandex, pasties, a leisure suit studded with blinking lights. It gives off a whiff of Coppertone and dripping Creamsicle, the fake-butter miasma of a movie-house lobby, of karaoke and Jägermeister, Jerry Bruckheimer movies, a Street Fighter machine grunting solipsistically in a corner of an ice-rink arcade. It engages regions of the brain far from the centers of discernment, critical thinking, ontological speculation. It skirts the black heart of life and drowns life’s lambency in a halogen glare. Intelligent people must keep a certain distance from its productions. They must handle the things that entertain them with gloves of irony and postmodern tongs. Entertainment, in short, means junk, and too much junk is bad for you—bad for your heart, your arteries, your mind, your soul.
But maybe these intelligent and serious people, my faithful straw men, are wrong. Maybe the reason for the junkiness of so much of what pretends to entertain us is that we have accepted—indeed, we have helped to articulate—such a narrow, debased concept of entertainment….
I’d like to believe that, because I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period. Oh, I could decoct a brew of other, more impressive motivations and explanations. I could uncork some stuff about reader response theory, or the Lacanian parole. I could go on about the storytelling impulse and the need to make sense of experience through story. A spritz of Jung might scent the air. I could adduce Kafka’s formula: ‘A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.’… But in the end—here’s my point—it would still all boil down to entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure. Because when the axe bites the ice, you feel an answering throb of delight all the way from your hands to your shoulders, and the blade tolls like a bell for miles.”
Sorry for the long quote. But it’s so pleasurable to read, I couldn’t stop quoting. Plus it was making my own point without being wishy-washy, which is what I was in class.
The other part of the class I handed little snippets of stories and books that I like, all on the experimental or post-modern side of things, and asked students to discuss in small groups what they thought the author’s project might be. This didn’t go as well as I hoped. Many of the students I think enjoyed what they had read, but felt too much the pressure to answer the question and this feeling hampered their enjoyment of the piece or their ability to convey their enjoyment. Anyway, the whole discussion was okay, but didn’t end up being as interesting and illuminating as I had hoped. It seems to me now that possibly by even mentioning the author’s project, I steered students away from any notion of pleasure. I picked those stories because of the delight they occasion in me. Pleasure in the reader is the main thing I am hoping for when I am writing. Not every reader. But as many as possible, given my own aesthetic. And yet we talk about literature as though occasioning pleasure in the reader were not its main object, as though there were some other object, like teaching somebody something. Which is absurd. Of course, this avenue of discussion leads us to variant definitions of pleasure, a maze which for the time being I’ll stay out of.