By Cornelia So I hope you'll bear with me while I rehash the whole Genre vs. Literary thing for the bazillionth time, here. It's for a good cause, that being celebration of Doris Lessing's having won the Nobel prize for Literature--the announcement of which put the hugest smile on my face for days: While it seemed to have made certain Literary Purity-Of-Essence Fascisti feel more like this: I have long been a fan of her writing, thanks to my great-friend-and-book-guru Ariel Zeitlin Cooke's having lent me her own dogeared paperback of Lessing's gobsmackingly fine The Golden Notebook back in college: Had Lessing limited herself to writing only in that vein, it's hard to imagine one would have heard so much as a lone sniff of disdain exhaled upon the stale-Freud-and-cabbage miasma cloistered behind the ivory ramparts of the canon's haute criterati. But alas, Lessing has defiled herself by frolicking in the forbidden waters of genre. As such, the outcry against her anointment as Nobel laureate was as swift as it was knee-jerk. "This is pure political correctness," whined Harold Bloom to The Associated Press. "Although Ms. Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable ... fourth-rate science fiction." Coming, as it does, so hard on the heels of Ruth Franklin's recent obtusely neener-neener chastisement of Michael Chabon in Slate for having "spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it" with the publication of his latest novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Bloom and his ilk's freakout du jour over the burgeoning legitimacy of genre seems to be reaching a new fever pitch--perhaps at long last disapparating into that upper register which only dogs are forced to hear. I mean, God forbid we should find ourselves at the mercy of what Franklin dismissed as "a democratic reading experience... a culture in which fiction, in whatever form, could permeate the national conversation and be essential to people's daily lives." At Bouchercon, I got to hear S.J. Rozan read aloud the cream of Ursula Leguin's stinging bitch-slap response to Franklin's puling:
There, again — the slow, squelching, sucking steps, and the foul smell was stronger. Something was climbing her stairs, coming closer to her door. As she heard the click of heel bones that had broken through rotting flesh, she knew what it was. But it was dead, dead!

God damn that Chabon, dragging it out of the grave where she and the other serious writers had buried it to save serious literature from its polluting touch, the horror of its blank, pustular face, the lifeless, meaningless glare of its decaying eyes! What did the fool think he was doing? Had he paid no attention at all to the endless rituals of the serious writers and their serious critics — the formal expulsion ceremonies, the repeated anathemata, the stakes driven over and over through the heart, the vitriolic sneers, the endless, solemn dances on the grave? Did he not want to preserve the virginity of Yaddo?
Certainly, however, Bloom and Franklin are not the first to raise the alarm about the invasion of the potboiler... ... or even about the specific incursions of Michael Chabon against the supposed intellectual divide between the shining raiment of "true" literature and shabby low-rent hijab of mere genre. Way back in 2004, Lev Grossman launched his own counter-attack in the pages of Time, following the publication of Chabon's The Final Solution, which he saw as "highbrow fiction being assaulted by lowbrow genre." Grossman then wondered why
an esteemed, respectable literary novelist like Chabon want to sully his fancy-pants reputation with a mystery novel?...Pulitzer prizewinning Michael Chabon?... Byronic hair Michael Chabon?
When Sarah Weinman excerpted Grossman's piece on her Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind blog shortly thereafter, she remarked that:
Without getting into yet another debate about how the best fiction is simply that, whether it's rooted in the conventions of literary novels or the convention of genre novels... it seemed to me rather odd that Grossman neglected to mention anywhere that he was the author of one such "hybrid highbrow-lowbrow tale," CODEX. I mean, if a "literary thriller" about a mysterious manuscript doesn't count as the very thing that puzzles Grossman in his essay, what would?
Which I loved, as I adored Laura Lippman's response in the Confessions backblog later that same day:
Who benefits from the debate, that's what I want to know? Not genre writers. Not readers. So it must be the literary writers who keep beating this dead horse. Such pieces always make me feel as if I'm an ill-behaved dog running amok in the great marble temple of literature... ..."Stop her! She's peeing on the floor! She's drinking out of the toilet! She won't play by the rules -- except those tired genre conventions that mark her work as second-rate. Ohmigod -- she's humping Nadine Gordimer's leg. Get her out!"
In honor of Doris Lessing, I'd like to reiterate the response I was moved to write that day:
I think they're all just pissed off because they've turned "literature" into the kind of Filboid-Studge Latin whose precise declensions can only be enforced with Joycean pandy-bats viciously applied to the reader's tender palms and footsoles, and meanwhile we're all having so much goddamn fun over here in Vibrant Street-Italian Vernacular Land it should be illegal. I still applaud Walter Mosley's comment at LCC this year, when he was asked whether he worried about Harold "Thigh-Man" Bloom, that "that would be like a Great Dane worrying about a Chihuahua."
And I wouldn't hump Nadine Gordimer's leg for a fat seven-figure deal in Lee Child Dollars, though peeing on marble floors remains a constant temptation.
If you want to see how tired Lessing herself seems of the whole debate, check out her response to the news that she'd won the Nobel:
(hat tip to Galleycat for the link)

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Comment by Cornelia Read on October 19, 2007 at 11:29am
I'm SO proud!!!
Comment by Daniel Hatadi on October 18, 2007 at 11:43am
You know, I think you've posted the very first nipple on Crimespace.

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