Oh boy, another article trying to make useful distinctions between “literary” and “genre” fiction. And it’s in The New Yorker, too, so the critic clearly expects his judgments to make a louder thud and leave a bigger crater wherever they land. For a book reviewer toiling on Digital Grub Street, the topic is a never-fail comment generator, a circular argument that will never be resolved. It is to the lit hack hustling page views what accusations of liberal media bias are to the wingnut blogger — a subject that can never go stale because it was never really fresh to begin with.
Genre, served straight up, has its limitations, and there’s no reason to pretend otherwise. Indeed, it’s these very limitations that attract us. When we open a mystery, we expect certain themes to be addressed and we enjoy intelligent variations on these themes. But one of the things we don’t expect is excellence in writing . . . [i]t seems to me that Chabon, Egan, and Ishiguro don’t so much work in genre as with genre. All the Pretty Horses is no more a western than 1984 is science fiction. Nor can we in good conscience call John Le Carré’s The Honorable Schoolboy or Richard Price’s Lush Life genre novels.
Of course Orwell’s novel is science fiction — it fits comfortably into the genre’s dystopian tradition, as do The Sheep Look Up and The Handmaid’s Tale. Orwell uses the techniques of SF as capably as Le Carre and Price deploy those of the spy novel and the crime story. What distinguishes these novels from others of their stripe is the skill and ambition of the author. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a fine example of alternate-history science fiction, a sub-genre thoroughly tilled by the likes of Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Keith Roberts, and Harry Turtledove, among many others. Chabon, to his credit, understands this and feels no embarrassment in such company. As a real artist, he understands that the quality of a given work has nothing to do with its imagined place in the lit-crit show-dog pantheon.
I’d like to read an argument that Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is inferior to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, or that Roberts’ Pavane is overshadowed by Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration, but only if the argument is made without resort to snobbery. I’m afraid that rules out Arthur Krystal. There are critics who act as prospectors, seeking out the new and the good, bringing word of their findings to the wider public. And then there are critics who see themselves as desk clerks patrolling the entrance of a particularly restricted country club. Arthur Krystal belongs to the latter group, and the irony is that even as he pats himself on the back for upholding the club’s rules, the fences out back are being torn down, to the ultimate benefit of those on both sides of the line.