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Literature, Genre Fiction, and Standards of Criticism

Many years ago, I adopted a deliberate policy in order to guide my choices in fiction reading. I resolved to alternate a “serious” book with a “fun” book: so Elmore Leonard’s Swag would follow Vladimir Nabokov’s An Invitation to a Beheading; after Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, I picked up Stephen King’s Under the Dome. I still follow this pattern, at least most of the time. The appeal of the approach is simple. Serious literature and genre fiction offer different kinds of pleasures. Serious literature is rewarding, but it requires some effort and attention, and so it makes sense to take a break and read something lighter in between, rather like running intervals.

The pleasures of genre fiction are thought to be the pleasures of relaxing, of familiarity, of not having to engage oneself fully, of allowing the novel to do the work of entertaining you. By contrast, the pleasures of serious art require effort of thought and feeling on the part of the audience, engaging the mind and the imagination actively as the reader thinks through the literary work. The distinction between these two kinds of pleasure quickly takes on an evaluative aspect, along the lines suggested by John Stuart Mill: “But there is no known Epicurean theory of life which does not assign to the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments a much higher value as pleasures than to those of pure sensation.”1 The fact that the pleasures of literature are greater than the pleasures of genre fiction is supposed to be evidence of their aesthetic and moral superiority.

The distinction is made visible in the physical layout of bookstores: “Mystery,” “Romance,” and “Science Fiction” each have their sections, while “Literature” occupies its own distinct (and more esteemed) space. While some genre fiction is thought of as respectable and serious, it is not seen in this way unless it is seen as transcending its status as mere genre to become something more important. Edmund Wilson makes this explicit when he denies that Raymond Chandler’s works, which he admires, are really detective novels:

But Chandler, though in his recent article he seems to claim Hammett as his master, does not really belong to this school of the old-fashioned detective novel. What he writes is a novel of adventure which has less in common with Hammett than with Alfred Hitchcock and Graham Greene … It is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader …2

Likewise, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is not just a Western, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is much more than a work of science fiction, so these works may be found in the “Literature” section.

The distinction between literature and genre fiction shapes our practices of critical evaluation in several ways. First, it is widely thought that genre fiction supplies its own internal criteria for success: for example, a mystery, qua mystery, must create suspense in the reader.3 Second, it is also thought, though more contentiously, that literature is not appropriately judged in the way that genre fiction is, viz. according to a fixed set of criteria supplied by the genre itself, but rather according to more universal criteria. Third, and most controversially, literature is thought to be, perhaps because it cannot be judged in the rather rule-bound ways that genre fiction can and perhaps because of the “higher” pleasures it is thought to engender, better or more important than genre fiction. In this paper, I critically examine these three claims and some attempts to refute them. I defend the view that there are in fact real differences between the pleasures of genre fiction and literature, and there are also some differences in how we should critically assess them. But I do not try to argue that this difference constitutes a reason for thinking that literature is better than genre fiction, expect in some very highly context-sensitive sense of “better.”

A word in advance about critical evaluation. This paper focuses on the evaluative principles that guide normative criticism. This kind of critical work, which aims to show what makes a particular book good, or bad, is only one aspect of criticism. In On Criticism, Noël Carroll claims that most academic critics are reluctant to offer evaluations of individual works.4 Carroll notes that these serious critics (as opposed to mere reviewers) see the task of criticism as primarily interpretive, not evaluative. The literary critic gives a work context, illustrates its main themes and motifs, comments on its use of language, and perhaps situates it in a tradition. But a literary critic should be reluctant to praise or condemn, or otherwise judge the worth, of the literary works she discusses. Much of the academic interest in genre fiction, for example, is not focused on the question of what makes particular works good or bad, but on what such works can show us about the societies in which they are created and consumed. (A good example would be Stephen Knight’s study of the social function and meaning of crime fiction.5)

Carroll argues that this turn in criticism is a mistake – that critics ought to focus their attention on evaluation. I am sympathetic with this view, though I do not defend his position here. However, the division can be overstated. Much criticism combines both theoretical insight and evaluation – the two kinds of criticism are not mutually exclusive, and the difference is typically one of relative emphasis. In this essay, I focus attention on critical evaluation, criticism that attempts to show how and why some works are better than others. In the case of literature, at least, there are plenty of exceptions to Carroll’s general rule: serious critics (not mere reviewers) who engage in thoughtful and reflective evaluation of particular works.

1. Genre standards

The first work of literary criticism, Aristotle’s Poetics, is also the central model for genre-based criticism. Aristotle recognized several genres of poetry: tragedy, epic, comedy, and the satyr-play. In accordance with his more general methodology, Aristotle thought that the study of each type must incorporate an understanding of its nature, which includes, importantly, the telos of the type. For example, plot is the telos of tragedy – the story must culminate in a katharsis of pity of fear brought about by a downturn in the main character’s fortunes. Aristotle derives quite specific principles about which tragedies are better and which are worse by pointing to specific features that contribute to that telos or aim. For example, spectacle, he argues, is not the most effective way to bring about the desired response in the audience.

That which is terrifying and pitiable can arise from spectacle, but it can also arise from the structure of the incidents itself; this is superior and belongs to the better poet. For the plot should be constructed in such a way that, even without seeing it, someone who hears about the incidents will shudder and feel pity at the outcome, as someone may feel upon hearing the plot of Oedipus. To produce this by means of spectacle is less artful and requires lavish production. Those who use spectacle to produce what is only monstrous and not terrifying have nothing in common with tragedy. For we should not seek to every pleasure from tragedy, but the sort which is particular to it. Since the poet should use representation to produce the pleasure from pity and terror, it is obvious that this must be put into the incidents.6 [bracketed material inserted by translator]

Aristotle’s method in the Poetics is very much in keeping with his methods elsewhere. The criteria in The Nicomachean Ethics for assessing moral character are likewise discovered from a study of humanity and its telos. An appropriate plot effectively and reliably gives rise to the emotions appropriate to tragedy; spectacle, by contrast, tends to produce monstrousness and not what is pitiable. Aristotle’s rule against the overuse of spectacle, then, is derived immediately from his understanding of the aims particular to tragedy as a genre. What is supreme in achieving these aims for Aristotle is plot. The plot is the reason for the characters being the way they are, for the dialogue being what it is, and the plot is responsible for producing the key emotions in the audience (in this case, pity and fear).

Perhaps the greatest strength of this Aristotelean approach is that it readily identifies a mistake that one can make in reading and evaluating a work of fiction: mis-categorizing the work as belonging to one genre when it belongs to another. If one reads a horror novel as if it were a mystery, one will find fault where there is none, and one will fail to recognize good-making features. Just as one cannot watch a Noh theater performance as if it were Renaissance tragedy, and hope to understand or enjoy it,7 it seems to be a principle of thoughtful engagement with a work of literature that one understand to what category it belongs and read it with an awareness of that fact.

While few contemporary philosophers or literary critics would aspire to the level of specificity that Aristotle made famous, the idea that understanding the purpose of a genre can help us to fix the criteria for works belonging to that genre is commonplace. A genre not only supplies certain fixed character types, story schemas, and other standard features, it also tells us at least something about what makes for success in that genre. As Kendall Walton notes, different kinds of art treat different properties of their members as standard, variable, or contra-standard.8 Standard features (e.g., that the protagonist of a whodunit is a detective who attempts to solve the crime) do not attract our aesthetic attention. Variable categories sometimes do (e.g., the protagonist may be a professional detective or police officer, such as Hercule Poirot, or an amateur, such as Miss Marple). Contra-standard features attract our attention by challenging the work’s status in the category (e.g., when the narrator is himself the killer, as in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). Noël Carroll extends Walton’s theory by deploying these distinctions to do evaluative work.9

If a work is intended by the author to belong to a particular genre or category, but it lacks a sufficient number of standard features of that category (or it has too many contra-standard features) then it may be judged a failure. (Of course, the author may intend to stretch or transcend the genre.) Knowing which features are standard, variable, or contra-standard for a particular genre not only calibrates the reader’s expectations, it also implicitly establishes some baseline standards for judging the work’s success qua member of that genre.

There is little doubt that there is something to Carroll’s approach. A mystery that makes the killer too obvious to the reader fails in an important respect, as does one that obscures the evidence of the killer’s guilt too thoroughly. The book will either fail to create, or fail properly to resolve, suspense in the reader. This is not to say that such a mystery would always be an utter failure; witty dialogue and well-drawn characters may still make it well worth reading, but it will be judged less good than it might have been if it had succeeded in creating and sustaining suspense about the killer’s identity. Genres, then, supply at least incomplete, pro tanto criteria for the evaluation of works belonging to each genre.

2. Judging Literature

Once we leave genre fiction behind and turn to literary fiction, it is unclear how we might apply the Aristotelean approach. The question is what standards literary critics deploy in making their evaluations, if they do not make use of genre standards.

First consider an approach explained by the critic James Wood in his How Fiction Works, and demonstrated as well as in his other critical essays.10 Wood focuses on particular ways in which language can be used in literature, and argues that these techniques can be employed well or poorly. In particular, he argues that the appropriate use of free indirect discourse must employ words that the characters themselves might use, not words that the author would choose. He offers up John Updike as an example of an author who fails this test, and who is therefore guilty of “aestheticism,” that is, of having an overly literary style. Wood quotes a passage from Updike’s Terrorist, in which Updike offers the reader the inner monologue of the main character, Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, a devout, fanatical teenage Muslim:

He will not grow any taller, he thinks, in this life or the next. If there is a next, an inner devil murmurs. What evidence beyond the Prophet’s blazing and divinely inspired words proves that there is a next? Where would it be hidden? Who would forever stoke Hell’s boilers? What infinite source of energy would maintain opulent Eden, feeding its dark-eyed houris, swelling its heavy-hanging fruits, renewing the streams and splashing fountains in which God, as described in the ninth sura of the Qur’an, takes eternal good pleasure?11

Wood then takes Updike to task for failing to make it plausible that these are the character’s thoughts, rather than the author’s. Having introduced this section with “he thinks,” Updike appears to be trying to give us a glimpse of the character’s train of thought. It is supposed to be the character who thinks “If there is a next” and who characterizes that thought as originating from an “inner devil.” But Wood argues that this inner dialogue is not true to what we know about the character; these thoughts and phrases are clearly Updike’s.

We are only four pages in, and any attempt to follow Ahmad’s own voice has been abandoned: the phrasing, syntax, and lyricism are Updike’s, not Ahmad’s … The penultimate line is telling: ‘in which God, as described in the ninth sura of the Qur’an, takes eternal good pleasure.’ … Updike is unsure about entering Ahmad’s mind, and crucially, unsure about our entering Ahmad’s mind, and so he plants his big authorial flags all over his mental site. So he has to identify exactly which sura refers to God, although Ahmad would know where this appears, and would have no need to remind himself.12

Wood’s criticisms, like Aristotle’s, are derived from the central purpose or aim of the book: in this case, Terrorist. But the aim in question has nothing to do with the plot or the emotions to be produced in the reader. Free indirect style is, Wood thinks, the cornerstone of modern narrative, because it combines the author’s and the character’s voices, and this combination, he thinks, what all modern literature is really about.

Thanks to free indirect style, we see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once. A gap opens up between the author and character, and the bridge – which is free indirect style itself – between them simultaneously closes that gap and draws attention to its distance.13 [emphasis added]

For Wood, modern literature is about the tension between the author’s voice and the character’s voice, and that tension can be dealt with in better and worse ways. Our evaluation of literature is based on an understanding of the phenomenology of reading literature: the dual awareness that one is reading something written by an author, and one’s immersion in a world of fictional persons created by that author.

Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen focus their critical approach to literature not only on the use of literary devices like free indirect style, but also on a literary work’s treatment of various themes: “Literary appreciation is the appreciation of how a work interprets and develops the general themes which the reader identifies through the application of thematic concepts.”14 Some of these themes are perennial (e.g., free will and determinism) and some are topical (e.g., overcrowded cities and industrialization). Lamarque and Olsen do not mean that perennial themes are somehow part of the objective fabric of the world – universal, absolute, or transcendent — but they do insist that some themes recur again and again over time and across cultures: preoccupations with family, mortality, inevitability, and freedom, are, they think, widespread. By contrast, topical themes reflect the concerns specific to particular historical moments or cultural conditions. Works that treat perennial themes are more important than those that focus on highly topical themes; works of the latter kind tend to decline in relevance over time.

The best literary works can support a wide range of interpretations, and these interpretations are richer and deeper than the interpretations that are possible for a novel that focuses only on highly topical questions and problems. Consider Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was the best-selling American novel of the 19th century, but is now mainly of historical interest, because its central theme, the evils of race-based slavery, was highly topically specific, while its contribution to more enduring themes such as human equality has proved less substantive – in fact, it is now often criticized for its failure to render its black characters as fully human, and thus its failure to serve as a basis for an adequate examination of perennial human themes.

Lamarque and Olsen’s criterion emerges from a telos that can be applied to all literature as such:

One central, characteristic purpose defined by the literary practice and served by the literary work is to develop in depth, through subject and form, a theme which is in some sense central to human concerns and which can therefore be recognized as of more or less universal interest.15

This criterion represents the fusion of two ideas: that literary works are valued for the ways in which they realize their goals, which involves the kinds of literary tools employed by Wood, and that they are valued for to the extent to which the themes central to the work are perennially important to humans as such. So, in critiquing a work like Terrorist, we could look not only at the weaknesses in the use of various literary techniques, but also at how those techniques help (or fail to help) to realize the exploration of some theme, and whether that theme is merely topical (like “Americanization”16), or perennial.

Wood’s approach and Lamarque and Olsen’s might not be as different as they first appear. The reason that free indirect discourse matters so much, according to Wood, is that it thematizes an intrinsic problem for literature itself: the conflict between awareness of the author, and immersion in the fiction. This “theme,” if it is a theme in Lamarque and Olsen’s sense, is reflexive in a way that the theme of “freedom and fate” is not: it is a theme that is about fictionality. It’s not clear whether this should count as a “perennial” theme, either, since it is specific to modern literature. Still, there seems no reason to think that themes cannot be reflexive in this way, engaging with the nature of literature itself.

3. Two kinds of criticism or two kinds of works?

We might summarize the foregoing by suggesting that genre fiction is supposed to be judged according to (a) a set of fixed formulae that apply to the work (b) in light of the fixed purposes of the genre. What’s more, we might note that these purposes are (c) plot (rather than character or theme) driven. By contrast, literary fiction is to be judged according to (d) the importance of the themes it examines and (e) how well it makes use of literary and imaginative devices to realize those themes.

One might object, however. Why should we apply one set of evaluative criteria to genre fiction and another set to “serious” literature? Genre fiction treats themes too – some perennial and some topical – and makes use of devices like free indirect style more or less well. Couldn’t we look for themes in genre fiction, and be attentive to the techniques shown in the writing? Indeed, this seems to be the approach of many serious critics who have written on genre fiction: they aim to show that despite their plot- and emotion-driven nature, good genre fiction is capable of just the kind of careful and moving treatment of serious themes as any work of literature. Consider Steven Marcus’ discussion of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.17

Marcus draws attention to what he thinks is the most important passage in Hammett’s famous book, which was omitted from the film. In it, Sam Spade tells a story of an old client whose husband (Flitcraft) one day picked up and disappeared, only to move to a new city, remarry, and take up a work and home life almost identical to the one he had abandoned. Spade had tracked Flitcraft down and discovered that the reason for his leaving is that while walking to lunch, Flitcraft was nearly hit by a steel beam falling from a construction site. This random event convinced him of the randomness of his own life, and he resolved to take off and start again. Spade notes that Flitcraft ended up in much the same situation as he started. Marcus comments:

To begin with, we may note that such a sustained passage is not the kind of thing we ordinarily expect in a detective story or novel about crime. That it is there, and that comparable passages occur in all of Hammett’s best work, clearly suggests the kind of transformation that Hammett was performing on this popular genre of writing. The transformation was in the direction of literature. And what the passage in question is about among other things is the ethical irrationality of existence, the ethical intelligibility of the world.18

The thematic content exemplified by the Flitcraft story is what raises this particular work of genre fiction to the status of literature, and thus allows us to evaluate it by the standards that Lamarque and Olsen set out.

Alternatively, we could try to fix the purposes of different types of “high” literature in the same way that we fix the purpose of a genre, and then look at to what extent the book follows rules that serve this purpose. Perhaps the very distinction between genre fiction and literature rests on a shaky foundation. Michael Chabon has suggested that high literature is really just another genre.19 In addition to “the ghost story; the horror story; the detective story; the story of suspense, terror, fantasy, or the macabre, the sea, adventure, spy, war, or historical story; the romance story” and the like, he asks us to consider “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story.”20 Each of these, including the last, is a genre, he suggests, with its rules and limits imposed by the expectations of the form. What is distinct about “high literature” is its plotlessness (or, more modestly, its lack of emphasis on plot), but this, he argues, is not, or at least not always, a virtue. It imposes limits and imposes expectations on the reader just as the genre of romance does. Similarly, in his discussion of film genres, Carroll maintains that even avant-garde and experimental films fall into genres, not based on the type of plot, but on other characteristic features, on the basis of which we form our critical judgments.21

These objections, however, go a bit too far. To suggest that literature is simply another genre of fiction, like the Western or the Romance, is to ignore a fact that Chabon, and Aristotle, acknowledge, and even emphasize elsewhere: genres are distinguished from one another principally by looking at the story-type, the plot. Insofar as works of literature fall into distinct types, they do so on the basis of features other than plot, such as theme or character. So different kinds of great literature may indeed be categorized as falling into certain “types,” but these types are not thereby genres, because genres are distinguished from one another according to their plot. This matters because plots are powerful emotion-producing machines. A Western differs from a Romance or a Detective story based on the story schema, and one can expect a particular emotional journey for each type; but the “quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story” offers no such schema for story or for the reader’s emotional response.

It is certainly right that we can and should judge genre fiction by the standards applied to great literature, and great genre fiction stands up well to such scrutiny. To the Hammett discussion earlier, one could add examples from other genres as well. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? deals with the enduring theme of the authenticity of emotion and fellow feeling; George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones invites us to consider the tension between the obligations of honor and family.

Further, works of genre fiction can offer exemplary models of free indirect discourse and other literary techniques, often playing with and exploiting the author’s voice in the character. Elmore Leonard’s crime novels made wonderful use of the inner voice of characters, while still offering an authorial perspective which can be slyly satirical. Consider the following passage from Get Shorty, in which a loan shark, Chili Palmer tracks down Leo Devoe, who owes $300,000:

Chili stood away from the table, behind Leo and a little to one side. Two women in their thirties, wearing party dresses but not too attractive, were across the table from Leo, who was trying to get something going … A lot of color at the table, Leo looking like the Easter bunny in a pale green sport coat with gold buttons, an open pink shirt with one of those high Hollywood collars, Leo’s face hunched in there behind sunglasses, hair slicked back. Chili watched the wheel spin and stop. The house won. As the two women walked away Leo told them the dinner offer was still on. They said thanks anyway and turned to each other rolling their eyes. Leo watched them go, the poor little drycleaner trying to be a high roller.22

The passage is funny and insightful, crisply conveying to us exactly what Chili thinks of Leo, and at the same time also casting light on Chili’s own arrogance and prejudices. Of course, much writing in genre fiction does not hold up as well, but the fact that some of it does suggests that these criteria are not out of place in critically evaluating genre fiction.

Further, it is certainly right that much literature makes some use of formulas, just as genre fiction does, though these formulas do not dictate the structure of the plot quite so narrowly. In much character-driven introspective fiction, for example, the main character learns something about him or herself (although, occasionally, and contra-standardly, he or she fails to do so). When we read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which is framed around the history of Patty and Walter Berglund’s marriage, we (rightly) expect that by the end, whether the relationship itself survives, Patty and Walter will come to better understand their own roles in the relationship and its problems.

But the formulae or rules that guide our evaluations of literature are not quite the same as those that guide us in reading genre fiction. First, as noted earlier, the expectations and purposes of genre fiction are strongly plot driven, and are tied closely to (more or less) standard emotional responses to the events in the plot: e.g., pity, satisfaction, surprise. Second, adherence to these formulae and expectations is much less common in literature than in genre fiction. Contra-standard cases like Christie’s Roger Ackroyd are remarkable in genre fiction because they are so rare. Literature is much more apt to ignore or subvert the standard features of the type than Romances or Fantasy fiction is. These are differences of degree, not of kind, but differences nonetheless.

4. Comparing Literature and Genre Fiction

In an essay reflecting on his education as a writer, Michael Chabon writes:

As a young man, an English major, and a regular participant in undergraduate fiction-writing workshops, I was taught – or perhaps in fairness it would be more accurate to say I learned – that science fiction was not serious fiction, that a writer of mystery novels might be loved but not revered, that if I meant to get serious about the art of fiction I might set a novel in Pittsburgh but never on Pluto. The Long Goodbye could be parsed by the literary critic for a class on Masculine Anxiety in the Postwar American novel, but it was unlikely to appear on the syllabus of a general twentieth-century American literature class alongside Absalom, Absalom and the stories of Flannery O’Connor.

In one sense, Chabon was mistaken: his own genre writing, such as The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which is a piece of detective fiction and historical fantasy, has been taken very seriously as literature, and one could point to many other examples, including novels by writers such as Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Cormac McCarthy, and Graham Greene. But in a larger sense he is of course right. These exceptions are just that: exceptions. When works of genre fiction are recognized as great, they are seen as having transcended their genres, and having shaken off the traces of their lesser origins. The fact that these books are great page-turners with gripping plots that cleverly anticipate and provoke suspense or pity in the reader is secondary to their treatment of theme and their use of literary techniques to examine that theme. Their greatness derives not from their use of genre plot-types but despite it.

But there is something missing from this view; we need not deny that in general, there is a difference between what makes genre fiction and literature good in order to see that some works can have the virtues of both, and, what’s more, that being a good mystery can make a work better as a serious exploration of literary theme. Literary criteria and genre criteria are distinct, but they may work together and support one another.

Consider an example: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a piece of hard-boiled noir detective fiction in the mold of Raymond Chandler. (It is also set an alternative history in which Jews from Europe settled in Alaska after World War II instead of Israel, so one might say it has a little bit of fantasy, or at least speculative fiction, as well.) The genre he adopts brings with it some rules and types, and Chabon embraces them: the anti-hero, Landsman, is an alcoholic divorcee and a non-believer with a dark past; what appears to be a solitary murder turns out to be part of a vast, sinister conspiracy; and the writing is pure noir, embracing the clichés of setting, style, and characterization:

Landsman has eight hours to go until his next shift. Eight rat hours, sucking at his bottle, in his glass tank lined with wood shavings. Landsman sighs and goes for the tie. He slides it over his head and pushes up the knot to his collar. He puts on his jacket, feels for the wallet and shield in the breast pocket, pats the sholem he wears in a holster under his arm, a chopped Smith & Wesson Model 39. “I hate to wake you, Detective,” Tenenboym says. “Only I noticed that you don’t really sleep.”24

Change the names and remove the Yiddish and this passage could come from any Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe story. But the themes of the book, exile and the idea of home, are deepened by the use of these genre tropes, not sullied by them. Chabon is able to use the standard plot devices to highlight these themes, and the themes in turn draw our attention to the conspiracy to move the Jews of Sitka to Jerusalem. Will the Jews of Sitka find a home? What would it mean for them to do so?

If the distinct features of genre fiction can enhance literary value, what, then, is there to the idea that genre fiction offers not only different sorts of pleasures, but lesser ones, than literature? Here I think we should acknowledge that the rules and tropes of genre fiction can serve different purposes. When genre fiction aims principally to entertain, the formulae of the genre make reading the book easier: one knows what’s coming, and less energy and attention are required to enjoy it. Familiarity creates comfort, and one is then free to focus only on the aspects of plot and characterization to which the genre draws attention. But an author (or a reader) can also draw attention to the rules, and use those expectations to thematize ideas or to illuminate a motif in the story.

I do think then, that there is something to my old habit of alternating “lighter” and “heavier” reading. Some works provide greater effort and distinct pleasures than others. Most, but not all, of these are works that we call genre fiction. As to whether or not the pleasures of literature are greater in something like John Stuart Mill’s sense (in which the higher, intellectual pleasures are far superior to the more sensory pleasures), this is less clear.

Noël Carroll suggests that some works of literature are of greater social importance than others, and this is what permits us to elevate great literature above great works of genre fiction. Similarly, Lamarque and Olsen prefer works that treat perennial themes over those that discuss topical ones. But, as noted earlier, genre fiction and literature, as categories, are not distinguished by their thematic content or social importance. Some works of serious literature are highly topical and not very richly drawn; some works of genre fiction treat perennial themes with seriousness and creativity.

What may be more helpful is a model defended by Ted Cohen.25 Cohen notes that works of art turn their audiences into communities. Some communities are narrow, and some are broad. Broad communities, he says, are formed either “because the work has great depth or because it is pretty much all surface.”26 So we may prefer books that give rise to broad communities, as well as those that engender narrow, but deep ones. Different kinds of communities, he argues, have different values. Some communities, and presumably this is the case with the communities of enjoyment that form around great works of literature, are more enduring, as they are based on more perennial connections and concerns. Some communities are small and create a sense of intimacy; they pick out what makes this group of readers special. We need, Cohen says, both kinds of communities. And we need both kinds of books.


1. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1979), p. 8.
2. Edmund Wilson, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” in his Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Company, 1950), pp. 257-265.
3. Noël Carroll, “The Paradox of Junk Fiction,” Philosophy and Literature 18 (1994): 225-41.
4. Noël Carroll, On Criticism (New York: Routledge, 2009).
5. Stephen Knight, Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press 1980).
6. Aristotle, Poetics, with the Tractatus Coislinianus, Reconstruction of Poetics II, and the Fragments of the On Poets, trans. Richard Janko (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1987), lines 1453b1-13.
7. Peter Lamarque, “Expression and the Mask: The Dissolution of Personality in Noh,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 47 (1989): 157-78.
8. Kendall Walton, “Categories of Art,” The Philosophical Review 79 (1970): 334-67.
9. Noël Carroll, “Introducing Film Evaluation,” in Linda Williams and Christine Gledhill, eds., Reinventing Film Studies (London: Edward Arnold, 2000), pp. 265-78.
10. James Wood, How Fiction Works (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008).
11. John Updike, Terrorist (New York: Knopf, 2006), pp. 3-4; quoted in Wood (op. cit.), pp. 27-28.
12. Wood, How Fiction Works, pp. 28-9.
13. Ibid., p. 11.
14. Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen, Truth, Fiction, and Literature: A Philosophical Perspective (Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 403.
15. Ibid., p. 450.
16. See Robert Stone’s book review, “Updike’s Other America,” in the New York Times (June 18, 2006).
17. Steven Marcus , “Introduction,” in Dashiell Hammett, The Continental Op. (New York: Random House, 1974), pp. ix-xxix. Marcus’s essay is discussed in Joel Black, “Crime Fiction and the Literary Canon,” in Charles J. Rzepka and Lee Horsley, eds., A Companion to Crime Fiction (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), pp. 76-89.
18. Marcus, “Introduction,” p. xviii.
19. Chabon’s claims are discussed in Andrew Hoberek, “Introduction: After Postmodernism,” Twentieth-Century Literature 53 (2007), pp. 233-47. I am grateful to Robert Chodat for drawing my attention to this discussion.
20. Michael Chabon, “The Editor’s Notebook: A Confidential Chat with the Editor,” in McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (New York: Vintage, 2003), p. 6.
21. Carroll (2000), “Introducing Film Evaluation.”
22. Elmore Leonard, Get Shorty (New York: Delacorte Press, 1990), pp. 52-3.
23. Chabon, “Imaginary Homelands,” in Maps & Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands (New York: Perennial, 2009), p. 176.
24. Chabon, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), pp. 1-2.
25. Ted Cohen, “High and Low Thinking about High and Low Art,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51 (1993): 151-56.
26.  Ibid., 156.
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