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Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

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I grew up in a universe in which electrons were like planets orbiting double nuclei “suns” in tiny solar systems. It was a metaphor, a useful one at the time. Then new data required a figurative upheaval. Now the electrons of my children’s universe mingle in clouds. Electrons always have—chemistry teachers of my youth just didn’t know better. Any change in metaphor is also a change in reality. That’s why the in-between state, when the old system is collapsing but no new figurative principle has risen to organize the chaos, is so scary. Metaphors are how we think.

During the second half of the 20th century, the literary universe was a simple binary: good/bad, highbrow/lowbrow, serious/escapist, literature/pulp. Like Bohr’s atomic solar system, that model has lost its descriptive accuracy. We’ve hit a critical mass of literary data that don’t fit the old dichotomies. Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, and Jonathan Lethem are among the most obvious paradigm disruptors, but the list of literary/genre writers keeps expanding. A New Yorker editor, Joshua Rothman, recently added Emily St. John Mandel to the list: Her postapocalyptic novel Station Eleven is a National Book Award finalist—further evidence, Rothman writes, of the “genre apocalypse.”

Rothman resurrects Northrop Frye to fill the vacuum left by the collapsing genre system, but the Frye model’s four-part structure (novel, romance, anatomy, confession) is more likely to spread chaos (“novel” is a kind of novel?). Another suggestion comes from a holdout of the 20th-century model: The critic Arthur Krystal believes an indisputable boundary separates “guilty pleasures” from serious writing. Perhaps more disorienting, Chabon would strip bookstores of all signage and shelve all fiction together. Ursula Le Guin, probably the most celebrated speculative-fiction author alive, agrees: “Literature is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.”

I applaud the egalitarian spirit, but the Chabon-Le Guin nonmodel, while accurate, offers no conceptual comforts. The Bohr model survived even after physicists knew it was wrong because it was so eloquent. Even this former high-school-chemistry student could steer his B-average brain through it. A vast expanse of free-floating books is unnavigable. A good metaphor needs gravity.

To explain the lowly lowbrow world of comic books, Peter Coogan, a director of the Institute for Comics Studies, spins superheroes around a “genre sun”—the closer a text orbits the sun, the more rigid the text’s generic conventions. It’s a good metaphor, which is why most models use some version of it, including all those old binaries: The further a text travels from the bad-lowbrow-genre-escapist sun, the more good-highbrow-literary-serious it is. But because metaphors control how we think, solar models are preventing us from understanding changes in our literary/genre universe. It looks like an apocalypse only because we don’t know how to measure it yet.

Chabon is often credited for starting the genre debate with “Thrilling Tales,” the first genre-themed issue of McSweeney’s, published in 2003—though the Peter Straub-edited “New Wave Fabulists” issue of Conjunctions beat it to press by months, and surely Francis Ford Coppola deserves credit for rebooting the classic pulp magazine All-Story in 1997. Coppola has since published luminaries like Rushdie and Murakami, even if, according to the old model, those literary gas giants should exude far too much gravitas to be attracted to a lowly pulp star. And what becomes of second-class planets when their own creators declare them subliterary? According to S.S. Van Dine’s 1928 writing rules, detective fiction shouldn’t include any “long descriptive passages” or “literary dallying with side-issues,” not even “subtly worked-out character analyses.” For Krystal, if a “bad” novel becomes “good,” it exits its neighborhood and ascends into Literature. The Krystal universe of fiction resolves around the collapsed sun of a black genre hole, and his literary event horizon separates which novels are sucked in and which escape into the expansive beauty of literary fiction.

Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, calls that argument “bollocks, of the most bollocky kind.”

“As soon as a novel becomes moving or important or great,” he retorted in Time, “critics try to surgically extract it from its genre, lest our carefully constructed hierarchies collapse in the presence of such a taxonomical anomaly.” The problem is nomenclature. Grossman defines genre by tropes: A story about a detective is a detective story­—it may or may not also be a formulaic detective story. Krystal defines genre exclusively by formula. Substitute out the ambiguous term, and his logic is self-evident: When a formula novel ceases to be primarily about its formula it is no longer a formula novel. Well, duh.

Grossman’s trope approach makes more sense, but Krystal is nostalgic for more than generic categorization. The old dichotomy was seductive because it was (as Grossman points out) hierarchical, performing the double organizing duty of describing and evaluating. By opposing “literary” to “genre” and then conflating “literary” with “quality,” Krystal is forced to make some ineloquent claims: “All the Pretty Horses is no more a western than 1984 is science fiction.” While technically true (Cormac McCarthy’s and Orwell’s novels are genre to the same degree), such assertions are forgivable as long as they are exceptions. But when those free-floating planets represent the expanding norm (in what possible sense are Atwood’s, McCarthy’s, and Colson Whitehead’s most recent novels not apocalyptic?), Krystal’s model collapses.

At least the good/bad dichotomy has collapsed. It never made categorical sense, since a “bad good book”—a poorly written work of literary fiction—had no category. Literary fiction is another problematic term. It traditionally denotes narrative realism, fiction that appears to take place here on Earth, but it’s also been used as shorthand for works of artistic worth. With the second half of the definition provisionally struck, we’re left with realism. Its solar center is mimesis, the mirror that works of literature are held against to test their ability to reflect our world. Northrop Frye declared mimesis one of the two defining poles of literature, though he had trouble naming its opposite. Frye located romance—a category that includes romance as well as all other popular genres (and so another conceptual strike against the Frye model)—in the idealized world, so Harlequin romances are part fantasy too (real guys just aren’t that gorgeous and wonderful).

But any overt authorial agenda can rile mimesis fans. Agni editor Sven Birkerts panned Margaret Atwood’s first MaddAddam novel because “its characters all lack the chromosome that confers deeper human credibility,” and so, he concluded of the larger premise-driven genre, “science fiction will never be Literature with a capital ‘L.’” Atwood was writing in a subliterary mode because she had an overt social and political intention. So her greatest literary sins, for Birkerts, aren’t her genetically engineered humans, but her Godlike and so nonmimetic use of them.

Others have tried to balance the seesaw with poetic style or formula or sincerity, suggesting that literature is a wheel of spectra with mimesis at its revolving center. In the old model, mimesis was also the definition of “literary quality”: The closer a work of fiction orbited its mimetic sun, the brighter and better it was. Like the Bohr model, that’s comprehensively simple, and so little wonder Krystal is still grasping it: Literature is the lone throbbing speck of Universal Goodness surrounded by an abyss of quality-sucking black genre space. Remove “quality” from the equation and posit a spectrum of mimetic to nonmimetic categorizations bearing no innate relationship to artistic worth, and the system still collapses.

Quality could rest in that fuzzy middle zone, a literary sweet spot combining the event horizons of two stars: mimesis and genre. That middle way is tempting—and perhaps even accurate when studying “21st Century North American Literary Genre Fiction,” the clumsily titled course I taught last semester. I am requiring my current advanced fiction workshop students to write in that two-star mode, applying psychological realism to a genre of their choice. But it’s a lie. If quality is mobile, and it is, then no position on the spectrum—any spectrum—is inherently “good.”

Perhaps novels, like the electrons of my youth, orbit double-star nuclei, zigzagging around convention neutrons and invention protons in states of qualitative flux. It’s not just the text—it’s the reader. That’s a central paradox of physics too. “We are faced with a new kind of difficulty,” wrote Albert Einstein. “We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.” Light, depending on how you measure it, is made either of particles or of waves—and so somehow is both. That seemingly impossible wave-particle duality applies to all quantic elements, including works of fiction.

The cognitive psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, in their 2013 study, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,”dragged the genre debate onto the pages of Science. Literary fiction, they reason, makes readers infer the thoughts and feelings of characters with complex inner lives. Psychologists call that Theory of Mind. I call it psychological realism, another form of mimesis. The researchers place popular fiction at the other, nonmimetic pole, because popular fiction, they argue, is populated by simple and predictable characters, and so reading about them doesn’t involve “ToM.”

Kidd and Castano are recycling Krystal’s “genre” definition, only using “popular” for “formulaic.” Their results support their hypothesis—volunteers who read literary fiction scored better on ToM tests afterward—because their literary reading included “Corrie,” a recent O. Henry Prize-winning story by Alice Munro, and the genre reading included Robert Heinlein’s “Space Jockey,” a detailed speculation on the nuts and bolts of space travel populated by appallingly two-dimensional characters. The science is as circular as Krystal’s: Stories that don’t use readers’ ToM skills don’t improve readers’ ToM skills.

If psychological realism is taxonomically useful for defining “literary” (and I believe it is), then here’s a better question: What results would a ToM-focused genre story yield? My colleague in Washington and Lee University’s psychology department, Dan Johnson, and I are exploring that right now. For a pilot study, we created two versions of the same ToM-focused scene. One takes place in a diner, the other on a spaceship. Aside from word substitutions (“door” and “airlock,” “waitress” and “android”), it’s the same story, the same inference-rich exploration of characters’ inner experiences. When asked how much effort was needed to understand the characters, the readers of the narrative-realist scene reported expending 45 percent more effort than the sci-fi readers. The narrative realists also scored 22 percent higher on a comprehension quiz. When asked to rate the scene’s quality on a five-point scale, the diner landed 45 percent higher than the spaceship. The inclusion of sci-fi tropes flipped a switch in our readers’ heads, reducing the amount of effort they exerted and so also their understanding and appreciation. Genre made them stupid. “Literariness” is at least partially a product of a reader’s expectations, whether you lean in or kick back. Fiction, like light, can be two things at once.

This wave-particle model may or may not emerge as the organizing metaphor of contemporary literature, but follow-up experiments are under way. We will survive the genre apocalypse. In fact, I predict we’ll find ourselves still orbiting the mimetic sun of psychological realism. The good/bad, literary/genre binary has collapsed, but the center still holds.

[This article originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education in January 2015.]

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Katy Simpson Smith, author of The Story of Land and Sea, visited Washington and Lee University this semester, and, while not busy giving the Phi Beta Kappa convocation address, she dropped by my creative writing class to read from her novel and answer a few questions. The conversation was so good, I wanted to continue it by email. Since my course is focused on fiction that merges literary and genre fiction, I suggested we start there.

KATY: My knowledge of literary genre fiction is pretty limited, but I’ll add whatever I can to the mix.

CHRIS: Actually, I think you’re writing your own brand of it, so you know tons. If we define the mode as writing formerly lowbrow pulp genres in a literary style, would it be fair to call The Story of Sea and Land a literary pirate novel?

KATY: I guess I’d have to read some full-on pirate novels to know how and if I’m subverting the genre! I think what I like about writing a character with such a Romantic background is that it builds expectations for the reader which are inevitably undermined. Everyone — from pirate to slave — encounters the same basic range of emotions, and it’s the intense and nuanced investigation of these emotions that I believe turns something “literary.” So there’s very little swashbuckling and there are no parrots, but there is parenthood and grieving. Perhaps I’m most interested in the ordinariness inherent in seemingly extraordinary circumstances.

CHRIS: That’s a pretty good definition of “literary.” I throw the phrase “psychological realism” around my class, and I think we’re talking about the same thing. Undermining expectations describes literary genre fiction well too. But that suggests an implicit risk in the mode. Do you find readers like having their Romantic expectations undermined with nuanced ordinariness?

KATY: Ah, well if we bring readers into it! My experience suggests that many do not, in fact, enjoy the undermining. But I think this also comes down to how a book is marketed. Those that might fall into literary-genre and are also successful (I don’t know, Lonesome Dove, Cormac McCarthy — all I can think of are westerns at the moment) are books that were quickly claimed by the critics and stamped as “great,” pinned with Pulitzers, so that readers knew that something above-and-beyond was going on when they opened the pages. I’ve certainly had readers who wanted my pirate and his lady to have their happy ending, and to be morally clear heroes, and when the book takes a different turn, I’m afraid some of them threw it out the window. The failing, of course, is probably mine. If I’d written Lonesome Dove, I could’ve swayed even the most Romantic reader. But in the end, you can’t write a book for readers, because none are alike. You just write the book that you believe in. (And thoughts about what category it fits into never arise until someone asks you!)

CHRIS: Well, your first novel is getting some serious stamps of approval, no Pulitzers yet, but, as NPR put it, you’re “a writer to watch.”And it’s interesting McCarthy popped to mind. When you described your next manuscript to me, I thought of Blood Meridian, a highly historical novel about the Galton gang of the 1840s. Your gang roams the 1780s, right? Bandits and pirates—are you always drawn to subjects who, at least in their “full-on” forms, are so much about traditional masculinity and violence?

KATY: I think the pull of violence comes from a Southern upbringing, where you can’t avoid being steeped in a very dark history (a history that also leaves violence on the surface of the present, oil spill-style). So I’ll always be fascinated by people pushed to their outer edge; we all have a limited range of responses, and though violence is usually the last tool we’d reach for, it’s still lying there in the toolbox, waiting. As for issues of masculinity, I have always been drawn to them, perhaps because I’ve seen men having an easier time of it in the self-theorizing department after the waves of brilliant scholarship on women and feminism. (I made a documentary in college about young men in the context of popular media, so I suppose it’s a long-abiding interest.) On the one hand, I don’t want to let men off the hook, but I’ll also admit that part of me is afraid to write a book populated only by women, given how little they seem to be valued–still–which is frankly appalling. I’ve been struggling recently with this deficiency of mine, worried that I’m giving in or selling out, but after my reading at W&L, at which I read a section told mostly from a man’s point of view and explained that this was a book mostly about men, a gentleman came up to me afterward and said, “I don’t usually read women’s fiction, but I’ll give this a chance.” That’s the world we’re writing in.

CHRIS: Women’s fiction! There’s a genre I wouldn’t have placed you in. I published a romantic suspense paperback once, and my editor kept my author pic off the back so potential readers would mistake my first name for an abbreviated “Christine,” which they did. It’s so odd that the gender of the author should seem to determine anything about a book. You could also theoretically label your novel “war fiction,” since the Revolutionary War is so key. And there you keep subverting expectation, holding us at the edge of battle instead of plunging in. I almost want to read this sentence as a metafictional aside: “It is hard for a colonel to keep his men camped out in a field at the far edge of a siege.” Do you think you avoid the entertainment of swashbuckling violence in order to get at that other kind of no-thrills oil spill violence of slavery?

KATY: I think you’re exactly right about my intentions (which only manifest themselves after the actual book is done and I can step back and say, “Oh, that’s what I was up to!” So maybe intentions is a generous term). But yes, the ultimate violence is never what takes place on a battlefield, the blood and the wounds, the bullets and the bayonets; it’s what is done to a person while they’re still living, in the context of an ordinary life. And the freedom that soldiers were fighting for in the Revolutionary War (or in any war since) pales in comparison to the freedoms they ignored. Slavery was a complicated web of evils that an entire segment of society came to see as normal, even morally justified. But I can think of few greater violences than asking a woman to choose between her children, as the character Moll is forced to do. I think a focus on the merely sensational allows the reader to distance herself from the fictional world, and I don’t want to give my readers that comfort.

CHRIS: You just encapsulated the standard critique of genre fiction: that it’s escapism, comfort food, easy fixes. And that’s one of the core expectations you undermine by casting a pirate as a grieving father. Since you just finished your second novel, can you step back and say “Oh!” about it too? Is it coated in the same Southern oil spill? Are your bandits camped at the far edge of sensational violence too?

KATY: I’m still too close to the second novel to have that perspective on it; I think readers help teach us the many things our books might be about (whether we agree or not). These bandits, whom I’m very fond of, get up to a few more hijinks than my pirate did, and there are a handful of out-and-out murders, but the story is mostly about their ordinary lives, the facets of their desires that make them (hopefully) sympathetic rather than villainous. I’m always looking to go deeper than protagonist vs. antagonist, because none of us are wholly good or evil either. I like to think that the job of writing is about building bridges over all the gaps in the world, whether that’s in time or in temperament.

CHRIS: Apparently I’ve been quoting you to my creative writing classes for years, pushing writers to find that nuanced gray area between black and white. When should we expect your sympathetic bandits to hit bookstores?

KATY: The new novel, Free Men, should hit stores around February 2016. My bandits will be eager for folks to hear their tales of woe!


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