March 27, 2007



Connections to website: I have socialized with editor Rosecrans Baldwin, who is a friend of my bandmate Chris Lee. I wrote a live review of Shania Twain for The Morning News.

I am puzzled by Kevin Guilfoile's response to my judgment. "The perception that genre fiction is never more than a guilty pleasure" is not a perception I perceived, nor is there an implication in my comments that I am slumming by reading a genre novel, a type of book to which I do not "condescend." (The only book endorsed in my review is "Layer Cake," a genre novel if ever there was one.) Because I don't believe in the concept of "guilty pleasure"—it is one of criticism's many Easter Bunnies—that phrase does not appear in anything I've written, nor does the suggestion that there is such a pleasure.

Guilfoile uses me as straw for his campfire, even though he eventually acknowledges that I chose Atkinson over Pynchon, and that I don't usually look down on genre-ness (eew word, my bad). This is true—I don't do it at home, and I don't do it as a guest. Acknowledging a genre, or genre-ness, is not a beard for dismissing a work in that genre. "Predictability" is the harshest potential crime I accuse crime novels of, though I use the term in a purely descriptive manner. You'll find no evidence that I think predictability is always a crime.

I focused on genre because my reaction to "One Good Turn" hinges on how Atkinson adjusts to the demands of the policier, demands which definitely exist. It's ridiculous to think there aren't "baseline quality requirements” for genres. It would be ridiculous to assert that a Nashville pop single can accommodate a two-minute instrumental breakdown. It would be ridiculous to assert that a crime novel can omit a) a murder; and b) an investigation of that murder. Many, many people buy crime novels precisely because they expect the pleasing dialectics guaranteed by the genre—sneaky manipulator vs. cagey old police chief, sympathetic criminal vs. her own base instincts—and will read many different authors within that genre as long as the genre agrees to pony up and act like itself. Atkinson, unless she is heavily medicated, knows this.

It is also a painful stretch to assert that every novel is a genre novel. Genre is both an aesthetic and commercial category—see below—and though I did not enjoy the three fucking hundred pages I read of Thomas Pynchon's "Against The Day," I would be hard-pressed to say what genre those pages belong to. (Historical fictions buffs might be real bummed to see the Pynchon arrive in the mail along with the new Elizabeth Chadwick.) Take "The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon." It is, roughly, a memoir, but people don't often say to booksellers, "Where do you keep the diary-like collections of unrelated thoughts by women who lived in 11th century Japan?" There is, however, a "Crime" section in many bookstores. "The Pillow Book," like "Against The Day," is a non-genre book, and nobody in my house says that's better or worse. Two of my favorite pop genres—commercial country and hip-hop—are deeply bound by genre rules, especially now.

If I have a snooty aversion to genre or predictability or whatever it is I am apparently snooting over, why did I say that "I would rather have read either a more obvious but emotionally resonant novel" than the book Atkinson wrote? Especially when I praised several aspects of her writing? Even though I am apparently condescending to her? (Punctuation?) Wouldn't an encouraging nod to the "obvious" indicate that, at the very least, I am comfortable with predictability and do not see it as antithetical to Good Things; and, at best, I might find the constraints of genre partially responsible for the Good Things in Good Art? (For a superbly thorough discussion of these themes, see Robert Christgau's essay on Martin Phillipps and Robert Cray.)

(I know little about krumping but I don't think krumpers krump to Nas. I didn't see "Rize," though. Maybe Nas is a hero to all krumpers.)

If there is condescension on offer here in the Tournament of Books, I think it might be found in a paragraph of Guilfoile's that begins: "I much admire Sasha’s music criticism, but..." Music, sure, but books now, rabbit? CDs are short, and critics get to talk to friends and drink at shows. That's not like having to read a whole book—you've got my admission that, at least once, this was too much to expect of me—and understand abstractions like "genre" that enrich critique.

Admitting to not finishing the Pynchon, a fact that would have been easily hidden, struck me as necessary, but admitting this has made someone want to "bonk" me with "Against The Day," ostensibly for the critical irresponsibility my bailing represents. Fair enough. But Pinkyhauser, M.D. will have to haul that doorstop around and bonk Lipsyte, too, as he didn't finish "Against The Day," either, and waved the book on. I also sense an implicit admission here that Andrew Womack did not finish the Pynchon. Pinky is going to get a serious tricep workout this week.

Posted by Sasha at March 27, 2007 04:40 PM | TrackBack