Genrecide:The Apocalyptic Literati The Agony Column for January 14, 2004 Commentary by Rick Kleffel

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The Apocalyptic Literati
The Agony Column for January 14, 2004
Commentary by Rick Kleffel

God is Dead.– Nietzsche

Nietzsche is dead.– God

All you need is Death.

We surely love our Death. If we're not out there bombing the living shit out of somebody in a foreign land, we're down on the street riddling good guys, bad guys and innocent bystanders alike with bullets. And if we can't get the hands-on experience, we can read all about it in fact, fiction or poetry. If reading is too much trouble, we can plop our fat butts down in front of a television or cinema screen and watch death, glorious death, unfold before our wondrous eyes.

But that's just not enough.

If we can't find death in life, or in fiction, poetry, or drama, what can we do? We can predict death, that's what! And while we all love death, we're a bit reluctant to predict our own, even though statistics show it to be generally inevitable. Instead, it's others who get the nod. And usually not just on an individual scale. I mean, if we're going to predict death, why waste time with the small stuff? Sure, there are the projected crime figures, but that's strictly small time. Real Death Lovers leave crime behind.

Real Death Lovers -- Professional Death Lovers -- want nothing less than Total Death. Apocalypse.

War of the words.
And so, each year, from the dawn of recorded history onward, the Pros get busy manufacturing new ways to kill us all. There have been so many predictions that volumes summarizing those predictions have started to topple the shelves. We're well beyond a flood (an early and still favorite Apocalypse) of books about books predicting the Apocalypse. In 'Pericalypse', Stanislaw Lem posits that the Apocalypse has already come to pass, since so many books have been published that those which hold the hope of saving us can't be found amidst the seas of garbage. We're up to our eyes in Apocalypse, but we're so busy that we haven't noticed it yet.

It's not surprising that those up to their eyes in Death, more Death, Professional Death and Apocalypse might find their vision of things not alive influenced. And thus just about everything, whether or not it ever breathed, grew or reproduced has been pronounced Dead by those who can't get enough Death. There's a thriving industry of Theoretical Death. (And not just the Death of Theories, mind you, but death in theory.) From the Abacus to the Zoot Suit, if you can name it, it's been declared dead by those who want you to think they're in the know.

Literature is no exception. Even before Guttenberg finished the first run of Bibles, you can be assured that somebody, somewhere was declaring works of the written word to be dead, doomed by the mechanical sameness of printed words. Now, of course -- they are. Literature is no more alive than doorknobs, which have long been the standard bearer for Death Measurement. But by declaring something dead, one imparts to it -- by virtue of its absence -- life. It's a miracle, doctor! It's -- alive! No, wait, sorry! It used to be alive. Now -- "It's dead, Jim."

Legendary lemmings.
And so, every year, as sadly predictable as the legendary and factually unsubstantiated death-plunge of lemmings off a mythical cliff, literary critics declare the genres they or others love dead. Whether it's the entire body of modern literature or a specialized sub-genre read mainly by the writers who practice it, the prediction of literary apocalypse has become as common as the prediction of worldwide catastrophe. In the fine tradition of Stanislaw Lem, most of these literary apocalypses are more correctly pericalypses -- deaths that have come and gone unnoticed (other than by the literary morticians who scribe death notices of the works in question) while literature itself or the specific, dead genres in question continue to commercially, and in fact artistically, thrive.

Why, one wonders, is the literary Death Wish so strong? What impels otherwise perfectly reasonable writers to write, editors to edit and publishers to publish funerary orations for that which was never alive, let alone ill or in fact -- dead? There's no dearth of examples. Late in 2002, I wrote an essay in response to Paula Guran's entertaining essay in Locus Online that declared the Death of Horror due to the ever-pernicious effect of the Evil Internet. In that column, I took the time-honored approach of explaining why horror wasn't dead.

"It's not dead – it's just resting."
That is, I responded to the piece on a personal level. I took pains to point out that it the horror genre was merely hiding in the racks of science fiction, mainstream fiction and mystery. This, coupled with Sturgeon's Law -- "90% of everything is crud." -- will get you through the death throes of just about any artistic medium. Though this year has barely begun, we've already got a nicely populated thread on the Evil Internet Newsgroups titled 'The Fall and Decline of Science Fiction' (which takes pains to explain that SF really isn't dead, there's just less of it than fantasy). Genrecide also gets press in a puff piece on* wherein the author, the otherwise estimable Ben Yagoda, solves the mystery of the death of the mystery genre, entirely unaware of the delicious irony.

(*To read this piece, you must either subscribe to or get a "day pass" and view a "brief advertisement". Let me assure you this is not crass commercialism, but artistry of the highest order. Paid artistry.)

Of course the immediate response to any such claim is that the author simply hasn't found or mentioned "the good stuff." This is in fact, usually true. The idea that the mystery genre, and the American Serial detective mystery in particular, is dead, is belied by material in Yagoda's own article. For one thing, as David J. Schow told me in an email, "Yagoda's whole piece might have been more focused if it had been titled 'I Hate Airport Books.'" A mention of George P. Pelecanos in Yagoda's article is linked to a glowing interview with the author on Salon's own website. Oops. And how can a genre that's spawning work the caliber of the latest issue of 'Crimewave' be considered dead? In a sense, I guess it's appropriate. We are living in a post-'Night of the Living Dead World'. Stumble forth, zombies. Take over. Honor thy father; trowel thy mother.

But I wanted to explore a bit more of the why of these LitObits. They're so clearly nonsensical that one is tempted to come up with all sorts of conspiracy theories to explain why writers, editors and publishers print a big "KICK ME" sign in their pages.

A Guttenberg Bible – the beginning of the end.
It all came together when I read an article, wherein the author, T. Peter Park, took a look at the language and imagery in the apocalyptic forecasts of New Age beliefs, Christian Fundamentalists and the Catholic Church. What he found was fascinating. All three belief sets were cross-pollinating one another, so that specific images in each showed up in the others' beliefs. I started to wonder if something similar was happening in the world of popular literary criticism. What language informs the genre-killers? What arguments arise again and again, only to charge off that mythical lemming-ledge? What insights do the authors purport to pass on to their readers -- and why? It requires no stretch of the imagination to find those who write that "[Put Your Peeve Here] is dead," are not thinking original thoughts. I decided to compare the arguments found in Yagoda's essay from with the better informed but still genrecidal 2002 essay by Paula Guran in

The first thing the Genrecidal writer will do is to offhandedly dismiss the entire field they're talking about. It's a scorched earth policy, a Big Statement that is clearly and utterly wrong, so outrageous it demands the reader finish the piece just to see how the writer is going to justify it. Yagoda drops a stinky whopper: "The American detective novel may be commercially viable, but it is devoid of creative or artistic interest." Guran starts right out with, "It finally hit me at one gathering of the horror tribe or another: the distressing realization that so few in our field still seek professionalism, a high level of achievement, legitimate credits, and to gain a sense of history." The opening statement is obviously ludicrous, but it does the job. The reader is hooked, inevitably for the worse, into reading the rest of the rant. Think you're going to learn something? Think again. Readers will realize only in retrospect that this is merely the lowest form of sales pitch. It's "You're crud -- wanna know why?"

Next, these writers establish for the reader that They Know Their Stuff. They'll cover the history of the genre in a manner that seems to respect good writing and creativity. Maybe they're convincing themselves that they respect good writing and creativity. It's a feel-good follow-up to the spit-in-your-face start. Yagoda writes about how he, "…read the greatest worker in this field, Raymond Chandler," while Guran writes that "Peter Straub — understood horror's long rich literary history." The writers like to get personal here, putting in the details that document their authentic love for the prisoner in the dock. For all that they demonstrate their rich knowledge of genre history, however, there's a definite "good old days" effect in play here. The "good old days" started long ago and have an ending point that's well defined. For Yagoda, it's Ross MacDonald; for Guran, it's Stephen King. This is the sucker punch part of the presentation, easing the reader into believing that we're not reading no screed here. No sir, this is serious bizness. See what I know?

As it continues, the rant remains reasonable sounding. Of course all this goodness and quality in the genre on trial had a Dark Side. That Dark Side is inevitably the crass commercialism demonstrated in the rip-offs that followed the Golden Years. Once the masters passed, the hacks moved in. What's worse, the hacks were lauded by evil critics, money-minded genre-boosters and ill-informed nincompoops. Yagoda writes that "the Welty review started a trend: taking a detective writer and anointing him or her as not just a pulp writer (not just a Mickey Spillane)" [you can feel the spittle, can't you?] "but a purveyor of literature (a Chandler)", while Guran writes "The princes and princesses of the miniscule press read each other — as well as many in the almost-small press and the smallest of the mass market — congratulate each other, publish each other, edit each other, blurb each other, review each other, recommend each other for awards, twirl around together in an unending incestuous dance of parochialism while giving the finger to anyone who dares mention something as passé as a standard of excellence." The Standards Break down. Civilization is sure to follow! Sounding familiar? Pat Robertson and Hal Lindsey, move on over!

And finally, we get to the meat of the matter. The gasoline poured on the fire. Nothing sells like controversy, and nothing is as controversial as offending the readers. By now, anyone who actively reads the genre in question (and that genre may be as wide as "literature") is starting to feel deeply insulted. This is when the writer gets personal -- and way off the rails. Yagoda speaks of his attempts to read lots of writers who, to my mind, are not the best that the current mystery pantheon has to offer. "I made my way through Sue Grafton, Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Lawrence Block, Tony Hillerman, Jonathan Kellerman and a half-dozen others… I always ended up disappointed." Guran: "The most exciting aspect of the miniscule press and other new media is that they furnish emerging talent a fresh forum. But they also provide mediocre (or worse) writers a way to tout their work to the public as top notch." These statements are guaranteed to offend most readers of the genres in question. This is where the writers get out their crayons and scrawl "KICK ME!", screaming in the hope that shrill voices will drown out their obvious and certainly studied obtuseness.

Play the Agony Column Logrolling Game!

Match the suspected author with the convicting blurb!

Ian Rankin

Michael Marshall

Martha Grimes
Michael Connel1y
Chuck Palahniuk
Sue Grafton
Terry Pratchett

More surely offensive material will follow. The term "logrolling" (referring to writers who blurb one another) will be unleashed. Insults will be hurled and specific writers will be slagged. No doubt, some of them may deserve it. By this point, the genrecidal writer will be wearing their blinders openly. They seem to want readers to believe that they're right -- without exception. Perhaps they hope that the steam emerging from the readers' ears will be usable as a power source. Certainly, they know that they've sold the story; you've read this far. Like the folks who post to the newsgroup, they're convinced that they’re right, and that you must agree with them. They pursue their prey with evangelical zeal. Everyone must believe in their apocalypse -- surely the signs are obvious to all! News flash from Salon -- book blurbs lie! News flash from Locus -- self-published Internet fiction is often no good! The lambs have been sliced open, and we can read the future in the oozing entrails. The end is here! I'm shocked, I tell you, shocked. Such things should not be allowed to happen.

When the screaming is over, the sober and sad essayist takes a brief bow. The sober and sad reader can only breathe a sigh of relief. When Yagoda concludes that "We can be thankful that Chandler and Macdonald are not alive to read that nonsense. I am, however, and it has strengthened my current resolution that even if the blurbs glow with the intensity of the midday sun, I am off these books for good," we can only agree. Perhaps he has something actually interesting to say; perhaps he'll get on to say it. Guran, more sensibly, concludes that, "Horror, of course, will survive as it always has. But the Tribe — that amorphous creature that has, despite all, occasionally provided sustenance, support, attention — will die." Like the drunk who's done yelling at the uninterested patrons of a local bar, they sort of nod off. The gentle reader can safely escort them to the door. They're drunk all right -- on the power of publishing, on the power of the pulpit, proclaiming the end to all who won't follow their taste guidelines.

Of course, it's clearly all utter nonsense -- but it's nonsense they’ve got you to read, if not agree with. What the writers seem to miss is that there's a limited interest in reading a "KICK ME" sign. Oh, we like to get all het up now and again. But in the end, whether the apocalypse being sold is that of an entire genre or that of an entire world, whether it's Fundamentalist Christians or feel-bad New Agers, literature looking down on genre fiction, one genre looking down on another -- or even itself -- in the end, paradoxically, we realize that there is no end. When the date of a predicted apocalypse passes without incident, we all forget the prediction. We move on -- clearly it was nonsense. In fact, we line up to wait for future apocalyptic predictions. Sometimes, a "KICK ME" sign is pretty entertaining, especially when those wearing it think you're laughing with them, not at them. Who's laughing now?

They haven't managed to blow up the world, and damn if they haven't tried really hard to do so. There's no headstone for the horror genre, and there's no memorial for mystery. If these critics don't like reading genre fiction -- stop reading it! Great!

They can always watch TV.

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