The Language of Defeat and a challenge redux

Last year in response to Banville-gate I issued a challenge in two parts over at my old blog. In light of Ray Banks’ essay today over at Mulholland, A Donkey in the Grand National, I thought we could try to revisit it. Especially since the wonderful Spinetingler audience is considerably larger then my blogs was.

The challenge is a simple one. First think about the literary vs. genre debate. Second, read Jeff VanderMeer’s essay from a couple of years back called The Language of Defeat (partially quoted below). At the end of the essay VanderMeer offers up Ten Books for “Mainstream” Readers and Ten Books for “Genre” Readers.

So, here is the challenge. What mystery/crime books would you recommend to a friend who doesn’t read “genre” and what “non-genre” books would you recommend to a mystery/crime fiction reader?

I have heard, more times than I care to admit, what I call the language of defeat. I’ve heard it on panels and on blogs, at genre conventions, at books festivals, and at academic conferences over the past decade.

This language of defeat has to do with accepting a paradigm of the fiction world as “us” versus “them”, of “mainstream” versus “genre.” I use quote marks around “genre” and “mainstream” because I do not believe these terms are as monolithic or as meaningful in practice as we think of them in theory. The “mainstream” and “genre,” if we must subdivide in this way, are both various, rich, and fecund traditions, with many strands and diverse lineages. (In many cases, the two intertwine in such an incestuous way that separating them from each other is a job for a trained genealogist.)

In most cases using this kind of language leads to a bemoaning of the lack of acceptance by the “literary mainstream.” It also leads to a certain resentment on the part of “genre” writers, especially centered on the idea that some “mainstream” writers get away with writing “genre” books. We’ve seen this attitude a lot lately—focused on writers like Margaret Atwood for her Oryx & Crake, Jeanette Winterson for The Stone Gods, Cormac McCarthy to lesser extent for The Road, and even the work of Jonathan Lethem in a general way, once accused of abandoning his “genre” roots. The negative attitudes toward these books and authors have three layers or premises: (1) that it is somehow inherently wrong and rude for these writers to write in what is so clearly a “genre” milieu (without asking first?), (2) that these authors’ cliché comments disavowing their books as “Science Fiction” or “Fantasy” somehow reflect negatively on the quality of the actual texts, and (3) that these forays into forbidden territory are written with no regard for or knowledge of “genre” predecessors.

All of these assumptions tie into the language of defeat because they constitute a kind of wall or barrier in people’s minds to acceptance of the work as it exists on the page. And what I mean about this being the language of defeat is that it pre-loads any discussion to appear self-pitying and shrill, overloaded with envy. It also severs the link of responsibility, in that we are no longer talking about individuals or individual institutions, individual gatekeepers, but instead a shadowy them—an enemy without a face, as amorphous as mist.

This language of defeat also requires participants to wade through decades of grudges, jealousies, and insecurities passed down through the generations in the form of received ideas, anecdotes, and assumptions that constitute genre’s least useful heirloom.

In fiction, received ideas (which manifest as cliché) are death, but we seem unable to think except in terms of generalizations when it comes to the frustrations and concerns of the writing life. It is much easier to take on the language and ideas of the supposed oppressor and exist in a world where our failures are someone else’s fault, and where if only the roadblocks were removed, the ivory towers razed, the truculent, generic, nameless gatekeepers executed, and their heads put on spikes, everyone would get their proper due.

This then is the language of defeat, the acceptance of one’s status as victim whilst mouthing the words of dead people from panels past—even being willing to channel the syntax of our defeat, as if we were all pessimistic travelers from the past.

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Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

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About Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

2 Replies to “The Language of Defeat and a challenge redux”

  1. For “mainstream” readers, I would recommend things like Lehane’s “Mystic River” and Pelecanos’ “The Night Gardener,” which are as much big social novels with crime as a catalyst as they are straight-up crime fiction. As for “mainstream” books for genre readers, I would recommend something like “Cloud Atlas,” which Banks mentioned in his piece as being a genre book in disguise, so to speak, which shows how inventively plotted so-called literature can be.

  2. Hammett Prize nominees might be a good place to look for writers that span both.