Thus spake Lev Grossman at the Oxford Literary Festival, in an hour of erudite, funny, self-effacing brilliance that made me jump up and punch the air in delight (Inside. I'm not American).
In his session 'Storytelling: The Past and the Future of the American Novel', Grossman - journalist, book critic for TIME magazine and author of Codex, The Magicians and The Magician King - focused on the thorny issue of genre versus literary fiction - a topic I've publicly grappled with myself several times (for example, here and here).
Grossman's thesis is that the very concept of novels being split into 'literary' and 'genre' camps took hold during the 1920s with the modernist project to reject plot and narrative as a valid way of representing the world. Until then, the gothic horror of Dracula, the self-referential experimentation of Tristram Shandy and the romantic comedy of Pride and Prej had been permitted to happily co-exist under the single, unjudgmental category of fiction. But while Eliot, Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner and Hemingway and co. drowned themselves in words, whiskies and rivers, an equally self-conscious populist pole of fiction started to flourish with the establishment of DC Comics and Mills & Boon and the flourishing of writers such as HG Wells, Edgar Wallace and Raymond Chandler. Literary? Genre? In your corners, and get the gum guards in. At the same time, the New Criticism emerged blinking and bitching onto the scene; and so whole generation of literary critics was weaned on a vocabulary that understood how to parse and praise the rarefied pursuit of language and form, but not the plebeian one of plot and imagination.
However, according to Grossman, those boundaries are now dissolving once more. The modernist project was important and immeasurably valuable, producing most of the best literature ever written, but it's pretty much run out of steam as DeLillo, Franzen, McEwan and co disappear up their own plodding asses. And the most important playground in which this experiment is taking place? Fantasy. From Susannah Clarke to Sadie Jones, Jennifer Egan to David Mitchell, 'literary' writers have been getting away with adding magicians, zombies, parallel worlds and all kinds of craziness into their fiction without publishers feeling the need to put a half-naked woman with long hair and a long sword on their dustjacket. And 'genre' novelists such as William Gibson, Philip Pullman, Patrick Ness, China Miéville and Grossman himself have been blurring the lines between sci-fi, fantasy, realism and top class grown up writing.
"Fantasy is indisputably the idiom people are paying attention to."
"If Joyce wrote Ulysses now, he'd make it a fantasy."
"I think any ambitious writer right now would be mad not to be exploring fantasy."
My name is Molly Flatt and I am writing a fantasy novel. Man, that stings. I've spent the past year trying to describe my book using anything other than the f-word - literary adventure, imaginative drama, literary/genre crossover -and confusing the hell out of everyone. But in one modest, magical hour Grossman articulated why - despite all my attempts to stick to a 'literary drama' that has at least a chance of being reviewed by the broadsheets or, y'know, winning the Nobel - I find myself unable to write anything but.