High and Low

In this Time review of Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, Lev Grossman wonders why the esteemed novelist would “sully” his reputation by writing mystery. Grossman’s answer is that the separation between literary and genre fiction is breaking apart:

One of the interesting things about the present moment in U.S. literary history is that the tough, fibrous membrane that used to separate literary fiction from popular fiction is rupturing. The highbrow and the lowbrow, once kept chastely separate, are now hooking up, which is why we have great, funky, unclassifiable writers like Margaret Atwood, Neal Stephenson, Susanna Clarke and David Mitchell. And like Chabon, who in addition to writing The Final Solution has edited an anthology of hybrid highbrow-lowbrow tales, McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories (Vintage; 328 pages). And like Jonathan Lethem, who has just published Men and Cartoons (Doubleday; 160 pages), a collection of highly literary stories about, among other things, superheroes.

I find this annoying and quite superficial. There’s good fiction and there’s bad fiction. No matter how high-brow you want to call your literary novel, if, in the immortal words of Orange Prize judge Katherine Viner, it turns out to be about “opening out tea-towels”, it will be a bore. Conversely, if your genre novel serves up more than hackneyed plots and cookie-cutter characters, it might not be a bore. So you can talk all day long about literary or genre or why people are writing this and that, but the only thing that matters is how good it is. And, by the way, Chabon’s interest in Sherlock Holmes doesn’t at all strike me as a sharp turn for him, given his previous work.