At least, that’s the takeaway I have from this Sarah Hoyt Post at Mad Genius Club.
Look, most twentieth century literature we were forced to read — particularly late 20th century literature — was written to be “what university professors like.” A dash of unearned superiority, a bit of social critique and always, always, every character being a worthless bastard or bitch, not worth the paper they were described on. Oh, and the entire thing always ended in a morass of bitterness and disillusionment.
The word for this Human Stain plot-template is trope. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and all that cal. Broken people behave brokenly. I just had this experience with Manhattan Beach. It was a fun little story, with a mystery sewn into it, but I didn’t finish before it had to go back to the library, and now I’m not sure if I’m going to bother to. The mystery wasn’t going to be that mysterious. Whatever the most disillusioning solution would be, that was going to be the one that did it.
Bad things happen and that’s the end. That’s literary fiction for most of the time I’ve been alive. Really, since before that, if you go back to A Farewell to Arms and The Great Gatsby, where these things became obligatory. And that’s fine. But it’s a trope as simple and pure as Space Lords and Barbarian Kings. They comfort the worldview of the a certain segment of the population, by “challenging” it, according to a process of peripeteia and catharsis that was already old when Aristotle wrote about it. The rest is wankery trying vainly to disguise what they’re doing.
Back when I was going through literature courses I cured every professor who hit me with the “genre is just bad literature” by introducing them to Bradbury then hitting them with Phillip K. Dick while they were down. Not one retained their opinion of genre, and some of them I left converted to science fiction. (You could trace my progress through Portuguese educational institutions by the teachers/professors who not only read but rhapsodized over science fiction.