Along with the G5, some friends from college, and many others who I’ve never met and have no idea where they come from, I belong to a mailing list for music lovers. We share our favorite new albums, often with brief descriptions of how we discovered them and why we like them.
What I love most about this community of unfamiliar email addresses, though, is that genre has no place there. Jay Z’s latest is followed by an album of obscure bluegrass, which is followed by some indie rock and then Woody Guthrie. This is one of my favorite characteristics of that impossibly fluid definition of a demographic, hipsters: they aim to transcend, dismantle, deconstruct genre.
I remember coming of age during the 1990’s when musical genre defined not just what radio station you would listen to, but how you dressed and who you spent your time with. Looking back on it, I think that inventing those indelible social boundaries – hip-hop, grunge, alternative, R&B – was our own way of trying to overcome the historical boundaries we inherited from our ancestors: race, class, education, profession. We replaced social constructs based on bigotry and tribalism with aesthetic constructs fueled by MTV, shopping malls, and suburban teenage angst. These days it has become cool to celebrate – or pretend to ignore – diversity and difference. If your iPod isn’t well stocked with post-modern Swedish electric pop, Southern crunk rap, Colombian narcoballads, and Miles Davis’ entire discography then you’re hopelessly ill-prepared for the rest of the century awaiting us. I couldn’t be happier, and Michael Chabon would agree.
For me, Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands is really two books. The first part is a beautifully argued manifesto in favor of moving past the very notion of ‘genre literature.’
And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre – one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious – is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention …
This emphasis on the conventionality, the formulaic nature of genre fiction, is at least partly the fault of publishers and booksellers, for whom genre is largely a marketing tool, a package of typefaces and standardized imagery wrapped around a text whose idea of itself as literature, should it habror one, is more or less irrelevant. “Science fiction,” therefore, becomes any book sold in the section of the bookstore so designated. The handsome Vitange Internationals edition of Nabakov’s Ada, or, Ardor … would look out of place in the science-fiction section, with the blue-foil lettering, the starships, the furry-faced aliens, the electron-starred vistas of cyberspace. Ada, therefore, is not science fiction.
I must admit, I am – or, I was – completely guilty of book jacket discrimination. Despite the truism – don’t judge a book by its cover – I always glide right by the bookshelves of genre literature – mystery, western, science fiction, fantasy, comic books – without ever turning my head. I head straight to the so-called heavyweights; whatever has been discussed recently in New Yorker, The Atlantic or Harper’s.
Some people like to call me a music snob, but in fact I’m the opposite of a music snob; my taste in music is more open and more inclusive than just about anyone I know. But, I acknowledge, I have always been a literary snob. And so I recant. I renounce my former highbrow narrow-mindedness. I will make a concerted effort to discover the pleasures of genre literature. Raymond Chandler, P.D. James, Chris Onstad, Conan Doyle, Jason Lutes, Cormac McCarthy, Will Eisner: I will read them all.
The second part of Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands is pure masturbatory egocentricism by a writer who thinks, having won the Pulitzer Prize, that we should be informed of the angsty self-conscious minutiae that influenced his coming of age as a novelist and, later, as an American Jew. The last 80 pages or so are made up of essays – previously published elsewhere – about Yiddish travel books, perceptions of truth in short stories, and the Jewish roots of American superhero comic books. They helped me fall asleep at night, but that’s about it.
Still, I’m glad I read the first half. (And grateful to kthread for giving me the book.) It opened my eyes to a world of storytelling and literature that I would have otherwise likely continued to ignore.