Before we begin, a bit of PR — I just did an interview with Elin Gregory over at Speak Its Name, about my writing process and about The City War in specific. If you’re interested, you can read it here!
A lot of the time, the posts I write here are driven by reactions to reading I do, both within the literary sphere and outside of it. The last post, about narrative in human life, was very much outside of literature in terms of sources and goals. Today’s is a little different.
I read a lot of articles in a given week, some for my job, some from aggregation sites like BoingBoing, some from specialist sites like Publisher’s Weekly. This past week I read two that I’d picked up and saved to read before the holidays: Has Fiction Lost Its Faith? and Horror: A Genre Doomed To Literary Hell?
Both concerned essentially the same thing: a discussion of something missing from modern literary life, and a question as to why. The contrast interested me, because if you read both the articles you get the idea that faith and horror are the two things that literature, in the literary-novel sense, is leaving behind.
Mind you, the New Yorker article about faith is not actually referring to faith, but to Christianity. I don’t know if the writer was only interested in Christianity, or doesn’t read books about people of other faiths, or maybe just doesn’t think other faiths matter enough to spend time working out whether they are disappearing from literature as well. And, on the whole, I was a bit “well, Christianity had its turn in the spotlight for the last FIFTEEN HUNDRED YEARS, it can give a few other faiths some headline time” but, as the author points out, it’s odd to see Christianity ebbing out of the literary scene at a point where America at least is deeply torn by issues of faith driven by warped bigots hiding behind religion as their excuse (my words, not his).
The Guardian article about horror is mostly about how genre literature (science fiction, murder mysteries, et cetera) is being allowed into the literary sphere, how “literary” genre fiction is now a big deal — but somehow horror’s gotten left out of it. The author points out that we live in a world where the tropes of horror are becoming more and more common: people literally haunted by houses now not worth their mortgage, corporations with legal personhood, computers that can be possessed by virii. And while there are writers of horror who reach a literary level, they are few, and often do so by accident. I can’t help but agree with the author that Stephen King is a great writer, but “routinely fails the dismount”.
At first I thought it would be interesting to write about these two articles together because they seem to be about the same problem happening to genres on the opposite end of the spectrum: faith and horror.
And then I realized that I was, really, reading about the same thing.
It’s hard to write about Christianity because it is such a dichotomy: I have Christian friends who embody the kind and compassionate aspects of the faith, and they are my friends in many ways because they are kind people who understand they live in an imperfect world. Their faith is often personal rather than socially evangelical. But there are many others claiming the faith who espouse the darkest parts of it, the twisted misogyny and consumerism and bigotry that have become an intrinsic part of some branches and which my friends wish would get the hell off their religion. So just to be clear: I am talking about people who call themselves Christians and do things that would horrify Christ. Unfortunately, these people appear to be in the majority and, if they aren’t, they’re loud enough to drown it out.
And, in so many ways, the faith these people espouse has much in common with traditional twentieth-century horror.
In horror, particularly in cinematic horror in the past century, the ones who die first are the ones who defy a narrow, rigid definition of acceptable. Those who engage in sexual behavior (be that premarital or homosexual or kinky), those who aren’t young-white-male, those who are poor, those who are outsiders. It’s become a joke to my generation, that the black guy never survives, that kids having sex have got to go. Much of horror — HP Lovecraft in particular comes to mind — is about not questioning, not exploring, and not poking-the-thing-in-the-corner if you want to stay safe and sane. In both horror and in the darker side of Christianity, there is an unseen, supernatural force that judges the abnormal and casts it out or makes it the evil to be vanquished by the hero. In both, science is viewed as deeply suspicious, the producer of monsters who must be slain. Both are relics of a repressive mind-set which favors the maintenance of the social order over the acceptance of those who disrupt it.
Which makes their disappearance from modern literature pretty easily explainable, and not entirely undesirable.
These genres don’t have to disappear, but if they want to maintain or increase their presence, they do need to make some radical changes. Society is hopefully becoming more fluid and accepting, more flexible in its definition of normal, and less desperate to adhere to the concept of normal to start with. Literature tends to be about questioning barriers rather than enforcing them, because enforcing barriers makes for boring reading — which is why you have to use things like monsters and magic and guys rising from the dead to spice it up. Horror that works against the concept of the maintenance of social order would be a radical thing, but it would also be treated much more as literature than its fellows. As the popularity of Stephen King’s early “outsider protagonists” and the more recent popularity of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House Of Leaves can testify.
As for faith — well, the article about faith opens with a description of a novel in which two people have an affair, and one of them just happens to be a seminary student, and religion doesn’t really come into it — which may also be appropriate for books that want to explore faith. Writing about faith as an identity rather than as a rule of law allows an exploration of how individuals react to communities, which is one of the most literary concepts there is.
The upshot of all of this is that literature moves at the speed of society and sometimes, when it leaps ahead, changes society itself — but in order to leap ahead you have to at least be neck and neck. Some genres are falling behind. And, to be honest, I rejoice in the fact that there is a shrinking space in our society for the enforcement of an outdated and repressive social order.