Contemporary Fiction: Genre, Genre, Everywhere
John Langan, SUNY New Paltz
Title: Contemporary Fiction: Genre, Genre, Everywhere
Institution: SUNY New Paltz
Date: First Summer Session, June 2002
Instructor: John Langan
This class focused on introducing students to contemporary works that engaged fiction genres in interesting and provocative ways. In most cases, this meant that we read texts taken from within the various genres. I made this choice since it's been my experience that the vast majority of students have not read works from many (if any) of the genres, and I think there's something to be said for introducing them to those narrative forms. In the interests of balance, however, I included one mainstream writer, A.S. Byatt, who has made intriguing use of genre materials. I tried to include a mystery, a fantasy, a gothic, and a horror novel, and part of the focus of the class was in examining the (often shared) histories of these forms, how different narrative forms treat the same questions, and the ways these genres talk to one another. I was also interested in the ways that the genre writers were working with — and often against — the conventions of their forms. Due to the class's limited duration (four weeks), we restricted our reading to the primary texts, though I did provide supplementary handouts (mostly author interviews). Requirements for the class were participation, quizzes, and one eight to ten-page paper.
As for those primary texts: I don't suppose Jonathan Carroll's Land of Laughs or Graham Joyce's Tooth Fairy need much introduction, though I would note that both push the genres of fantasy and horror, respectively, into new and interesting places. (Joyce's novel, especially, combines many of the horror novel's traditional concerns with a more episodic, even picaresque arrangement.) Ruth Rendell's Judgement in Stone is a mystery to which we know the answer pretty much from the beginning, the story of an illiterate housekeeper who rather savagely murders the wealthy family for whom she works — in large part, Rendell tells us, because of her illiteracy. Like many of her thrillers, this novel concerns itself less with the whodunnit than the whydunnit; the mystery under consideration is the mystery of human behavior. There's a real question of whether that mystery is ever satisfactorily solved; we spent a good deal of the class debating it. At the level of style, Rendell quotes abundantly from canonical English literature; she also employs a kind of documentary approach to the life of the murderer.
In a similar vein, Iain Banks's Wasp Factory engages the Gothic to allow a homicidal young man to tell the strange story of his and his family's lives. Of all the writers we read, Banks provoked the strongest reaction from the students, in part because he pushes the most buttons: in terms of sheer violence — and of the narrator's attitude toward that violence — The Wasp Factory has few peers. The violence is not gratuitous, however: underneath it, Banks is engaged in a serious consideration of gender identity, and the extent to which male identity is tied up in the ability to do harm. There's an interesting meditation on religion going on, too.
Finally, A.S. Byatt's Elementals takes up the tropes, plots, and sometimes the language of fairy tales and myths in a series of stories centering on the theme of the collection's subtitle: Fire and Ice. There are some remarkable stories in here, especially a long novella called "Crocodile Tears." Byatt is perhaps the most self-consciously literary of the writers in this group: her work signals itself as in need of interpretation. For this reason, maybe, the students found her quite challenging. I found her useful as a writer who was approaching genre material from the outside-in, so to speak, where the other writers were working from the inside-out.
To be honest, I was a bit nervous at springing so much genre fiction on my class, but I was (pleasantly) surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response I received. This particular mix of books works quite well together; I intend to teach them again when I have the chance. The success of the class demonstrates to me that students respond quite well both to an interstitial arrangement of material, and to individual interstitial texts.
Required Texts (in order of reading)
Rendell, Ruth. A Judgement in Stone.
Carroll, Jonathan. Land of Laughs.
Byatt, A.S. Elementals: Tales of Fire and Ice.
Banks, Iain. The Wasp Factory.
Joyce, Graham. The Tooth Fairy.
Alternate Reading List
Rendell, Ruth. The Crocodile Bird.
Carroll, Jonathan. Bones of the Moon.
Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber.
Banks, Iain. The Bridge.
Joyce, Graham. Smoking Poppy or The Facts of Life.