We’re used to thinking of fiction as either genre or literary: The one follows a formula, and must meet certain expectations lawfully held by the reader; the other is supposed to be — well, it isn’t supposed to be anything in particular, except better than the other. In practice, literary fiction is its own genre, one in which a certain measured, thoughtful attention to detail in the writing takes precedence over considerations of theme or plot. The best of literary fiction and the best of genre fiction rise into another category, that of greatness, where the distinctions are no longer relevant. It would be too easy to claim that this is the only plane that matters, but it would also be untrue. The fact is, there is more room in the world for serviceable genre fiction than for merely competent literary fiction. This is because genre fiction serves as a pastime — it does not promise enlightenment, while literature does. The stakes are very different — again, except at the extreme high end.
The four books here cover all the bases: a charming book of erotic tales, a book of thoughtful, literary stories by an Iowa graduate, a book of equally thoughtful stories by a gay man who, if Edmund White had never lived, could easily fill in for him, and a collection of sci-fi stories by a pooh-bah of the genre that is so good you’d like to lie down and die — or at least run around the room screaming like you’re on fire — between each and every one.
Reading Francesca Lia Block’s Nymph, a feather-light collection of erotica, the stakes are very low. This is not an insult to Ms. Block: Erotica is a clever form of fleeting amusement that falls somewhere between pornography and the romance novel. Block’s stories are true to their genre, more charming than they are steamy: an aging surfer who has lost his nerve is reinvigorated when he meets a mermaid in a wheelchair; a girl named Plum finds that everyone who sleeps with her goes on to find true love in his next encounter. Block’s stories are so weightless they float away upon reading them, and they’re packaged accordingly — in a tiny, purple volume which by itself announces that this is not really a book, in the way that a flirtation isn’t really an affair.
Iowa graduate Elizabeth Stuckey-French writes beautifully, as anyone who has doubtless taken out a substantial student loan to obtain a degree in creative writing ought to. Some of her stories are marvelous in their writerly minutiae, but they stink of the literary — characters do “strange” things and don’t know why, in a kind of pastoral angst: A woman takes off cross-country in a snowstorm, with her two kids, and picks up a strange guy in a gas station; an adolescent tries to drown a small child in the public pool, then claims it was because she didn’t like the girl’s frilly bathing suit. This kind of unexamined, precipitous action on the part of anxious characters is a hallmark of mediocre literary fiction. Raymond Chandler famously said that, whenever he got stuck, he’d have someone walk into the room with a gun; in the literary genre, the existential impulse is the gun (literally a gun in Camus’ prototypical literary story, The Stranger). The problem is, in a mystery, a sudden, unexpected gun is still playing by the rules, while in literary fiction, which purports to be deep, the generic impulse move is a philosophical cheat. It’s just a lazy device used to get on with the pages and pages of all of that good writing.
Ronald Alexander, on the other hand, is a very good literary writer, who doesn’t ever cheat. His collection, The Final Audit, is one of the first offerings from Hollyridge Press, based in Venice, California. Hollyridge has launched a business it calls Print-on-Demand publishing, which takes advantage of modern technology to publish without recourse to large press runs, warehousing and distribution, making it able to publish very “small” books — those no major house is interested in bringing out. The only reason Alexander’s book is unpublishable in the mainstream is that it’s a very literary collection of linked stories about a closeted gay accountant as he nears retirement — it would have been published in the late ’70s, no question about it, but right now the subject matter isn’t that novel.
Alexander is an accomplished writer with a deft hand for characterization, and his work is a joy to read. If his â serial character, Dexter Giles, solved a crime once in a while, he’d be utterly unstoppable, the gay Travis McGee or Kay Scarpetta. But this is literary fiction, not pulp. So, as quasi-genre gay literary fiction, is The Final Audit as good as Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man? Well, yes, it is. Is there a compelling reason to seek out his work? Not really. Alexander hasn’t upped the ante on anything, he’s just good at what he does — and unfortunately, it’s something that’s been done before.
That which has never been done before is the subject of the Selected Stories of the late Theodore Sturgeon, a sci-fi heavyweight. He is, like many established genre authors, a hack. This is also not an insult to Mr. Sturgeon. He is so caught up with what he’s thinking, he isn’t so precious about how he says it, almost as if he mastered the craft of writing hastily, just so he could let all that stuff out of his head quick enough to keep it from exploding. The stories kill you with their slapdash brilliance, because the style is the only thing that isn’t mind-boggling about them, and if he were to get cute with his style, it would only be an annoying distraction.
One reason a lot of people with literary tastes shy away from sci-fi is that it can get so caught up in gee-whiz innovations that it ends up emotionally stunted — cool concepts take the place of deeply satisfying, operatic movements of character. And when sci-fi authors do take on the human condition, it’s usually through ham-fisted metaphors for our modern-society-run-amok, with a Platonic ideal that often looks as hokey as the Robinson family on Lost in Space. Sturgeon, who is quite the innovator and a fair social critic, also has an emotional range that dwarfs that of most literary authors, producing stories that look at first glance like classic space-alien and intergalactic-war stories, but that leave you shaken and unbound and resonating like a tuning fork.
In the story “The Golden Helix,” a group of six men and women wake up from a cheesy sci-fi frozen-for-the-trip sleep to find themselves marooned on a strange planet. They make the best of it, colonizing and mating and coping with their environment, and through their interactions, we glean something of the world they came from, which is a human future that seems very pleasant and much like our own except for the fact that couples are infinitely devoted to each other and produce litters of six children at a time. On the new planet, the characters begin to devolve over generations, and Sturgeon plays this theme out as a way of getting at the root of how people love: as romantic individuals, as members of a family, as a species, and ultimately as just life itself. The story is dramatic and engrossing, and it ends in an epiphany. Not that many writers can write an epiphany and make it work. Graham Greene could, and for all his hackish genre-ism Sturgeon is more like Graham Greene than he is like Arthur C. Clarke, or William Gibson.
Greene also considered himself at times a genre writer, producing “serious” fiction and then what he called “entertainments” like the novel Our Man in Havana. In fact, the best genre-worthiness test might be: If you’ve never read Our Man in Havana, should you read this book first? With Block’s book of erotica, the answer is no, unless you’re in the tub with a glass of wine, in which case the answer is yes. With Stuckey-French’s “literary”-genre stories, sadly, for all their earnest goodness, no. With Alexander, yes. And with Sturgeon, you could read his stories instead of reading The Heart of the Matter and come out close to even.
NYMPH | By FRANCESCA LIA BLOCK | Circlet Press | 128 pages | $17 hardcover
THE FIRST PAPER GIRL IN RED OAK IOWA | By ELIZABETH STUCKEY-FRENCH | Doubleday | 203 pages | $22 hardcover
THE FINAL AUDIT AND OTHER STORIES | By RONALD ALEXANDER | Hollyridge Press | 200 pages | $13 softcover
SELECTED STORIES | By THEODORE STURGEON | Vintage Books | 352 pages | $13 softcover