I think my favorite types of literature are those not easily categorized.
I was at Powell’s in Portland recently, which is an overwhelming experience to begin with: it is called “City of Books” for a reason. I asked one of the many information stations where I might find fairy tales. “For adults or for kids?” the employee asked me. I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Of course fairy tales are for adults and for kids. “Yes,” I said. “Both.” I didn’t end up visiting the kids’ section because I got far enough over my pre-appointed book limit that I knew I had to cut and run. (Powell’s is dangerous.) But in the section I checked out, the “mythology and folklore” section, I found a lot of great stuff. I picked up a copy of The Turnip Princess, that collection of German tales that was discovered a few years ago; a copy of Elijah’s Violin, one of Howard Schwartz’s excellent collections of Jewish tales, and a copy of Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic, a history of The Arabian Nights.
I’d found some relevant things in the Classics section–classical European, Indian, and Japanese texts were there. I picked up a collection of tales about the Emperor Vikramaditya, Some of them, to my mind, fall clearly into the Fairy Tale category: Reynard the Fox, for example. Other things like the Divine Comedy and The Tale of Genji, are not fairy tales but involve mythic and imaginary imagery such as spirit possession, ghosts, the afterlife, and the Devil. So are these fantasy? Are they horror? Can we paint a novel from 1600s Japan and an epic poem from 1300s Italy with the same broad strokes as we do the rest of literature?
One of my favorite games is “spot the genre literature.” Much of what is considered canonical (and we know how I feel about that) involves supernatural, surreal, magical, or uncanny elements that are the hallmarks of popular sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fiction. Kafka. Borges. Marquez. Bulgakov. Shelley. Stoker. And that’s just a smidgeon of the 19th century. In fact, stories about ordinary people are a relatively new invention; myth and tales of larger-than-life heroes have been the foundation of literature for a long time. Tales of Cuchulain, Gilgamesh, Hercules, and Brunhilda were around long before we got Jane Eyre, Leopold Bloom, Captain Ahab, or David Copperfield.
In part I think I defend the supernatural, uncanny, and mythic in literature so hard is because of my devotion to sci fi, fantasy, horror…and comics. Comics is the one form in which I see the strange as being default, and stories set in the “real world” about ordinary people just starting to trickle in. Comics are also something that have an entirely different publishing industry built around them, and are therefore often difficult for bookstores to categorize. I find it amusing to go into a bookstore and ask about comics. I’ve also asked about graphic novels. This was particularly hilarious when I was a teenager in the early 2000s; I had at least one bookstore employee think I was talking about porn.
I’ll admit that I tend to preach the Gospel of Comics According to Scott McCloud, i.e. that “comics” is an umbrella term which covers single-page or single-issue short comics, serialized comics in issues or in bound forms, and graphic novels. I use the term “graphic novel” to refer to a single, self-contained comics story that is published all in one go, such as MAUS, Fun Home, or Black Hole. I write short comics. The longest thing I’ve written is three standard issues long. And yet, here I am with an MFA degree in Graphic Novel (and Fiction).
My most cynical self says that people in academia we refer to “graphic novel” because it sounds more, well, academic than “comics.” Novels are now a thing that we can accept as a legit art form. But the genesis of the novel echoes the genesis of the comic book in terms of popular literature. In his book The Rise of the Novel, scholar Ian Watt discusses the English novel of the 18th century. While books were expensive and literacy was relatively rare, with the advent of industrialization came more leisure time and the beginnings of a middle class with disposable income. Newspapers, chapbooks, and small volumes called duodecimos often printed serialized novels. Most of Charles Dickens’ novels in the 19th century were published serially. Shakespeare’s plays were a popular art form at the time. So I find the 20th/21st century emphasis on Literary Fiction vs Popular Fiction to be a bit of a false dichotomy in the first place.
Am I throwing the baby out with the bathwater here? Clearly, pulp sci-fi novels of the 60s are not the same as Phillip K. Dick novels of the 60s. If these distinctions important, why?
Tell us in the comments, eh?