Commercial Realism

A couple of days after I mentioned my admiration for P. D. James (Nov 2), I was standing in line to vote, and reading James Wood's How Fiction Works, a book for readers on how writers achieve the effects that they do.  As both a writer and a reader, I love books like this, and Wood's is sharply written, perceptive, and short (the last an almost forgotten skill among writers of nonfiction).

But there I was, almost to the door after a historically long wait, and found myself reading Wood taking a swipe at Baroness James, by way of a more comprehensive assault on John le Carre.  He identifies them both--and by extension me--as practitioners of "commercial realism".  A pejorative term, if you're unsure.  As he says:

Commercial realism has cornered the market, has become the most powerful brand in fiction...when a style decomposes, flattens itself down into a genre, then indeed it does become a set of mannerisms and often pretty lifeless techniques.  The efficiency of the thriller genre takes just what it needs from the much less efficient Flaubert or Isherwood, and throws away what made those writers truly alive.

Of course, he's right.  We suck.  We genre writers steal styles, tricks, and techniques that help us do our commercial jobs.  There have always been stylistic pioneers, and those who follow and actually settle the territory opened up.

I might call what we genre writers use "domesticated realism".  We've refined what seems useful so that we can focus on the elements of the fiction we find interesting:  suspense, maybe, or exploring a social trend, or sending the reader to another world that seems believable because it has been created using the techniques of 19th and 20th century "realism".

I hope I'm not sounding all huffy here.  How Fiction Works is an excellent book, and Wood  perceptive critic.  It's just that, like all critics, he has to focus on individuals of genius rather than communities of the merely talented and skilled.  And, as in science, as in any field, that's where most of the work goes on.

Genre communities take the techniques of those individuals of genius, refine them, experiment with them, and, by "taking them on the road" and judging audience response, makes them more effective in generating response from readers.  That often rubs the rough edges off, partially to make the techniques widely applicable, and partially because any creative community includes individuals of varying skill levels.

I'm saying this in defense of James and of my own genre, science fiction--but I'm reading more and more James, Rendell, Connelly, Mina, etc.  Perhaps it's because the easiest place to steal from is from another community where the realistic techniques have been domesticated rather than from, say, David Foster Wallace, which is a little like stealing radioactive rods with your bare hands to power up your own reactor. And maybe it's because I have some real problems with the genre I grew up with and still work in.

Wood may have struck a deeper nerve than it might seem at first.