In his book, "The Cult of the Amateur," author Andrew Keen would have us believe that bloggers and Wikipedia are spelling the demise of traditional media outlets like The New York Times and Encyclopedia Britannica. Honestly, he makes some really good points, but it's not difficult to lay a fair portion of the blame in the laps of the very media outlets that are suffering the most. And what better target than The Times?
On Nov. 14, The Times published Ira Levin's obituary. It was written by Margalit Fox, who apparently did just enough research on the "Rosemary's Baby" author to make sure her opinion was in line with typical Times snobbery, describing Levin's famous novel as being about a "a young New York bride [who] may have been impregnated by the Devil." Later she quotes Thomas J. Fleming's review for The New York Times Book Review, in which he took the novel's ending to task: "Here, unfortunately, [Levin] pulls a switcheroo which sends us tumbling from sophistication to Dracula ... Our thoroughly modern suspense story ends as just another Gothic tale."
Egad! If The Times were to publish a how-to book on the craft of fiction writing, would we be treated to such edicts as 1) Never write stories that involve the actual presence of a fantastical creature; 2) Whenever possible resolve your plot in such a way that post-partum depression is at least a plausible excuse for all that has gone before; or 3) Do not challenge popular assumptions about genre (see appendix 1 for exceptions).
Is it really any wonder that we, the people, have taken advantage of the Internet to counteract this kind of pap? Again, I agree with much of the cautionary content in Keen's thoughtful book. His flaw is in overstating his case. By not allowing that any good has come from the admitedly mis-labeled democratization of the Web, he weakens his argument and comes off looking a bit outdated and curmudgeonly. That's okay. I feel the same way some days, and his book should probably be required reading in high schools. Still, it's hard to escape the fact that "The Cult of the Amateur" reads an awful lot like an extended blog rant—though a carefully researched and well-written one.
But let's get back to that panning from Mr. Fleming. He puts sophistication and "Dracula" at opposite ends of the spectrum. Okay, there are passages in Bram Stoker's novel that lack elegance, but to say that it's not a sophisticated work seems disengenous. That Stoker kept his Gothic vampire story aloft only through letters and journal entries should be enough of a safeguard against such claims. Besides, if we go back far enough, the most revered literature in the English language is of a romantic or supernatural bent: "Beowulf," "The Faerie Queen," "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" ... hell, "Hamlet," "Frankenstein," and "A Christmas Carol"! You can heap all the metaphoric heft you like on the fantastical elements of such works, but at the end of the day, "Hamlet" and "A Christmas Carol" are ghost stories, and "Frankenstein" is a monster tale. But because they're really, really good, some folks try to remove them from the genres they so obviously belong to.
I don't mean to get overly caught up in labels for fiction, but it's inescapable to a certain extent. In fact, I'm convinced there is no such thing as non-genre fiction. Oh, the MFA-inspired work that clogs the arteries of countless literary journals likes to think of itself as somehow beyond genre, but it isn't. Call it literary mainstream, realism or experimental ... it's still just another genre. Some of it's good, and some of it's crap.
Rest in peace, Mr. Levin.—Pete Mesling