I’ve been thinking a lot about pettiness lately. I live in the U.S. and right now, the American media landscape is all blah blah incivility blah anger blah blah hate. But it feels to me like the great fever of rage-mourning prompted by the 2016 election has now settled down into a less intense, more pervasive atmosphere of snark and slights, subtweets and sarcasm. SNL spoofs rapists. Twitter memes hate crimes. And then there’s the hilarious string of alliterative names for white people losing their minds over black people existing. We’re squarely in an era of pettiness, the Age of the Drag.
Petty comes from petit, the French for small: Think small-minded, mean, snide. Pettiness might seem to trivialize social issues, but it doesn’t necessarily diminish them, at least no more than bad-faith grandstanding does. Plus, intense emotions like love and hate can get you killed. You might lose money or pride off of petty, but nobody’s dying from a subtweet. To mock hateful things like racism, misogyny, and elitism lets us think about them with some distance, without getting caught up in self-seriousness, fury, or despair. If nothing else, it makes them survivable. I’d say “y’all trifling” and strut off with a fluttering hand, but I kinda love pettiness: It’s witty and clever and often contagious.
For example: I’ve wanted for a while to teach a graduate course on everything Roland Barthes ever wrote, as an excuse to read it. (Most professors are just perennial students: We teach the courses we wish we could take.) So I mocked up a syllabus. I titled it, “Everybody Loves Roland.” I was inordinately excited. But then I was asked to teach another course I’d proposed as a second choice, “American Genres,” because it would help students fulfill a program requirement. Well. OK. Fine. I scrapped my syllabus of American Genre-ish fiction by high literary authors—Toni Morrison and Hannah Crafts as “Gothic,” Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler as “sci-fi,” Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley as “noir.” And I went full bestseller: Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, Iceberg Slim’s Pimp, Stephen King’s Carrie, Charles Portis’s True Grit, Danielle Steel’s The Gift. It was a petty move over a set of novels that are themselves often considered trifling—the fast food of fiction.
And so, given my usual reading habits, and the black sci-fi class that I taught again last year, this was My Year of Reading Genre Fiction. I wasn’t alone. Genre is all the rage—this is especially clear in television and film—though it sometimes feels less like a key ingredient and more like a spice that contemporary artists have started shaking over their works (to say nothing of the disavowals). The thing is, it has always struck me as bizarre that professors mostly teach students how to read (and imitate) the “literary canon”—essentially the same one I was tasked to ruminate over as a student. You’d think this recycling project would be less tenable now that some of our greatest living writers (Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) have publicly embraced genre fiction. Haven’t we diversified the syllabus, if not decolonized it, by now? Maybe, but let’s be real: Even the non-white, non-male, non-rich writers on our reading lists are still mostly “literary”; as Du Bois might have put it, they “sit with Shakespeare and wince not.” Our anti-elitism is still elitist.
The question of how and what we (ought to) read is political for me in this sense: If we believe in democracy and equality, why are our aesthetic priorities shaped by an elite minority? Why do we dismiss our engagement with genre works as “love-hate,” “hate-watching,” and “guilty pleasure” when we spend so much time doing it? Why do we refer to these works as “low” or “lite” when they are read by millions more people than the classics? In short, why don’t the numbers matter? Maybe these texts aren’t read much in academia because they don’t require scholars to explain or analyze them: The story we tell ourselves is that they aren’t difficult or ambiguous; they’re self-evident, simplistic even. But maybe that’s just some petty nonsense to justify the need for literary critics?
As it turns out, many of the novels I read this year, while they fit the “formula” of genres like crime fiction, the Western, fantasy, romance, the spy thriller, and science fiction, are actually really weird and interesting and worthy of analysis. In fact, I’ve been developing a theory that the most recognizable of these non-canonical texts—the highest of the lowbrow, so to speak—are all deeply interested in their own form. That is to say, they are metafictional—they are self-aware about these genre categories we use to dismiss them. Now, a text’s self-investigation of its own condition is one of the marks of sophistication, of high literary value: Think Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage.” But I found it all over formulaic novels. It’s like they’re formally petty: They draw attention to and even drag the qualities we’re so used to valuing automatically. Let me give you three examples:
James M. Cain’s noir The Postman Always Rings Twice ends with the main character in prison saying this of psychology: “There’s a guy in No. 7 that murdered his father, and says he didn’t really do it, his subconscious did it. I asked him what that meant, and he says you got two selves, one that you know about and the other that you don’t know about, because it’s subconscious. It shook me up…. To hell with the subconscious!” This is a hilarious send-up of the psychological depth of high literature, whether or not it embraces Freud. As it turns out, Albert Camus’s L’Étranger was strongly influenced by Cain’s novel. Why is the absence of conscience, a refusal of psychological complexity, and an action-based philosophy valued in the existentialist classic but dismissed as “brutality” in the crime novel? The very existence of Cain’s novel calls portentous, intellectual fictions into question.
Madeleine L’Engle’s “science fantasy” A Wrinkle in Time dwells on the way time, space, and feeling get enmeshed in the literary setting. Tessering is explained in diagrams—famously an ant crawling along a string—and the setting is strangely book-like: when the characters tesser through a two-dimensional space, they become “flat,” as if they are literally made of the paper on which we’re reading about them. The novel seems to me to spoof the narrative questions familiar to us from Journalism 101 with characters like Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, and the Happy Medium, a jolly clairvoyant with a crystal ball, whose name puns on the equanimity to which Meg aspires while offering an apt description of L’Engle’s bizarro religious novel itself. In this way, the novel offers a metafictional meditation on the use of the objective correlative—using the setting to convey emotion—in the high literary novel. It even begins: “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity is a (long-winded) spy novel about, yes, identity, but also about the literary category of the character. The amnesiac protagonist is a blank slate—who happens to have the default unmarked identity of a straight, white male—trying to figure out who he is. But he never really does and neither do we. Instead, the novel gives us a paradoxical refrain that seems to connect his code names with the names of his targets: “Caine is for Charlie and Delta is for Caine.” This odd phrase doesn’t make sense, though—is the character “for” as in substituting for or as in created for? “Spy,” whether it functions as a noun or a verb, comes to invoke metafictional questions about the visibility and identification of characters: Whom are we as readers asked to slip into and why? How “blank” or “recognizable” should characters be? This page-turner suggests the fascinating possibility that character—and perhaps identity itself—might be a matter of interchangeability.
Maybe I’m overreading—this is congenital for me, I admit. But it seems to me that even on their own terms, these genre fictions explore a set of formal questions that take us beyond the usual truisms about the satisfactions of “psychology,” “emotion,” and “the human condition” in literary fiction—which comes more and more to look like just another genre. So what happens if we take this truth to be self-evident: that all genres are created equal? I believe each genre offers its own specific value and way to think through literature, by which I mean both to think about literature and to use literature to think. My own fiction writing has become increasingly informed by this sensibility. My debut novel, The Old Drift (Hogarth 2019) embraces “low” genres even as it ironizes them. Regardless of how my publishers and reviewers see it, for me, genre is a lens—a mode of seeing the world—not a label.
I adore those contemporary fictions, like Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, that sing genre with their whole chests, that don’t pull punches or bleed it of its fun, color, and momentum, and respect it enough to engage with it. I read two books this year that fit this description. Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties reimagines fairy tales and surrealism, and one of its standout stories, “Especially Heinous,” is a set of evolving synopses of episodes of Law and Order: SVU, a genre show if ever there was one. I love the unaccountable weirdness of that story—the girls with bells for eyes, the ubiquitous dun dun—and how it imitates the longueur of watching crime shows: the running jokes, the strange entanglement of voyeurism and misogyny in “hate-watching,” and that thrumming desire for release, however implausible.
After a casual exchange with Victor LaValle on Twitter about the creepy eugenical subtext of one of the animated movies I love-hate, The Incredibles, I plucked his novel The Changeling from the middle of my stack and opened it. Twelve hours later, I closed it, cheeks streaked with tears, throat sore from laughter. A beautiful, moving Gothic/fantasy/fairy tale, The Changeling is a masterful novel that doesn’t try to smooth away any of the dark, rough edges of its genres. It doesn’t shy from realism either, though—as when it literalizes the internet “troll” as a pale gross dude who sits in front of screens and gets paid for webcam views. This is clearly dragging fantasy and its fans, but LaValle has mad love for the genre, too. His novel The Ballad of Black Tom is essentially a love-hate letter to the virulently racist H.P. Lovecraft. It’s next on my list, along with a growing set of recent Afro-fantasy novels. Pettiness is not just a trifling game, it can be immensely generative. After all, we pay close attention to what we “haterate,” and sometimes that attention can yield glorious acts of creation.
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As a child, I thought of myself as a prodigy.
In the sixth grade I picked out a paperback from the school library for no other reason than it appeared difficult to read and would, I imagined, suggest to teachers and classmates a secret literary acumen. I paraded through the hallways at school, holding the book face-out, until finally a classmate asked me about it. I told her it was a novel called Sphere, by Michael Crick-ton. When she tried to correct my pronunciation, I laughed, and in the haughty, dismissive tone my possession of the book was an attempt to justify, told her: “Um, I don’t think so.”
Six years ago today, Michael Crichton passed away. At the time, news of his death was met with little of the laudatory eulogizing you might expect for someone who had such a broad influence on popular culture (at one point in the mid-90s he was responsible, concurrently, for the number one book, movie, and television series in the country). He was only 66, which seemed far too young. Yet he had managed to produce, in that short time, an enormous – and enormously diverse – body of work.
I didn’t know it while I was flaunting his books throughout my elementary school, but forty years earlier Crichton had lived out my dreams of childhood achievement.
As a pre-teen he wrote travel articles for the New York Times; in his early twenties, while attending Harvard Medical School, he published a series of spy novels under the pseudonyms John Lange and Jeffery Hudson. It made sense, then, that as other twelve year-olds practiced stickhandling like Jaromir Jagr and memorizing the lyrics to Nirvana’s Nevermind, I instead spent my evenings in front of the computer attempting to write a best-selling sci-fi adventure novel.
I devoured Sphere, but my obsession with Crichton wouldn’t fully bloom until two years later, when the movie adaptation of his novel Jurassic Park exploded into my cultural consciousness with an onslaught of television ads and McDonald’s promotional tie-ins. I saw the film five times in theaters, and immediately bought a copy of the book, which I adored and obsessed over like nothing else I’d ever read.
The following Christmas, traveling with my family to Houston, Texas, I spent the entirety of my holiday allowance at the airport newsstand, buying up every single Crichton paperback they had in stock (which, if you were in an airport bookstore anytime in the mid-90s, was all of them). Throughout my vacation, as inside my aunt’s house the rituals of Christmas proceeded – turkeys roasted, gifts wrapped – I sat outside in our rented mini-van, listening to a cassette tape of John Williams’s score for Jurassic Park and reading, from cover to cover, every book that Michael Crichton had ever written.
At school, that year, I began handing in short-story assignments with elaborate cover pages based on the Crichton paperbacks I’d gorged on in Texas; perfect reproductions of those gaudy airport-novel covers with massive block letters spelling out my surname and the story’s title, almost an afterthought, nestled somewhere below. Short stories, though, were too easy. A boy genius doesn’t gain notoriety by meeting expectations, only by exceeding them in some impossible way. So, with notoriety foremost on my mind, I decided that I was going to write a novel.
That Crichton’s magnum opus involved dinosaurs – my other great childhood obsession – seemed to dictate that my own should, too. Dinosaurs running amok in modern times; that was the extent of my outline for the sprawling project. The rest, I assumed, would come naturally to a prodigious talent such as myself.
In preparation, I spent hours formatting a Word document to look exactly like the title and copyright pages of Crichton’s books. I transcribed fake ISBN numbers and Library of Congress catalogue data. For inspiration, I clipped a photograph of Crichton from a magazine and taped it to my bedroom wall. In it, he was – as he always seemed to be – leaning against a wall with his arms folded, the sleeves of his shirt rolled up in the business-casual style that embodied his penchant for merging the business of hard science with the casual tempo of pop-adventure.
I wrote in short declarative sentences. I garnished my prose liberally with scientific terms. Leaves were “bifurcated fronds.” The glare of a sunset was “an atmospheric refraction.” I introduced characters in quick expository portions, as if in a screenplay (so-and-so was a thirty-eight year-old investment banker from Toledo, Ohio, blond-haired and deathly afraid of heights).
My novel began like this:
A group of tourists are hiking through the jungles of a remote South American island. Noises in the underbrush. Growling. Hissing. Shadows flash within the bifurcated fronds. Suddenly, the group is set upon by an unseen force. Violence ensues. Blood and dismemberment are described in nauseating anatomical detail. One character manages to elude the predators, and just when it seems that he might escape – as he reaches the shore and is blinded by an atmospheric refraction – a shadow rises up in front of him. He can’t quite describe the thing, but it looks familiar. It looks like something he’s seen in a book. Like a…dinosaur!
But with the prologue settled and exposition required, I hit a wall. I tried setting the following chapter on a helicopter (characters in Michael Crichton books were always traveling by helicopter to some secret location or another), but without a solid premise my dialogue meandered pointlessly. I tried setting the first chapter in a laboratory, where a maverick scientist processed some seemingly inane specimen only to discover that something was wrong…terribly wrong.
What that terrible thing might be, however, constantly eluded me.
As the Michael Crichton phenomenon peaked in the mid-90s following the release of the Jurassic Park movie and the premiere of an hour-long medical drama loosely-based on his non-fiction book Five Patients (a show called ER, which I followed with appropriate zealousness), 60 Minutes aired a profile on the man behind the magic. Though I’d read his autobiography Travels, this was my first glimpse of the author whose work I’d been trying so hard to mimic, whose career I was so desperate to replicate.
He was tall. Freakishly tall. He spoke in a monotonous, professorial baritone. During the segment, he took the camera crew on a tour of his New York City apartment. I was thrilled to see that his office looked no different than the office in my own suburban home where I sat struggling at the keyboard. Just as I kept paleontology books and encyclopedias open beside me, fat manuals and scientific text were scattered around his workspace (he would have been working on his novel Airframe at the time).
The camera crew then followed him into the kitchen, where he opened the refrigerator door to reveal, neatly organized, a dozen cans of Coke and a shelf of pre-made ham and cheese sandwiches.
A profound revelation: when Michael Crichton writes a book, he eats the same thing for lunch every day! Finally, an insight in to the mysterious process of writing a novel that my fourteen year-old brain could relate to! I was carried back to my cluttered desk with renewed purpose. I felt, once again, like I was on the cusp of accomplishing something amazing.
In the following years, as I continued to produce clever prologues and aborted first chapters, the premise of my blockbuster novel evolved. To explain the coexistence of man and dinosaur, I incorporated the idea of time travel, borrowing generously from Harry Adams’s layman’s explanation of quantum physics in the early chapters of Sphere. I added an ancient ruins that bore a blatant resemblance to the lost city of Zinj from Congo. Still, I wasn’t able to duplicate my hero’s magic alchemy of fact and fiction.
What fascinated me about Michael Crichton’s books was that they were so utterly, magnificently plausible. It had seemed, at the outset, like an easy thing to accomplish, but I soon faced the unfortunate truth: I wasn’t a novelist…not, at least, in the meticulous, academic manner of Michael Crichton.
I gave up. I was a prodigy in name only, with nothing to show for the reputation I’d cultivated by carrying around impressive books and leaning against walls with my sleeves rolled up and arms crossed.
Decades later, having found a small measure of success as a writer (measured not in bestselling paperbacks sold in airports, but in obscure literary journals sold in specialty bookstores), I purchased an early hardcover edition of Sphere from a used bookstore. Though, as an adult, I instead suggest my literary acumen to strangers by carrying around books by Nabokov and Updike, I felt no less proud to once again parade through public with a Michael Crichton novel face-out.
As I re-read this new copy of Sphere, I was surprised to find that much of the rhythm and timbre I claimed as my own in fact belonged to Crichton: isolating revelatory sentences on a line break between paragraphs (see the beginning of this essay for an example); complex sentences interspersed with short sentence fragments like the dots and dashes in Morse Code. Even in my early twenties, writing bad pseudo-autobiographical short stories, it seems that I had retained, by osmosis, the stylistic habits I’d developed while eating ham-and-cheese sandwiches, drinking Coke, and imagining my name writ large on the shelves of an airport bookstore.
I am too old, now, to think of myself as a prodigy, but I imagine that my twelve year-old self would be proud to know that all these years later, in this very minor way, I am carrying forward some small part of Michael Crichton’s legacy.