Apocalyptic Lifeblood

Ellen Heltzel of The Book Babes raises an interesting point about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:

Crace is among my favorite contemporary novelists (“Being Dead” is amazing and rightly won the National Book Critics Circle prize). “The Pesthouse,” while by no means surpassing “The Road,” is worthy in its own right. For one thing, it actually has a FEMALE character. For another, the ending seems to evolve more naturally from the story. In “The Road,” it feels as if McCarthy couldn’t sustain his hopeless vision and flinched.

While I don’t agree that McCarthy’s novel is about sustaining a “hopeless vision” (if anything, its purpose seems to me just the opposite), I am also troubled by the double standard in apocalyptic novels, where the protagonists are often men.

But it’s not just the “man’s man” quality of McCarthy that sets him apart from his peers, but the literary vs. genre divide. Much as Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America wasn’t the first novel to explore an alternate universe (although I do recall hoary-haired highbrows scratching their pates in wonder over Roth’s “innovations”), the apocalyptic novel was laid down before by writers as diverse as Robert A. Heinlein (Farnham’s Freehold), H.G. Wells (The Shape of Things to Come), Octavia Butler (the Parable books), David Brin (The Postman), Kurt Vonnegut (Cat’s Cradle) — too many quite frankly to list.

For those critics and enthusiasts now in the practice of declaring genre lesser or worthless, one must ask why top contemporary writers like Roth and McCarthy are using genre to sustain their literary worth.

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3 Comments

  1. Are you sure Roth and McCarthy wrote these books to “sustain their literary worth“? Maybe they just wrote them.

    I haven’t read either book, and from what I’ve read of Roth and McCarthy before, I’m not convinced either merit my further attention.

    You don’t say which critics and enthusiasts are declaring genre lesser or worthless, yet you imply they are also celebrating Roth and McCarthy. I’m happy to be called a critic who declares genre lesser (though I wouldn’t say it was worthless) only I wouldn’t celebrate these two writers. And I’ll tell you what: you can include both with Heinlein, Wells and Vonnegut! How’s that?

    The genre aspects of both authors’ work also seems to have enabled their mainstream prominence, whereby those in the review-publicity industry, for whom high sales and popular attention is (inexplicably) important, are allowed some of the big-money sunlight from Oprah over there and Richard & Judy over here. Ignore it all, I say, including national book awards. The real thing is elsewhere.

  2. Steve’s first paragraph said pretty much what I was going to say, except I would add that it makes no sense to say that they “used genre”–what would that even mean?

    Unlike Steve, I do think Roth, especially, is worth reading, but the allegedly genre aspects of Plot Against America, for example, were not of much interest…

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