Michael Cunningham on the Joys of Genre Fiction
A while ago, I ran into a friend who told me he was on his way to have sex with
a guy he'd just met. I asked him whether it was a nascent romance, or just meaningless
sex. He looked at me quizzically and said, "Have you ever had meaningless
Of course I hadn't. There's no such thing, is there?
I'm tempted to respond similarly to a question regarding my most meaningful
reading experience in the last ten years. Have you ever had a meaningless reading
Still, it would be foolish to deny that there are various levels of intensity
and resonance, in sex or in reading. One of my more meaningful recent reading
experiences has arisen not out of a single book but a body of books, which had
one thing in common: they were the kind of books I'd always assumed I would
They were, specifically, genre books books that were shelved in their
own sections, under such headings as Mystery,
Fiction, and Romance.
I was preparing to write a novel that employed certain genre devices (I'm still
working on it, and worry sometimes I'll still be working it in the year 2020).
I had, until then, confined myself to the vague territory known as "serious
fiction." For research purposes, I ventured across the line.
A lot of the genre books were, frankly, terrible. Some of them were revelatory.
In an airport I picked up a thriller called The
Straw Men by Michael
Marshall. It proved to be so smart and dense, so politically astute, as
to bear comparison to Don
DeLillo. I read a passel of mysteries by Ruth
Rendell, who I've come to adore. I was properly unnerved by the novels of
Koontz, whose sentences are far from lovely (and are not meant to be), but
who has a deep understanding of what frightens us, and why.
Maybe most remarkable, though, were some of the science fiction novels I read.
Prominent among them: Atlantis:
Three Tales by Samuel
R. Delany, Idoru
Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula
K. LeGuin, Solaris
Lem, and Snow
Crash by Neal
Stephenson. As it turns out, the novel of ideas is alive and well. It just
tends to be kept in particular sections of bookstores and libraries.
This particular discovery of mine will naturally seem naïve to those who
have been reading promiscuously across genre lines all their lives. Still, none
of us has the time or energy to read all the books that matter. We all perform
triage of a sort when choosing our next book. It was something it was
meaningful for me to realize that the choices, for me, are more varied,
more numerous, more daunting, than I'd ever imagined.
Michael Cunningham, 2004
Michael Cunningham is "one of our very best writers" (Richard Eder, The Los
Angeles Times). An excerpt from A
Home at the End of the World was published in The New Yorker, chosen
American Short Stories 1989, and featured on NPR's Selected Shorts.
He is the author of two other novels, Flesh
and Blood and The
Hours, winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He lives in New York.