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Philosophy and Literature 26.1 (2002) 216-223

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Notes and Fragments

Genre Fiction and "The Origin of the Work of Art"

Nancy J. Holland


FIRST, A CONFESSION. Like, I suspect, many of my readers, I am an unpublished fiction writer. Unlike most of the closet fiction writers in academia, however, I write genre fiction. The question that immediately follows is how that writing is related to the intellectual work I do in philosophy.

This question, of course, is open to a broad range of answers, from the possibility that the two aren't related at all, to potential Freudian answers it might take years of therapy to unearth. Teaching informs one's life, however, as much as the reverse, and in teaching Martin Heidegger's "The Origin of the Work of Art" to my Metaphysics class last year, I began to understand at least one dimension of the appeal that writing genre fiction has for me as a philosopher.

But first, let me explain what I mean by genre fiction. In what follows, I will be referring primarily to four forms of genre fiction that have clear roots in the nineteenth century in Western Europe and North America: two gender-segregated genres, the western and the romance, and two gender-marked genres, science fiction and detective novels. I will be comparing these to two other forms of "popular culture" that also developed in the nineteenth century and have, I would argue, similar relationships to the older, more "legitimate," more elite art forms which they closely resemble: photography 1 and popular music, [End Page 216] especially those forms of popular music such as ragtime, blues, jazz, and rock that are informed by the African-American experience in the United States. 2

These "low brow" art forms all appear to have arisen out of the growth of the middle class in developing parts of the world during the nineteenth century and the correlative confluence of greater leisure, greater aggregate prosperity, and higher levels of education across a broader spectrum of society. Further, these art forms all combine the surface appearance of their respective "high brow" correlate arts with the reassurance of repetition that is the cornerstone of the folk arts with which they are also correlated. Each of these forms of popular culture balances itself, then, between a demand for more and more "works of art" (and/or class aspirations based on the appearance of such) and a demand for the familiar in a rapidly changing, materially challenging world.

Thus, photography gives us a frozen and thereby purified visual reality, an icon of memory to which we can return at will. The truth it reveals is most often starker than that of folk painting and portraiture, but also gives the appearance of being free from the subjectivity of the artist. Great iconic photographs such as the kiss on V-E day, I have heard it said, become more real than the reality they encapsulated.

Popular music similarly combines often amazing musical complexity (which is not unknown, although rarer, in western folk music) with the reassurance of a form that not only repeats itself within a song, but also between songs of the same genre. Thus, blues can be recognized by both the minor chords in its melodies and the characteristic rhyme pattern of its lyrics. Moreover, most western popular music, even to some extent free-form jazz, has a familiar and reassuring beginning-middle-end structure, both melodically and dynamically, that locates a listener immediately within the song's "story-arc." 3

This same beginning-middle-end structure is one clear hallmark of genre fiction. Another is repetition. We all immediately know the plot of a detective novel or science fiction adventure: where it will begin, what the key stages of the story will be, and how it will end—not just happily, but with a specific form of reassuring outcome, be it the victory of well-intentioned intelligence over cunning evil or humanity's ability to survive even the most alien (and so most familiar) of threats. At...


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