The landscape of realism has narrowed. If you think of the straight literary novels of the past decade—The Marriage Plot, The Interestings, The Art of Fielding, Freedom—they often deal with stories and characters from a very particular economic and social position. Realism, as a literary project, has taken as its principle subject the minute social struggles of people who have graduated mainly from Ivy League schools. The great gift of literary realism has always been its characteristic ability to capture the shifting weather of inner life, but the mechanisms of that inner life and whose inner lives are under discussion have become as generic as any vampire book: These are books about privileged people with relatively small problems.
Not that these small problems can't be fascinating. It is exactly the best realist novels of our moment which are the most miniature: In Teju Cole's Open City, a man and his thoughts wander over various cities. In Adelle Waldman's The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., the action consists of the tiny fluctuations of the inordinate vanity and self-loathing of the main character. Both novels are superb, and both are focused on the most minute of details. They draw larger significances from those details, certainly, but the constraints are ferocious. Any discussions of politics or any broader aspect of the human condition are funneled through the characters' fine judgments.
In the wide-open spaces left by the narrowing of realism, genre becomes the place where grand philosophical questions can be worked out on narrative terms.
Stephen Marche on how genre fiction has become more important than literary fiction.
Genres that endure in any medium across time—the western, horror stories, gangster films, fairy tales, detective novels, landscape paintings, superhero origins, to name just a few—fascinate me. For a genre to resonate across long periods of time, it usually is about some deep-seated human condition or social issue, allowing the artist to make a statement about that merely by manipulating the conventional elements of the form. The genre is like a ritual known to both the artist and the audience, allowing an immediate and efficient engagement between the two parties.