Source: Gioia’s essay can be read here. I was originally linked to it from SF Signal. See some discussion about Gioia’s essay here.
I feel the need to respond to Ted Gioia’s essay “Notes on Conceptual Fiction” because it represents bad criticism, even if its heart is in the right place. Gioia’s terminology proves suspect and unstable, and his categories and grounds of judgement in the end commit the same fallacies as those he critiques. Most importantly, as much as Gioia argues for the importance of SF&F to fiction of the last century or so, which he is correct to do, he ultimately does a disservice to SF&F by attempting to value it on its own terms, in contradistinction to broader, traditional terms of literary merit.
Gioia divides his “Notes” into ten sections, so I will comment on each section in order.
Section 1Gioia sets up two key terms for his argument, both of which become steadily more problematic as he proceeds through the essay. These two terms also present the first of Gioia’s shaky binary oppositions. He begins the essay by looking to undermine the “preeminence” of “realism” as a “guiding principle” and “rock hard foundation for fiction,” contrasting it to what he calls “conceptual fiction,” which “plays with our conception of reality, rather than defers to it” -- “reality” for Gioia referring to a fundamentally “Newtonian” (i.e., scientific?) understanding of the universe. Realism means “limitations”; conceptual fiction means “freedom from ‘reality.’”
To deal with the second term first, I think we could say that all “fiction” to some extent “plays” with how we conceive “reality,” particularly if we accept that at base fiction always gives us characters and places that never existed and events that never happened in our world. Even dedicatedly realist/naturalist fiction engages in such play: think of George Eliot’s Middlemarch or Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, which are entirely imaginary communities. In this vein, Gioia claims that conceptual fiction once “existed at the center of our literary (and even pre-literary) culture,” yet here we must point out an historical anachronism on Gioia’s part. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest use of fiction as we generally apply it today occurs in 1599, and thus it is debatable whether we can (or should) label works such as Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey this way, if in Homer’s time those works were treated as history. So, Gioia wants “conceptual fiction” to serve as a catch-all for any story that is not realist/naturalist, regardless of historical period or genre, yet denies that realist/naturalist fiction functions precisely as his conceptual fiction does.
Throughout the essay, then, Gioia positions conceptual fiction as secondary to realism, which I think influences his overly simplified and restrictive notion of “realism.” As an active, purposeful aesthetic and philosophical grounds for fiction, realism is a phenomenon of the Victorian period, advanced by the criticism of George Henry Lewes in the 1840s and the novels of George Eliot starting in the 1850s. While Lewes and Eliot desired the novel to present life as it really is (in order to establish it as a serious, literary genre instead of a merely frivolous form of entertainment), Eliot, in Chapter 17 of Adam Bede (1859), recognizes that her “mirror” provides defective, imperfect reflections and so she can only get as close to reality as possible. Going further back to the beginnings of the (English) novel proper in the early 18th century, such as with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), realism has always been part of this “new” genre -- but also a self-consciousness of the novel’s fictionality. Defoe’s novel announces this fictionality (along with several signs of realism) in its title page and then looks to contain it in order to have the reader accept the narrative as instructive and true. We see a similar self-consciousness of fictionality (or, playing with reality) in early novels, such as Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759). Thus, Gioia’s “realism” is a bit of a straw target and not properly aware of its history.
To close the first section, Gioia asks, “Is it possible that … conceptual fiction is now moving back from the periphery into the center of our literary culture?” This is a fair question if we accept Gioia’s assumptions about “periphery” and “center,” where the former refers specifically to genre fiction such as SF&F and the latter to realist/naturalist novels. Yet Gioia’s binary opposition paints with quite broad brushstrokes. If fiction is inherently “conceptual,” then we might ask in return, what standards of judgement, precisely, separate this “periphery” and “center”? In Gioia’s terms, several 20th/21st-century major novels of the “center” fall under “conceptual fiction,” from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (1939) to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) to Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987).
What the first section of Gioia’s essay demonstrates, then, is the instability of its terms and the simplicity and broad assumptions of its binary oppositions and categories of valuation. The bad criticism starts immediately, raising suspicions about whatever follows.
Section 2Gioia then poses two provocative questions, in the sense that they are good questions to ask regarding specifically the status of SF&F today in view of mainstream literature, but also suffer from his restrictive assumptions about realism. First, Gioia asks, “How important is realism in storytelling today?” Second, he asks, “Is it possible that even the novel -- the serious novel -- is now falling out of the gravitational pull of realism?”
To answer the first question, Gioia deflates realism’s supposed centrality and dominance by referring to the highest grossing Hollywood films of all time, for which he sees only seven films qualifying as strict realism (and that seven is a stretch when including films such as The Titanic and Jaws). “Storytelling,” therefore, encompasses all genres and mediums, which is fine, except that Gioia directs his attention in the essay pretty much exclusively to the novel. As well, this difference between the wider, commercial dominance of non-realist (or, conceptual?) fiction in our popular culture and the ideological centrality of realist/naturalist fiction is nothing new.
In the Victorian period, the top two best selling novels for the 19th century were Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) and Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861), both known as “sensation fiction”; other best sellers of the period include Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and the scientific romances of H.G. Wells (1890s). In the late 18th and early 19th century, original “romances” comprised the popular literature of the day, written by the likes of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Southey, and Byron; Scott, furthermore, made his European fame from his historical romances, together known as the Waverley novels (beginning in 1814 with Waverley). Into the 20th century, many of the recognized most important novels (outside the bounds of SF&F strictly considered) are not exclusively realist and aim to “play” with and problematize realism: Joyce, Rushdie, and Morrison I mention above; we might also add Marquez (One Thousand Years of Solitude), Fowles (The French Lieutenant’s Woman), Kafka, Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow), Byatt (Possession), and so forth.
Tensions between realism as socially acceptable and forms of romance as socially troubling certainly do have a history, at least since the Victorian period when we see novels divided into genres. Yet the situation as Gioia would have it is not so firmly demarcated. More correctly, since the novel’s beginnings in the early 18th century, realism and romance (or, Gioia’s “conceptual fiction”) have always shaded into each other.
For Gioia’s second question, therefore, we can see that its assumptions do not necessarily fit an accurate picture of the current state of fiction. I understand that Gioia wants to satirize the (mainstream) institutions of publishing, reviewing, and reception by deflating the idea of the “serious novel” as found only in realist/naturalist fiction, and that by doing so he thereby wants to claim conceptual fiction as “serious,” too. Once again, though, if we accept that fiction (in the form of the novel) has always played with our conception of reality, no matter the genre or the judgements of critics, then his question’s assumptions unravel. “Serious” becomes a rather specious category of valuation in Gioia’s hands. His aim to dissolve or reverse the separation(s) between the “serious” and “conceptual,” in defense of the latter, finally proves limited and slightly dishonest.
Gioia would do well, perhaps, to look at Mikhail M. Bakhtin’s “Discourse in the Novel” (1934). Here, Bakhtin argues persuasively that the novel reflects social reality: the multiplicity and dynamism of the voices and languages that form the basic stylistics of the novel (as differentiated from poetry and drama) represent the multiplicity and dynamism of voices and languages in our everyday lives -- high and lower class, business and sports, French or English or Spanish, politics and law, westerns and mysteries, and so forth. Bakhtin sees the novel as essentially a subversive form, because its fundamental dynamism (what Bakhtin calls its “heteroglossia” and “dialogism”) resists those forces that seek to centralize, unify, and so stabilize language (or truth, culture, history). Any novel thus plays with our conceptions of reality by reminding us that reality is never a closed, resolved, finished thing. Some of the most “serious” novels do this by means of romance, fantasy, speculation, extrapolation, if not also by their self-conscious playing with language itself (Joyce and Woolf’s “stream of consciousness,” for instance).
Section 3All that said, the first really serious problem with Gioia’s essay appears in the third section, where his historical claims are marred by error.
He begins the third section by suggesting that writers of “the middle decades of the 20th century” were valued for how they “experimented with language”: writers such as James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Ezra Pound. Gioia needs to get his decades right. Joyce (d. 1941) wrote his most important works well before the 1950s and 1960s (Ulysses in 1922; Finnegan’s Wake in 1939); Faulkner (d. 1962) published his most significant work in the 1920s and 1930s (The Sound and the Fury in 1929; As I Lay Dying in 1930; Sanctuary in 1931; Absalom, Absalom! in 1937); Pound’s (d. 1972) most relevant poetry appeared between 1908 and the mid-1940s. Furthermore, Gioia reduces their work to mere experimentation with language, conveniently avoiding the fact that such experimentation involved a reconceptualizing of reality, truth, identity, history, and so on -- experimentation that influenced a range of subsequent novelists and their play with our conceptions of reality. These “highbrow writers,” in any case, were valued by the “highbrow circles” of awards and university courses, apparently at the expense of “conceptual” writers.
Gioia compounds the historical error by then stating that SF&F authors of the same (mistakenly identified) period “sold in huge quantities and developed a zealous following among readers.” SF&F (or, conceptual) works in the early 20th century lived almost exclusively in pulp magazines, and so they could never have “sold in huge quantities,” though they definitely enjoyed “zealous … readers.” Even if we go to the middle of the 20th century proper, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was predominantly an underground, college-based phenomenon. Gioia’s idea of “commercial success” thus needs to be highly qualified as a counter-point to the “highbrow” acceptance of Joyce & Co.
This turn to “commercial success” also damages Gioia’s terms for valuing conceptual fiction of the time. Here, we see a key point in Gioia’s essay: conceptual fiction is significant more for its “different ways of conceptualizing reality” than for its “experiment[s] with sentences.” In other words, conceptual fiction’s relevance resides in its ideas, not its literary artistry. The latter, though, does not exclude the former, even if Gioia would have us believe otherwise; yet the former without the latter will and always should suffer. (Hence we have the New Wave movement in SF during the late 1960s and early 1970s, with writers such as Moorcock and Le Guin challenging SF to take advantage of the burgeoning postmodernist experimentations with language and form and so give SF greater aesthetic legitimacy). I know that Isaac Asimov’s place in the history of SF&F is sacrosanct, but as a literary artist he pales next to Joyce or Faulkner or Woolf or Graham Greene (some of his “highbrow,” near contemporaries).
Section 4Gioia's historical errors and misrepresentations continue when writes, “literature in the late 20th and early 21st century failed to follow in the footsteps of Joyce and Pound.” Instead, Gioia argues, “conceptual fiction came to the fore” as writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, José Saramago, Margaret Atwood, and Kazuo Ishiguro “focused on literary metaphysics” -- where “sentences stayed the same as they always were, but the ‘reality’ they described was subject to modification, distortion and enhancement.” This is another form of Gioia’s distinction between ideas and literary artistry. It is also severely reductive and misinformed.
Marquez, Rushdie, Saramago, Atwood, Ishiguro, Ballard, and Calvino (to add a couple more writers from Gioia’s canon of conceptual fiction) “follow” directly in the “footsteps” of Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, Flann O’Brien, and others. Those earlier, Modernist experimentations with language and reality opened the door for the later, postmodernist experimentations with language and reality. To reduce Marquez or Rushdie or Atwood to the level of ideas while in the same breath suggesting that they did little new or different with the language that expresses those ideas is a willfull, selective blindness. Such a position can never hold up under the microscope of good, historically aware, insightful criticism. Moreover, writers such as Marquez, Rushdie, and Atwood are consistently lauded by and crucial to the “highbrow” machinery of awards, criticism, and universities that Gioia dismisses as oblivious to conceptual, “lowbrow,” commercial fiction.
Section 5The project of promoting “literary metaphysics” and downplaying literary aesthetics continues as Gioia tries to demonstrate that Cormac McCarthy, José Saramago, and Toni Morrison have followed “in the footsteps” of SF conventions and plots or used the “ingredients” of the horror novel. For Gioia, the problem is that critics are “blissfully ignorant that anything [is] amiss,” too easily swayed by “commercial considerations.”
Gioia fails to acknowledge that since at least the late 18th century, “commercial considerations” have been fundamental to the categorization and success of novels. Publishers’ advertisements, travelling and select libraries, distribution channels, censorship laws, reviewers, and the like all participated in popularizing or demonizing novels. True, distinctions between “serious” literature and “genre” fiction are, as Gioia says, effectively “arbitrary” constructs of the market. Still, Gioia relies upon the distinctions as much as he tries to dismantle them, for he casts McCarthy, Saramago, and Morrison as following “in the footsteps of genre fiction,” belatedly borrowing “genre” plots, conventions, and tropes. It’s a matter of precedence for Gioia: genre fiction did it first; “serious” and “highbrow” writers come later, and the critics hide the truth about these writers’ “pulp fiction predecessors.” What Gioia hides, though, is the fact that, in the end, genre divisions -- as much as they might be arbitrary -- are incredibly fluid and constantly shifting, and they always have been.
I do, however, wish to address specifically Gioia’s discussion of Morrison’s Beloved as in essence a horror novel. He writes, “no one would dare compare it to a horror novel -- even though it has all of the key ingredients.” In the first part of his statement, Gioia is correct; in the second part, not so much. Beloved can be said to contain elements of what we tend to associate with horror novels, yet I believe Gioia is facetious in his argument that Morrison follows in the footsteps of genre fiction. Horror as a particular genre with an agreed upon set of conventions is really a creation of the late 1970s and 1980s, beginning with Stephen King’s Carrie (1974) and developed by an increasingly intimate relationship between novels and films. Traditionally, horror functions more properly as a mood or atmosphere, making it not so much a genre unto itself but instead a set of tropes geared toward the uncomfortable, dark, unhappy, and disturbingly supernatural aspects of human experience. Morrison clearly works within this more traditional sense of horror, drawing from African-American folklore and the Gothic before she ever turns to Stephen King and Nightmare on Elm Street. Besides, spirits and hauntings were part of fiction long before horror appeared on the scene.
Gioia pulls a similar manoeuvre with Saramago, putting the plot of his novel Blindness (1995) in a derivative position compared to Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969) and Greg Bear’s Blood Music (1985). Can Gioia prove that Saramago read Crichton and Bear before penning Blindness? Does he want to imply that Saramago, considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century by some, is no better than Crichton and Bear? Plots, like ideas, are a dime a dozen. What separates Saramago from much of commercial conceptual fiction is the same quality that separates Morrison from much of genre horror: intent and literary artistry. As much as Gioia valiantly wants to remove the “taint” from SF&F and expose the “charade” of genre divisions, he only reinforces both in a criticism that relies upon unstable, unsupportable conditions of precedence and value.
Section 6As he proceeds in his essay, Gioia intriguingly starts to leave behind “conceptual fiction” for the specific terms of science fiction and fantasy, showing us what precisely he means by “conceptual fiction,” which is thus a limiting category just like “serious fiction” or “realism.” More particularly, Gioia reveals the cornerstone of his critical valuation of SF&F novels in the sixth section: “The only promises these works made were to astound and delight us.” Gioia sees this “focus on surprising and delighting readers” as further proof of conceptual fiction’s primacy, with “‘serious writers’ … borrowing from [the] scorned writers who existed at the fringes of the literary world.” Yet just as with his faulty terminology and historical inaccuracies, Gioia’s grounds for critical valuation prove limited by an incomplete understanding of their implications.
Gioia’s “astound and delight” conveniently glosses over the fact that this sort of valuation has been applied to literature (and art generally) at least as far back as Horace’s Ars Poetica (c. 18 BCE). There, Horace counsels that poetry certainly must “delight” the audience, but it should also instruct. Sir Philip Sydney picks up the matter in his Defense of Poesy (1581/1595), where he argues that poetry teaches precisely because it delights. For both Horace and Sydney, though, delight must never be sacrificed to skill; or, put another way, a poet cannot delight without artistry. This sort of criticism has been rethought in various ways throughout history, especially in the debates during the 19th century (and into today) about the benefits and dangers of reading novels. Bad writing is bad writing; bad plotting is bad plotting (going back to Aristotle’s Poetics). Readers will turn away from bad writing and bad plotting whether the novel is SF&F or “serious,” no matter how original the reconceptualizing of reality. What hinders much SF&F are bad writing and plotting, and inattention to artistry. Only astounding and delighting readers with (re)conceptualizations of reality is not enough to attain the status of “serious” literature, for there must be skill with language. I would humbly suggest that a large part of why Tolkien enjoys such popularity and cultural significance results from his artistry more than his “literary metaphysics” -- an appreciation that takes time to develop, as with all great literary works.
As I see it, one key fault of Gioia’s position is that he relies upon a one-way relationship between “serious” and “conceptual” novels, the former trailing behind and so borrowing from the latter in a constantly derivative yet unannounced process. Owing to much theoretical and critical work since the 1960s, we know that relationships and boundaries between genres (and even mediums and medias) are permeable, multiple, critical, interpretive, and evolving. Michel Foucault, for instance, writes in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972), “The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network.” Why Gioia does not take advantage of such thinking also to explore how lowbrow, genre, commercial, conceptual fiction borrows from and follows in the footsteps of “serious” fiction, I am not sure. (I notice that writers such as Roger Zelazny and Dan Simmons do not find a place in Gioia’s reading list of conceptual fiction.)
Ultimately, Gioia values conceptual fiction almost in a negative way, entrenching SF&F’s sort of troubled Oedipal relationship with mainstream, serious, supposedly predominantly realist literature with the same terms and ideological assumptions of that which he critiques. Doing so only lessens the potential of SF&F to be taken seriously. If all texts, genres, conventions, tropes, and books are “node[s] within a network,” intertextuality is a basic condition of fiction, and so there is no precedence or primacy or belatedness (as Gioia structures things). This is good for SF&F, as it offers a more viable position from which to argue to its literary and cultural importance.
Section 8The most intriguing critical manoeuvre Gioia makes in the essay arrives when he takes anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s distinction between “thick” and “thin” descriptions of cultures and applies it to SF&F. In the sort of world-building and subcreative otherworlds we find in Tolkien or Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) or J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts, Gioia suggests we have “thick ethnographies of the imagination.” With “thin” stories, comprising serious and realist/naturalist novels of course, authors and readers can “take context for granted,” whereas “thick” stories must create that context.
At first blush, I can get on board with Gioia here. I like that Gioia identifies the world-building of Tolkien, Herbert, and Rowling as “artistry.” Once more, though, Gioia engages in bad criticism and compromises his position.
Before long, Gioia returns to his binary oppositions and broad assumptions. He opposes the “literary writer,” “traditional narrative,” and “research” of “thin” fiction to the “grand leaps of imagination” of “thick” fiction such as Tolkien or Rowling. Gioia must know he is trying to pull the proverbial wool over his reader’s eyes. Does he truly wish to argue that Scott’s recreation of 1745 Scotland in Waverley involves no imaginative leaps? Or what of Rushdie’s India of 1947 in Midnight’s Children? Does he truly wish to avoid the research into linguistics, folklore, myth, and geography Tolkien needed for Middle-Earth? What of Herbert’s research on deserts? Guy Gavriel Kay, writer of alternate history fantasy, engages in extensive research for his novels not just to recreate the familiar context of, say, the Byzantine Empire (in The Sarantine Mosaic duology), but to know in which ways he can plausibly defamiliarize that context. Then again, just how familiar is the time of the 500s CE? As Kay has said, the historical record is always incomplete, especially the further back one goes in the past, and so history, like fiction, relies upon hypothesis, speculation, guesswork, imagination.
Let’s look specifically at Gioia’s comments on Rowling. He includes Rowling’s “magically-charged variant on contemporary Britain” among his pantheon of “thick” fiction and “grand leaps of imagination.” If “thick” fiction relies upon the creation of “a powerful context” for the story, something fashioned solely out of the imagination, then what are we to do with that “variant on contemporary Britain” part of Rowling’s series? Much of the ingenuity and excitement of the Harry Potter books, rather, derives from the irony of a familiar Britain (in terms of geography, social institutions, and cultural mores) set alongside a mostly unfamiliar magical Britain -- and I write “mostly,” because Rowling’s magical Britain includes a great deal of familiar things of myth and folklore (dragons, centaurs, giants, wizards, flying broomsticks, and so on), which become exciting precisely for the ways in which Rowling ingeniously plays on our familiarity with them. “Context,” therefore, is not just about historical and social details. (We could make similar arguments for Middle-Earth, which Tolkien clearly intimates is our long-ago world in The Lord of the Rings, and which functions based on much that is part of our context, such as the names of months and seasons.)
If Tolkien, Herbert, and Rowling are dismissed by so-called “highbrow critics” as “poorly written books” read by the stupid “masses,” then I agree with Gioia that we must scrutinize the reasons for such dismissals. We should not, however, do so by replicating the prejudices of those critics. Otherwise, we risk committing the same offenses of exclusion, faulty precedence, and historical misrepresentation.
Section 10Unfortunately, Gioia ends where perhaps he should have begun his essay. His final section proffers the most cogent criticism of the essay, for I think many of us would agree that the “masterworks” of SF&F deserve reassessment, “new reading[s],” “re-evaluation,” and rehabilitation, that we should “understand our current literary environment” by including the important SF&F novels instead of marginalizing them as genre fiction.
This reassessment is already underway, I wish to suggest, as critics and theorists do treat SF&F within the context of postmodernism (e.g., refer to Frederic Jameson’s comments on William Gibson’s Neuromancer and cyberpunk), and more doctoral dissertations are including SF&F works. As well, we are seeing SF&F arguing boldly for its place alongside canonical, serious, highbrow, literary works by appropriating, adapting, and reinterpreting those works: see Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos, Ilium/Olympos duology, and recently released Drood; see also Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. In other words, SF&F is more purposefully and energetically participating in Foucault’s “network” of intertextuality and Bakhtin’s heteroglossia. Furthermore, SF&F today represents an incredibly vibrant literature of experimentation with language and narrative.
ConclusionI stated at the beginning that Gioia’s heart is in the right place. As I have shown, however, his execution suffers, primarily because his terms of judgement prove restrictive, suspect, and even inaccurate.
If we are to reread and rehabilitate SF&F’s “masterworks” in the wider context of modern literature, we must be cautious about criticism such as Gioia’s and its unsound binary oppositions and hierarchies, historical misunderstandings, and sweeping assumptions. Specifically, we must be wary of a criticism that would value SF&F (or, conceptual fiction) almost solely for the artistry and imaginative thickness of its ideas and “substance” at the expense of the artistry and imaginative reach of its language.
The “masterworks” of SF&F should at the last stand on their own as great literature, not just as exemplary works of genre, and re-evaluating them in such a light requires the tools of interpretation found within the serious, highbrow, literary structures of valuation that Gioia rather glibly discounts as “snobbery”: theory and criticism; rigorous academic questioning; the rethinking of literary canons, and so forth -- not to mention the passage of time.
(We should not forget that in their day Shakespeare and Dickens were considered popular entertainment, and only after years of rereading and reinterpretation did they achieve the status of canonical, serious literature. The same process is now benefitting writers such as H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, and William Gibson, with more to follow I’m sure.)
CODA: One of the links on Gioia’s Conceptual Fiction web site leads to another of his sites, called The New Canon. Gioia explains the New Canon as “great works of fiction published since 1985” and the “finest literature of the current era.” Fair enough, and any such list can certainly be debated ad infinitum, though 1985 does feel a tad arbitrary (Neuromancer, for instance, doesn’t make the cut, published in 1984). Gioia, however, undermines the authority of his New Canon by the inclusion of Anne Patchett’s Bel Canto. In no way whatsoever can or should this novel be treated as one of the “new classics of our time” and put in the same company as Morrison’s Beloved, Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Byatt’s Possession, or Ondaatje’s The English Patient (all of them also on Gioia’s list). Patchett’s novel never attains the real artistry, philosophical weight, and imaginative power of these other novels, even if Gioia, in his review of it, admires the way it resists clichés and readers’ expectations and lionizes it with descriptors such as artful, exquisite, beautiful, rich, profound. Bel Canto, rather, is poorly written, overwrought, and unable to discover its true story and central characters until about three quarters of the way in. I seriously doubt that time will improve Bel Canto; rather, time will push it steadily into the shadows of forgotten books. Just another reason to approach Gioia’s critical acumen with caution -- even if, again, his heart is in the right place.