Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Lois McMaster Bujold Talks about Genre

Lois McMaster Bujold has posted her Worldcon Guest of Honor Speech here. In it she offers some interesting thoughts about genre(s). To start with, I certainly find her definition of "genre" congenial:

Although I don't dare a definition for our genres specifically, I do have a definition for genres generally. To my mind, a genre is "any group of works in close conversation with one another". I like this definition for its inclusiveness -- because there are genres in painting and architecture and music and a host of other human arts as well. This is also a working definition with the emphasis on the working part, genre from the creators' point of view.

There is a second definition of genre, from the reader's point of view, which may be described as a "community of taste", closely allied to but not quite the same as the first. Writers by nature have a foot in both camps, creator and audience -- we do not go into the sometimes-maddening trade of writing because we are indifferent to books, but because we are ravished by them.

There is yet a third definition for genre, confused, as are many terms in the English language, by being attached to the same word, which is: genre as a marketing category, signified by all those labeled sections in the bookstore. Such labels had to be invented as soon as there became too many books for any one person to sort through in a reasonable amount of time, which turns out to be longer ago than I'd thought -- certainly well back into the 19th Century, and possibly as little as 15 minutes after Mr. Gutenberg's invention. These categories are a welcome and necessary convenience, when they aren't perceived as more than that. But when genre labels in this sense start being used as counters in status games, or become walls dividing readers from books rather than doors leading to them, such labels can become toxic.

And, she notes:

Our genre conversation is a chaotic system, full of weird covert feedback loops and odd links to outside forces. Any idea of consciously directing it to some utilitarian end seems as wrong-headed to me as the notion of the writer as the heroic lone creator, a picture held and advanced by many non-writers, which is an outright lie, and evil insofar as it is taught to children. I know of no writer or other artist anywhere who hasn't come out of some context of other artists and a supporting community, with its own conversation -- or argument -- even though those contexts are usually edited out of the historical picture for simplicity. And I have deep misgivings about various attempts to rank art by its social utility. So while I may applaud for style various earnest attempts to direct Movements in SF, I have no belief that they will ever succeed in getting this herd of cats to the railhead in Abilene. And anyway, I was heading to Albuquerque. (Yes, that is a Bugs Bunny reference, for any who were in doubt.)

A bit more unexpectedly, Bujold advances this interesting claim, which she situates as flowing from her recent experience of writing a blend of Romance and SF:

There are indeed problems for this Odd Couple partnership between SF and Romance, but subtly not, or not only, the ones I necessarily thought. I certainly learned some lessons about how genre boundaries are maintained not only by publishers but by their readerships. And I'd long been aware of our genres' allergy to the domestic, with rare exceptions like the stories of Zenna Henderson. But it also brought up an element I'd actually played with in my earlier SF, about the peculiar tensions in Our Stuff between the personal and the political.

I expected to learn a lot about romance through writing one, and I did. I was more surprised to learn something new to me about fantasy and science fiction -- which is how profoundly, intensely, relentlessly political most of the stories in these genres are. The politics may be archaic or modern, fringe or realistic, naive or subtle, optimistic or dire, but by gum the characters had better be centrally engaged with them, for some extremely varied values of "engaged". Even the world-building itself is often a political argument. And, oh boy, are the political aspects of the fiction ever valorized in the reviews. I had not noticed this the way a fish does not notice water. Only when I'd stepped onto the shore of the neighboring genre and breathed a contrasting air did I discover there even could be a difference -- and what a difference it was.

Romance and SF seemed to occupy two different focal planes, to steal another metaphor, this time from photography. For any plot to stay central, nothing else in the book can be allowed to be more important. So romance books carefully control the scope of any attending plot, so as not to overshadow its central concern, that of building a relationship between the key couple, one that will stand the test of time and be, in whatever sense, fruitful. This also explains some SF's addiction to various end-of-the-world plots, for surely nothing could be more important than that, which conveniently allows the book to dismiss all other possible concerns, social, personal, or other. (Nice card trick, that, but now I've seen it slipped up the sleeve I don't think it'll work on me anymore.)

In fact, if romances are fantasies of love, and mysteries are fantasies of justice, I would now describe much SF as fantasies of political agency. All three genres also may embody themes of personal psychological empowerment, of course, though often very different in the details, as contrasted by the way the heroines "win" in romances, the way detectives "win" in mysteries, and the way, say, young male characters "win" in adventure tales. But now that I've noticed the politics in SF, they seem to be everywhere, like packs of little yapping dogs trying to savage your ankles. Not universally, thank heavens -- there are wonderful lyrical books such as The Last Unicorn or other idiosyncratic tales that escape the trend. But certainly in the majority of books, to give the characters significance in the readers' eyes means to give them political actions, with "military" read here as a sub-set of political.

Comments, anyone?


Eileen Gunn said...

I think this is nicely observed, for some definitions of "politics."

Eleanor said...

Interesting. I think of SF is about the relation of people and societies to technology, which can get you very quickly to Marxist discussions of modes of production, economics and politics.

But yes, I think Lois is right that SF writers are fascinated by politics (often bad or stupid politics) and by political process.

Can you talk about science, technology and change and not talk about politics in some form?

Kevrob said...

I thought Bugs was trying to get to pismo Beach....

Kevrob said...

I thought Bugs was trying to get to Pismo Beach.