Monday, January 25, 2010

Genres of Fiction, and Why They Aren't Discrete Entities

There's an interesting conversation about genre that's happening at one of the other blogs I write for, Big Other.

A. D. Jameson writes:

I love genre, because genres are basically conventions. They’re expectations that both authors and readers (and editors, and sales people) bring to a text—suggestions as to what should be inside, and how it should be arranged. And I dearly love conventions, because they’re the very stuff of communication, and of artistic structure—whether we’re obeying them, or departing from them.

I’ve never really understood what some people mean when they talk about “exploding genres” and “writing between genres,” and so forth, because I myself can think of very little writing that is pure genre. Most literature that I read—even the more conventional things—already exist between multiple genres.

Consider The Lord of the Rings.

On the one hand, it’s a “pure” example of contemporary fantasy fiction. Right? Hell, it’s the cornerstone of contemporary fantasy fiction. And it definitely is fantasy fiction... [b]ut when we look even more closely, we find that Tolkien’s writing contains traces of other genres. It’s contemporary fantasy, to be sure, but it’s also heavily inspired by Norse mythology, Old English and Middle English literature, German Romanticism, and Victorian children’s literature. Tolkien synthesized these various interests to craft a new kind of fantasy literature that differs from, say, fairy tales.

He goes on to consider the power we give genre distinctions, and how they are popularly separated into high and low art, when in practice people take part in both:

Now, if you’re still with me, a few words about “high” and “low” art in regards to genre. As I mentioned in my first post at this site, T.S. Eliot stole lines from Sherlock Holmes stories while writing the inspiration for the musical Cats—deal with it, lit snobs. As Jeremy M. Davies then pointed out, more Holmes snuck into Murder in the Cathedral. Wittgenstein, around the same time, was sneaking out of Cambridge to watch bad Western flicks. It’s not just postmodernists like Pynchon and Acker who find joy—and inspiration—in popular art.

It works the other way, too, he notes, finding traces of Milton's "high art" in Tolkein's fantasy.

Later, in comments, Jameson talks more about the power dynamics between "genre" and "literary" fiction:

“Literary fiction” is what I’d call a super-genre that pretends, a la Derrida and Foucault, to not be a genre at all. It calls other things genres to subordinate them, and to deny its own genre elements. Which is what the ruling power usually does: it calls itself nothing (other than normal or correct), and calls everything else something.

I have argued that genre disctinctions aren't useless -- they are ways of signaling expectations to readers, and establishing reading conventions, and all that is great. I think the problem comes when we start reifying genre and assuming that the barriers between genres are somehow real and important barriers, rather than being useful human constructions that can be argued over and negotiated.

Genre is a tool. It's not a prophecy.

I am always disappointed when I see people using it as the latter. Yes, it happened to me occasionally in the academy. Here's an anecdote from an acquaintance:

He walked into the workshop as a prospective student, having been accepted, so that he could attend a class and decide whether or not she wanted to complete the program. When current students asked what he wrote about, he told them he was writing a novel about the beginning of the world, taking apart and reassembling creation myths. One student sneered. "We don't do fantasy here."*

And an anecdote from myself:

When interviewing at a different MFA program, I told the program director that I wrote science fiction. "Oh, we can't help you with that," he said. "We don't know how to read or critique that sort of thing."

"Really?" I asked. "What if I told you I write like Margaret Atwood?"

"Oh, feminist science fiction," he said. "Well, that's not really science fiction at all, is it?"

Of course it is science fiction. I've had that experience more than once, though. When I submitted my near future science fiction story, "A Monkey Will Never Be Rid of Its Black Hands," to a literary workshop, a fellow student turned to me in consternation. "Why is this science fiction? It's so believable."

It was at this point that I realized I was dealing with cognitive dissonance. What seems to be going on is that people have defined science fiction as bad, and so if they are confronted with good science fiction -- which they perceive as a contradiction in terms -- then it must either be redefined as not-good or not-science-fiction. The latter often wins. So Atwood is not science fiction; believable future tales are not science fiction; whatever you like, it's not science fiction. Or it is science fiction, but it's an exception. Or it is science fiction, but the writer who wrote it is literary, so it doesn't count. You get the point.

These things happen. It's frustrating. I commiserate with all the stories that science fiction readers and writers have of being dismissed by those with academic or literary power.

But it turns out that we, too, are capable of using genre as a prophecy instead of as a tool, as in this post at Calling people who like literary fiction mundanes? Referring to all literary fiction as boring stuff that no one reads? It's ridiculous, immature, and inaccurate. If I psychoanalyze the lit snob reaction as cognitive dissonance, then I must psychoanalyze this as an inferiority complex. Neither is dignified.

As Jameson points out, there are no real, concrete walls between "genre" and "literary" fiction. The two are always in conversation. There is Milton in Tolkein. There is Holmes in Murder in the Cathedral. As Mamatas writes in the thread at, the relationship between genre fiction and literary fiction is "more hole than wall. They are already interconnected."

Or, as the owner of this blog wrote over there:

This circular, raised-every-few-months-or-years debate, largely supported by general anecdotal evidence by those on both side[s] tends to waste energy to little purpose while turning so-called genre writers/institutions/subcultures and so-called literary writers/institutions/subcultures into little more than caricatures and straw men.

*Various details changed to obscure the student's identity.


Emma Pooka said...

I found the Margaret Atwood anecdote particularly amusing, since she's so often declined to be called an SF writer or a feminist. This doesn't change for a moment the fact that she writes feminist SF - it's the readers who get to categorise and define the text, not the writer.

People are so afraid of labels, whether literary or political, as if defining one aspect of our writing and politics somehow limited us. I see these labels as stickers on the writer's metaphorical suitcase rather than visa stamps in her passport - they give an indication of where she's been and the kind of places she likes to go, not who she is and what zones she's restricted to.

claire said...

My MFA thesis advisor told me that my novel, which takes place on a mining colony on Mars and involves two kinds of aliens, plus FTL technology, wasn't really science fiction b/c it was well written. Argh.

But actually, when I tell lit snobs these days that I write sf (then cringe in anticipation) they look more titillated than disgusted. I'm still trying to figure out what is so salaciously interesting about me writing sf. Is it just the exoticism?

Rachel Swirsky said...

'I'm still trying to figure out what is so salaciously interesting about me writing sf. Is it just the exoticism?'

i think the new generation of lit writers (say 30 and under, maybe 35?) are much more interested in sf than their peers. i think they are excited because they like sf work, they have consumed some, and they want to see good sf and cross-pollination. i think it's possible that what i call cornfield fiction may not be the dominant, unmarked model for our whole lifetimes.

Athena Andreadis said...

Ghettoizing literature is a bad idea for both writers and readers. Here's my contribution to the topic:

SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

P. S. Ms. Swirsky, as a Greek I found your story of Iphigeneia very interesting. No anachronisms, no heavy handedness and the myths and archetypes are sensitively and knowledgeably handled.

Rachel Swirsky said...

Thanks, Athena. I appreciate that very much.