We Need to Talk About Genre | Individuality vs Community

Argument: We divide fiction up in genres because of our chronic fear of loneliness.

I’m invested in this question, which is evidenced by my foolhardy effort to write a parallel-narrative novella incorporating both the fairy tale idiom and the very ‘real’ world, as well as my attempt at getting at what that multi-faceted mongrel genre ‘the New Weird’ is all about for a Master’s dissertation.

But first, some (recent) observations on the matter from more articulate and well-versed people than myself.

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  1. Ursula K. Le Guin’s speech at this year’s National Book Awards

“I rejoice at accepting [the award] for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

“I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.”

 

  1.  ‘A Better Way to Think About Genre’ by Joshua Rothman (New Yorker)
Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye

“It’s tempting to think that we might do without these kinds of distinctions altogether. Why not just let books be books? The thing is that genre doesn’t have to be vexing. It can be illuminating. It can be useful for writers and readers to think in terms of groups and traditions. And a good genre system—a system that really fits reality—can help us see the traditions in which we’re already, unconsciously, immersed. As it happens, there is such a system: it was invented by the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye, and laid out in his 1957 masterwork, Anatomy of Criticism.”

  1.  The Real Mr. Difficult, or Why Cthulhu Threatens to Destroy the Canon, Self-Interested Literary Essayists, and the Universe Itself. Finally. by Nick Mamatas (Los Angeles Review of Books)
A young HP Lovecraft

A young HP Lovecraft

“Lovecraft’s quality is obscured by his difficulty, and his difficulty is obscured by his popularity. If Lovecraft isn’t seen as a difficult writer, it is because of the pulp idiom in which he worked. [Jonathan] Franzen points to college as the place where people are made to read difficult books, but Lovecraft is an adolescent fascination. Lovecraft demands the careful attention that only a teen boy with little else to do – no high school romances, no sports practice – can muster. Lovecraft’s pulp provenance, and early spike by Edmund Wilson, kept Lovecraft’s work from being taken seriously. Only over the past twenty years, with reprint volumes via Penguin Classics and Library of America, with champions such as Michel Houellebecq and Reza Negarestani has Lovecraft earned a place in what we used to call the canon (while making quotation marks in the air with our fingers, notch).”

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These are all problems that have been burning at my brain in some form of another for as long as I can remember (slight exaggeration, but it certainly feels that way). Because I take this very seriously for whatever reason – friends and family who know me intimately can feel free to psychoanalyze away – I’m driven to find an evolutionary root to our need to divide up literature into genres, and then argue about it endlessly.

Cards on the table: if I’m a follower of any critical school on this front at all, I’m a follower of Frye’s. His organic view of genre both suits my needs as a writer and provides me with an inclusive argument about genre that, ostensibly, short-circuits going-nowhere binary arguments on the issue. Also, there’s a pervasive paradox in the way I process this whole thing: I hate the idea of genre as segregation, but I don’t want us to do away with recognizing genres, because there’s an aesthetic pleasure in picking out what belongs to which tradition.

That Edgar Allan Poe influenced Lovecraft who in turn influenced Ridley Scott and Stuart Gordon and Caitlin R. Kiernan and Nick Mamatas and Cradle of Filth and countless others, and that the details stolen from Lovecraft by each of these artists are traceable to Lovecraft but still distinct, and that this intertextual richness evokes a kind of hopeful reminder of the prodigious human imagination, as it stretches across generations.

But on a more universal note, I will suggest that genre stems from a combined need for both INDIVIDUALITY and COMMUNITY. In this pantomime debate between the ‘literary mainstream’ and the ‘genre community’, the literary side is ‘clubby’ in the original sense of the word: the domain of an elite that gatekeeps itself into a privileged minority, with all the attendant ‘real world’ social implications of that.

While the ‘genre’ community, on the other hand, is seen as a regressive ‘cult’ circle that turns its back on the ‘real world’ in favour of a vacuum-sealed aesthetic that often favours the tried and tested over any attempts at current social commentary or formal innovation (perhaps the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is an iconic example).

But this perception – the pantomime is very much a perception – is made doubly complicated by the fact that we’re discussing works of art here. Leaving aside value judgements of the individual works of art in question, the reason why the genre debate will never settle into a peaceful resolution is because we’re asking the works of individuals to answer to the needs of a community, however large and nebulous this community may be.

There will always be mavericks, trailblazers, and ‘exceptions to the rule’. But even declaring that the mavericks are all that you like places you in a double bind: each maverick will have their influences, and in each influence – much like Lovecraft’s fish-god mongrels from Innsmouth – lies a genetic code that can’t be denied, and which ties back to a tradition.

Traditions are what genre is built on, and tradition will be something not even the most opaque of ‘literary’ fiction would be able to deny… strain as it might for originality and freedom from market constraints and critical labels.

We all want to be ourselves, but none of us want to be lonely.

READ RELATED: Getting it Ass-Backwards: The Genre Binary at LonCon

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‘Writing is too much fun’ | Jim Crace

Jim Crace at a press conference at the University of Malta earlier this month. Crace will be Writer in Residence there until December 19

Jim Crace at a press conference at the University of Malta earlier this month. Crace will be Writer in Residence there until December 19

My interview with novelist Jim Crace was picked up by the Man Booker Prize’s website this week. The acclaimed British author is currently holding court at the University of Malta – my alma mater – where he will be stationed as Writer in Residence and erstwhile mentor to local authors until December 19.

I’m very excited to form part of the intimate gathering of Malta-based writers who’ll be receiving advice and encouragement from Crace in the coming weeks. Initial meetings have certainly been morale-boosters. For a decorated novelist with a long and illustrious career behind him, Crace is as unassuming as they come, and it’s also refreshing to see him express a genuine interest in Malta, contrary to the tokenistic praise – delivered in press-friendly soundbites – by other celebrity visitors.

Here is what the Man Booker people had to say about all this:

Jim Crace, twice a Man Booker shortlistee, has been talking in Malta, where he is currently writer in residence at the university of Malta, about why he reversed his decision not to write another novel, and he credits, in part, the Man Booker itself. ‘I honestly wasn’t expecting to get shortlisted for the Man Booker again,’ he said about his 2013 shortlisting for Harvest. ‘Really, I thought that I was coming to the tail end of my career and just writing books for myself, essentially … but then along comes Harvest … and my career just bounced back again. Suddenly, what was gradually quieting down was even noisier than it ever was.’ This is good news for his legion of admirers. It is good to know that the prize can, while it can’t cure flu or the ageing process, nevertheless can have such a curative effect. Crace admitted another motivation too: ‘Ultimately the real reason why I returned to writing was simple: it’s just too much fun not to do it.’

Click here to read the full piece

Click here to read my interview with Jim Crace

What We Do In Shadows | The Internet and Optimism

Reading revolution: Let's opt for long-form articles over listsicles

Reading revolution: Let’s opt for long-form articles over listsicles

The churn of world news as fuelled by social media is the ultimate form of contemporary escapism. All the more so because it’s insidious: you think you’re engaging with the world at large by posting a link to the latest piece of news hysteria (with an accompanying slice of commentary of your own) but what’s really happening is that you’re simply enabling a vicious cycle to keep spinning.

Vacuous listsicles are part of the problem, yes, but the real threat, I think, are polemical think-pieces such as this one. All they enable are hearty rants – an automatic indignation that fizzles out soon enough, to be replaced by the next carefully-curated injustice to appear on our screens.

The virtual podium of social media has made us believe that we’re at the centre of things – even if we’re decrying just how marginalized we’ve become – by dint of any number of factors that the net savvy global media is more than happy to provide us – we’re doing it from a position that makes us believe we have all the ears in the room standing to attention.

This is wrong, and the main reason is wrong is not for any intrinsic arguments it may be able to make. Far be it from me to decry anyone to take a critical stance on anything. The Guardian article makes some great points about the contemporary media landscape, and we would do well to be wary about how the media conglomerates are manipulating our increasingly more pervasive digital space.

But it also appears to prioritize feeling helpless over seeking out any creative solution. Nevermind the fact that, despite the mainstream infiltration of commercial interests into the digital realm, nothing is stopping us from finding our own way around the maze, and searching for things that are enriching and worthwhile.

Russell Brand’s calls to ‘revolution’ may be one of the most trendily misguided phenomena to emerge in popular culture over the past year – though criticism of it has also tended towards the unhelpfully glum.

So I propose a more modest revolution. The revolution of reading long-form articles as opposed to listsicles as a direct affront to what the contemporary digital zeitgeist expects us to do, apparently.

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Partly as an affront to the above-linked Guardian article in particular and partly as an affront to this suffocating zeitgeist in general, I’m aiming to counter all this with a bloody-minded optimism, and a belief that social media is not an endgame but a distracting detail.

I won’t deactivate my Facebook account because that’s plainly a desperate act, and neither will I resort to bashing the internet, because the internet is not a monolithic whole. But I will do my best to remember that it’s the stuff we do quietly, in the margins, that really matters.

Make something, do something, then show it on Facebook if you feel like it. I don’t want to bash ‘exhibitionism’ either: after all, if you want other people’s opinions on something you should be able to try and get them.

‘What we do in shadows’ could be a good motto.

More than anything though, it’s the overtones of helplessness, which only seem to be encouraged by all that I’ve just described, that I want to do away with. If something doesn’t energize you in any positive (in the sense of constructive) way, then discard it. And this includes righteous anger, by the way, just not the kind of righteous anger that leaves you running in place.

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Optimism is both uncool and hard, but more and more I feel it’s the only option I’ve got left.