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.

*

  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).”

*

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

Advertisements

Getting it Ass-Backwards: ‘Booty’ and the Genre-Mainstream binary at LonCon

Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azaela in the promotional video for Lopez's single 'Booty'.

Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azaela in the promotional video for Lopez’s single ‘Booty’.

Considering Iggy Azelea and Jennifer Lopez’s collaborative single ‘Booty’ as a pop single – complete with an accompanying promo video that is arguably more of an ‘event’ than the song itself – is, I think, a fundamental category error.

Taking the aesthetics of both the song lyrics and the video (dir. Hype Williams) into consideration, it becomes clear that what we have here is less to do with music and more to do with pornography.

This isn’t a moral statement, it’s purely a matter of taxonomy, for what it’s worth. When the morally enraged tend to point their guns at supposedly decadent pop culture artifacts, there’s often just enough ambiguity in the equation for them to come across as uptight fuddy-duddies to their opponents.

But it is difficult to make a claim for ambiguity when a song calls itself ‘Booty’ – thereby making it clear that its priorities are purely limited to amplifying the erotic appeal of the bodily feature in question. Though it could also be seen as a collaborative attempt to dethrone Nicky Minaj from booty-pop dominance, the Azelea/J-Lo duet is also something of no-brainer considering both singers have put their backsides as the forefront of their brand.

Their effort is also significantly different in degree to Destiny Child’s now-classic ‘Bootylicious’. Where Azelea/J-Lo repeatedly and aggressively thrust their sculpted backsides to the camera in an attempt to entrance us with their particular anatomical prowess, Beyonce and co. go anthemic: the song understandably became a rallying call for amply-bottomed women to celebrate their bodies. While DC don’t of course deny the intrinsic erotic value of her subject, ‘Bootylicious’ emphasizes a feel-good factor, calling on listeners to cultivate confidence in their bodies.

But as they participate in what is essentially a Booty Dream Team, Azelea/J-Lo, like good capitalists, collaborate purely to maximize their own assets (!), and empowerment for the big bootied masses is clearly not on their agenda (‘Prepare Audience For Maximum Impact’, an opening scroll teases in the song’s promo video).

It’s Booty Degree Zero, and can therefore be seen as nothing more than pornography – a fetishisation of the flesh bolstered by pinprick-precise brand management that has the advantage of a far larger budget than other productions we would be less ambivalent about filing under ‘Porn’.

*

The issue of taxonomy appears to be a consistent bugbear in some of my most frequented cultural circles: namely, the field of literature, particularly the strands of what can broadly be termed genre fiction when offset against what – again, with a disappointing short-hand – can be termed ‘mainstream’ literature.

It was a distinction – one with any number of attendant polemics – that appeared once again as a consistent theme during my visit to LonCon (or WorldCon) – a predominantly science-fiction based convention that took place in London in mid-August.

Must not forget to get down on Friday.

Must not forget to get down on Friday.

Amid a rich variety of panels – it would have been physically impossible to attend enough of them to get a representative sample – I was disappointed to find that a victim mentality still reigns supreme among certain elements of the science fiction and fantasy community.

I think this reduces our – ultimately quite human and universal – need to clarify and classify into its least productive mode.

While a discussion entitled ‘When is a fantasy not a fantasy’ did yield to some cogent and perceptive observations about the ways we tend to process fantastical works of fiction, it all unfortunately returned to a rather depressing cul-de-sac: that what we’re discussing here remains the purview of dedicated fans, whose passion the ‘mainstream’ world will never understand.

This, despite the fact that “Death to binaries!” ended up being an impromptu slogan of the panel, which included among its ranks Catherynne M. Valente, Jonathan Strahan, Paul Kincaid, Graham Sleight and Greer Gilman (it was moderated by Miriam Weinberg).

'The Wasp Factory' at the LonCon Dealer's Room - an installation in honour of Iain Banks.

‘The Wasp Factory’ at the LonCon Dealer’s Room – an installation in honour of Iain Banks.

Valente, a writer whom I greatly admire for her effusive baroque sensibility and her inspired weaving of myths and folktales into contemporary and often erotically charged narratives, disappointed me by assuming a boringly predictable stance towards ‘the mainstream’.

Though it was buttressed by an interesting central point – that people who aren’t all that familiar with fantasy literature are actually more comfortable with reading ‘straight’ fantasy than any slipstream variation that mixes various narrative registers – Valente dismissively waved away “Booker Prize books or whatever” as if they’re a homogenous, over-privileged bunch that deserve our derision by default.

The old chestnut that mainstream writers use “genre ingredients” with less rigour than genre writers, often levelled at the likes of Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro, was trotted out once again, with Valente observing that this amounts to “playing with a shiny new toy without reading the instruction manual”. These writers use genre elements as “just a manner, a flash of colour”, favouring emotional impact at the cost of cogent, convincing world-building.

But I would argue that these writers are to be commended for accomplishing their narrative goals without having to worry about finicky world-building details. A writer is, among other things, an illusionist: they are supposed to convince you to plunge into the world they’ve created, and they shouldn’t be “shamed” if they succeed in doing so in a way that you don’t like.

This isn’t to say that categories of literature shouldn’t exist. Beyond commercial considerations – i.e., in which section of the bookshelves you’re expected to stuff certain books in, and how you want to ‘target’ your marketing – I still maintain that it’s useful to discuss how boundaries reflect on our reading experience and expectations.

It’s a factor that the above-mentioned panel did in fact grapple with, which makes the overall notes of victimization all the more deflating.

Paul Kincaid rightly complained that “fantasy is the wooliest word in the English language” – an apt opening salvo for a discussion which then sought to edge out some particulars about this all-embracing genre, or more specifically, our perceptions of it.

While Jonathan Strahan pointed out that certain books are “demonstrably” works of fantasy – the kind of books you wouldn’t hesitate to slide into the Fantasy shelf in bookstores – and that cover illustrations can in fact powerfully calibrate our expectations of the text, almost to the point where the text is altered completely (there goes branding again), this strand of thinking also accommodated a richer part of the discussion: that it is ultimately only the reader who can define a genre.

This is where art triumphs over pornography, I think.

Pornography is not narrative. Pornography is not interested in stories. It is uni-directional: Set phasers to ‘Arouse’. Storytelling allows for ambiguity, but the best stories take advantage of established boundaries – even when they aggressively run counter to them – to maximize the effects of stories.

LonCon/BarCon - alcoholic lubrication aplenty.

LonCon/BarCon – alcoholic lubrication aplenty.

To obsess over a perceived, looming bogeyman called ‘The Mainstream’ is to miss the wood for the trees. Let’s focus our attentions instead on what the literary traditions we want to work in have left us. If it was anything, LonCon was a celebration of the kind of communal fellow-feeling that creating distinctions in the first place can create. Let’s keep reminding ourselves that these distinctions can exist to give us a starting point: to add texture to our work and our discussions.

Otherwise we risk of them turning into something they turn into all too often: marks of segregation and exclusion.