On Genre, Part I

Sunday February 21, 2010 @ 01:45 PM (UTC)

I’m occasionally asked why I care about the struggle of speculative fiction to gain recognition in the literary world, which I call the Genre War. For one thing, I’ve been fighting since before I knew anyone else was, since a time when my sci-fi community was just me and my parents. For another, I have allegiances on both sides. I’m an English major and hold a Master of Fine Arts. I believe in the high artistic ideals of the literary tradition, and it saddens me to see them clouded (again, and still) by parochialism. The simplest, most primal reason is that I believe that the speculative and the literary enrich each other.

Since I was a teenager, if not earlier, I’ve been insisting that science fiction can tell us things about the human condition that realism cannot, because it places humanity into impossible situations. It tests the boundaries of identity and consciousness. It creates other sentient entities, which almost inevitably reflect our humanity back to us. Fiction is many things, but the loftiest goals of literature tell us that fiction is a way of making meaning, of expanding the reader’s understanding of what it means to be human, mortal, alive. To me, that project obviously includes the tools of speculative fiction. If literature is supposed to ask the great questions, why shouldn’t one of those questions be “What if?”

→ On Genre, Part II: The future of genre


I am reading the Philosophy of Science Fiction Films, which points out that all genres can ask a philosophical question. Westerns ask “what is justice.” Romance asks “what is love.” Only in science fiction can we ask “what makes us human?” and posit an argument in the story.

I think the problem comes down to the human need to label and package everything and put it into its proper place. Genre is simply a way for people to keep track of stories. The literary is simply another genre to those of us who simply read books, rather than publish them.

All types of fiction are speculative, it is the nature of fiction. Science-fiction is just a different way to tell the story. There is a lot of very bad sci-fi (horror, mystery, pick a genre), which is derivative and poorly written. Much of this has lead to the derision of genre. The reason for this is simply because the market is there for these books. People enjoy reading comfortable stories, just as they enjoy the comfort of the 1-hour police procedural TV show.

There is a much smaller market for the literary genre. So publishers have to be much more stringent in choosing what they are going to publish. In addition, being reviewed is more difficult because there is more competition for high-end reviews (eg NYTimes).

When academics step off of their high horses, they will frequently admit that some stories which could be labeled as belonging to a specific genre, are really literature.

Which is really just semantics.


Mr. Kugler, sir, you have nailed it.

Insofar as there is a war between the “literary” and “genre,” the battle lines are fake. We are fighting over a territory we all have equal claim to, clucking our tongues over imaginary lines that we (or more often someone else) drew in the sand.

It’s not that these classifications have no use to a reader or a critic as tools for understanding what a work is doing. I think their importance is obvious.

It’s when someone tries to overstate the usefulness of one of these as a premise for interpretation, to exclude one or the other as capable of some effect, that the meaning is squandered. You can see it in the desperation with which a critic will retroactively reclassify something as “not SF” when it has reached a certain status, thinking it impossible for the two to inhabit the same space.

The reality is that we all come to genre with some measure of this thinking beaten into us by the establishment. We have been trained to believe that those “high artistic ideals” you mention are simply secondary to genre writing’s intent and so when we read, we do not read for them. When they are there, we do not see, and when we see, we do not recognize.

Mr. Kugler is right when he notes this lack, this “comfortableness” as he puts it, is widespread in SF; when enough readers are convinced that “genre” is the place to go for it, its characteristics are naturally made manifest. Publishers too can smell which way the wind blows and naturally tailor their own searches to what “sells.” When a reader comes searching for Clancy because he has been told “this” is where to find Clancy-like books, its in a publisher’s best interest to cater to that expectation.

Meanwhile, since Clancys are much easier and faster to write than Nabokovs, naturally they proliferate much quicker.

With these forces at work, it is easy to make that broad statement that the quality of genre is one of “entertainment,” rather than some finer aesthetic pursuit. Like I said before, it’s a meaningless notion given weight and repetition only by the ignorant.

It would be like blasting the “literary genre” for being intellectually-stunted because Dan Brown gets shelved there. A fine example, a prevalent one even, but no more meaningful than excoriating genre for the drivel that gets passed off as books there.

Genre will find its Hemingways and Joyces when they are told that they are allowed to write there – and no sooner.

I love these debates about genre because I think they’re important.

But my view is that there are two different issues involved which are hard to distentangle. The first is that there is still a residual snobbery among ‘literary types’ who disparage genre – as Margaret Attwood does when she denies her SF books are in fact SF. SF is not an insult, it’s just a description!

That snobbery feels very old-fashioend now. Surely, no one can deny that Dashiell Hammett was one of the great writers of the 20th century? Or that Margery Allingham’s books can justly be compared to the novels of Margaret Drabble? Or that Neil Gaiman is as brilliant a writer as Ian McEwan? (Or can they?)

I write science fiction so I get very touchy when ‘SF’ is used as a term of disparagement, as in the argument ‘George Orwell’s 1984 can’t be a science fiction novel because it’s really well written.’

And for me that’s the heart of the Genre War that Felicity is writing about.

But I also find – as someone who loves genre, and has written articles about genre, that there’s a tendency to assume that labelling the genre of the piece is a black & white/either-or process. But most novels belong to SEVERAL genres. Genre refers to the traditions which inspire the book – and the fact the reader is aware of those traditions affects how we/they read the novel.

Thus, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, for instance, is a literary novel (because it’s written richly, and the writer is clearly steeped in the best traditions of modern literary writing.) But it’s also a ‘detective novel’, because it has a mystery and a cop and clearly owes a debt to hard-boiled detective novels. And it’s also science fiction (it was winner of last year’s Hugo Award for best SFF novel) because it’s in a tradition of ‘alternate history’ which is a strong subgenre of science fiction (Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is one of the pre-eminent examples.)

Bookshops have to choose which shelf to put the book on – crime, or SF, or literary. (I think Chabon’s book goes on the literary shelves?) But as readers, we DON’T have to choose; we can just enjoy the richness that comes from the complex mingling of these three traditions in a single novel.

As the “Part I” indicates, I have more to say on this topic, but the richness of the comments may obviate further blog posts.

Re: Josh’s comment, “The most philosophical genre”

I’m not entirely convinced arguments about the nature of humanity can’t be made in non-speculative genres. For instance, I’d say that the TV show “Dexter”, about a serial killer trying to act as/be a part of society, is about the nature of humanity. Sure, it’s hard to get there without either being speculative or placing an actual human outside the borders of what is human, which could be pretty offensive, depending on how you do it. But I haven’t heard anyone object to Othering sociopaths, thus far.

It’s very true though, as you say, that realistic plots lend themselves less readily to plumbing those depths. And saying that “literary” fiction, which might self-define as literature for the sake of art and understanding, needs to be realistic not only cuts off all those avenues of inquiry, but it denies the past of the “literary” canon: The Tempest, Tanglewood Tales, Turn of the Screw. If you include mythic elements — which might get us rapidly into religious argument rather than literary theory — then the first written story is speculative. Gilgamesh is full of gods and the tantalizing promise of magic. Beowulf has a dragon, let us recall. The ghosts of Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway weren’t around to make those people confine their artistic efforts to talking about love in a well-lighted place.

I’ll stop my replies for here now as my reply to Eric’s comment may be becoming its own blog post. I am ruminating over all the excellent discussion points, though!

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