One of the more audacious novels of the past few years, Light by M. John Harrison contains its own comment on labeling of fiction, I think. Whether Harrison intended it or not, the following passage speaks to the craft and art of creating fiction as well as anything in a book of writing advice:
“Every race [humankind] met on their way through the Core had a star drive based on a different theory. All those theories worked, even when they ruled out one another’s basic assumptions. You could travel between the stars, it began to seem, by assuming anything. If your theory gave you a foamy space to work with–if you had to catch a wave–that didn’t preclude some other engine, running on a perfectly smooth Einsteinian surface, from surfing from the same tranche of empty space. It was even possible to build drives on the basis of super-string-style theories, which, despite their promise four hundred years ago had never really worked at all…It was affronting to discover that…”
The same idea applies to fiction–you can use an almost infinite number of approaches to achieve the same or similar effects. It is true that I tend to espouse a single or single set of approaches to fiction (in part because I believe in this kind of fiction, but also because I find it underrepresented), but this doesn’t mean I don’t like other approaches.
The problem with labeling, or perhaps more specifically, “sublabeling,” is that the proponents of the sublabel begin to think that their way is the only way, or that their way is superior. I think I’m guilty of this at times, too. But in fiction, this is simply not true. Thus the “affront” alluded to above–because, surely, one way must be better than another. And given that the political or social orientation of an individual usually has no bearing on whether or not that person can create great art, labels that arise due to political or social agendas in fiction often tend to flounder as well. The great thing the surrealists did is hardwire a true social/cultural (and therefore, I would argue, political) agenda to something that transcended social/cultural issues: the pursuit of liberty through beauty, through the imagination. If they had not done this, there would be no interest in surrealism today.
I also like this quote from Light because it illuminates the frightening thing about fiction–that you have so many choices, so many ways of getting from point A to point B (or in some cases, point C to point A, or point A to point 5). Of course, the more technique you pick up and the more flexible you allow your writing to be, so too the more choices; you might actually be quite limited in your choices otherwise, might be restricted to four or five or six possible ways to start a short story, for example.
The irony, of course, is that the more technique, the more mastery you gain, the more you find yourself starting from scratch with each new book or story. The more choices, the more chances you will get it wrong–choose wrong. So mastery actually equals uncertainty. The more mastery you achieve, the less confident you become, although I don’t really mean “confidence” and “uncertainty” in the strict dictionary definitions of the words. This is a good kind of uncertainty, and a bad kind of confidence. Because you are uncertain, despite having mastery, you know that your writing is still alive, that you are not simply doomed to repeat the same path you chose so many times before. Because you feel once again as if you are writing your first book, you know that writing is still meaningful to you.