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

While the Jeff’s away, the guests will play — I thought I’d take up his offer of guest posting to promote 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 he wanted to enter 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 Tor.com. 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 Tor.com, 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.

Comments

  1. says

    Well put. While genres are useful for marketing books, to suggest that the divisions between genres, ‘literary’ fiction, and even non-fiction writing are distinct and impenetrable is crazy. Why would you want to limit yourself? I love a good epic fantasy as much as the next reader, but if I limit myself to that genre, I find the stuff I like to read runs out rather quickly and I’m left trolling through deep waters, but catching little.

  2. Jeff VanderMeer says

    I WILL ONLY READ 19TH CENTURY ACCOUNTS OF BROODING FISHERFOLK WHO LIVE IN VILLAGES AND HAVE BUNIONS.

  3. says

    Thank you, Rachel. Only when I started trying to write books, these distinctions became important. When I fell in love with books — all kinds of books — genre never mattered.

  4. says

    Me, too, Jeff!

    Here’s a possibly fun and trouble-making exercise: Since so many “literary” folk like taking sci-fi and making exceptions for it (“Vonnegut isn’t sci-fi!”), let’s see if we can do the reverse. Let’s make a list of “literary” writing that we claim as fantasy or sci-fi? (Or another genre.)

    Kinda like how when Godard wanted to make a sci-fi film, he made ALPHAVILLE, which contains many direct references to Murnau’s NOSFERATU. Which claims, in a roundabout way, that NOSFERATU is science fiction. (The plague section can almost be read that way. And a lot of Godard’s argument was that it was the /style/ of NOSFERATU that made it futuristic; he demonstrated that by having his own film switch into the negative periodically, among other things.)

    So maybe Mercè Rodoreda’s DEATH IN SPRING (Open Letter 2009) is a fantasy novel. Or Patrik Ourednik’s EUROPEANA is science-fiction. (It’s steampunk!)

    In some places it would be easier. Like if we all started talking about this fantastic science fiction novel, WITTGENSTEIN’S MISTRESS… (“It’s like DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS!”)

    On a related note, have you seen Eugène Green’s film LE MONDE VIVANT (2003)? It’s unbelievably brilliant:

    http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/289043/Le-Monde-Vivant/overview

    Cheers, Adam

  5. says

    Jeff, I laughed, but then I realized that I would totally read a 19th century account of brooding fisherfolk who live in villages and have bunions. In fact, I have in the past quite gleefully read 18th century accounts of fisherfolk in villages with various problems, including bunions. But I suppose that makes me a mundane. . .

    RE: the actual post, I am always saddened by people who can’t see past artificial genre distinctions, and the “well, that’s not really science fiction at all, is it?” quote made me giggle and sigh at the same time. What brought me around to, for example, George Eliot, was The Lifted Veil which certainly contains science fiction elements, but I hesitate to call it “a science fiction novel” for a host of reasons.

    In my experience the ossification of “genre” seems to be a fairly contemporary conceit, though of course the discussion began as soon as the volume of published novels increased in the 18th and 19th centuries. Was Jane Austen a romance novelist or a social critic writing realist fiction? Does the inclusion of obeah as a real force in 18th century novels about slavery make them horror, or fantasy, or are the authors using an element of the spooky unknown in some sort of larger context? Is Charlotte Bronte a genre author because of the Gothic elements of in Jane Eyre and Vilette?

    More importantly– does it really matter? Did it matter back then? Should it matter now? The best course seems to write high quality fiction whatever the case may be, and if readers and/or critics and/or the folks who decide what books go where in Borders deem a novel fantasy because it has swords or horror because it has a vampire, regardless of the other elements in the text, that’s their business. But wiser people have said that long before me, and likely more eloquently.

  6. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Maybe instead we should just stop thinking in terms of “genre” and “literary” altogether.

  7. says

    Great post. I’ve always looked at genre as a marketing thing, since my taste in literature does not fit comfortably into genre boundaries.

    On the other hand, I have also been guilty on occasion of denigrating literary material.

    Adam, how about Kazuo Ishiguro? I believe “Never Let Me Go” qualifies as SF. It was short-listed for both the Booker and the Arthur C. Clarke Awards.

  8. Nick Mamatas says

    Maybe instead we should just stop thinking in terms of “genre” and “literary” altogether.

    Then how will I know if it’s okay to wear a shirt I’ve spilled food on at a conference?

  9. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Nick: It’s always all right for you.

    Molly–I’d totally read that novel, too.

    I’ve just about finished 2666, btw, and it’s not “genre” per se. It is, however, probably the best novel published in the last decade.

    Jeff

  10. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Huh?

    James, I’ve always been that way. This whole genre/literary debate bores me silly. it’s the same stupid-ass debate that’s been going on for 20 years. Some day they’ll impose a zero tolerance for repetition on the internets and anyone who does so will get mightily tazered.

  11. Rachel Swirsky says

    I actually think genres are useful to think about and talk about. They describe conventions, and can be a way for people to find material they’re interested in. I’m not interested in ceasing to think about genre entirely. I’m just not interested in genre policing, or sweeping statements about genres, or other stuff that’s more about making genre A Statement rather than a tool.

  12. Rachel Swirsky says

    Hi David,

    Glad you liked it!

    I’m not sure quite why you linked to your books, though? How do you envision them in conversation with the post?

  13. says

    Great post, thank you!

    This all reminds me of a conversation I had with my boss sometime last year. We were discussing various things – our school’s production of Carol Ann Duffy’s GRIMM TALES, fairy tales in general, Angela Carter being glorious, what we were reading. I started describing Mieville’s IRON COUNCIL to her and she said, ‘oh, do you *like* fantasy fiction?’

    Hum.

  14. Nick Mamatas says

    I’m not sure quite why you linked to your books, though? How do you envision them in conversation with the post?

    You’re so funny, Rachel.

  15. says

    I’m with Rachel: genres are fun to talk about, scrimmage over, and play with. I despise the hierarchy that they are inserted into, but the discussions about and utilizations of them are often socially and creatively significant. I agree that genre policing is rather odd and sometimes used as a social power mechanism, but I think debates about genre and the ways that people use them (see: SF fans, for example) are fascinating. They have social utility and can stimulate creativity in very productive ways (says the anthropologist who writes SF and studies fandoms).

    But I agree also with Jeff and the writer of this piece that the artificiality of “genre” versus “literary” needs to be broken down, and the way that works of art borrow from, syncretize, and rework genres needs more acknowledgement. Genres are not static and their boundaries are porous, and it is far more fun to see how people play with and use notions of genre than to try to shoehorn works into a tightly-bounded definition of one.

  16. says

    If you haven’t already, you should read this post on genre by Paul Kincaid:
    http://www.paulkincaid.co.uk/Reviews/origins.htm

    He pursues very far a line of thought about genre, and digs up some great results.

    Thanks for the suggestions of books we can claim as genre. Atsiko, I’m going to start telling everyone that Ishiguro is a fantasy novelist. (Hey, he did write the original story for THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD. And THE REMAINS OF THE DAY is fantasy, certainly.) And Marco, yes, we need to claim Janet Frame!

    Cheers,
    Adam

  17. Paul Kincaid says

    Adam, Ishiguro is certainly a science fiction writer. The only time I met him was at a Clarke Award ceremony.

  18. says

    Oh this is just rich. You all don’t have enough discipline to stick to one genre, so now mixing them all up is ok? What have you all got against pigeon holes? What did pigeon holes ever do to you? Sure they’re boring. But they’re regular. Regularity is important for good health. Make sure you eat lots of bran!

  19. Els says

    Rachel, thanks for this post and your eloquent take on the blurred boundaries between genre and literary fiction. I’m really interested to see that you went to IWW for your MFA, only because I took it off my list of programs when I applied this year, as I assumed bold feminist SF writers (and i’m proudly one of those – with literary leanings and tastes too, though) wouldn’t stand a chance with the Iowa selection committee. I don’t know of any other SF writers that have come out of IWW and am intrigued to see you have – if I don’t get in anywhere this year (as MFA application/admission stats are notoriously ridiculous) and do decide to reapply, would you recommend the program, and was it a good place to stretch your fantastical muscles in the ways you wanted?

    I know they’re only MFA’s so not that important, but I have to say i’m curious! Thank you!
    E

  20. says

    I’m gonna riff for a minute on what Jeff said about leaving genre concepts behind (though maybe in a way he’d disagree with).

    As a former bookstore owner, I fully understand the necessity (and occasional difficulty) of genre classifications as a marketing tool. But as a writer I often struggle to see their relevance as part of the creative framework.

    How often do writers really create something from the conceptual bones of a genre concept? I’m working on a book that would be shelved as a fantasy, and yet very rarely do I think about the abstract concepts of the genre as part of the creative process. And on the rare moments I do it’s usually to the detriment of the story.

    I think stories come much more from the individual writer, drawing from the experiences, perceptions, and specific influences of the writer. My story is as much Tim O’Brien as Tolkien. But it’s many other things, too. It’s a unique blending of things which, in the end, are locatable only within me. I am the filter between the world at large and my text. Its place within (or without) genre is more of happenstance than anything. All stories, I think, are unique to their writers, and fit in specific frameworks only imprecisely. We lay each story down and see where it overlaps most, whether fantasy, literary, or something else entirely. It’s a vague shape placed over a map with vague boundaries, and that quality of vagueness is itself, I think, a result of the specificity of the individual filters.

    Yes, part of what I will filter comes from genre… but genre as specific influence and not general. It grows out of reactions to specific texts rather than to definitions of terms and abstract concepts. It grows out of my own particular reading experiences, out of the writers and stories I’ve absorbed and internally reconstituted. Now, those marketing frameworks can play a significant role here, but usually only so much as the writer allows them to determine reading patterns. A writer, for example, who only reads books taken from those fantasy shelves will be coded a little differently than one who doesn’t. But, again, I think that moves from the general to the specific. It’s less the conceptual framework that organizes a writer’s creative process than it is a marketing framework that allows the writer to self-control (either consciously or unconsciously) their reading habits, allows them to control their influences.

    To me this is about reader choice. It’s about the limitations these choices impose (and, for what it’s worth, I don’t intend for “limitations” to be taken in a derogatory way. We all have limitations; they simply vary from individual to individual, a matter more of consumption than ability). An increased focus (a narrowing of consumption), will often lead to writing more precisely bounded by the conventions of specific genres. But that’s a result of what the writer has chosen to filter rather than the genre itself.

    Assuming a remotely organic process is at work, I think stories don’t really come out of genre but rather from a unique fingerprint of experience. And it will resemble a specific genre only as much as the agglomeration of personal influence, experience, perception and authorial choice will allow. Most likely that imprecise filter will allow the story to bleed outward across various boundaries.

  21. Rachel Swirsky says

    i do think about genre when i’m writing, at various points from story conception onward. i’ve heard lots of people say they don’t, and i believe they don’t. i may totally be an outlier. but i do not find that thinking about genre restrains me from having an ‘organic’ process or anything like that.

    i admit that i’m super intellectual about these things. i also write with literary analysis in mind.

    just another one of those ‘everyone’s process is different’ comments.

  22. says

    Hey Rachel,

    I’d agre with what you said, though I think there’s a difference between thinking about genre and writing out of a genre. I obviously can’t speak for everyone here, but for me it seems stories come out of the specific. My engagement with a genre is limited and experiential. It comes from the particular stories that form my personal reading history, that influence my understanding of the shape of stories. I’m limited by these experiences and by my ability to bend them to my will and form something new.

    But I’d love to hear about your writing process if it’s more abstract. How do stories come out of genre for you? That is, out of genre as a thing in and of itself rather than as a series of specific influences?

  23. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Rachel: You think about those things at the rough draft stage or some later stage?

    Brian: I like what you said re “I think stories don’t really come out of genre but rather from a unique fingerprint of experience. And it will resemble a specific genre only as much as the agglomeration of personal influence, experience, perception and authorial choice will allow.” This absolutely dovetails with my experience as a writer. I emerge from the creative process with a story or novel, and the classification of that story or novel occurs after completion, when I’m trying to find a home for it. At certain points during the editing process, it is useful to think about how I’m subverting or reinforcing the tropes of a particular subgenre, as that may lead me to annihilate something lazy on my part, or to see a path toward deeper characterization, or whatever. But other than that, I don’t think in terms of genre.

    I also believe each writer’s different, and what wouldn’t work for one works well for another, so Rachel’s assertion that she does think about genre seems perfectly reasonable, especially since I enjoy her work and it seems organic.

  24. says

    When I write, I often think about genre. I think about it during each and every stage. I don’t artificially restrict myself to the stereotypical conventions of one genre or another, but I do look for similarities between the story I am writing and other stories I have read. I think about which elements of my story are common in one genre or another, and then I look within those genres to see how tropes I may be using are played, whether it ‘sstraight, subverted, inverted, whatever. I think it’s good to know what people have done before, and genre helps you sort through the collective corpus to find that out. For instance, what other tropes have been used in combination with the one’s I’m using? Would it benefit or hurt the story to incorporate them? Same for themes, and possibly imagery or voice. Stories arise from our cultural consciousness, and genre and the trappings that go with it are part of that, so it makes sense to investigate them.

    But I have a pretty organic writing process on the whole, so maybe this method fits better with how I write than it would fit with the processes of others.

  25. Jeff VanderMeer says

    If I thought about anything while doing the initial draft, my work would suffer. Thinking about stuff beforehand, yep, and after, yep, but not during.

    JeffV

  26. Nick Mamatas says

    I think it’s fairly obvious that many writers think about genre. One need only follow their careers to see that when horror is big they poop out horror novels, when epic fantasy is big they come up with an epic fantasy, when the trend turns toward urban fantasy then garsh they’re writing urban fantasy and as steampunk and zombies come along they start churning out steampunk zombie stories. These writers will sometimes even change their names, or if they can no longer keep up with the trends thanks to low sales or inability to meet deadlines as health declines, will move into minor works of criticism or just go back to technical writing or freelance editing or ghosting corporate memoirs, or complaining on the Internet ABOUT the Internet full-time etc.

    The above is partially why genre gets a bad rap—it is often a vocation. “Literary” fiction, whether realist or postmodernist, etc. is heavily subsidized by the state (college-level teaching gigs and various grants and awards and non-profit colonies) so it’s not a job, and everyone knows that having to work is the worst thing ever.

    Of course, there are plenty of literary writers who are proudly outside the academy (Bukowski and his epigones) and plenty of SF writers in the academy, lots of very prolific “literary” writers and bunches of SF writers slow to publish. And literary fiction has its own version of extruded product as well; it may be more “specific” and “individual” in some level, but publish-or-perish can lead to formulaic writing and trend-chasing as much as the commercial pressure of having to pump out three novels a year just to make Wal-Mart wages. The difference is that the lowliest college instructor has more cultural capital than most Wal-Mart managers (or their writerly equivalents) ever will.

  27. says

    Atsiko,

    I think you’re doing a bit of what I was talking about. Not so much writing out of some essence of genre, but writing out of specific stories and influences across a spectrum of genres.

    I think about genre, too, and, as Jeff said, sometimes it will influence how I approach tropes. I’ve twisted a few typical fantasy tropes in my novel. But I don’t think I’m writing out of some idea of “Fantasy Novel”. I’m writing a story that came to me, that’s pulled out of dozens or hundreds or thousands of cross-pollinated influences. Now, yes, I think about it sometimes in comparison to various genres, but I’m not writing out of it. The idea of genre is exterior to the story, to the energy that created it, to the conception that drives it. There might be minor overlap… but fairly little, at least in that larger general sense. In the specific sense there’s influences from specific texts that would be classified under fantasy… but that’s something a little different. Though I could be wrong. Not the first time. I was told it happened once when I was five. :)

    Best,
    Bryan

  28. says

    Nick, you have a point there about trend chasing (and dollar chasing), yet that might also reflect what those writers are consuming, too. Those trends, those hot books, might be what they’re reading, looking for something new. Which in turn pollinates similar ideas in their own writing. Though that’s not to dispute that some may simply be chasing the trends looking for the easiest score. I guess I was thinking more about writing as at least an attempt at art, where there’s freedom of choice.

  29. Nick Mamatas says

    Well, there’s always freedom of choice—and plenty of written-for-money stuff (Chekhov’s short fiction, Jim Thompson’s novels) is art, and plenty of stuff written to be art is often ponderous or written in a language so private as to be irrelevant to anyone else. I think the “an attempt at art” is a side road back into the Status Game.

  30. says

    For what it’s worth, I’ve read several interviews where Margaret Atwood has denied that her work is science fiction, saying (I’m paraphrasing) that her futuristic stories are grounded in reality. Which I suppose makes sense if you think SF=Star Wars, but I’d imagine most casual readers would say stories about post-apocalyptic futures are SF.

  31. says

    Nick,

    Well, I never suggested money and art were incompatible, as far as I know. You can do both, and I don’t remember saying anything to the contrary. By art I simply mean that in some sense the writer has an artistic intention for the story (something beyond a solely fiscal pursuit). And I include entertainment as a function of art, so I’m not sure how the Status Game would be relevant, or what exactly you mean it to reference here. And since I’ve never met anyone who writes stories for solely fiscal reasons (though they may be out there) I’m gonna hold to my prior idea, at least for now. Thinking about genre and writing out of it are different, in my view. Even trend chasers will likely, in the end, be writing from something more than the conceptual identification of genre. They’ll still be trying to grasp personal meaning, still have intentions for what they want the story to do, and these will be shaped by specific influences, by their perceptions of the world, their experiences, and by the stories they’ve read (or seen, etc.). I guess I just struggle with how genre is part of the creative process rather than the analytical process, at least beyond the most basic level. But, as I said, I’m curious to hear about any writing process that does spring from such an abstract source. If you have one, I’d love to hear it.

  32. Nick Mamatas says

    Bryan, you have confused what I said with some vaguely similar-sounding argument you may have heard before. I have never mentioned any conflict between art and money and never mentioned “entertainment” as a value. Please do not confuse what I said with some other discussion you’ve had before. if you don’t understand my point, please ask for clarification rather than put words into my mouth.

    What I said was perfectly straightforward: some people set out to make art and do not do so. Other people set out with no notion of art in mind and make art.

    The Status Game is a simple one—it is played by forgetting the art that fails and the art that emerges out of non-art production and then declares that art comes out of a certain social construct (say, the middle-class writers supported by the state).

    if you’re arguing that people write stuff and use the contents of their head, sure, there can be no disagreement with that. But that truth is so trivially so as to not really be relevant. The world’s worst writers do that as well, including people who never escape the slush pile. But the genre clearly has resonance and relevance and informs what people write even during the creative process, going so far as to write with a copy of The Lord of the Rings open on their desk to crib plot points.

    And I’ve certainly written stories solely for fiscal reasons, including experiences of going to bed very upset and worried about money, waking up with a story idea in my head, writing it, submitting it that day to a men’s magazine, and then getting a check for $1000 two weeks later, just in time to save my bacon. There; now you’ve met one.

    I’d bet that of the world of writers, more people have stories like mine than do not.

  33. says

    This post reminds me very much of something I read a while ago:
    http://sffmedia.com/books/science-fiction-books/417-why-science-fiction-authors-just-cant-win.html

    It’s like you say, Rachel: If it’s good, then it’s not science-fiction.

    Personally, I like the on-going fight over Frankenstein. Sci-fi? Horror? Literary fiction? Feminist critique of patriarchy? Humanist critique of science? Thank goodness it’s old so the bookshops can put it in the ‘Classics’ section and not have to worry about all that!

  34. Nick Mamatas says

    I’d actually be surprised if Rachel agreed very much with Howell’s essay, which is just a clip job of old grudges and out-of-context comments.

  35. says

    Lol, Nick, I wasn’t saying that was your point about money and art. It seemed like you were accusing me of that… so I was trying to clarify. And perhaps doing a poor job at it.

    And I certainly don’t think it’s trivial to say people write out of their heads, or, more particularly, that they write out of the unique fusion of influences that exist only in their heads. That is, each story is a unique product of a particular mind rather than of a genre. And writing out of an open copy of Lord of the Rings is not writing out of genre. It’s writing out of a specific work, a specific influence, which is greatly different. Again, that’s my point. Stories more likely descend from such particular things, rather than the general idea of genre. I completely admit I might be wrong, and welcomed examples to the contrary. Even if genre is understood as a body of influences it will be different, as everyone will have a different body of experience within that genre.

    As for writing for money… cute, and for good sarcastic effect there. But writing for money and writing solely for money are different things. You woke up with an idea… where did that idea come from? Not from money, I’m guessing. The ideas and words chosen, the effects you intend for the reader… I’m guessing they had lots of sources, some conscious and some less so. I could be wrong. You certainly know yourself better than I know you. But when you’re not being glib maybe you’ll consider the point. The overt reason is usually not the only one.

  36. Nick Mamatas says

    Sorry Bryan, you just think the trivial realization that people write from their heads is a bigger deal than it actually is (and it also ignores the fact that “genre” as an abstraction is in their heads). I’m not sure why you don’t think it’s trivial, but seriously: what does it predict? what does it explain? Nothing in particular, which is what makes it trivial. It makes you feel happy though, so it has that going for it. But it literally doesn’t mean anything.

    Someone (or many someone’s) opening up LoTR to write their own fantasy epics is of course “writing out of genre.” It is also writing out of a particular influence, but it is pretty easy to note that a lot more writers cracked open LoTR as a crib sheet once Terry Brooks and David Eddings demonstrated the utility of doing so. That is how fantasy as a genre became so heavily identified as a certain sort of Big Fat Fantasy for a couple of decades. Prior to this it wasn’t so—there’s a reason the WFA is a Lovecraft head and not a hobbit face.

    If I hear from someone that they want to write horror and that their favorite novel is THE STAND, I can pick out their short story from a pile of twenty anonymous tales fairly easily.(I know this is so because I’ve done it.) If I hear from someone that they teach high school math at a Catholic high school and are very tall and have two kids and love basketball and often dream of the old apartment they had in Springfield, MA and that his father died young, I’d be much less likely to pick out their story from the same pile. “Genre” does mean something—it does have predictive and explanatory power.

    Hell, all I need hear is “I wrote a novel. It took me two years. It’s 50,000 words long. I hope to write another one day,” and I will be able to guess that such a novel is far more likely to be an exercise in literary realism than a genre novel.

    In the last graf, you also play a shell game of swapping “for money” with “from money.”

  37. Nick Mamatas says

    Here’s another quick example. CONJURE WIFE is one of my fave books. Over the years, it has been published as science fiction, as gothic romance, as horror, as mystery, and now it is back again as urban fantasy. Genre is more hole than wall. At the same time, CONJURE WIFE, I guarantee, will never be positioned as an example of “dirty realism”, or as a Western, or as chicklit, or as a technothriller, or as a Japanese “I” novel. Genre isn’t utterly arbitrary even though it is amorphous. I might even predict that one day CONJURE WIFE might be refreshed and resold as a comic novel of manners that takes place in a college, or as an anti-feminist tract.

    CONJURE WIFE does have the woman in danger and the uncanny of a gothic romance, it has an attempt at rationalization of the unknown as in science fiction, it has the tonal elements of horror and mystery, and it takes place in a contemporary and vaguely urban American setting. It has no interest in sociological realism (it’s a satire and well-observed, but doesn’t focus on more than broad types), does not take place in the industrializing West, does not feature the struggles of a woman in a heavily commodified money and libidinal economy, and is not a thinly veiled memoir that exposes the author’s own negative traits in a changing world through a sort of reportage.

  38. says

    Lol, I kinda thought the shell game was yours, substituting “for” from my initial “from”, since I was talking intrinsic, creative development rather than extrinsic motivation.

    And the point is not that people write from their heads (which is obvious), but that writing often comes more from a fusion of unique influences than it does from a unified sense of genre. That’s all. I never claimed it was world changing (nor denied that the genre construction could have influence. I even asked for counter examples that revealed a greater influence than I gave it credit for. And would still be happy to hear some).

    You know, Nick, you’re kind of a hard guy to have a conversation with. I tried to talk to a wood chipper once, and this reminds me a little of that.

  39. says

    I think that’s an interesting example. My point would be that this story that’s so difficult to classify is a product of very specific influences. It sounds like a fusion, drawing on many elements rather than developing out of a genre concept. You state how it breaks out of genre classifications and adopts many aspects… so why hold to genre as generative in this case?

    I agree genre is more hole than wall. Even more than you, apparently. And when it’s more wall than hole it’s usually because of specific influences chosen by specific writers.

    Certainly genre isn’t utterly arbitrary. It’s a classification system based on elements of similarity. There will be avenues of connection. That’s why it’s valuable as a marketing tool, and perhaps as an analytical tool. I’m less convinced of its part in the generative process. But happy to hear how that might be so…

  40. Nick Mamatas says

    bruan,

    I don’t believe I misrepresented you or swapped “from” for “for.” When I discussed the story I wrote as the quickest way to potentially get $1000, I was responding to this comment of yours:

    By art I simply mean that in some sense the writer has an artistic intention for the story (something beyond a solely fiscal pursuit).

    I don’t see the word from there, I see the word for there. And yes when I woke up, I specifically thought about genre, specifically the sort of fantastical story I could write that a men’s magazine might snap up (which is different in some cases than the sort of thing a mainstream SF/fantasy rag would run. Here’s the result, btw, which was republished online a couple years after.) And I wrote it the way I did because I had a specific abstraction for men’s-magazine-fantastical/speculative story in mind.

    I also don’t think CONJURE WIFE is a “fusion,” as at least some of those genres in which it has been published didn’t exist when the book was written. Had we asked Leiber about “urban fantasy”, he would have more likely pointed Fafnir and the Gray Mouser stories than CW.

  41. says

    Lol, sorry Jeff. Unless you needed the rest…

    Nick, I’ll take your word on Conjure Wife, since I haven’t read it. Though from your description it still seems to exist outside genre rather than through it… and now I’m gonna have to look it up.

  42. says

    Literary “genres” maybe are taking the same road that alternative pop music “styles” took. They are getting mixed and assuming the form of a bigger whole (pigeon *wholed*?). In literature it’s also questionable if these genres existed at all in the first place. Science fiction, fantasy and whodunnit were labeled and separated as such more because of snobbism – from so-called high-brow critics – than any other reason. Borges are more or less fantasy than Tolkien? Ishiguro is more or less SF than Poe? These things were always blurred – if not non existent.

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