Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Some thoughts on genre

There's a conversation about genre fiction going on over at HTML Giant in response to a post on Tin House's blog. It's basically an argument with one side saying that genre fiction is too often stereotyped and dismissed by snobby literary types who haven't read any of it, and one side saying the genre people are overreacting and what's wrong with calling a spade a spade: genre fiction is formulaic by definition, etc.

One example being bandied about is The Road (which I haven't read)—the genre side says that The Road is speculative fiction about a post-apocalyptic world and is therefore sci-fi and furthermore this label is useful because people who like The Road might like other post-apocalyptic fiction and vice versa. Whereas the lit side says, No, that's not a useful label because people who like The Road are more likely to enjoy other, non-sci-fi books by Cormac McCarthy than other post-apocalyptic science fiction, because the aesthetic/style of the book is more salient than the sci-fi-esque elements. And vice versa: regular readers of science fiction aren't necessarily going to like The Road just because they've enjoyed other post-apocalyptic novels.

Not that this puts me squarely on one side of the larger argument or the other, but I agree more with the lit side in this case. I kind of liked Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances which indisputably has sci-fi elements, but that doesn't mean it made me want to go out and read more sci-fi books. The literal subject matter of a book has less bearing on whether or not I find it interesting than the aesthetic. I've also enjoyed Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut novels that have been classified as science fiction, though especially in the case of Atwood, the sci-fi elements were arguably the parts I found least interesting. What attracted me to those authors was a sensibility, not a genre label or knowing that they sometimes wrote about aliens or whatever.

I definitely don't dismiss science fiction or other genre fiction as "bad writing," especially compared to "literary fiction." As far as I'm concerned, "literary fiction" has become a label or genre with just as much baggage as "science fiction" or "fantasy"—it sounds like shitty book club fodder a la The Beekeeper's Wife (or whatever permutation of bees and wives, not sure if that's a real book or not). However, I do avoid books labeled as genre fiction myself, even though I haven't read many (although my mom and brother are huge genre readers and pushed lots of the classics on me). Why, you ask? Why, if I'm not just stubbornly assuming the writing will be crappy?

Because I don't like genre movies! I have yet to meet one person who enjoys genre fiction that doesn't also enjoy genre movies. For me, seeing a science fiction movie, no matter how great it's supposed to be, feels roughly like being in church. I don't like Star Wars, I don't like Star Trek, I didn't even like Bladerunner. Sorry, world, it just doesn't interest me. It's not that I think it's bad, I just don't give a hoot. It's purely the same principle that keeps me from watching team sports: total lack of interest. It's judgment-free.

This is all apropos of John begging me last night to see District 9 with him. I've heard so many good things about it I humored him and watched the trailer. But I dunno—it really does look, as one reviewer described it, like a war movie dressed up as science fiction. If there's a genre that appeals less than sci fi, it's war. See, I kind of want to see Moon, which looks more abstractly creepy—I like space. I like science! But I'm not so into gunning down aliens. (I also dislike arcades.)

I fully expect a comment like "Come on, Bladerunner is so good!" It's not it, people. It's me.


  1. Correction: I shouldn't have said I don't like genre movies. I don't like sci fi, fantasy, western, kung fu, comic book, action ... I don't like most movies. I DO like the '80s teen movie genre. Almost as a rule.

  2. One of the big differences between honest-to-god genre fiction and “lit-w/-genre elements” has to do with how the author treats the audience. Pure genre, such as Waylander II: In the Realm of the Wolf, doesn’t just employ stock characters and plot devices. No, it panders to the audience with every single passing sentence and clause. No one lifts a sword in that book, they heft it. And that’s cool if you’re in the mood to heft a sword.

    Lit-w/-genre elements earns the sobriquet “lit” in the first place because of the way it takes risks. Those risks can take place at all kinds of levels in an uneven mix – I’m talking here about plot, characterization, diction, and even the degree to which it flirts with being genre fiction – but always in directions that a pure genre writer wouldn’t dare lest they alienate their well-established audience base.

    I’m kind of appalled that anyone could read The Road and walk away thinking that it was sci-fi. The Jerry Bruckheimer movie version’s poster might look like sci-fi, but it’s some kind of crime to reverse-engineer the move version label back onto the book. Blood Meridian may take place in the “wild west,” but lordy day, it ain’t no Bonanza.

  3. In the Realm of the Wolf! Awesome.

    Good points. Someone over there at HTMLG pointed out that part of the point of genre and genre labels in the first place is to sell more books, via the marketing strategy "If you liked Waylander II: In the Realm of the Wolf, you might like Silverheft: Sword of Destiny," or whatever. Which doesn't mean there aren't good books about swords, but does mean some books about swords are utter shite but get published because they'll still be bought up by serious sword fiends.

    I propose a new genre: book club fiction. or has that been done?

  4. interesting topic. right in my crosshairs as i was a snobby lit-crit obsessed english major when i was 21 and now sheepishly inhale elmore leonard, john le carre, william gibson and a few other genre writers and loudly proclaim them as good writers.

    and they are. great writers in fact, i think. but i am sensible to the ways in which it is definitely not literature. maybe a little hard to define precisely why. like pornography vs. erotica, you can just feel the difference immediately.

    dag. got interrupted and have to leave. will continue later. was gonna propose elmore leonard's "rum punch", the basis for "Jackie Brown" as a text to discuss, but i'm probably the only one hear that has read it. but if you've seen the movie, you've basically read the book.

  5. i keep coming up with a-ha moments about "the difference" between genre + lit (plot vs. internal, focus on love, existential, sentence quality, idea density, focus on language, number of rewrites, degree of closure) but it seems like i can always think of an exception one way or another. maybe genre is about the way businesses work and literature is about how people perceive them - so an ethics. vs. empathy thing, with genre being a nerdy/ethical right/wrong discourse while literature is empathatic/subjective soul-internal? this breaks down for me with the romance genre, which i have never read, but is presumably not about "how the external/machinated world works"...

    is there something to be said about male genres vs. female genres? sorry this is so jumbled as i mentioned i have to rush off.

  6. Beekeeper's Wife ?!?!

    A ha aha ahahahahahahahaha!

    I feel like Book Club Fiction is a genre (and one that I feel no compunction in despising...we all have our snobberies). I once picked up a copy of Sue Monk Kidd's "The Mermaid Chair" and was so fed up with the insipid prose that I couldn't get past the first five pages. Ugh.

    One Literary/Genre crossover that I cannot get enough of is "highbrow with fairies/demons/supernatural stuff." Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell. The Master and Margarita. Of course, going by my description, MacBeth and Hamlet are genre fiction, so the whole thing may boil down into hopeless semantics.

  7. Re male vs. female -- I feel like the same people who argue that sci fi and other genre books can be amazing would *never* argue that a romance book could be amazing. So maybe there is some sexism at work, dude books can be great, but chick lit? No way dude!

    Looks like there is a book of poetry called The Beekeeper's Wife, actually written by a beekeeper's wife. Also, I found a page of jokes about bees including:

    The beekeeper's wife was incredibly neat and tidy. He'd spill honey, she'd be right there to clean it up. He'd drop his bee gloves and cover-alls on the floor, she'd wash 'em and fold 'em. He got up one night at three in the morning to get a glass of water. He came back and she was gone. But the bed was made.

    WTF? Talk about not funny. Actually most of them are just standard jokes with beekeepers inserted wherein the occupation has no bearing on the plot of the joke.

    Here's another one:

    A woman hears from her doctor that she has only half a year to live. The doctor advises her to marry a beekeeper and to move with him to Minnesota. The woman asks: "Will this cure my illness?" The doctor replies: "No, but the half year will seem pretty long."

  8. That first joke is kind of funny in its unfunniness.

    I think the "Waylander" type of genre and the Raymond Chandler type of genre are majorly different in kind and quality, and this I think is the source of people talking past each other somewhat over at the Giant. I don't know.

    I read the Star Trek books when I was a kid, but stopped when I realized they weren't canon. Nowadays, the fact they're not canon doesn't bother me, so I would read them, if not for the fact they're written so poorly. Sometimes you may find me at Borders during my lunch hour, surreptitiously flipping through the Star Trek books in an effort to recapture my childhood innocence. But nope, the prose is always crap.

  9. Um, The Beekeeper's Wife actually is a genre book. Tagline: She's been stung before, but now it's time for her to get her honey.

  10. Fascinating and thoughtful post, Elisa.

    I'd certainly be interested to know your reaction, if you ever have time to read them, to the science fiction of Ursula LeGuin, Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy, James J. Tiptree (aka Alice Sheldon), and Doris Lessing, all of whose work is fundamental to feminist theory and cultural criticism of the 60s, 70s, and after and who are to my way of thinking superior as literature to most if not quite all of the writers of literary (i.e. realist) fiction of their era.

    I also feel that Stanislaw Lem (despite some faltering on gender) and Philip Dick count as two of the most socially and philosophically important writers of the 20th century.

    Lem's Solaris has twice been made into a film: a so-so version starring George Clooney from 2004 and Andrei Tarkovsky's monumental 1972 Russian version.

    None of those suggestions of course is meant to even try to talk you into personally liking a genre that you don't like. Obviously there's no point in that. I have genres that I don't like either.

    Re romance novels, Lorraine tried to read them for a few years but couldn't find much of any interest, at least as she defined it. She's gone back to leisure reading in fantasy and sci-fi.

    Which is to say, based on less than full evidence, that not every genre is the same genre. Some genres have been used and tested more than others.

    Also, and just asking here: isn't there in fact a more literary equivalent of the romance novel that's been popular in recent years? The usually reviled chick lit is one such example. But probably, I'd say that sophisticated romance literature probably just becomes indistinguishable from literary realism, since love and life and work is the subject of much literary realism. Isn't Jhumpa Lahiri, winner of the Pulitzer, is that right, more or less just sophisticated romance lit with some cultural complexities attached?

  11. mark, good point about how the romance genre can seem to become literature just by being good. daphne du maurier, jane austen, george eliot, wendell wilkie, etc. etc.

    on a side note i was got my mind blown the other day browing Harlequin Romance covers at the Davis Square CVS. The titles were out of control! "The Prince's Captive Wife" "Argentinian Playboy, Unexpected Love-Child" "The Virgin Secretary's Impossible Boss" "Bought for the Sicilian Billionaire's Bed"


  12. I woke up early this morning and was lying in bed trying to think of well-written books that fit the criteria for romance genre and Jane Austen came to mind. I posted a comment on the HTML Giant about it. Thought it was interesting that one woman in particular was defending male-dominated genre fiction but dismissive of romance herself.

    Lahiri doesn't strike me as much better than "chick lit" honestly. I hate her stories.

  13. This whole topic is totally racist, you should all be ashamed of yourselves.

  14. come on, what about bladerunner.

    i've seen things you people wouldn't believe. attack ships on fire off the shoulder of orion. i watched C-beams glitter in the darkness at tannhauser gate. etc

  15. Mark got to this post before I did, so I won't repeat his recommendations/comments about sci fi and feminist sci fi writers. I suppose I'll just say that I agree--but Mark and I agree on many things, it's one of the reasons we get along well with each other.

    It's true, I did try reading romance novels--and there's even a whole subgenre of scifi/fantasy romances, but I just couldn't stand them. I suspect you might hate them, too: they always end in marriage. After I
    read one about a romance between a vampire woman and a Tibetan monk (promisingly campy) that still ended in marriage, I stopped reading them completely.

    Although...I did recently reread some classic romances: I continue to dislike the story of Jane Eyre (the subtitle should be: "how to become a good middle class English girl.") I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice more--at least Elizabeth Bennet is a little bit radical, although she doesn't have any apparent goals except marriage. Wuthering Heights, on the other hand, is totally out of control in a good way.

    When I was a kid, I gravitated towards science fiction and fantasy because it was one of the few genres that had female characters who were doing things that seemed interesting to me: leaving home, defying
    their parents, traveling, kicking ass, ruling the kingdom because their brothers are idiots, etc. I remember my aunt or mom
    tried to get me to read _A Tree Grows in Brooklyn_ and I was so bored and frustrated with the story that I never finished it.

    I have an undeveloped theory that the books you read and films you like resonate with your childhood in some way--I suppose everything has to do with childhood, but still. I bet if I'd grown up in the US and went to schools more like the ones in 80s teen movies, I'd probably be more interested in them.

  16. It bugs me to pluck work that fits within the confines of "genre" as imposed by "mainstream" lit and say it really isn't genre anymore without being able to give any solid textual reason why. Tends to suggest that our notion of "genre" isn't really one of the more important things we should be considering in a work.

    Personally, I think genres are a convenient way to discuss books in brief, and in that sense everything is in some genre. If you want to have a serious discussion, the labels can't be taken very far. If a journal says "no genre" as shorthand for "don't send your insipid Twilight fan fiction with the names changed," great, though frankly I'd rather they spell it out. If they actually mean "these things we call speculative fiction or Westerns can't ever be good unless we wave the magic wand and remove the label," then just wow.

  17. Thanks for this discussion!
    Like Lorraine, as a kid I read "genre" books because they were the ones I found where girls actually did things and had powers - Madeleine L'Engle's Swiftly Tilting Planet or Andre Norton's Star Kaats or Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn. As a grownup, I love Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami and Kelly Link. I think there's some kind of connection there.
    As re: romance - AS Byatt's Possession: A Romance could be construed as literary genre: romance/Victorian Mystery.

  18. did i mention i adore elmore leonard? i especially likes the way he talks/writes about writing - here's an interview with him from 1982.

    robert pinsky likes him too!

  19. Actually, District 9 wasn't all that great. Be glad you still have those three hours of your life when you were happily doing something else. Alien technology, however, is always kind of cool. Their guns turn people into pools of blood.

  20. Sure, I was doing something else. whether or not it was happily is an open question.

    would have been better if it turned them into bloods of pool, since that way, it rhymes.