Genre as a (Perhaps Necessary) Fantastic Fiction We Tell Each Other
” If we wrote fiction the way we talk about genre and mainstream most of the time, we would all be hacks, our prose full of the most crass and belabored cliches. Yet we persist in outdated, dangerous generalizations, and allow them to color our perceptions of reality. We refuse to engage with the individual in front of us, to communicate, and instead create badly-made fictions about them.” – Jeff VanderMeer
“…I think science fiction is — well, no, not important, yet still worth talking about, because it is a promise of continued life for the imagination, a good tool, an enlargement of consciousness. . . .” – Ursula K. Le Guin, from “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown,” in Gunn & Candelaria’s Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction
I wanted to start with these two quotations because they encapsulate for me a contradiction that colors how I consider writing, reading, and the understandings of fiction that result from these activities. I heartily agree with Jeff VanderMeer’s notion that genre should not determine our perception of literature, but I also feel very deeply, as Le Guin does, that SF (and, for me, fantastika) as an idea provides fuel for my imagination. This is a paradox that I have been struggling with since I started writing about fantastic literature: the struggle between the truncation of convention and the potential for inspiration. As I try to talk about literature in general, and specific fictions in particular, I find myself caught in webs of signification spun by others (to steal from Clifford Geertz), and I realize that to not just understand the uses of genre, but to understand how they shape communication, there is a need to examine what stories we are telling with genre, instead of just trying to make the stories more believable.
Later in the essay from which I drew that quotation, Jeff VanderMeer talks about being on a panel where the idea of genre was used to do just what he talks about: serve as a bad story about, in this case, a writer. This is not an isolated incident; the discussion of literature is filled with moments like this that use genre to label and characterize people, texts, and ideas. The ways in which we think about fiction are conditioned by the ways that we talk about fiction, and the use of genre as explication and designation conditions the discussion of literature by creating boundaries around and characteristics for literary works, in a concentrated fashion. As I noted a few weeks ago, “We often talk about fiction in terms that simplify it,” and the most simplifying concept is that of genre.
“Division of fiction into genres is like all classification, useful to readers who like fiction of a certain kind or about certain subjects and want to know where to find it in a bookstore or library; and useful to critics and students and Common Readers who have realised that not all fictions are written in the same way with the same aesthetic equipment.
Genre has no use at all as a value category and should never be used as such… .”
Le Guin succinctly summarizes an effect of genre here. But genre is not just a label that codifies or describes. The classification that is being undertaken is not the same sort as, say, classifying dinnerware. The “things” being categorized have a much higher level of interpretability, and we engage them much differently. Calling a particular object a “fork” does not usually carry a value judgment; we have to add an adjective for that (i.e., a “good” fork, an “expensive fork,” etc.). Genre labels are more than a way to name fictions and organize them; they are also compressed stories about fiction.
Genre is not a static identification; it overlays a range of assumptions and, for better or worse, value judgments onto a give text or texts. It does this by assigning qualities to those texts, but not ones of form (like “fork”). It assigns interpretations about the content, about what the language communicates to the reader. It draws upon narrative elements, vocabulary, and the production of images and ideas in a text and overlays assumptions onto their imagined relationships. Some of these emerge from received historical notions and cultural reactions, while others are consensual or subjective (such as Damon Knight’s famous definition of science fiction as “what we point to when we say ‘science fiction’”). But these classifications are mutable and contested, and how they are reproduced and altered is through their application as fictions.
Genre’s interpretability is what makes it easy to fictionalize. While some genre designations seem to be basic, most are formulaic delineations. When we describe a book as, for example, a “Western,” we do not just mean a story set in the American West. The term has a history to it, and encapsulates a routinized story within it, of gunfighters and Indians, violence and justice, conquest and survival. Others are more, depending on your perspective, open-ended or hollow, such as the frequently-used yet often-reviled “mainstream.” But all of them impute value judgments, however undeserved or truncated, on what they purport to describe.
The combination of interpretability and valuation is what makes genre labels fictive and moldable to a user’s intentions. We often deploy them to establish a shared understanding about a text, yet their contradictory combination of instability and conventionality frames and often limits the discussion of literature. . . intentionally. When we invoke genre we start to tell a story about literature, the one that we want to tell others and want others to agree with, to bind texts and organize them. “When we use genre to create dichotomies and value judgments based on limited characteristics, rather than the contents and intricacies of a text and its potential reception, we are engaging in a power-play of interpretation, and using the precedent of narrow applications of genre to reinforce that.” Genre is not just an interpretive label, it is a fictive one that is inherently problematic when applied to content rather than form.
Genre is a sort of shorthand parable we tell each other about literature. On one level it addresses a discursive need: how do we bridge the gap between ourselves and what others have read and not read? How do you quickly establish a common ground for discussing literature and exchanging ideas? Genre has served as a mediating abstraction since the 18th century for such discussions, but rarely as a neutral term. It is a crux for each reader and writer to put forth their own idea of what a given text or set of texts or trends or assertions about literature does, to tell their own story about what they value and what they do not. It says as much about the people using it as about the object of discussion itself.
The idea of genre as a parable extends to its linguistic power as well; genre fulfills a need for a way to tell stories about literature and texts. In The Literary Mind, Mark Turner uses the idea of parable to discuss how language works. Language is created by our need to tell stories, to categorize and depict the world around us. “In the literary mind, parable projects stories onto other stories” (p. 118). Genre, I suggest, is the parable of literature, with all of the promises and complications and problems of telling a story; it is a mechanism that our literary minds use to grasp and organize ideas about literature.
Genre is the projection of a story about literature onto literature. And, as with all stories, there is the risk of oversimplifying and mischaracterizing complex objects in telling the tale, thus the hackery of genre that Jeff VanderMeer highlights. But, in addition, genre can be powerfully affective, as Le Guin points out, because in the end we each have our ideas of the content and significance of genre, even when they become entangled with conventional definitions of genres. We each imagine what we love and what we despise about genre(s) and put our ideas forth to create agreement or refute other formations of genre. Genre is our narrated perspective about the significance or effects of stories on our imaginations. We tell each other stories, reproducing or resisting commonly-asserted ideas of specific genres to carve out a conceptual space for us to talk about what moves us about literature, whether to passionate delight or anger.
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