MIND MELD: Blurring the Lines in Genre Fiction
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I love novels that can walk the lines of multiple genres, so, in that spirit, I asked our panelists these questions:
Here’s what they had to say…
I honestly do not think of “genres” at all when I write. I also don’t envision a targeted audience. I know that this goes against the philosophy of the majority, but it’s how I write. I write the story that pleases me, and I write it entirely for myself. I’m not a big fan of “comfort zones” when writing, either, because being comfortable sounds too much like sticking to the same old formula. I like to experiment with plot, narrative style, content, and structure every time I start something new. This is frequently challenging, but it keeps things interesting, too. I don’t like feeling bored or boxed in by a particular brand. So it’s always been the most difficult thing for me to precisely categorize any novel of mine in terms of genre and what it might be comparable to.
I think a lot of Vonnegut’s work scatters across the constraints of genre. I also admire Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume and Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. In terms of YA literature, I’m a big fan of A.S. King’s work.
Blending genres has always appealed to me, and I think, comes quite naturally when I write. I suppose my reading has always been eclectic, and I’ve had definite reading fads at different ages, so it’s really no surprise. (Right now, I’m caught in a crime warp; loving everything crime related, especially the Tartan Noir.) But I’ll never forget the day I picked up Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge and discovered a detective story anchoring a big ideas SF novella. It was exciting and liberating. It was for me! Then came Jonathon Lethem’s Gun with Occasional Music, which was a revelation – more detective fiction mixed with SF.
I see mixing genres is a stand against literary hegemony. It adds uncertainty and a shake of allspice to stories. The writer is charged with making decisions about what aspects of each genre to adopt, and what to ignore. It’s like cooking without a recipe. When it works, the end result is delicious! And when it doesn’t, it can still be …. interesting.
In my opinion, that beats the hell out of predictable.
Some of my favourite genre bending books include:
- The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
- Gun with Occasional Music by Jonathon Lethem
- The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon
- Dying Earth series by Jack Vance
- Perdito Street Station by China Mieville
- Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs
- Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Back in the old video store days, I noticed an interesting phenomenon – the genre sections of the stores were almost exclusively filled with B-movies, unsuccessful movies and cult movies. Any film that had enjoyed a substantial measure of success was in the popular and general release sections. In other words, if it was good or financially successful, it wasn’t considered a genre film. In fact, if the movie boasted a major box office star or a well-known director it was unlikely to be shelved in the genre sections.
Of course, the same has always been true of genre literature. You’ll seldom find science fiction books written by Doris Lessing or Margaret Atwood in the science fiction section of the bookstore. If it’s literary, it shouldn’t be considered a genre book! And the only reason you could always find Michael Crichton novels on airport bookracks was because he wasn’t considered a genre writer even though he wrote very little that wasn’t science fiction.
Accepted wisdom in writing and publishing was that if you were a horror writer, you should always write horror books. A horror writer who penned a science fiction book was strongly advised to do it under a pen name. This was because it was considered important for readers to know what to expect when they laid their money down. And it was important for bookstores to know what shelves to put it on so that said readers would know where to find it. And therein lies the truth. Genres are simply marketing categories, handy labels to make selling books easier.
This state of affairs exists and has always existed, but I personally think it’s not only a self-perpetuating way to keep genre writers in their place, it’s also insulting to readers.
And despite the fact that ignoring genre boundaries is the best and most natural way to put fresh twists on old ideas, writers have always been told not to cross the streams.
I mean, where do you put a science fiction/ comedy book? Maybe in mainstream like Kurt Vonnegut? Or how about a historical/mystery? Maybe in mainstream like Umberto Eco? If writing cross-genre books is confusing for readers and retailers – then I think we should do all we can to create as much genre mayhem as possible. If they can’t figure out where else to put it, maybe it will end up being marketed as mainstream. Wouldn’t that be the kiss of death?
Life is drama, and drama comes from conflict. There are many sources of conflict in the writing process. It most obviously comes from interaction between characters, and from the challenges they face in the plot you construct around them (it’d sound more poetic to say ‘weave’, but plot always feels to me more like slowly building a structure, block by speculative lock, and then sometimes having to knock down and rebuild an entire wing because it turns out the architect was distracted or drunk one afternoon).
But it can very fruitfully come from more meta areas too. Each time you put a word down on a page, and follow it with another, the degree of harmony or dissonance between them will have a bearing on what comes next, in ways you may not have consciously intended. The conflict between what you hope to achieve in a given novel, and the realities of your deadline, and reader or publisher expectation, will also make some decisions for you.
And finally, and for me perhaps most productively of all, there can be tangy conflicts between expectation and subversion, between the genre you appear to be in, and what you introduce into the story from the outside. Not only can this be fruitful in keeping the author’s and readers’ imaginations engaged, but it seems to me that it more faithfully evokes real life. There are many scientists who nonetheless believe in God. There are hyper-rational Dawkins acolytes who will nonetheless knock on wood. And almost all of us are afraid of the dark, to one degree or another, despite knowing it’s merely the absence of light. We all have work and love and superstition in our lives, and moments of joy and hard afternoons of pain and sadness, and soft dreams and hard reality, constantly mixing genres of experience: so why not in our fiction, too?
To be honest, I think almost all the books I like tend to blur those lines at least a little bit. Three examples off the top of my head…
- J. Robert Lennon’s MAILMAN. This starts ostensibly as a rather literary, Great American Novel-style account of the humdrum life of a mailman… and then gradually, barely perceptibly, morphs into something unknowable and magical. One of the best books I’ve read in the last ten years.
- James Lee Burke’s IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH THE CONFEDERATE DEAD. Mystery lends itself to a hint of the other, if you choose to go down that path (which I do, in my own books). Burke is one of the genre’s great stylists, and in this book opens the door to the supernatural with great subtlety. Jim Thompson was also great at threading a hint of the uncanny into some of his books.
- Anything by Stephen King. What a lot of people seem to miss about King is that (at his best) he’s as good and faithful and insightful a chronicler of small-town American life as someone like Garrison Keillor. Yes, he happens to habitually use the dark side to enliven and underlie and inform those stories, but it’s his abilities in evoking people that has sold so many books.
Timothy Schaffert is the author of five novels: The Swan Gondola, The Coffins of Little Hope, Devils in the Sugar Shop, The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God, and The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters. He is the Director of the (downtown) Omaha lit fest, and contributing editor at Fairy Tale Review. In addition, he is Assistant Professor in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln creative writing program.
“The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God” is part of the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers program, and was the 2007 Omaha Reads one-book-one-city selection. “Devils in the Sugar Shop” was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and a Book Sense pick.
Even if you’re writing explicitly within the formulas and boundaries and expectations of a single genre, you must explore and venture out. There’s plenty of room within a genre to experiment. So if your characters seem to want to lead you into new territory, you should follow them there — why wouldn’t challenges and newly skewed perceptions of your work invigorate your writing? I think we see effective examples of this in every issue of Fairy Tale Review, the journal founded and edited by Kate Bernheimer; Kate also brought this genre-bending sensibility to two recent anthologies: “My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales” and “xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths.”
Genre is one of those words, I think, that inspires terror in the heart of the reader—and not always in the way intended. I couldn’t tell you how many people have said to me, “Oh, I don’t read genre fiction.” Whenever I run into one of those people, I have a couple of books I always recommend.
I love the line between really great writing and really great horror is blurred. One of the best examples of that is post-apocalyptic zombie story Zone One, written one of America’s great writers, Colson Whitehead, author of among other things, Sag Harbor. Yes, Whitehead, a finalist for both the Pulitzer and the National book award, wrote a zombie book. Zomlit, emphasis on the lit part. It’s beautifully written, an almost lyrical book about a young soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in post-zombie infested New York City. Another big writer writing horror is Margaret Atwood—also writing zomlit. The most recent big-gun to write horror is Benjamin Percy, whose Red Moon is a blend of werewolf-apocalyptic-persecution-action. That’s a quadruple hit.
New writer Chadwick Ginther from Canada wrote a great couple of books—the first two in what will be a trilogy—Thunder Road and Tombstone Blues, are excellent and creepy blend of Norse mythology and fantasy. I’m looking forward to the next in the series. And of course, I couldn’t finish this without mentioning my personal favourite genre blending: porn and zombies. Rigor Amortis, zombie erotica—it’s an anthology collection that has to be experienced to be believed. Treat yo’self.
But then, that’s life isn’t it? How many of us live an existence that can be defined by one tone? Isn’t it all an absurd mix of horror, fantasy, comedy and tragedy?
I always argue that mixing genres can make for a more potent whole. My favourite comedy, for example, is that which brushes up against the darkness. SIGHTSEERS, HUMAN REMAINS, THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, weren’t they all made funnier by the fact that the laugh came so close to a scream? In the end, at their best, you’re not sure quite which response to give. The scream is louder because the laugh put you at ease, the laugh is richer because it’s a welcome release from the scream.
And, while horror fiction can certainly benefit by being single-minded it also flourishes when you allow fantasy to creep in, Where would Lovecraft have been without the sense of mystical awe that lay just outside his ’normality’?
It’s all about contrasts. My favourite fantasy fiction is that which brushes up to reality. I’ve never really enjoyed Heroic Fantasy because of that. I want to slip from the recognisably mundane to the mystical and magical. I want my fantasy to bleed into our world.
I must admit, it’s not done me many favours. I would probably sell a few more books if I focused on one genre at a time. To me though it feels like a painter ignoring his palette. My favourite stories will always dip their brush in different colours.
-What books have you read that blur the lines between genres and do it effectively?
Anything by Michael Marshall Smith. What genre does ONLY FORWARD belong to, for example? Is it sci-fi? Fantasy? Horror? Yes. It is. It’s also terribly witty. A wonderful stew of a novel, every flavour makes my mouth water.
AMERICAN GODS. Neil Gaiman comes from a comics background and that’s always been a medium that happily threw everything but the kitchen sink at the page.
IMAJICA by Clive Barker. One of his most overtly fantastical novels but it also pulses with horror and a sense of the transgressive.
I also want to pick a comic because I love them so much! So, while the list of possible titles is endless, how about Grant Morrison’s THE INVISIBLES? A conspiracy theory saga that mixes sci-fi, horror and surrealism to devastating effect.
What a loaded term genre has become. Which is not to say the term’s not useful: genre’s a real help in understanding the conventions of particular stories and books and films, and each of those conventions hold a cache of unique pleasures. But for a lot of writers and readers, it’s also become a short-hand for the way we understand ourselves, and I’m not sure that’s so good.
For instance, I write horror fiction and science fiction and fantasy and a little bit of realistic fiction. Most people who know my work think of me as a horror writer, and if I’m going to be honest about it, I think of myself that way too. Stories incorporating horror are tasty work for me—I find my imagination swings that way, both as a writer and a reader. Why not spend all my writing time mining that very rich vein?
For one thing, after not too long, I’m afraid I’d get to be a bit of a bore. And for another: very few writers of the writers I know and admire do that.
Joe R. Lansdale got his start writing singularly nasty East-Texas horror stories in the 1980s. But some of his best work is in other genres: mysteries like the Hap and Leonard novels, the coming-of-age crime novels like A Thin Red Line and The Bottoms; or heart-breaking and -pounding westerns like The Thicket.
Laird Barron lurks a little nearer to the haunted home, but his Lovecraftian horrors wouldn’t fly quite so distinctively, without his hard-bitten protagonists and formidable femme-fatales straight out of a Jim Thompson noir. Stephen King, whose name and early work helped define the horror genre in the late 20th and early 21st century, has been mingling genres from the very start, and H.P. Lovecraft, whose work defined the horror genre period, considered himself a science fiction writer.
And on the subject of science fiction: spend some time in Peter Watts’ head. The dude is well-known as one of the most rigorous practitioners of hard-sf around. But his last Tor novel, Blindsight, featured as terrifyingly plausible (and therefore terrifying) a vampire as you’re going to encounter between pages. It’s a science fiction novel. It’s a horror novel. The combination makes the whole of it stronger.
Madeline Ashby’s iD (a science fiction novel, second in a series about self-replicating robots) opens with one of the creepiest scenes you’ll read this year, and goes on to tell a globe-trotting tale of subterfuge, sex and violence worthy of Ian Fleming on a very good day.
Gemma Files is a well-known horror writer. Her horrific Hexslinger trilogy is also an epic western, with a voice plucked from Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry (and more than a little bit of Deadwood) and imagery that’d make Clive Barker blanch.
Full disclosure on those last three: all of them are dear friends (Madeline, my partner, considerably more than that) with whom I talk a lot of shop, and share a lot of ideas. But while there might be a bit of cross-brain-contamination, I don’t think that’s all it.
I think part of it is that genre—strictly delineated genre—is getting old. The borders are crumbling all by themselves.
For instance: There was a time that science fiction was not only about different worlds but was itself a different world to most readers. Interest in horror fiction was seen by a significant number of worried parents, as a sign of mental illness. Fantasy was kids’ stuff.
A journeyman writer or artist could exist comfortably within those genres, writing space opera and sword and sorcery and tales of terror. A transcendent artist—J.R.R. Tolkien, or Arthur C. Clarke, or Ray Bradbury or Shirley Jackson—could make those genres explode into the wide world. And as they did, a broader range of readers learned the language of the genres. The Lord of the Rings and Childhood’s End and Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Haunting of Hill House became a part of a cultural lexicon.
And that frees us—as creators or consumers or whatever we want to call ourselves—to mingle, mix, critique or just celebrate all the many different ways a good story can unfold. I can’t speak for everyone. But for this horror writer, stepping out of the genre box is an opportunity too good to pass up.
I don’t know if it’s important for writers to embrace different genres, but it’s certainly something that I enjoy doing and did a lot of in Notes from the Internet Apocalypse.
When I started writing, I wasn’t overly concerned with genres. Oddly, even though some of my favorite pieces of art were things like Brazil, The Wall, 1984, and Star Wars, when it came to writing, I somehow got it in my head that only small, earnest Raymond Carver stories were worth telling. Stories where a lonesome truck driver gets a cheesecake and a cup of coffee in a diner at 3 am and the waitress reminds him of his estranged daughter. I still like stories like that — natural, emotion-based, character studies, but in my thirties I opened up to just the joy of storytelling. And I have to give the biggest credit to the Doctor Who reboot which used to bring me to tears three out of every four episodes. It might be a stupid show about an alien and a time-travelin’ phone booth, but the show did nothing short of redefine my conceptions on the possibilities of God. With that as my inspiration, I suddenly realized there was no shame in telling big stories. Once I started doing that, then genres like sci fi and mystery merely became tools. Or even better, shortcuts to establish ideas.
When it comes to something I’ve read that blurs lines, I guess I’d have to say Franz Kafka. People think of his work as dark and tortured, but apparently, he used to read his own work aloud to his friends and laugh until he literally cried. Once you see the humor in Kafka, the duality between darkness and comedy is incredibly unsettling and rewarding.
I think as a writer it’s important to step out of your comfort zone not only when writing, but when reading, as well. For instance, if all you read is science fiction and all you write is science fiction, then you’re limiting your creative abilities. Branch out. Read mysteries, historical fiction, chick lit, police procedurals, romance, classic literature, memoirs, and books or stories written in different POVs and with various narrative structures, then try your hand at writing a scene or a chapter or a short story in this new style or genre. By stepping out of your comfort zone, you challenge yourself to discover uncharted creative territory. When you come back home, you’ll bring all of this new creative energy to the table, which can only enrich your writing as a whole.
As for books I’ve read that I felt blur the lines between genres and do it well? Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore comes to mind, as it’s a blend of historical fiction, mystery, and fantasy. I’m also a fan of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which combines science fiction, social satire, and history to great effect. And to make it three because good things come in threes, Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk does a good job of blending horror and the supernatural with social satire.
I think it’s important to stretch yourself as a writer, or as a creator of any kind, really. For one thing, it’s entirely too easy to develop unconscious habits and patterns in your writing if you aren’t constantly working to expose them. Presenting yourself with new challenges is a great way to uncover those habits.
Additionally, pushing yourself in new directions is always instructive as a creator, and as writers, the more you challenge yourself with new characters, plotlines, settings, and/or storytelling techniques, the deeper your understanding of the art and craft becomes.
Also, if you’re not introducing yourself to new ideas on a regular basis, you inevitably end up exploring the same ones over and over again, and they’ll eventually get stale. But just discovering a new viewpoint on an old idea can give your writing an entirely new dimension, so even writers who are firmly committed to one specific genre benefit when they go outside their own borders and bump up against material they aren’t normally exposed to.
As a side note, I think that’s why it’s important as a writer to try to read widely, fiction and non-fiction, both outside your genre as well as outside your usual medium; if you’re a sci-fi author who only ever reads sci-fi, you might not even be aware of the boundaries that you’ve placed on yourself. Or if you’re a novelist who only ever reads novels, you might be missing out on some interesting techniques and lessons you can learn from comic books, or movies, or poetry. The larger your library of ideas is, and the greater your range of literary experiences, the more you have to draw from when you’re creating new, genre-defying works.
There are plenty of examples of current authors doing a great job of blurring genre lines, but to name just a few:
- Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls combines time travel, a serial killer, and historical elements
- Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops series mixes fantasy with modern military
- Wesley Chu’s The Lives of Tao and The Deaths of Tao are part spy-thriller, part sci-fi alien invasion, with some buddy cop sentiment
- Ramez Naam’s Nexus and Crux are high-tech science-fictiony, politically-charged thrillers
All of these authors do a fine job of building believable, organic worlds where their various elements work together coherently. It might be tough for booksellers to classify works like these, but I’m certainly glad that there are writers who are creatively bold enough to write stories that challenge easy categorization.
“Do you think it’s important for writers to step outside their comfort zones and explore other genres?” (paraphrase) is a really interesting question. It’s a modern idea, I think. Not that there weren’t always marketing considerations (or Mary Ann Evans would not have taken a pen name), but there was a time when writers just wrote. Much of classic English literature is high-brow romance. And gothic works combine elements of romance, horror, and suspense. Yet I doubt Mary Shelley ever had the thought “I want to be a horror writer.”
My favorite books are the ones where the writers just wrote, without much (or any) consideration for genre. As an adolescent, I adored the brilliant WATERSHIP DOWN; I dare you to try and classify that one. (And how about MAIA? Adams’s epic fantasy/romance/erotica.) Another of my favorites, OUTLANDER, is shelved in speculative fiction, is a great historical romp, and yet everyone knows it’s a time-travel romance. Wikipedia calls Jo Walton’s AMONG OTHERS — about a fairy-seeing 1970s Welsh heroine who is obsessed with Golden Age sci-fi novels — a “fantasy.” One could almost make an argument for magical realism. And oh yeah she’s fifteen and struggling to find her place in the world so doesn’t that make it middle grade? (No.)
I spent more than a decade trying to figure out who I was as a writer. I was always told you should write what you read, and vice versa. I read English and French classics. I enjoyed literature with speculative elements (Louise Erdrich and Margaret Atwood). And along the way I devoured pure fantasy authors such as Tad Williams, David Eddings, and (obviously) Tolkien. Where did I fit in with all these? It was too big a question. It was the *wrong* question.
“What do I *want* to write?” This is the only question that matters.
For me, the genre mashup was about stepping *into* my comfort zone. Not an exercise, but a release. Permission, to write whatever wanted to come out of me. GHOST PLANET, a planetary romance with paranormal elements. THE OPHELIA PROPHECY, a post-apocalyptic biopunk romance. ECHO 8, earth-based sci-fi romance with paranormal and suspense elements (I think of it as psi-fi romance).
Romance for genre philanderers like me — so exactly half romance and half speculative that my own publisher doesn’t know what to do with me sometimes. That’s my comfort zone.
Tagged with: Andrew Smith • Dale L Sproule • David Nickle • Guy Adams • Jay Posey • Marianne de Pierres • Michael Marshall • Mind Meld • SG Browne • Sharon Llynn Fisher • Susie Moloney • Timothy Schaffert • Wayne Gladstone
Filed under: Mind Meld
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