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Genre is Always Problematic, Thankfully

“[T]he pressures of the market, the dynamics of prestige, and the construction of genealogies are intrinsic features of the web of resemblances that constitutes a genre. Genres are best understood by way of the practices that produce these resemblances and the motives that drive these practices. Pigeon-holing texts as members or non-members of this or that genre is intellectually frivolous, whatever consequences it might have in terms of market value or prestige. This is doubly true because, first, genre itself is an intertextual phenomenon formed out of resemblances or oppositions among texts, and second, no individual text is generically pure. Every text produces within itself a set of generic values in tension with and interacting upon one another” – John Reider

I was all set to discuss several short stories this week, but a cavalcade of suggestions rolled in for recent pieces to read, so I am going to read more, think more, and write about several of them next week. This week, I want to discuss genre in the context of its enduring, shifting excesses and flaws. Last week several folks on Twitter (myself, Paul Jessup, Ian Sales, and Aishwarya S.) had a discussion about the relevance of genre for selecting fiction and deciding on a given work’s connection to others. After a lot of back-and-forth, Paul, who is decidedly finished with genre, stated that “genre just leaves me going meh.” The discussion wound down after that (and I had withdrawn because I was heading to work and had trouble following along on my dumbphone), but a few days later, as I was doing a bit of reading for another article I am working on, I thought back to that discussion and wondered: what is it about genre that is, indeed, meh?

Which brings me to the statement that is the title of this column. Perhaps this statement is self-evident, but given how the concept of genre is often used, I think it needs to be stated more often, and not just with snark or incisive analysis, but with some measure of gratitude that we know this to be so. Given how the term genre is deployed and discussed, I think that the term itself is often deemed to be self-evident in what it refers to and a lot of effort is expended to overlook its difficulties or simplify its meaning. To some extent such practices are not problematic; the word genre does not just represent a single idea or have only one usage. Genre is an idea that can be used as designator and point of debate. In fact, the basic definition of the term is an invitation to think about what an artistic form is composed of, what it communicates to us, and how we relate to it.

I put John Rieder’s quotation from his excellent Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction at the top of this column because it brings out the conflicting promise and shortcomings of the idea of genre. It also situates the workings of the idea in the literary field of production, removing it from ostensibly purer concerns of text and affiliation into the realm of human practice and intention. In an academic way, it brings genre closer to what people think and say. His focus on not what it can contain, but what the the term generates in terms of similarities and differences, is an important distinction. Once we take that conceptual step and stop thinking that genre is a solid construct, or even a formal label, but rather a gloss for all the ways we make sense of artistic productions, we can more plainly see the problematic aspects of the concept.

To be a “web of resemblances” is to be a linked array of subjective judgments regarding relationships and disjunctures. Some of these judgments may be broadly agreed upon, and even used to create strict boundaries and characteristics of genres, to create commonalities and recognitions, but the fact that an observer can find not only exceptions to the rules but value judgments within the rules themselves that come from particular perspectives and agendas illustrates the inherent problematic of genre. “It” is not one thing and can only be provisionally coalesced and classified, often for specific goals and effects. As new works are created that build upon, respond to, refute, and/or ignore previous ones, and as new creators and readers enter into the discursive and social worlds of the texts, genre as idea, as practice, and as mode of categorization changes.

It seem auspicious that more common use of the word genre began only a few decades after a series of shifts in literature that, according to some observers such as John Clute, precipitated the development of fantastika as a distinctive form of literature. The term genre becomes used more and more as literature proliferates, as a need arises (from all quarters) for ways to talk about the forms and groupings of works and as people also seek not just pleasure or edification from literature (both of which become more complex as literature proliferates), but prestige, symbolic capital, economic rewards, and other social effects. This becomes increasingly at odds with many formal definitions of genre, from structuralist formations to attempts to create typologies that seek to not just codify but constrain artistic productions, and which are themselves created for many of those same purposes.

Genre is most often used not just to classify, but to create classes, to grant greater social prestige or values (leisure, intellectual, etc) to the reading and writing and appreciation of texts, based more on particular characteristics than overall quality. “Literary fiction” is often granted the highest level of accolades in the larger society, while more codified and stereotyped genres, such as science fiction and romance, are viewed as lower genres. Some critics and fans of the less broadly prestigious genres argue for greater appreciation of the works they view as being within a particular web of resemblance (see for example Genre at the Crossroads). But this is just one sort of genre game: many readers of these more particularized genres form their own social groups and subcultures and create their own hierarchies of value for literature. At all of these levels, many of these classifications rely on ossified or tightly structured notions of genre to base their practices and motivations upon, and thus, problems emerge, and debates rage across and between groups as they struggle to control the terms of definition and validate the value and content of their applications of genre.

Genre is always problematic because its intertextuality and inherent impurities are not just based on our perceptions or reasoning or the encoding of the text themselves, but our desires and our hopes and our disappointments. It can be used as a tool of power to exclude and deride, to draw social boundaries as well as textual ones, to overlay expectations and marginalize ideas. Genre is at its worst when applied as ideology, as market category that seeks to override the web of resemblances, and as criterion for inclusion. What it comes down is how the idea of genre is used, not the deployment of the term itself. The intention of the user and how they reproduce a given iteration of genre and link it to texts and assumptions is as important to understand as the specific construction and employment of that iteration.

The problematic aspects are manifold. As Jeff Vandermeer has pointed out, the use of “genre” in rigid or overbearing ways abets a literary language of defeat. 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. The history of the use of “genre” adds to its problematic nature because it has a long tradition of usage that strives to elude the flexibility and multivalence of the web of resemblances. In these cases the web is used less to establish connections than to capture ideas about literature and hold them in place. This history of usage creates an additional layer of problems and facilitates “the language of defeat.”

As I noted in an earlier discussion of the language of defeat, “the ideas of symbolic capital that inhere to certain genre categories and distinctions can powerfully affect how we look at books and their place in our creative and imaginative lives.” How we conceive of and use genre, and what we are trying to get out of it, can profoundly shape how we look at different texts and other participants in the literary field. It is by realizing what makes genre problematic that we can see how to ameliorate its flaws and expand on its possibilities. As I put it in that earlier writing:

“The trick is to think about those moments between, what lies inside and between the categories and assumptions that we project and ingest and wrestle with as we read and think and imagine. It is easy to conflate the cultural and literary utility and pleasures of genre with other considerations, and create not just borders, but outright barriers that inhibit our ingenuity as readers and writers and editors. The syntax of defeat creates obstacles, rather than conditions for creativity. The question for me is, what ideas enrich our experience of literature, increase our insights into what it gives us, and help us to recognize and incorporate the little moments between into the life of the mind and spirit that literature invigorates in us.”

It is because genre is problematic, so shot through with inconsistency, limitations, and motives that it is possible, fruitful even, to not submit to its misuses, but to oppose them, undermine them, continually seek to improve our conversations and conceptions around them, and use them to help open up texts and discussions, rather than close them and miss much of what makes them enjoyable and powerful.

1 Comment on Genre is Always Problematic, Thankfully

  1. The fractal boundary of what Genre is, at its borders with slipstream, is another “problem”, too.

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