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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 Yet we persist in outdated, dangerous generalizations, and allow them to color our perceptions of reality.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.

Genre condenses and bundles characteristics into a handy term, but genre is not a simple concept.  In another essay, this one entitled “On Despising Genres,” Le Guin asserts that:

“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.

8 Comments on Genre as a (Perhaps Necessary) Fantastic Fiction We Tell Each Other

  1. More than anything, genre is a projection of our expectations. Were I to mention “science fiction”, the words evoke an image of shared commonalities. My image will be different from yours, because my experience of the genre and thus my expectations of it are different. But because to some extent our expectations are shaped by shared experiences (we’ve surely been exposed to some of the same media, and that shared media was no doubt shaped by still other media), there will be enough overlap that we can – presumably – discuss “science fiction” together.

    In and of itself, I don’t think this is problematic. Most consumers of literature (not literary critics, mind) don’t really agonize over genre distinctions. That’s because their shared experiences are distributed evenly enough that for their purposes, their concepts of genre work just fine, thank you. But a discussion of genre does become problematic at extremes of either specificity or specialization.

    For example, if I were to mention a relatively specialized category of art (e.g. nara-period byobu) its specificity precludes the majority from having shared experiences that enable discussion. With explanations, I may suggest shared experiences and thus enable conversation, but unless my interlocutors are familiar with the genre it will be tough to discuss it in great detail. In literature, most readers who I’ve spoken to don’t draw clear distinctions between sub-genres because of this problem of specificity. Readers might know they like “sci-fi” or “fantasy” but have difficulty articulating a preference for “science fictional zombie apocalypse stories” over “zombie horror”.

    The flip side to specificity is specialization on the speaker’s part. Because I read a lot of fantastika and try hard to think about it, my conception of the genre has grown more nuanced through the breadth of my experiences with it. The degree of nuance heavy readers/critical thinkers are comfortable discussing is something most casual readers are not.

    And when the problems of specificity and specialization are laid on top of each other, the result is a failure to communicate (and the reason why when I start philosophizing on art, my friends groan and throw popcorn at me). And at the same time, I think this is why Damon Knight’s abstraction ultimately works so well: because even a highly specialized critic of fantastika can look beyond the nuances we love to find common language and shared experiences with a casual reader.

    • Thanks for this very thoughtful response, Chris. I agree with a lot of what your write here, although my take on casual readers is different. I run into genre complications in the bookstore every day, and just in terms of shelving categories, but in terms of how books are represented to readers. These aren’t often involved discussions, but even readers who have thought little about genre will ponder it when something does not sit right with their taken-for-granted ideas about it.

      Your first sentence captures the essence of the problem of genre, but also of why we keeping picking at it and talking about it. Trying to come to terms with the commonalities, while shaping them to our own purposes, often for affective and social reasons, can give you a headache and produce a lot of tension (as VanderMeer points out) and can interfere with communication, but I think there is also some promise in thinking about how to look at genre in a way that either enhances its communicative potential or gets it out of the way so that we can talk about texts more evocatively.

  2. I’m with LeGuin. Genres are forks, not value judgements about forks. The problem, as always lies between the market genres — categories we’ve come to call genres — fantasy, westerns, science fiction — and genre movements — specific approaches, themes and uses of languages which are assessed by their effect and sometimes their value to the body of literature. The disparate works in a category genre like fantasy belong to many different genre movements. Other than the inclusion of elements that are fantastic, there are no other reliable commonalities in fantasy fiction, including the nature of the fantastic elements. Yet, that simplification, to try to overlay ideas about particular genre movements to the entire category genre of fantasy or science fiction, to insist that the entire category genre is in itself a defined movement, allows for simplified value judgements, illusionary binary systems and other rhetorical gambits built on air, as you note. We desperately want all the forks to be a specific kind of fork and to establish a social hierarchy thereby. The fact that it is illogical and contradictory to facts to do this does not seem to remove its appeal.

    • Kat: I think that “rhetorical gambits built on air” is a pretty apt summary, and I wish I had been able to talk a bit more about the social elements, because they are so often intertwined with the definitional aspects. A lot of the passion with which genre is argued about is fueled by the fact that it is sued to generate symbolic capital. That capital takes a lot of forms, some of which are subtle, but that is part of the reason why I think genres will never just be forks.

      All works of fiction are hybrid creations. I think that fantastic literature makes this more obvious, which is why establishing genre boundaries is so subjective and, indeed, contradictory. The question I want to get at is: why then is genre so persistent?

      • Because humans identify and codified. The concept of genre does become a mix of communication — this is a fork (a book with fantasy elements) — and the symbolic — and social — capital you’re speaking of, and is further complicated by the use of adjunct category markets in bookselling loosely outlined in bookstore sections. I think the example that best sums it up is LeGuin and her pal Margaret Atwood. Atwood is no enemy of science fiction, but the three SF novels she’d written — novels that we would consider post-apocalyptic near-future SF (let’s call SF spoons,) she did not see as falling under the rubric science fiction. To her, science fiction stories were not spoons but a particular kind of spoon, a movement, which had to be set in the far future, out in space with maybe aliens and things that could not be possibly invented with current technology. Therefore her stories belonged to a different genre movement in her view, speculative fiction, a term generated with vague definition in the 1970’s, Atwood’s heyday. That SF has published, in and out of the category market, thousands of near-future SF stories was lost in that assessment. LeGuin tried very gently to point out to Atwood that she was in fact writing spoons and Atwood did eventually shrug and say that perhaps her work was SF if so many people saw it that way. Some thought her views, I think wrongly, were basic snobbery, but it seems more a matter of people being confused at the multiple meanings the word genre has developed and about readers. Confused or not, there are many people who will use the concept of a movement to invoke social capital out of an artificial symbolic definition — that SF (spoons) are all books about sexy babes, aliens and ray guns and as such, of low value and all in the one section of the bookstore, and therefore any book not conforming to that concept must instead be something else.

        This is an issue that authors like LeGuin and VanderMeer run into again and again. A fantasy author writing an edgy story is told he’s writing to comfort, a SF writer playing with philosophical ideas of identity is told that he must be writing to predict the future. Notions of what these books must have beyond their basic forkness or spoonness come out of preferences, training, social identity, confusion about publishers and bookselling practices, and limited exposure to the scope of forks and spoons available and in the past. It’s a bit like political pundits, and as such it is cultural.

        Why have many SF fans and authors been so certain SF will shortly die, over and over again, for the last seventy years like an apocalypse cult? Why do many fantasy fans and younger authors so willingly believe the false assertion that older fantasy authors never wrote dark and edgy stories, or if they did, they didn’t sell? Why do many people believe a horror story can’t be called horror (knife) unless it contains fantasy elements? And so on and so forth. It is cultural. It is clearly important to many of us personally to have the discussion. But it is a discussion that tends to create obstacles because we are uncomfortable with having a variety of spoons and forks and not attaching value judgements to their simple existence. I’m sure sociologists have a run down of reasons why that is.

        • Great comment, Kat. Thanks for laying this stuff out. That observation of the multiple meanings of genre comes right out of the interpretability of the idea, I think, and the Atwood/Le Guin debate is a great example of both the social and literary effects it can generate. The importance and multivalent uses of it have not, so far as I can tell, been directly discussed by many sociologists. Bourdieu takes a crack at it but his ideas are dense and in need of more critique. I’ve been trying to use some of his theoretical perspective to get a handle on this, and I think this will be a chapter in the book I’m putting together.

          I have my own thoughts on the “death of SF” narrative: .

          Also, Sam Sykes wrote a post on the idea of tradition in (heroic/epic) fantasy that gets at some of the issues of comfort v. edginess:

          The conversation is important, which is why I keep coming back to it, if for no other reason than this stuff influences how we all read fantastic literature and how we integrate it into our imaginations and emotions.

  3. Genres are overlays, John, I agree. And it does influence the expectations one has when reading a story. Reading a SF story or a story promised as one isn’t quite the same as fantasy.

    What I am curious about and I hope you can address–what happens when multiple and different genres and subgenres get attached to a work of Fantastika, or even the absence of genre at all. Are all of those kaleidoscopic views valid, some of them, none of them, or a “sum over histories” of all of them together?

    • Paul, that is a great question, because it highlights the whole problem of classification and interpretation. To stick with the fork analogy, while you can try to call a fork another implement (even another type of fork), you usually can’t say that it has elements of several different forks at once, or maybe is an entirely different sort of eating implement. Turner talks about the idea of blending in our cognitive efforts and I want to read more about that and also some work in anthropology on classification to address that thought. I mean, we certainly what people do, which is debate and reinterpret texts using assorted genre designations, and then there is the question of interstitiality or hybridity. Genre can get pretty complicated as a categorization.

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