27 Ways of Looking at Genre

WHM looks at genre by torturing metaphors, begging questions and conflating issues.

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Image: Barnbrook. Licensed under the Creative Commons NonCommercial Share-Alike license.

1. We talk of genre boundaries as if they’re electric fences and not softened butter.

2. We talk of genre boundaries as if genres are nations with borders to cross (complete with guard shacks and passports and visa stamps) and not estuary marshlands alive with foul bogs, ancient trees, and all manner of creeping, crawling, buzzing, cooing, winging life.

3. We talk of genre boundaries as if they are glass cases and not a dilapidated house filled with cobwebs that stick to us as we tramp through the rooms.

4. Okay, yes, those stifling marketing categories. But marketing categories are insatiable squirrels that dart here and there and stuff their cheeks to bulging with whatever acorns seem fresh and tasty and bury things here and there to decay, sprout, petrify.   

5. We say that, of course, genres are fuzzy sets and family resemblances and marketing categories and bookshop shelves and reader expectations and then it all comes down to the illustration and name on the cover where what it should be is a diagrammed sentence or a list of metaphors or a graph of the plot structure.

5. Oh, the talk of process. The pride about writing speed or lack of writing speed. The shaking the head in wonder at the three books a year or the one book every seven years. The need to signify your camp by how you describe your process. The easiest way to authorial persona is by way of process.

6. Genre transgressions are always contingent.

7. Genre is almost all contingencies. That’s why it’s so fun.

8. One day a genre author decided they would remove all their influences. They would get back to pure story. They would intentionally forget everything they had ever read. It took years of concentrated, intentional mind work and quite a bit of substance abuse, but finally their mind was empty and when they began to write, they wrote with a freedom they had never previously known. Now, I bet you think I’m going to say that they wrote a masterpiece or a bestseller or a steaming pile of cliches. Nope. The freedom was a momentary illusion. Three chapters in it all came back, the weight of genre. The tightness in the shoulders and neck and right there at the base of the skull that the author is always trying to ignore, relax or alleviate.    

9. Genre authors are shameless magpies. Just don’t look too close at their shinies. Stand afar and jut your hand from your brow and admire the glittering glare, the sparkling play of light.

10. Hey genre authors are you playing games with me? Are you having a laugh? Are you trying to pull the wool over my eyes, lower the blast shield over my face? I think some of you are. Those who aren’t: why aren’t you?

11. Hey, SF&F I see what you’re doing with Romance and Mystery, and I gotta say this: do it better. I’m talking peanut butter and milk chocolate or dark chocolate and toffee almonds here—not stale bits of crisped rice in waxy chocolate product.

12. Hey, SF&F I see what you’re doing with Horror there, and I gotta say this: try peeling back a couple more layers. It’s not always necessary, but try it and see if in this or that particular case it is.

13. The genre readers know what they want. They want the familiar, they want the new. They want the comforting, they want the exciting. They want to be transported, they don’t want to leave the confines of their own worldview. They want you to explain more. They want you to stop explaining so they can fill the cracks with their own explanations. They want, they want, they want, they don’t want. Stupid readers.

14. Write fan fiction as if you’re writing original fiction (because you are); write original fiction as if you’re writing fan fiction (because you are). Yes, that’s a semicolon there. So am I suggesting some level of equality between the two? Am I saying that one is not parasitic on the other?

15. I am (I mean sure, there’s a difference between fiction that overtly uses another author’s characters and setting and fiction that comes up with new characters and settings, but it pretty much all comes down to stripping the car down for parts and rebuilding something else from it whether or not the serial numbers are filed off or proudly displayed).

16. We talk about genre as if it’s this thing we can embrace, subdue, love, pull apart, shove aside or wear when really it’s a library of narratives, of individual works. You wouldn’t spend most of your time in the library talking about the lighting, carpeting and shelving would you? Maybe you would for awhile. It is important to feel at home in one’s surroundings. But at some point in that discussion one becomes very aware of all the eager individual stories crowded together on the shelves longing, aching for your attention.

17. Hey genre, I’m going to use a word to describe you that was given to me when I first began studying comparative literature to describe that field: anxiogenic. Look, I know geeks and nerds are cool now, but being cool doesn’t remove the anxiety does it? Yeah, didn’t think so. So how are you going to turn that anxiety into productive anxiety rather than crippling or lashing-out anxiety?

18. Hey genre, you have too many awards.

19. Hey genre, you don’t have enough awards.

20. Okay, look. It’s easy to make pithy statements and set up false equivalencies, but if the space suit, jeweled slipper, cracked leather boots fit… Because there are too many awards the field seems to always be in a state of anxiety about lists and eligibility and nominations and finalists and winners and who is voting and who isn’t and what’s being unduly lauded. Because there aren’t enough awards whole categories are ignored.

21. What if instead of lobbing stories into various pens and then wallowing only in the pens we feel comfortable in, we realize that all new things are an acquired taste. It may take several tries and the right preparation of the dish for you to realize that while it may never become a staple of your diet, there’s a deliciousness or at least a particular-ness to whatever ethnic background, political ideology, religious experience, genre/sub-genre form, sexuality, writing style, etc. belonging to the author and/or the characters that caused you to dismiss the work. And that while with some works you may never come to like the candied walnuts in the salad that doesn’t mean that all the other ingredients aren’t tasty and well prepared. We could all be better omnivores.

22. Who should be blamed for the fact that so much of genre seems to focus on the adolescent? Or that so many of the novels are the equivalent of reunion tours and cover bands? Is that the fans themselves remain in a state of arrested development? Or is that coming of age and quest stories have a universal appeal? And if the latter then maybe it’s because adulthood is so boring and complicated. And maybe it’s because youth is reckless enough to seek adventure and start revolutions. Maybe it’s because it’s so much harder to change when you get old. Would we want genre to also be about the mundane triumphs of life?

23. (Hell, yes.)

24. In the beginning there was myth. Or maybe epic. Okay, let’s go with epic. In the beginning there was epic. On the first day, there arose adventure and horror. On the second day, engineering constructed itself (golden age). On the third day, prose style and ambiguity made it’s incursion into the field. On the fourth day, characterization came in and rounded everything out. On the fifth day, representation skirted around the edges and then marched across the field. What will happen on the sixth day of genre? What rough slouching beast? What skittering horde? What lumbering golem?

25. So here’s the deal with the mingling of literary and SF&F: the New Wave borrowed from literary modernism and postmodernism. So the fact that over the past 20 years the literary has begun to import stuff from genre (vampires, zombies, post-apocalyptic landscapes, plot) means that we can’t complain. Because we borrowed from literary back in the day. This is especially important because there is a bigger thing to worry about: both literary and SF&F seem to be converging on something that ignores the lessons already learned from modernism and postmodernism. Even the pulp writers will claim to want to write complex characterization. Even the literary authors will claim to want to make attempts at plot. Everybody is messing about with form. And yet while there appears to be this wide range, it’s all pretty damn mimetic. You want to shake up genre? You want to transgress? Dive back into modernism and postmodernism and see what you can re-emerge with.

26. Is anybody else in genre bored with endings that are either revolutions or restorations? (I’m especially looking at you epic fantasy.) And maybe that boredom is because: what happens after the big event? Who are those heroes? The builders and defenders rather than the catalysts. Because I’m no catalyst. But I might be able to build and defend.

27. To restate in relation to our specific present: we hope, we fear that we’re on the verge of major events. But what if the near future is all aftermath? Don’t we need stories to get us through that?   


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