Saturday, September 18, 2010

In defense of genre (with helpful quotes)*:

Near the top of the list of things I unabashedly enjoy, genre writing/tv/film has got to be near the top. I started reading fantasy novels when I was about 10, after spending years buried in the Little House on the Prarie series and YA novels about the Holocaust. I think my parents were relieved that I was picking up stories about lady knights rather than concentration camps, but my teachers were not nearly as impressed. Historical fiction to fantasy is a downgrade, you see.

This division between 'worthwhile' fiction and genre literature has only gotten bigger as I've gotten older. When, after a two year stint of abandoning fiction in favour of theory, I returned to the world of the novel, it was with great trepidation. The books on the table were Ian McEwan's Atonement and China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. The first, a literary excursion through British class anxieties and wartime horrors, the second a genre masterpiece of steampunk horror. I started with Atonement, and while both books ended up on my all-time favourites list, I wish I'd read Perdido instead. I picked up the McEwan because I wanted to prove to myself that I could be a legitimate reader -- a reader of real books. Mieville's book languished for another year, and, after much nagging from friends, I finally picked it up. And here's the thing: it was just as real as Atonement. Just as literary, just as full of meaning, just as poetic in diction and just as sharp in politics.

In his introduction to McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and noted genre-defender Michael Chabon, discusses the discourse on genre among the more serious consumers of serious literature:
Among those of use who use the term genre to label regions on a map (sf, fantasy, nurse romance) and not sections of an atlas (epic, tragedy, comedy), there is a deep and abiding confusion. To some of us, 'science fiction' is any book sold in the section of the bookstore so designated. The typeface and imagery on the cover of the very attractive Vintage International edition of Nabokov's Ada would look distinctly out of place there, with the starships and the furry-faced aliens and the electron-starred vistas of cyberspace. Ada, therefore, is not science fiction. 
He continues:
 For even the finest writer of horror or sf or detective fiction, the bookstore, to paraphrase the LA funk band War, is a ghetto. From time to time some writer, through a canny shift in subject matter or focus, or through the coming to literary power of his or her lifelong fans, or through sheer, undeniable literary chops, manages to break out. New, subtler covers are placed on these writers' books, with elegant serif type faces. In the public libraries, the little blue circle with the rocket ship or the atom is withheld from the spine. This book, the argument goes, has been widely praised by mainstream critics, adopted for discussion by book clubs, chosen by the Today show. Hence it cannot be science fiction.
Here is an excellent example of what Nick Hornby, in Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, describes as the prevailing culture of reading -- books aren't worthwhile unless they're hard work. And how can you tell if a book is hard work? Well, it certainly isn't in the science fiction section, or the horror section, or the romance section. Definitely not in the children's section. And it looks like hard work. It has a Penguin classics cover and a new preface by a shining light in the literary establishment tacked on to the original introduction.

But here's the thing: some of the best books I've read have been science fiction. Some of them were in the sci fi section -- Ursula LeGuin's The Left-Hand of Darkness, Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, assorted Heinlen and Asimov and Clarke, and the aforementioned Mieville. But some of the best science fiction books I've read are ones that have graduated from the section, or had never been there in the first place. Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale is speculative fiction. Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a piece of postapocalyptic fiction the same as Miller's Canticle for Leibowitz. Speaking of which, McCarthy's entire body of work is essentially a series of westerns. 

But I don't want this entry to just be a list of good sci fi books (although all of the ones listed are excellent and you should totally read them). The larger point to be made is that genre fiction can touch on the same subjects as 'normal' fiction, and can deal with them in equally complex ways. The question is, why read genre fiction when you can read literary fiction and not have to go through the hassle of learning the specific vocabularies that each genre makes use of?

Here's why, in the words of folks a lot more eloquent than I:

  • Neil Gaiman on horror: "...Horror is very often the lie that tells the truth about our lives -- and in that sense, it's ultimately an optimistic genre."
  • Michael Chabon on genre and play: "In spite of the continuing disdain or neglect in which most of the non-literary genres are held, in particular by our finest writers of short stories, many if not most of the most-interesting writers of the past seventy-five years or so have...found themselves drawn, inexorably, to the borderlands. From Borges to Calvino...from Millhauser to Thomas Pynchon to Kurt Vonnegut, John Crowley, Robert Aickman, AS Byatt, and Cormac McCarthy, writers have plied their trade in the spaces between genres, in the no man's land. These great writers have not written science fiction or fantasy, horror or westerns -- you can tell that by the book jackets. But they have drawn immense power from and provided considerable pleasure for readers through play, through peculiar mockery and tribute, invocation and analysis, considered rejection and passionate embrace, which are the hallmarks of our Trickster literature in this time of unending crossroads."
  • Ursula LeGuin on fantasy: "Fantasy is a literature particularly useful for embodying and examining the real difference between good and evil. In an America where our reality may seem to have been degraded to posturing patriotism and self-righteous brutality, imaginative literature continues to question what heroism is, to examine the roots of power, and to offer moral alternatives. Imagination is the instrument of ethics. There are many metaphors besides battle, many choices besides war, and most ways of doing right do not, in fact, involve killing anybody. Fantasy is good at thinking about those other ways. Could we assume, for a change, that it does so?"

Genre literature (and by extension, genre television, genre film and the genre visual arts -- comic books, pop art, etc) is the artistic embodiment of the sociological project I am most interested in pursuing. I like my theory, my art, and my practice to focus on imaginative alternatives to entrenched ways of being. Genre literature re-imagines our relationships with the Other, with landscapes internal and external, with technology and ecology, with violence and with love. Genre re-invents our understanding of politics and ethics, both on the grand scale of international (or inter-stellar) conflict, and on the micro-geographies of the body and the soul. And it does it all with lasers and spaceships, with the open spaces of the West or the stars, with fantastical magic and horrifying creatures. If I'm going to get social commentary in my literature, I'll take it with a side of awesome space battles any day.

And in case you'd rather have the argument made in hilarious short-story form by an author with extensive experience in the subject area, here's a link to Ursula LeGuin's short story On Serious Literature. Go. Read. Be convinced.

*All quotes in this post are from, collectively, Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends, Nick Hornby's Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, Ursula LeGuin's Cheek by Jowl, and the McSweeney's collection Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories. We'll attend to the fact that I clearly fangirl Dave Eggers' publishing house some other time.


Anonymous said...

Neil Gaiman has another amazing quote on the similar, if slightly distinct, topic of comic books vs. graphic novels, which I'm always reminded of when hearing about genre issues:

"Once, while at a party in London, the editor of the literary reviews page of a major newspaper struck up a conversation with me, and we chatted pleasantly until he asked what I did for a living. ‘I write comics,’ I said; and watched the editor’s interest instantly drain away, as if he suddenly realized he was speaking to someone beneath his nose.

Just to be polite, he followed up by inquiring, ‘Oh, yes? Which comics have you written?’ So I mentioned a few titles, which he nodded at perfunctorily; and I concluded, ‘I also did this thing called Sandman.’ At that point he became excited and said, ‘Hang on, I know who you are. You’re Neil Gaiman!’ I admitted that I was. ‘My God, man, you don’t write comics,’ he said. ‘You write graphic novels!’

He meant it as a compliment, I suppose. But all of a sudden I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening. This editor had obviously heard positive things about Sandman; but he was so stuck on the idea that comics are juvenile he couldn’t deal with something good being done as a comic book. He needed to put Sandman it a box to make it respectable."

Max said...

"Imagination is the instrument of ethics" might be my new favourite quote

Disreprivalize said...

here's another thing of quotes I happened upon simultaneously, though unrelated-ly, to this blog entry.

which puts some of the blame on the genre publishers themselves for creating the division and then publishing a lot of bad writing.

but his prediction of the genre classification dying away never came true, so what does he know.

but I agree with that sentiment that most stuff is just not good.

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