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Locus Roundtable: Writing Within and Without Genre

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Paul Witcover

There is often a divide between writers and critics on this (and not only this) topic of genre.  I consider myself, like DiFi, to fall into both camps.  And I approach each differently, as I tried to set forth in my first post.  That is, as a fiction writer, my concerns with genre are secondary.  As a critic, they are primary, or at least equivalent to other approaches I might take in a critical piece or review.  But I try to be as aware of genre–or form, as was helpfully suggested as a synonym–as possible as a writer of fiction, in part to avoid cliches, and in part to push against boundaries and attempt to fashion something new and challenging, if only to me.  In other words, to play.  But for a writer to say that he or she is independent of genre strikes me as akin to a person saying they are independent of air simply because they don’t think constantly about the act of breathing.  Genre is where writing takes place.  It’s the medium in which we work.  There is no escaping it, whether you consciously think about it or not.  At least, that’s what I believe, and nothing yet has convinced me otherwise.

Cecelia Holland

Genre is not form. Novels aren’t a genre. A genre is a set of assumptions about a form.

Paul Witcover

Fair enough — I accept that.

Actually, on further thought, I don’t think “assumptions” is quite right.  I’d prefer “traditions” or something similar there.

Cecelia Holland

That resolves quite a lot of disagreement here.

Cheryl Morgan

http://www.salonfutura.net/2011/01/what-is-genre-anyway/

Also the Gary/Clute/Jonathan podcast I link to.

Personally I really like the idea of having different lenses through which you can view a work.

Gary K. Wolfe

I rather like that “set of assumptions” business as well, and it helps explain how genre may mean different things to readers, writers, and marketers.  Readers may have a set of assumptions in mind, but writers can choose to fulfill them, deliberately violate them, or ignore them altogether.

arrow6 Responses

  1. JEG
    37 mos, 4 wks ago

    A stimulating discussion. I’m most in agreement with John Kessel, which may be understandable. What hasn’t been discussed here, however, is that identifying the genre is essential for a reader if he/she is to read it properly: each genre (and the original use of the term applied very broadly to fiction, drama, poetry, etc., and SF, Western, Detective,..are sub-genres at best, or categories) has its own reading protocols and if the reader applies the wrong protocols the reading goes awry. See Thurber’s “The Macbeth Murder Case.” So a writer who wants a reader to arrive at a particular reading response can hardly avoid dealing with a reader’s expectations.

  2. 37 mos, 3 wks ago

    As a writer (vs. the reviewer/critic that Paul W. distinguishes) I think any time I hit upon an idea for a story, that idea arrives with suggestions of the genre territory it’ll occupy fully intact. What I can and can’t do with it is dependent, among other things, upon the scope of my familiarity with that territory–the better handle I have on it, the more knowledgeable I am about what’s been done already, the more things I can do, and the more things I can upend. (See Terry’s McMurtry quote.) I suppose I stand between Mssrs. Witcover and Kessel in that I think I’m very conscious of the genre the story is aiming at, but that this pointed direction came already embedded within/implied by the idea. I’m not spending much time ruminating upon it. To me that’s all the more reason to be aware of the things that aren’t of that territory, because they offer elements I might want to draw upon that would make the story different, richer, unique. Like hauling some Franz Kafka or Bruno Schulz into my very in-genre fantasy story. And the debate will rage on anyway as to whether the resultant story belongs in “this” category or “that” category. Which is all just fine by me.

  3. 37 mos, 3 wks ago

    I don’t like the term “Speculative Fiction” – it sounds so undecided, like we have no idea what we are writing or reading. However, I don’t have any problem with genre labels. I read in a variety of genres, and I don’t feel there is anything wrong in dividing a story in Sci-fi/Fantasy/Horror etc. When I am writing, I know what genre I am writing. It’s not a conscious decision to write in particular genre, but each story, just happens to be the right one for one genre more than all the rest.

  4. 37 mos, 3 wks ago

    It sounds like a round defeat for “speculative fiction” as a prissy umbrella term. I recently read some interesting things along these lines (folks should check out Cheryl’s link there as well) from Robert VS Redick:

    http://suvudu.com/2010/03/when-the-pizza-wakes-ending-the-genre-vs-literary-fiction-battle-once-and-for-all-by-robert-v-s-redick.html

    Still as a publisher (of “speculative fiction” until I can afford tattoo removal…) a useful umbrella term would be nice. This discussion wasn’t about such a thing directly, but it did touch on some options: “the fantastic”, “fantastica”, “science fiction, fantasy, horror, and slipstream, and …” none of which are particularly appealing.

  5. 37 mos, 3 wks ago

    The “what to call this whole umbrella of genre fiction” went a bit outside of the original question, but I found that very interesting.

    Recently, Orson Scott Card, in an interview with John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley on io9′s Geeks Guide to the Galaxy, made the case that fantasy is now properly a subset of science fiction, because modern fantasists are just as rigorous in their world-building:

    http://io9.com/#!5746150/orson-scott-card-writes-humans-in-episode-29-of-the-geeks-guide-to-the-galaxy

    And even more recently, Scalzi says: To engage in further nitpicking, everything you can possibly label as “science fiction” is in fact just a subset of a larger genre, which is correctly called “fantasy.” This is because science fiction — along with supernatural horror, alternate history, superhero lit, and the elves-and-orcs swashbuckling typically labeled “fantasy” — is fundamentally fantastic. Which is to say, it involves imaginative conceptualizing, does not restrain itself according what is currently known, and speculates about the nature of worlds and conditions that do not exist in reality. It may gall science-fiction fans to think of their genre as a subset of fantasy, but it is, so calling a film “science fantasy” is in most ways redundant.

    http://www.filmcritic.com/features/2011/02/science-fiction-vs-science-fantasy/

    It sounds like a round defeat for “speculative fiction” as a prissy umbrella term. I recently read some interesting things along these lines (folks should check out Cheryl’s link there as well) from Robert VS Redick:

    http://suvudu.com/2010/03/when-the-pizza-wakes-ending-the-genre-vs-literary-fiction-battle-once-and-for-all-by-robert-v-s-redick.html

    Still as a publisher (of “speculative fiction” until I can afford tattoo removal…) a useful umbrella term would be nice. This discussion wasn’t about such a thing directly, but it did touch on some options: “the fantastic”, “fantastica”, “science fiction, fantasy, horror, and slipstream, and …” none of which are particularly appealing.

    So I agree with Cheryl Morgan: AAAAGGGGHHHHH!!!

    I do like that the banner ad I see when visiting the roundtable is for Expanded Horizons: speculative fiction for the rest of us.

  6. Nick Mamatas
    37 mos, 3 wks ago

    Just a quote note: I didn’t complain that Horton said I wrote slipstream, I complained that there was no such thing as slipstream. So far as I can tell, it really means stuff that obviously betrays influences other than the textual hardcore of SF or fantasy influences, which one would hope wouldn’t need another whole subgenre for itself. (Writers should read far more widely than they write, even if they write in several genre traditions.)

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