posted by Karen Burnham at Monday 14 February 2011 @ 12:01 am BST
Not to speak for Cecilia or Ellen or other writers-of-fiction, but it seems that there’s genre and then there’s genre. (Where are the Hayakawan subscripts when you need them?) Genre-as-publishing-tool can look like an itchy straitjacket to someone who just wants to get the story out into the air, whatever it turns out to be.
But to return to the example of music, I can testify that one way of keeping track of the range of possibilities to which I have access when I play is also “genre”–a collection of collections of choices I can make, forms and conventions and textures and tempos and time signatures that I can match and mix. I can stay inside one set of conventions and traditions, or I can mix ‘em up and surprise the audience (and myself). And I know that while my command of technique limits my choices, there are players who can ignore that kind of limitation and just choose from anything on the menu–or, for the prodigally gifted, they can rewrite the whole cookbook, though after a few millennia of noodling, there’s not much room for absolute novelty that doesn’t wind up sounding like noise.
Genre-sub-1 might be restrictive “rules” about what sells to a target audience, imposed by publishers or agents or producers. Genre-sub-2 is a field of possibilities, with suggestions about how to activate features from a configuration menu–but with a service mode that allows considerable deep reconfiguration–genre-as-toolkit. I suspect that there’s also genre-sub-3, observable in MFA programs, where it means “this instructor doesn’t get/is fed up with/finds too downmarket particular categories of literary production and won’t accept examples of it for credit.”
The multiplicity of meanings of “genre” also means that the term can conceal a wide range of principles of classification–in some schemes, the novel is a genre (prose narrative, long form) with a lengthy historical footnote to distinguish it from the classical romance and the tale. In others, it’s all about the content or the tone, or even the intended audience response (Gary has pointed out that horror fiction is named for its effects, not how it gets them).
F. Brett Cox
It might be worth considering if there’s a difference between a genre and a tradition. I think most sf writers do see themselves working either within or against genre, but do writers we would think of as mainstream literary writers see themselves working within a genre called “mainstream literary fiction,” or do they see themselves working within a broader, looser “tradition” of certain approaches to fiction? Did Walter M. Miller, Jr., see himself writing in the gnere of science fiction, while Cormac McCarthy saw himself writing within the tradition of postapocalyptic literature? (To be honest, I doubt McCarthy saw himself as writing anything other than a Cormac McCarthy novel, but you get the idea.)
Genres are rules. The more rules the better. Art is made by banging against rules. What is a clapper without a bell?
Cecelia Holland walking naked? Clothed rather, and most magnificently, in the duds of a grand tradition, perhaps the novel’s highest. (Ask Leo!)
I agree with Sterling that genre is “a nearly unalloyed good.” The dude has a way with words.
Ellen: Genre is the part of literature you don’t have to think about. Not if you’re not shopping. It’s like goldfish thinking about water. It’s thoughts are made out of water.
Speculative fiction is a prissy word.
You’re always conscious in a story when you are crossing that line.
I agree most with Kessel. I think most of us do by now. He’s our prof! But Witcover’s no slouch. And I love Letson. You can fucking jump up and down on it.
Cecelia: You can’t get to the naked part without the clothes to take off. The nicer the better. Read my Playboy stories.
Originality is no virtue. It is. however, a necessity.
Who’s this Clute?
Karen Joy Fowler is not out-of-genre. She’s leaning on the box looking in. Hey, she’s talking to you.
Are we describing a description, or describing how we work?
Gary’s got it backwards. Horror is horror because of how it gets its effects. Tools.
Larry McMurtry ( no great writer but a serious one) says you don’t write what you know, you write what you read.