A reflection on genre, part 1: It’s a fuzzy old universe.
by Mike Johnson
This post is less of a writing tip than the first of two reflections on the nature of genre and the issues at stake for writers. If there is any simple message here, it is that you have to follow the story where it leads and not be constricted by external notions of genre. This is the great age of cross-genre fertilisation, if not genre meltdown. Let your story be your guide, and don’t get cold feet if you start to push boundaries. Remember what boundary pushing Susan Sontag said: ‘We need fiction to stretch our world.’ Stretch our categories, not harden them.
GENRE UNCERTAINTY IN AN UNCERTAIN WORLD
As soon as you put pen to paper you are evoking, whether you know it or not, the specter of genre. When it comes to fiction especially, you can’t escape genre, but even before we get that far, we may still run into trouble with the ‘g’ word.
Is the distinction between fiction and non-fiction itself sustainable? What about those ‘fictionalised autobiographies?’ and what about Lyn Hejinian’s My Life? Is that prose or poetry or what? And, as interestingly, what about Jamaica Kincaid’s short piece of writing entitledGirl, which is both the opening chapter of the novel At the Bottom of the River, (1983) and appears in the volume The Next American Essay(2003) as an essay? In this case, it seems, the same piece of writing can be seen as either fiction or non-fiction depending on the context. The editor of The Next American Essay, in his introduction to Girlcomments: ‘Or: maybe the essay is just a conditional form of literature – less a genre in its own right than an attitude.’ (p 41)
Even our most fundamental distinctions don’t bear too close an examination. After all, we could claim, especially in the light of modern research, that memory may be seen as another form of the imagination. In other words, memory can be viewed as another form of fiction, so what is the difference between your ‘true’ story and my ‘made-up’ one? Even cookbooks, those fine exemplars of non-fiction, can be as extravagant as a work of magic realism, or as speculative as futuristic fiction.
However, if we negotiate these questions successfully and decide we have a work of fiction on our hands rather than a cookbook, we are far from being out of the woods.
THE GOLDEN ACRES OF MAINSTREAM AND ‘THE WALL’
Some writers have no problem because they consciously and deliberately write in a particular fictional genre for that market, and can do very well out of it. Writers of romance novels and thrillers, if they are good, have a sure grasp of the conventions that govern that genre, conventions recognised and expected by the reader.
For other writers, the issue may not be so simple, as they might be bending genres, or, increasingly, mixing genres. Or simply writing a story without any thought about genre. These mixed genre or genre-bending novels are a headache for a publisher, who has genre categories based on sales, and bookshops are, or at least have been, organised along genre lines – as are libraries. Whatever you write is going to be categorised and placed on a shelf somewhere, you hope. I heard of a New Zealand writer whose novel was accepted for publication; it was then marketed as a thriller when the writer did not intend it to be, nor did the writer intend to be ‘marked’ as a thriller writer. Being ‘marked’ as a genre writer is a serious business, as you may not be able to escape that initial genre marking into the imagined ‘wider market.’
The case of the SF writer Philip K Dick is illuminating in a scary sort of way. In the 1950’s he wrote eight non-SF novels, studies of small town America reminiscent of the work of Wyndham Lewis. These little gems were rejected by publishers at the time because PKD had already been ‘marked’ as a SF writer, and the publishing establishment was not going to let him out of the SF ghetto, as it was perceived. The big irony is that since the author’s death, and in the light of his growing fame, these rejected novels have been published in fancy literary editions.
If PKD couldn’t make it out of the ghetto of SF into the golden acres of mainstream, note that the prohibition does not go the other way. Established mainstream writers like Cormack McCarthy and Margaret Atwood can write SF and never see their books leave the mainstream shelves. You won’t find McCarthy’s The Road or Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in the SF shelves of your local bookshop or library, even though they are in every respect SF novels, written because SF, with its capacity to extrapolate contemporary trends, is an ideal vehicle for social criticism; an understanding that dates back at least as far as HG Wells. Readers who might turn their literary noses up at ‘science fiction’ will praise The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, for those very extrapolative elements that make the work distinctively science fiction.
On the other hand, you won’t find PKD’s Mary and Giant, or Gather Yourselves Together on the mainstream shelves, but still ghettoised over there in the SF section if at all. (Sorry Phil, ultimately there is no escape.)
NO SF PLEASE, WE’RE KIWIS.
The perception that not all genres are equal in the eyes of publishers is certainly sharpened when we consider the New Zealand scene. All major NZ publishers of fiction (all two remaining now!) state in their submission guidelines that they do not publish ‘Science Fiction.’ In this context the term ‘Science Fiction’ covers a multitude of literary sins, including fantasy, speculative fiction, futuristic fiction, magical realism (if it’s too magical), and in particular post-apocalyptic fiction.
There are doubtless good commercial reasons behind this prohibition, but without a doubt it is selective, aimed at a particular set of genres and subgenres. Historical fiction, for example, may be considered ‘mainstream’ so long as it is not historical romance. This admission of historical fiction into the hallowed halls of the canon is reflective of the wider, global literary value system. Our very own prize-winning Luminaries by Eleanor Catton is a historical novel. No futuristic, SF or fantasy novel has ever won the Man Booker prize. Or any thriller to my knowledge. The only example I can think of is Philip Pullman who won the Whitbread literary prize for a young adult fantasy, The Amber Spyglass, a decision that drew much comment at the time and is very much the exception that proves the rule.
Why one genre should be elevated over another is a mystery worthy of unraveling, and has much to do with our notions of ‘realism.’ Realism rules, or has done. That will be the subject of my next writing tip.
In the meantime, however, it occurs to me that, in my country at least, the ‘publishing wall’ against ‘SF’ has put a dampener on what I would call extrapolative fiction. Paradoxically, our most revered Janet Frame was one of the most profoundly extrapolative writers in the world, her work laced with SF elements, and yet ‘the wall’ has worked against the subsequent emergence of a Margaret Atwood or a David Mitchell, in this country. Or indeed another Janet Frame.