10 January 2005

Genre Transcending

Last year I wrote an article about the difficulties the science fiction and fantasy world has with the term "genre", a word that, as Ursula LeGuin once said, only the French could love.

Recently, Sarah Weinman wrote about the cliche so many reviewers fall on, that a particular piece of writing (mystery novels, in this case) "transcends genre". It's a magnificent post, and some good discussion follows it in the comments.

On the same subject, Gwenda Bond quoted Samuel R. Delany: "To use such rhetoric -- the rhetoric of transcending the genre -- about the SF novelist is just a way of announcing you don't think most SF is very good, so that any SF that is good must be something more than SF."

Tingle Alley pointed to some words from Laura Lippman, arguing against gentrification of crime fiction:
Crime fiction has its share of jerry-built and dilapidated stock, but the genre is sturdy, its possibilities endless. Come on in, but don't think you'll transform it via the literary equivalents of granite counter-tops and Viking stoves. Like the rowhouses of Baltimore, thrown up in the 19th century to house the working class, the only thing great crime fiction has transcended is those who would render it transitory.
Sarah Weinman follows by noting that the book Lippman discusses "works because it's apparent, at least to me, that Atkinson is thoroughly aware of what makes crime fiction work and what's good about it. She's not trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater by barrelling in, having read little or no previous entries in the genre, and then doing what she wants with it."

Consider, too, Paula Guran's review of a Dan Simmons novel, which begins:
Dan Simmons is one of those authors who is often described as "transcending genre." An editor (quite rightfully) once skewered my use of the cliche "transcends genre" in a review. He was right. No matter how well-intentioned we may be, it's an insult to whatever category of fiction you are dealing with as well as the writer to whom you are applying it. Transcend means (according to Merriam-Webster) "to rise above or go beyond the limits of...to triumph over the negative or restrictive aspects of: overcome...synonym see exceed." And that's not what I meant to say (although some folks may mean it). Yes, "genre" can be used to mean a certain formulaic "expected" type of fiction. There is such a thing as genre horror and science fiction and fantasy, but when you are considering horror and science fiction and fantasy as literature - there are no limits to go beyond, no restrictive aspects to triumph over. How can you have expectations of the fantastic? How can you exceed the limitless? How can you assume anything about that which is speculative?
Finally, some words from Michael Chabon, from his Locus interview:
It's quite obvious to me that so much of what goes on in the world of science fiction has analogies with a ghetto mentality, with a sense of clannishness and that ambivalence that you have: on the one hand wanting to keep outsiders out and identify all the insiders with a special language and jargon so you can tell at a glance who does and doesn't belong, and on the other hand hating that sense of confinement, wanting to move beyond the walls of the ghetto and find wider acceptance. It's a deep ambivalence. You want both at the same time: you feel confined, and you feel supported and protected.
To some extent or another, I agree with everyone I've quoted here, and yet I think a lot of the discussion of genre displays the kind of ambivalence Chabon notes.

I have noticed a tendency in my own reviews and conversations to use the word "genre" to describe something specific, something that might be designated "traditional science fiction". This is something that can't exactly be defined so much as a consensus of opinions can cluster around it. I haven't found a word other than "genre" that is useful for this particular type of writing. In this sense, there is a specific thing that is "genre science fiction" and a vastly more amorphous thing that is "science fiction".

I try to avoid whenever possible the term "genre" for fantasy, because I haven't yet settled on any definition of "fantasy" that feels even remotely like a genre to me. A style, yes; a tool, yes; a tendency, yes. The stuff (a charitable term) that I would tend to want to apply the word "genre" to seems more like basic formula fiction, more a sub-sub-genre trying to climb up a ladder that doesn't lead anywhere.

A genre has, by definition, limitations, borders, and ways of recognizing its own kind. The label is not a qualitative judgment, unless you think limitations and borders are inherently bad. If a genre gets too diffuse, it's not a genre anymore. Nothing wrong with that, either; it just means a different label is needed.

I tend to like work that tries to transcend some genre or another, because I find the attempt interesting. I used to like things that stuck within a genre (specifically science fiction), because I liked to see all the permutations and variations possible. But I got bored. Most of what could be done with the motifs, tropes, cliches, and equipment that gets bundled into the science fiction genre had been done and finished by the end of the 1970s, if not earlier. Most contemporary genre science fiction feels to me like variations on variations, and so I'm less interested. (No perilous general statement such as the previous ones I've made is entirely accurate, because immense talent can always provide new surprises in territory that once seemed exhausted or repetitive.)

Writing that intentionally transcends genre -- often not out of contempt for the genre, but interest in it -- fascinates me, even when it's a disaster. There is an energy to the work of writers who build from their knowledge of the possibilities and limitations of one form of writing, and then try to use that knowledge to move in directions not expected, or even appreciated, by readers who have become conditioned to those limitations and dogmatic in their expectations of the possibilities.

On the other hand, there's also something wonderful about a master of a particular genre, someone who knows the ins and outs, the traditions and pitfalls, the expectations and needs of a specific type of writing. It's like reading a new sonnet by someone who truly understands the form. (After a while, though, they get monotonous.)

It's time for the SF community to agree on how to use the word "genre". I don't think it does anybody much good to use the word as a catch-all term for a style of writing. It does seem useful, though, as a label for a type of writing with somewhat clear rules, or at least expectations, about form and content. A narrow use of the term might lead to a bit less confusion, and less confusion would mean fewer arguments between people who, on the whole, actually agree with each other.

We might also be able to understand some of what's going on in the SF field (not genre!) right now. For instance, there's the perpetual discussion of how much SF should appear in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine. An interesting point was made by E. Thomas in this note: "I often get to the end of a F & SF mag with the feeling--hey! Was there any sf in that one? Often I'm surprised when I go back and count. Stuff I was considering horror was also near-future sf (ie M. Rickert's 'Bread and Bombs') or one of the sf stories was at the beginning and I forgot it or it was science fantasy and I forgot the science element."

This experience probably stems from F&SF publishing more science fiction that isn't exactly genre science fiction than some of the other major magazines, a tendency that has been with the magazine since its founding. It's also why I, a reader who prefers work that transcends genre over work that resigns itself to it, tend to like F&SF more than the other prominent magazines, though I do wish F&SF would stretch farther out on a few different limbs. (Hint: Commission stories from Jeff VanderMeer, Kelly Link, Chris Barzak, Sonya Taaffe, Alan DeNiro, Theodora Goss, Nalo Hopkinson, Jeff Ford, Barth Anderson, Stepan Chapman, Vandana Singh, etc. etc. etc. F&SF should be a natural venue for writers of that sort -- transcenders all -- and that it is not speaks volumes about the absurd limitations of genre-think.)

Strange Horizons often transcends genre, and this has caused readers numbed by genre writing to be utterly befuddled by the magazine, as can often be observed at the forums. This does not mean the stories are all brilliant or perfect, but simply that Strange Horizons is devoted to work that could appeal to an SF audience, yet that is seldom genre writing. It's a courageous stance to take, and a valuable one.

I realize I have jumped all around here, leaving entire strands of thought neglected and others bludgeoned with repetition. I've committed wanton generalizations, presented assumptions as facts, and perhaps even contradicted myself. I haven't resolved any of my ideas yet, but I hope a few are moving forward. If any seem like they need to be put out of their misery, feel free to take them out back and shoot them.

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