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Monday, August 08, 2011

Categorizing Fiction: The Best Fiction Always Fits Somewhere

In the last three weeks I've noticed a number of different kinds of discussions about the issue of categories for fiction.  One of the lesser known instances was Paul Jessup's public announcement that he was leaving genre fiction.  It's not clear why he made the announcement, except some vague claim about the stifling-ness and argumentative nature of genre fiction (which, I might add, is no less existent in non-genre circles), but I found myself amused by his unwillingness to talk about it in any form.  The result of Jessup's rejection of genre is Coffinmouth, a magazine headed by Jessup which explicitly rejects category fiction (science fiction, fantasy, etc.) in exchange for things that are, apparently, non-categorical.

Readers of this blog will likely notice the irony of the concept of non-categorical fiction, which is, in and of itself, a category.  Fiction can't avoid categories.  It's impossible.  This is in part because human beings are, by default, differentiators.  We look for differences, put things in mental boxes, and use those boxes to identify things, compare them to other things, and so on.  This is why so many early scientists spent so much time trying to come up with systems of categorization and why scientists today still argue about where to place species, old and new, in the animal kingdom.  It's the same logic that explains why babies can differentiate skin color at an early age,

which is one of the early simple identifying markers their undeveloped brains can easily comprehend (among others, obviously).  I made the mistake in assuming Jessup would have some interest in the problem of category and received a fair deal of shortened Twitter snark for my troubles.

The newer instance, which is where I take the title for this post, is an article by Howard Jacobson in The Independent called "The best fiction doesn't need a label."  Jacobson starts by talking about the Man Booker Prize, which has a long history of pissing off genre fiction people for its failure to acknowledge SF/F texts, and soon starts talking about the conflict between genre and literary fiction.  He makes a number of mistakes, of course, but has the grace to acknowledge he doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to genre, which throws into question almost everything else he says, most notably this gem:
But there is something contradictory in the proposition that "genre fiction" is likely to provide that rejuvenation when you consider that what makes genre fiction genre fiction is its formal predictability, that it answers, genre by genre, to specific expectations, gives its readers exactly what they have come to love and hope for more of – often the same hero, working in the same city, and suffering the same flutterings of existential despair.
The problem with people who don't know anything about genre fiction going off and talking about it is that they reduce genre to its tropes -- that is to the elements most commonly associated in visual terms with a particular genre, such as spaceships, quest narratives, noir detectives, and so on.  I won't deny that a great deal of genre fiction does little more than present adventure stories, but I also refuse to suggest that these kinds of stories don't have literary value.  They have different value, not less.  But much of the best science fiction isn't about the tropes or its "formal predictability" or its "expectations."  In fact, most science fiction, even among the adventure stories, are, on a deeper level, different kinds of approaches to contemporary problems.  One doesn't read The Forever War and say it is little more than a novel about space battles.  To do so is to completely ignore what Joe Haldeman was doing when he wrote the book.  Likewise, to say that Ragamuffin by Tobias S. Buckell is little more than a Space Opera a la Star Wars or that Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson is about Caribbean myths is nothing short of a vile literary neutering of their literary potential.

This is the problem with genre:  the people who talk about it who aren't "in it" simply know nothing about it.  What they know is surface level.  It's no different than someone who reads genre fiction waltzing up to a "literary novel" and saying "well, this is a book about nothing" (or something like that).  Hemingway, to take an old-time, canonical example, is what we might call a "literary author."  Yet his work is remarkably poignant for its time.  The Sun Also Rises is not a book about people going to bullfights and experiencing nothing; it's a book which attempts to capture the angst and bitterness of an entire generation.  That makes it a brilliant book that can't be reduced to its "generic predictions and expectations" (yes, "literary fiction" has such things too).

I also take issue with Jacobson's application of a mindset to genre proponents:
It will be argued that the best exponents of this or that genre escape the confines of their chosen form and turn it into something else. They write more adventurously than do many non-alternative novelists, their fans insist, comparing their prose to that of Melville or Dickens. In this recommendation I detect a certain irony, for its logic is that the more accomplished the genre writer is, the less of a genre writer he becomes. Fine by me, ironical or not. And this should really be the end of the matter. Yes, the best writers must find ways to overleap the expectations of their genre, if they have one, because those expectations are themselves debilitating.
Actually, the best examples of a genre utilize the confines of their chosen form to tell a story.  That's all.  There's no escape from a generic form.  Once you've written something within it, you're in it.  Experimentation, escape, and manipulation are not isolated to texts which somehow try to escape the generic traditions (an impossible task).   Rather, the most successful texts do something with generic forms that other texts simply don't do as successfully.

The above quote also ties to another problematic one, which serves as the central premise of his article:
The truth is, the best novels will always defy category. Is Great Expectations a mystery or The Brothers Karamazov a whodunnit or The Scarlet Letter science fiction? Does Kafka's Metamorphosis belong to the genre of fantasy?
They are all of those things.  They are mysteries and fantasies and literary explorations and so on (though I wouldn't call The Scarlet Letter science fiction).  I think what this all comes down to is what I mentioned earlier:  great works of literature in any particular genre explore contemporary issues in different ways from other kinds of generic literatures.

Literature can't escape genres or categories.  Authors can't escape them either.  All an author can do is write a good story for a certain audience.  The fact that genres divide readers has less to do with the problem of genres and everything to do with the absurdities of arbitrary applications of value to arbitrary categories.  Read outside your comfort zone once in a while.  And if you don't know what to read, find someone to ask.  The best literature always fits in a genre, but good readers don't have to stick to generic reading.  Reading should be about discovery.

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