Friday, January 18, 2008

Genre Thoughts - Part I

(I seem to be incapable of discussing anything complex without making a series of it, don't I? [g])

Someone in one of the other comment threads was asking about genre – naturally, I can't find the original question at the moment (well, it's late; it's about 4 AM, and I'm just winding up work for the night), but in general terms, the person said she was working on a book that "crossed genres" and people were telling her she shouldn't—that she should pick a specific genre and shape the constraints and structures of her story to fit that genre. Since I rather obviously didn't do that myself, did I have any thoughts on the matter?

Oh, yes, lots. [g] It is, as I say, Rather Late, but let me start with a general philosophical statement regarding genre, and tomorrow, we'll descend to the personal particulars.

I think it might be useful to contemplate what it is that successful fiction (of any kind) does. The most general definition I could come up with is that fiction affords temporary satisfaction to an abiding curiosity.

In other words, we tend to be unendingly curious--mostly about ourselves. That curiosity goes in lots of direction, but you can distinguish several major areas: love, death, the past (what you might call historical definition of present identity), the future, the unknown. A few others, to be sure, but these are the big issues that interest almost everyone. Not surprisingly, they correspond generally with the major "genre" divisions of fiction--romance, mystery, Westerns (which deal very specifically with an American vision of the past) and historical fiction, and sf/f.

That's pretty broad, but I think one has to be either very broad or very specific in this kind of discussion.

Anyway, taking it on faith for a moment that the main genre divisions do deal with areas of intense human curiosity, this means that if you choose to deal with such an area, you begin with a natural advantage--you're already writing about something which holds strong interest for a large number of people. That being so, you need not necessarily write with consummate skill or great artistry in order to temporarily satisfy your readers' curiosity--you must only write intelligibly; the natural interest of your content will sustain the book.

On the other hand, if you choose to write outside these broad areas of interest, or on the fringes of one, or in the intersections of several--then you need something else in order to provide that satisfaction, because you must arouse the curiosity you mean to satisfy, rather than taking it for granted a priori.

The point, of course, is that "necessarily," above. You may write in a pretty mediocre fashion, and still succeed, if you work within the general limits of an accepted genre. You sure as heck don't have to write with medicrity—literary criticism notwithstanding, poor writing really is not a requirement of any genre.

All the tricks of skill--the uniqueness of viewpoint, the elegance of construction, the inventiveness of structure, the subtlety of perception, the freshness of language, are as available to a writer who works smack in the middle of the classic romance genre as to one who wants to explore the nuances of social milieu or the differences between perception and reality. The thing is that the first writer doesn't have to use these tricks in order to attract and satisfy an audience, and the second one does.

Not all writers can use them. However, if a "genre" writer has the skill--and ambition--to do so, then the results are as individual and as striking as they are in the hands of someone working entirely in the "literary" area (some people say "literary" fiction is simply any fiction that doesn't fit in some other recognizable genre; some identify "literary" fiction as "boring" fiction--i.e., something that appears not to address any area they find intrinsically interesting).

Consequently, you get "romances" like GONE WITH THE WIND and ANNA KARENINA, and "Westerns" like LONESOME DOVE; "historicals" like A TALE OF TWO CITIES, and "mysteries" like SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS and NAME OF THE ROSE. The basic genre elements are there--conflicted sexual attraction, social misfit-on-quest, individual caught up in Great Events, who-done-it-and-why--but so is very good writing and sophisticated perception.

And I think it's this that leads to the notion that literary fiction is somehow "better" than genre fiction--there's less of it, and rarity is always valued for its own sake, but also, literary fiction has to demonstrate a high level of visible "artistry" (tricks and tools, let's say) simply in order to be noticed, let alone succeed. Genre fiction can succeed simply on the basis of its content.

Therefore, you tend to see 1) the genre writer who writes clearly and mostly observes the structural conventions of a genre, 2) the strictly "literary" writer, whose main interests are uniqueness and wordplay, and 3) the unique writer who exercises his or her skills in an area of major human interest--but feels free to leave the boundaries; a "genre" writer with literary skills, if you will. I think the third class often ends up being what we eventually call "Literature."

To be continued


  1. I've always felt that in the music industry, genre's were more a way to force all music into some kind of cataloging system to meet the needs of those trying to sell the music. Do you think there is some truth to that in writing as well?

  2. Well, Diana, if your last statement isn't a definition of self-actualization (for you) then I don't know what is. My first thought, upon reading your article today was, "How long does it take her to think up this stuff?" Then my inner voice told me that this was most likely stream-of-consciousness; an affirmation of talent, ad libbed.

    Having read the gamut of genres, though not much non-fiction except for American Revolutionary and Civil War history (even before you entered my life *g*), I am aware that not all authors share your talent. Your comments focus why that's so. Authors with lesser talent, but possessing a general ability, glut the market. And, yes, they serve a purpose. In fact, they saved my life (but that's a looong story I'll save for my own blog.)

    As a person who has the desire to write but, at this point in life, lacks discipline and is distracted by another calling, I thank you for easing the way. You have taught me a valuable lesson today. Mediocrity has a place, and I'll be smack-dab in the middle!

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  4. this is an argument that i get into constantly with my literary friends. this post actually helps explain to me some of my own opinions. i've never been able to make this point and am usually considered elitist and too picky (which i may be). next time it comes up i may just reference them here.

  5. I feel like the clouds in my brain have just parted, allowing the sun to shine down on my thoughts and give them clarity. You have also helped me put words to a concept I knew, but couldn't verbalize.

    I've been struggling to explain to my book club why I don't think Pillars of the Earth is a great novel. It has a good plot, the history is there, but it just doesn't have anything to it beyond being historically accurate and architecturally detailed with a good plot. What it lacks is "the uniqueness of viewpoint, the elegance of construction...the subtlety of perception, the freshness of language..." I think he does have the structure there and it works well, but the language is the biggest stumbling block, in my opinion, to propelling this novel over the edge into greatness.

    Either that or you have just ruined me for any other fiction - forever. [g]

  6. Diane--

    No, you're not wrong. [g] Follett's an excellent craftsman, but his craft doesn't extend to elegance of language, uniqueness of viewpoint (his viewpoints are remarkably pedestrian, in fact--and clashingly modern), or to depth of character. That last bit is the reason why, while I always enjoy his books when I read one, I never go looking for them.

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  8. I'm fascinated by this post, especially by the notion of fiction as "affording temporary satisfaction to an abiding curiosity." The question of genre is interesting to think about in this light. I read a lot of Serious Literature (I teach English, so it's my job), but I'm also a big fan of mystery novels. The mysteries I prefer are the "body in the library" sort; the satisfaction I get from those books is the same sort as working out a particularly difficult crossword puzzle, but it's definitely temporary. I read them once and that's it; once you know who did it, the point of reading is gone. But the exceptions are those books that go beyond the genre, making me more aware of moral, philosophical, or personal issues, making me think or feel more deeply about something (Dorothy Sayers' later books, for example). I re-read these books, which would be in your category 3, I think; the satisfaction is more abiding. (My literature colleagues would deconstruct this post without mercy, I'm sure, since I'm from a time that was more invested in aesthetics than high theory.)

    Could you say more about your category 2, the "literary" writer whose main interests are uniqueness and wordplay? I'm trying to think of examples, but all I can come up with is poetry, not fiction.


  9. Diana,

    Yes! It's almost painful for me to read so much telling and so little showing as exists in his writing, esp. after reading your books! The characters have no dimension whatsoever. What is actually the most difficult for me is the modern language. I'm sorry, but I'm pretty sure that "soul mate" and "doing it" were not actually used in the 12th century. And, if you're going of say someone is your soul mate, at least act like it. I really get pulled right out of the story with the modern vocabulary and metaphors.

    Thank you for confirming my analysis. That will help my confidence and verbalization when I bring my thought to my book club.


  10. Sue--

    Mind, I don't say that a "literary" writers _only_ (or indeed their main) interests are uniqueness and wordplay--only that these are major features of such work. Lessee...there are a lot of classic "literary" writers who do these things: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway (whatever you think of Hemingway, the man did know how to use language; read some of his early stuff, for preference), Nabakov. (These guys were all telling _excellent_ stories, too--but unique ones that didn't fit within the limits of a genre. THE GREAT GATSBY really can't be characterized as a romance, for instance. [g])

    There are some really good modern writers who do this, too, but I'm having a harder time bringing up names, since my entire library (with the exception of my core reference collection) has been packed up (we're remodeling my office wing, next) and I can't just go browse along the shelves. Hm. Alice Munro, Annie Proulx, Jim Harrison (A WOMAN LIT BY FIREFLIES), oh! Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for sure--by all means, get LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA (which _is_ a romance [g], but surely unique as well), and A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, if you've never read him.

    Tons more--I'll list some as I think of them.

  11. Diane M.--

    I reviewed his WORLD WITHOUT END for the Washington Post (sorry I don't have a link to it, but I think the published review is probably available online), and the modern language and sensibilities were my main criticism. (WWE is something of a sequel--set two hundred years later--to PILLARS OF THE EARTH, and written in exactly the same style.) It was a good read, but weirdly enough, not a really good "historical" novel, in spite of its wealth of historical detail.

    And as I said in the review, he only has four kinds of characters: Good, Bad, Feckless Bystander (marked for doom [g]), and _deus ex machina_--and you recognize them instantly by the big red placards hung around their necks.

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  13. Diana:

    Now that I've seen your review of WWE, I think you were maybe a little too generous with praise of the book. To me, it's not just the modern sensibility that grates on me as a reader. It's the lack of emotional involvement. How can you possibly write a novel that encompasses the period of the Black Death and fail to give readers a sense of the terror and despair that such a catastrophe must have brought with it? My sense was that Follett seemed far more concerned with the economic effects of the plague's aftermath (labor shortages and the like) than with showing how people actually were affected by it on a personal level.

    Or maybe I'm too biased by the fact that I read Connie Willis's DOOMSDAY BOOK years ago, and still remember very well how powerfully she depicted the same events. (Like her description of the bells tolling every time someone died, and how in the height of the plague they were ringing constantly. It gives me shivers, even now.)

  14. Karen--

    Well, I must say I didn't find it emotionally involving, either--but a lot of people _did_, judging from amazon "reviews" (I put that in quotes not to indicate denigration, but just qualification; the reviews are simple expressions of personal opinions (hence totally subjective), not actual reviews of a book's content, style, or quality) of PILLARS OF THE EARTH (which, as I said, is pretty much the same book, with different characters and plot).

    Besides, when reviewing a book, I always try to figure out what the author thought he or she was doing, and assess the book on how well it fulfilled that intention--rather than how well it fulfilled my personal tastes in reading. Follet's characters generally are designed explicitly to carry out his plot, rather than to evoke empathy in the reader. I don't think his characters are 2-D from lack of skill, necessarily, but simply because that's all he requires them to be; emotional engagement isn't his primary intent.

  15. That makes a lot of sense, about the intent of the author. I would agree that it isn't a matter of a lack of skill, per se, but it is a lack of emotional engagement that keeps this novel, for me at least, from being a great novel. I haven't read WWE, as I am just taking a spin with Pillars for the first time, but I cringe at the lack of emotional involvement that most the characters have with their own lives. I can read it for the plot, and I will, but to me it will stay in the realm of mediocrity - just a really big, fat version of mediocrity!

    I had to laugh, Diana, at your descriptions of his four types of characters. Ha! I saw those big read placards a mile away.

  16. Mrs. Gabaldon,

    While someone somewhere is always going to be upset that your Jamie and your Clare did not match their Jamie & Clare, I am tickled Pink that there is going to be a Graphic novel, and did I understand correctly, a movie. I am ecstatic.

    I await extremely impatiently, the next installment in Jamie and Clare's life. I also wonder if either of the grandkids and Bree or RogerMac ever make it back to Fraser's Ridge?

    I remain your Obedient and hopeful Fan,

    Carrie Meier