Thursday, October 9, 2008

Defy the Genre Embargo

The notion is childish that certain elements of or approaches to fiction belong strictly to one major camp and may not legitimately be used by any other camp. Yet this stance defines American writing, which has been called “...insular and too much under the sway of its own popular culture,” by the likes of Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Nobel Prize Academy.

How others see us may not matter much to our daily stint, but it certainly affects distribution, readership, and sales. It might offer useful insights, too.

Insular means, according to my on-board dictionary, “ignorant of or uninterested in cultures, ideas, or peoples outside one's own experience; lacking contact with other people.” Provincial, in other words. Village idiots with no concept of a world larger than our own back yards. This view contrasts just slightly with our own view of ourselves as world-striding superpower champions of all we attempt, doesn’t it?

And yet, look what we do to ourselves. Aside from the unblinking narcissism of our culture, and the self-congratulatory tone of our self-criticism, we divide our best efforts into partisan opponents. Mainstream versus genre fiction is the focus here. That dichotomy weakens both sides.

American literature as a whole keeps itself apart from World literature. Genre compounds the error by trying to seal itself off from the mainstream American fiction. This puts it twice-removed from World literature.

Genre fiction wants to be a private club. Mainstream wants an open door policy while reserving the right to sweep out the riffraff when it’s time for a celebration of self. Both squabble as if exclusion is an answer in and of itself.

A palpable resentment shudders through fandom, the loose group of self-identified genre fiction enthusiasts, every time a writer whose work usually appears in mainstream market categories gains praise, sales, and often Hollywood options by using genre elements. That is how it’s perceived: “They” “stole” “our” genre elements. As if only writers whose work is marketed as genre are legitimately allowed to use such elements.

And, the complaint continues, even worse, genre works are never awarded attention, acclaim, or movie money -- despite, they point out salaciously, the top-grossing movies of all time being genre.

Of course, don’t ask them how Hollywood succeeds on those rare occasions when it translates genre works to the big screen. That’s a whole other kettle of bile to be spilled on a separate discussion entirely.

So their shoulder chip is two-tier, a double-cheeseburger of lukewarm resentment; we’re excluded, and they steal from us. This leads to talk of of the genre ghetto, exploitation, and east coast snobbery. And like most such bitterness, there is some truth in it. Yes, genre work is generally ignored by academics, literary award committees, and serious mainstream critics. Yes, occasional genre elements are praised as if new by mainstream critics, who remain willfully unaware of the specifics and contents of genre fiction’s pulp tradition.

When we examine the standards by which works are judged, however, we see a definite emphasis gap. For the most part, novels that have won the top genre awards are more concerned about idea and plot than writing quality, characterization, and exploration of themes. Mainstream award winners, genre readers complain, aren’t about anything; they have no grand ideas; they focus on everyday minutiae; they have no action; they’re boring...

Again, movies may be an instructive example. Blockbusters tend to be laden with stunts, special effects, and action peppered with catch phrases. Characters are sketched in brief, bold terms. Such movies take us away from our everyday world. They’re generally called escapism.

Then there are the so-called serious movies. Many are costume pieces dealing in comedy of manners or courtship rituals from the Seventeenth century. Some are character portraits of people mired in hopeless lives. Some are examinations of the consequences of crisis, or some social ill such as alcoholism or spousal abuse. These movies tend to win awards but no big audiences. Art films, they’re often called. Made for art’s sake, not to please audiences or to allow the masses to escape the humdrum of their daily lives. Hell, some even have subtitles. If we wanted to read, we wouldn’t have gone to the movies, they cry. And who are all these foreigners? Where’s my favorite movie star?

Genre, for the most part, falls into the first category, escapism. This is not to say genre works can, must, or do not address serious themes. Many do. But the main goal is entertainment and, failing that, diversion, in genre fiction. This is a noble art in itself.

Mainstream fiction, for the most part, adds insight and commentary to escapism. Yes, many mainstream works are about taking us away from quotidian reality. Most, however, are also concerned with showing a commonality among humanity’s diverse specimens, or revealing the inner secrets of private lives, or making points about how and why society is decaying.

Vonnegut wrote: “Listen. All great literature is about what a bummer it is to be a human being: Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Red Badge of Courage, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Crime and Punishment, the Bible and The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Genre fiction is often the opposite, about how great it is to be a humanoid primate conquering the universe and rearranging things so we’re the center of it all. Optimism is a keynote in science fiction, for instance. As Harlan Ellison once pointed out, even dystopias are optimistic because they mean there is someone left to complain about how bad it is. Mysteries are optimistic about restoring order from chaos. Fantasy and Romance both speak to wish fulfillment, while even Horror deals with the bastards getting their comeuppance.

In modern political discourse -- all the shouting and lying, yes -- it’s common to refer disparagingly to “reality-based” thinking. The 17 October 2004 New York Times Magazine ran an article by Ron Suskind. In it, an unnamed aide to George W. Bush said, “You’re in what we call the reality-based community, people who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we’ll act again, creating other realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

What sort of literature would come from such breathtaking solipsism? Would it not be literature that is insular and too much under the sway of its own culture?

And what of the escapist subset of such a literature? Would it not concern itself with mythic stories of conquest, and examinations of glorious dreams full of wish-fulfillment?

A wider world exists. Noticing it, finding out about it, and exploring it would expand our base of reference. Joining in and participating in a wider world outside this house of cards we’ve built would strengthen the global, which is to say human, appeal of our fiction. This would lead to much larger readership and all that a big audience can bring and bestow.

Isn’t it time to stop hugging the elements of genre so tightly? Isn’t it time to share them not only with our own mainstream, but to trade them with a wider world?

Isn’t it time to defy the genre embargo?

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