Thursday, 4 October 2012

How I learned to stop worrying and love the… genre

A genre’s landscape should be littered with used tropes half-visible through their own smoke & surrounded by salvage artists with welding sets, otherwise it isn’t a genre at all. 

says M John Harrison. He goes on to discuss the supposed death of science fiction and fantasy - a claim made every three weeks, as far as I can tell. Which genres aren't permanently dead or in the ambulance? It's a matter of perspective. From where I'm standing, romantic fiction is dead, killed off by celebrity journalism, porn culture or exhaustion, but I'm sure on close inspection you'd find signs of re-birth: different sexualities and new formations, for instance. Look at Fifty Shades of Grey: its melding of the worse features of romance with the limpest emulation of BDSM porn will no doubt inspire a generation of cynical hacks, and maybe even some genuinely exploratory writing. Science fiction certainly isn't dead: from the corpse of the previous generation spawns the maggots of the next - every genre sprouts sub-genres. Perhaps the term 'science fiction' should be retired, however - we have the New Weird, Speculative Fiction, Steampunk, Alternative History, Alternative Futures, Cyberpunk, Space Opera, Hard SF and many others. Saying you're an SF fan is like saying you like music - tantamount to announcing that you're an ignorant know-nothing bum who likes a tune you can whistle. I'm guessing the same applies to all literary genres. 

However, what does happen to popular fiction sub-genres is exactly the same as what happens to any sub-group: appropriation. Once punk music emerged from the gutters, every major label told its house bands to grow mohicans and add naughty words to their songs. Result: punk was dead the day it hit Top of the Pops and mohican wigs appeared in Camden Market for the tourists. Away from the media gaze, real punk bands sneered and worked on whatever came next. I'd say the same thing has happened with SF: once almost every Hollywood movie is an adaptation (Watchmen, Green Lantern, X-Men), a disaster movie (War of the Worlds, Cloverfield) or any other vaguely sciencey presentation, it becomes just another popcorn kernel to momentarily distract the mainstream before going back into hibernation for a few decades - like the Western before it. Which is a shame, because most genres respond to the cultural needs of the climates in which they exist. But as I say, it's a matter of perspective. Out there in school playgrounds, comic stores and - above all - the internet, new texts and new variations on genres are arising, and what we think of as the defining characteristics of the genre are scorned as hopelessly outdated by those in the know. 

Paul Kincaid, whom M John Harrison references, thinks that inadequate boundary policing is at issue: SF is fading into literary fiction, he thinks. I think: brilliant. They'll revive each other. Literary fiction is a weird and indistinct genre, if it is one at all, and it's too often the preserve of authors who think they can see past all those proles busy tweeting each other rude jokes, whereas SF has been variously the preserve of techno-fascists, techno-determinists, techno-utopians, militarists, and a whole host of others who could do with some literary skills and perspectives. Besides, Kincaid is probably just looking in the wrong place: no doubt the borders between SF and porn, SF and romance, SF and poetry, SF and travel and all the other genres are being over-run. See, I'm slipping into imperialistic language: it's a common problem with genre discussions, especially the traditionally masculine ones: men are so concerned with purity, resistance, autonomy. 

Let's abandon the idea of genres as distinct territories and consider them as tendencies or characteristics instead. That way, we can focus on the genuinely creative work instead. Returning temporarily to the border metaphor, it's my feeling that the work which exists on the borders with other genres is the interesting stuff. A text situated right in the middle of a generic expanse, equally distanced from all other genres, is likely to be boring and over-familiar. There are exceptions, of course: Die Hard is a masterpiece because it's a summation of it's genre's best aspects - the same goes for lots of Westerns. But at the same time, it's the weird stuff around the edges that is often more interesting in a cultural and literary sense: the revisionist Westerns, for example, which evoke a sense not that the Western is a dying genre (though it was) but that the ideological underpinnings of the classic Western were rotting - and had perhaps always been rotten. 

Kincaid knows this. As he says: 
Within any art form there are individuals or movements that attempt to push the boundaries in various ways. They are concerned with seeing what new can be done, what more can be done with the form. Often, though not always, they are initially viewed with dismay or disdain by aficionados of the art, though in retrospect they are generally viewed as being the innovators who mark an important developmental stage in the history of the form.
What Kincaid and Harrison have discerned is not the exhaustion of science fiction as a genre, but the exhaustion of the institutions which foster and propagate science fiction: publishers content to promote the profitably familiar. It's the same in music: Classic FM is the epitome of the embalmer's art because it only plays music which has been on adverts, or sounds indistinguishable from what's been on adverts. In the process, it's cheapened the genuinely interesting music is does scatter amongst the dross: Vaughan Williams, for instance, who has been transformed from spiky iconoclast into twinkly English Grandfather. 

But I don't despair. Where there's a Classic FM or a mainstream SF publisher, there's a Radio 3 and a range of pirate stations. By the time Jeff Noon, Cory Doctorow and China Miéville attract major-label imitators, they'll be doing something else, and a new generation will be distributing supposedly un-popular work underground. Some publishers and some readers are conservative - but enough aren't, and literary movements operate on a timescale long enough to bring about gradual change. 

So don't stress about genre. It's only partly in the hands of the author, the publisher, the bookseller and the jacket artist. It's also in your hands. If you think Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go or certain Jeanette Winterson is in or near SF - read it like that and ignore their self-serving denials. Don't just browse the SF shelf - you'll find weirdness and science and far-flung settings and fear of/fascination with technology and social change in plenty of other places. Genre's like that: it shapes your expectations but your generic expectations dictate your readings. Take this sentence from Pride and Prejudice:
IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
I used to ask my students to write down the tone of voice they imagined seemed appropriate. Then I'd ask one person to read it romantically, one to read it sarcastically, and one to read it 'neutrally'. The way in which you read that one sentence determines the meaning of the rest of the novel to you - and it will differ to the meanings acquired by the person next to you. For me, it drips with satire: my Austen is the one who disguises horror at the encroaching dangers of Regency womanhood with sharp, sharp humour. Her women face social abysses: only a few survive. But it's equally easy to read the texts as lovely sparkling romances in which nice intelligent demure girls are rewarded with the right man by being good judges of character. 

I haven't picked Jane Austen as a random example. Amongst my extensive collection, I have editions repackaged as 'chick-lit' (pastel handwriting, dresses, pink) and Austen mash-ups, including two Austen-porn novels and two Austen/Zombies and Austen/Sea-Monsters novels, plus P D James's Death Comes to Pemberley, which is far more offensive and disgusting than either Pride and Prejudice with Zombies or Jane Austen: Hidden Lusts. Most of these novels aroused utter fury amongst the Janeites because they're resistant both to generic miscegenation and any tinkering with their heroine's work (weird, really: Victorian Shakespearians liked tacking happy endings onto his tragedies without concern for purity)Both PPwZ and JA:HL have tried to do something bold, and they've done it with some panache and charm. Both authors also know how Austen's dialogue and plotting work: you have to understand the wiring before you put up the Christmas light. PD James, on the other hand, grafts a murder mystery on to Jane Austen without giving a second's thought to Austen's interests or literary style: James appears to think that it's easy, and drops massive clanger after massive clanger. The genre-mashers, on the other hand, have taken the key elements of different genres and welded them together to considerable effect. 

Take your chainsaw to your genre of choice and weld it to something else until you can't tell which bit originated where. 

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