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Rhetoretician -- Fiction etc.

It's all genre fiction!

It's all genre fiction!

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As I look at magazine, journal and online periodical editorial standards, I notice that some of these markets explicitly exclude certain genres of fiction. It's common for some to say, "No science fiction or fantasy." Others add (or substitute) "No romance, mysteries or historical fiction." One amusing magazine warned, "No talking animals." None of these bother me. People like what they like, and if an editor is turned off by SF, so be it.

But some, to make it easy on themselves, say simply, "No genre fiction." By this, I take them to mean that they want fiction that is not in a genre, fiction that is "generic" or "genre-free." Closer examination of these markets shows that they are seeking what they call "mainstream" or "literary" fiction which, to their minds, excludes all of the subcategories mentioned in the previous paragraph, as well as some others. When pressed, they say that this "mainstream/literary" fiction is focussed on character and language, and I'd accept that definition if it werent for the fact that the SF/Fantasy/Mystery/Romance/Historical/Crime venues are also looking for "compelling characters and beautiful language," although some have the grace to add that the language shouldn't be "showy," or "get in the way of solid storytelling." But I'll bet that these "non-genre" venues would also say they want strong storytelling.

For a long time this has bugged me, and I've made various arguments about it. But I wanted to share something Michael Chabon said.

As if I didn't have enough reasons to admire and adore Chabon, now there's this. In the Afterward to Gentlemen of the Road, he meditates on the original working title of that book, which was Jews With Swords. I'm going to quote at length from two adjacent paragraphs. Please note the boldfaced passage:

I know it seems incongruous, first of all, for me or a writer of my literary training, generation, and pretentions to be writing stories featuring anybody with swords. As recently as ten years ago I had published two novels and perhaps as many as twenty short stories, and not one of them featured weaponry more antique than a (lone) Glock 9mm. None was set any earlier than about 1972 or in any locale more far-flung or exotic than a radio studio in Paris, France. Most of those stories appeared in sedate, respectable, and generally sword-free places like The New Yorker and Harper's, and featured unarmed Americans undergoing the eternal fates of contemporary short-story characters -- disappointment, misfortune, loss, hard enlightenment, monuments of black grace. Divorce; death; illness; violence, random and domestic; divorce; bad faith; deception and self-deception; love and hate between fathers and sons, men and women, friends and lovers; the transience of beauty and desire; divorce -- I guess that about covers it. Story, more or less, of my life. . .

I'm not saying -- let me be clear about this -- I am not saying that I disparage or repudiate my early work, or the genre (late-century naturalism) it mostly exemplifies.. . . . I'm not turning my back on the stuff I wrote there, late in the twentieth century, and I hope that readers won't either. It's just that here, in Gentlemen of the Road as in some of its recent predecessors, you catch me in the act of trying, as a writer, to do what many of the characters in my earlier stories . . . were trying, longing, ready to do: I have gone off in search of a little adventure.

"Late-century naturalism." Or, to my taste, "Late-twentieth-century Anglo-American naturalism."

That's a genre, people. A genre like any other, with its own narrow constraints, prejudices, perversities and blind spots.

Not that this changes anything. Those markets and readers who prefer Late Twentieth Century Anglo-American Naturalism (or LTCAAN, as the cogniscenti will no doubt begin calling it) will continue to want that narrow genre to the exclusion of everything else. But it will be a fine day when they say openly, "I want to see only Late Twentieth Century Anglo-American Naturalism, and none of the many other genres available."

Because it's all genre fiction. 
  • I always thought of genre books as plot driven, while the term literature would be applied to cover the rest. There is a kind of snobbery in all kinds of genre fiction. Science Fiction would look down at Horror as a poor step child for instance. The same thing would be for psychological suspense looking down on mystery. Not to mention the "chick lit"genre, etc.

    Truth of the matter, is that they all think of themselves as Literature, and rest as genre. It seems like there are more and more of them. I hate the term genre. It steers a reader away from reading a potentaully wonderful book. into thinking "Well, I don't read THOSE kinds of books" I also think it encourages the perceptions that writers, write by formula. I really hate any kind pretence in novels. Stories are there for enjoyment and enrichment, and shoudn't be shunted into groups.
    • That's an excellent point -- my husband is currently really enjoying the Harry Potter series (he read books four through seven with increasing enjoyment after seeing the first three movies and in preparation of the fourth movie). He just finished book two and commented on how much he liked the final chapters and how they set up the rest of the novels (particularly book seven). He compared the end (as he did the end of book four) to an Agatha Christie novel. This is high praise from him, as he is a mystery fan.

      He started reading these books because the fandom at the time was taking up so much of my free time. But when I first started reading and enjoying the books, he was more inclined to believe he wouldn't enjoy them because they were for youth and fantasy-type people, which he is not (mystery, historical non-fiction, some political thriller-type stuff).

      Now he says, "I don't see how anybody could not enjoy these books."

      So, it is good not to pigeon-hole ourselves based on genre.
      • Amen to that. Sub-categories do exist, I think. There are SF-romances, for example, but most SF writers don't do too much romance, and most romance writers don't do much SF (except for exceptional geniuses like Lois McMaster Bujold). I don't think it has to be that way (as Bujold has proved repeatedly), but for some reason it tends to.

        And the sub-categories are useful for readers who are looking for a particular something. Someone looking for a mystery, for example, is likely to be disappointed with a sword & sorcery tale. What I object to is the "no genre fiction" crowd, who remind me of those members of some Protestant sects who claim they have no denomination, but are just "Christians" (it's everybody else who has a denomination).
    • Well, I'd say that the "plot driven" descriptor is "honored more in the breach than the observance." Ya gotta have a plot of some kind, or there's no story. (My stories are actually rather weak in that area; not a whole lot happens in most of them.) Even Chekhov has plot. But nobody (these days) focuses on the plot alone.

      There was a time, back in the Golden Age when tons of people read short fiction in magazines, when there was a lot of fiction that was pure plot. It sold, and besides, these mags needed to churn the stuff out opretty fast. But that was true across all genres (including the "mainstream" genre of its day, if there was such a thing). Nowadays people get all the plot they want from television, and those who read fiction at all are looking for beautiful language and complicated characters. That's true, again, across the board.
      • Nope, not quite across the board. I'd say there's a fairly large part of the fanfiction reading crowd who only read for plot. They don't much care how something is written, how good or poor the characterisation is, how clunky the prose is, so long as X ends up with Y. That's why there are all those Draco/Ginny stories on ff.net with thousands of reviews but not a correctly placed apostrophe to be found.
        • Sorry, I was speaking primarily of people who try to sell their fiction for money, or who are "selling" it for gratis in order to attract attention so that they can later sell novels for money.

          I grant you that in fan fiction, all rules (including the rules of grammar) are sometimes suspended.

          But in those areas where people are trying to sell to magazines, ejournals or literary journals, and where things like grammar, characterization, good dialogue, etc. are pretty much assumed, you still get these genre-specific conventions.
  • "Genre" fiction is a 20th century marketing invention. "The Classics" contain elements of fantasy, science fiction, romance, horror... whatever. 19th century authors were certainly not bound by such artificial constraints.

    The conference where I was first really exposed to Neil Gaiman was held at the University of Minnesota and organized by the English Department grad students. It was cleverly called "Fantasy Matters." This general topic was really the focus of much of that conference. Strictly speaking, or course, all fiction is fantasy.

    The assumption often seems to be that "genre" will be of lesser quality but really (back to the marketing) it is about thinking that the market is "niche" rather than "mainstream" and that somehow "mainstream" means more sales. Ummm. Can you say "Harry Potter"? And as far as "quality" goes... there is crap and pure gold in every section of the bookstore.

    This makes me think about the discussions I have been hearing about the move in the UK to "age band" books. All of this is a drive to have everything so neatly divided into clearly marked shelf space. I understand this desire but I really think it is something worth resisting. Again Harry is our guide. Children far younger than I would have guessed and old adults (like me) have read and enjoyed HP and found different layers as they are able. I have heard so many people say that they avoided reading HP for a long time because they "don't really like fantasy" or "why would I read a kids book" only to find, once they read them, that they enjoyed them them and that the books did not match their idea of what "fantasy" is or what is dealt with in a "kids book".

    So yeah. Certainly it is fine to have magazines or journals that want to focus on a particular type of fiction, but I really do not find the sort of labeling you point out, and the implications about quality or appeal attached to those labels, to be all that helpful.
    • You really are on a Gaiman kick, aren't you, kid? (I've liked what I've read of his -- and thanks for that audio link!)

      The marketing argument makes sense to me, up to a point. People keep justifying it in terms of putting the proper category labels on bookstore shelves. Which is fine -- except that most of these magazines can't be found in bookstores. I know; I've tried. Time was when you could even find them in drug stores, not far from the comic books. ;) Time was, there were newsstands. *grumble*

      So what does someone like AGNI, or Granta, or Ploughshares, need with a "no genre fiction" rule? There's no "wrong shelf" to go to.
      • Well I think I have mentioned him here disproportionately. :-) But I do appreciate his work and his perspective on writing. (I actually find Chabon and Gaiman to have a lot in common in their literary voices and in the way they talk about what they do.) Oh and I also loved the afterward to Gentlemen of the Road!

        I guess I would say that these publications are their own "shelf" and they know that their potential customers have grown accustom to thinking in terms of these shelves. So what started as marketing labels have become something more.

        Tangentially related -- well I guess really everything I have said on the topic has been rather tangential -- at that same conference the discussion of "genre lit" in the academy was very interesting. One up and coming author, woman of color, said that she and others were only able to write the way they wanted to while getting MFA's or whatever was to call it "Magical Realism." This prompted a very interesting discussion about who could and who could not claim that particular label. Very interesting and a bit silly!
  • (no subject) -
    • I think I agree that it's important to distinguish between "good" writing and "writing I like," but personally I often find it exquisitely difficult to make that distinction. Once you get past the threshhold of people who know how to apply the rules of grammar, who employ dialogue that sounds like real people talking, who avoid unnecessary expository backstory, who give you the occasional description that makes you feel like you're in a real place -- well, once you get past that, pretty much everyone is objectively "good," aren't they? Not great, I mean, not Shakespeare or Dostoyevski or Austen, but competent, fluent, interesting?

      Look: Robert Heinlein is, in some ways, a silly fellow. A lot of his characters seem the same, the philisophical axes he ground were sometimes simplistic or downright offensive, and he had a love of the naive protagonist that could really get on your nerves. But there was never anyone better at avoiding exposition of anything the POV character already knew, and letting you fill in the gaps between your knowledge and the character's knowledge by watching the character make the connections -- and making it seem entirely natural. It was said that he could put you in another place and time so completely that you'd know the local shoelaces if you saw them. So was he an objectively "good" writer?

      I like authors who get me angry, or very sad. I like authors like LeGuin who seem to be reaching for fundamental truths that can't be articulated except in telling lies. I like authors like Chabon who get so far into the heads of their characters that the whole world seems warped by their perspective. I like authors like Greg Egan who make me reconsider everything I've ever believed. I like authors like Piercy who say, "You think you know how it was, but you don't; this is how it was..." And yeah, I like authors like Heinlein and Card who can just tell me a good story in a captivating way.

      I think it's true that every genre has conventions, but I'm going to stick to my guns and say that Late 20th Century Angl0-American Naturalism has its conventions too.

      And while I agree that "genre" categorizations are useful for marketing novels, I think (as I said above) that that utility falls away to almost zero when it comes to marketing short fiction periodicals. I mean, can the circulation of the pure LTCAAN mags get much worse than it is already? While mags like GUD, which are open to all genres so long as the stories are interesting, are (I gather) on the rise.

      Edited at 2008-07-20 01:28 am (UTC)
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