Sunday, February 8, 2009

Bathroom Monologue: Genre

To many people, “genre” just means one kind of story that can be told in a medium. Comedy, Drama and Romance are genres. But there is also a malign use of the word, often with a capital letter. This is Genre, which is singular but somehow connotes three things: Science Fiction and Fantasy, even though they’re constantly at odds, and Horror, even though many scary things are not the least bit fantastic or reliant on science. They form an ugly lump. Sometimes speculative fiction and alternative histories are part of the lump, as they are merely fantasies set here instead of a made-up world, but sometimes a few are excluded from the lump. Philip Roth does not write Genre, even when he makes a celebrity pilot beat FDR for the presidency. Why? This is where the membrane of segregation bursts, poked and punctured by the people who erected it. When Michael Chabon or Cormac McCarthy write something that belongs in Genre but hemorrhages out, you begin to realize it’s a silly and insulting creation. And when you realize just how many things hemorrhaged out of there, or have somehow never been put in there in your lifetime despite belonging, or are in there and don’t belong, you may come to think like me. You may come to think that my make-believe is not worse than yours.

Was there a bitterer passing of an author this decade than Kurt Vonnegut, famed for smart Science Fiction? Perhaps the greatest living poet in our language, Seamus Heaney, spent years translating Beowulf and Philoctetes– one the original classic of our tongue about a dragonslaying hero, and the other a play about improbable survival, magical occurrences and a cameo by Hercules. They are not exempt from Fantasy just because they’re old, especially not after a fresh re-write. Fast forward centuries and you’ll find that perhaps the most commonly referenced piece of politically critical fiction of the 20th century was George Orwell’s 1984, the quintessential speculative SciFi jaunt?

When you look at the BBC’s list of the hundred most beloved novels from 2007, what do you find at the top? Lord of the Rings, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials and The Chronicles of Narnia. And who were J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis but professors of Literature and Philosophy at Oxford, who decided to spend their time in Fantasy steeped in mythology? And what is mythology, but that substance Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell observed was essential to the healthy mind? If it is that, then mythology is at least the fundamental make-believe, upon which you will find nearly all old-world classic literature stands. If you would like to take the conceit out of English, I’ll let you take it up with Homer and Virgil before the gates of Hell.

And don’t say, “That’s Europe.” In this hemisphere, Time Magazine put a comic book as one of the hundred greatest novels of the 20th century. Our literature grew out of fertile imagination and folklore. We needed giants and their blue oxen buddies for a new oral tradition before we could have a new print tradition. Perhaps you will say Washington Irving was our first author in that print tradition, he who told stories about time travel, ghosts and talking books. Or perhaps you will say Mr. Irving was too European in his prose and instead elect Mark Twain as our first – but if so, please regard his tales about talking birds, an engineer traveling back to Camelot, and a vengeful corpse in search of its golden arm.

And if Mr. Irving is indeed too European for you, please pay mind to the Europeans and their historically inaccurate classics about King Arthur, Jeff Chaucer’s opus of impossible and obscene anecdotes, and Bill Shakespeare’s Macbeth chatting up witches. We look to that continent and see the abyss peer hatefully into us, and yet we can still make a man dressed as a bat the number one movie in the world, if we’re smart enough to have him fight a clown.

Even without its roots running quite as deep as Fantasy, Science Fiction is no ignoble playground. Otherwise Michio Kaku wouldn’t have written a book explaining what of their elements might be plausible, and Stephen Hawking certainly wouldn’t have played poker on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Brilliant scientists have come to terms with our modern make-believe, so why can’t the psyche of the English language?

It is in the psyche of our letters, and largely thanks to an A-B argument. Opinions have been polarized, such that it must be A or B. These arguments are usually at (or near) the center of frustrating conflicts.

Here, A is stories for story sake, characters you want to follow, interesting action, rising interest and climax. A is real narrative that captivates someone who has seldom visited the art form before.

Here, B is stories for art sake, with themes that transcend action, tangents from what is necessary to develop the story, unanswered questions and ephemeral wisps of words that leave the audience thinking instead of following.

A is putting what makes fiction meaningful for its characters first. B is putting what makes fiction meaningful for its readers first. A asks. B challenges.

In short, A is garbage and B is propaganda. They are worthless independent of each other, as one is base and the other is all ulterior motive. Just because one requires more critical thought does not make it virtuous. Action must be meaningful to be worthwhile, but meaning cannot attach itself to a void. The value and art lies in the balance of these forces. They are not the two strands in the helix of good fiction; they are what gravity and heat are to life, pulling it together and making it move, both indispensable to its existence, and not objectively comparable.

The “Genre” genres, even after selling much of their premiere real estate to B, have been the unabashed home to A for a century. Most good fiction, in and out of the Genre slums, reconciles these forces, but much as modern America is populated by moderates and run by extremist idiots, so are American letters. So Stephen King’s The Stand was written off as schlock by snobs and too “I don’t know” by fools. The make-believe force is the first put-off, but the desire to entertain as well as think is what fuels the stigma.

My first mentor at Bennington College, Max Gardner, put it best: “A woman fucking her cow is Literature. A woman fucking her cow on Mars is trash.”


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