Art is a constant advance, of cyclical invention and reinvention. Each new style or movement is formulated, “perfected”, denied, revised and rebutted. A great deal of discourse is appreciated only in retrospect, or as a depreciated style of work that served only as a necessary step towards superior form. In fiction, this is a wonderful past. A great arcing story of stories, told over and again, with fresh sheen from a new hand. To cast over all fiction that there is, or ever was, nets a beautiful, technicolour catch.
Naturally, such a vast discourse is sub-categorized. It is in our nature to set boundaries and definitions, to styles and movements. Appreciation of fiction as one great beast is a wonderfully compelling, but neatness and academia call for brass-tagged collars on the otherwise stray, movements and ‘genres’. As so many artistic platforms swaggered through the back half of the twentieth century, phases of postmodernity and a new space of creation began. Application of simple definitions has become difficult. Lines of demarcation between classes of fiction have become unclear.
Where we are now in terms of a ‘literary world’, one might contend that a liminal space has existed for sometime. That as we further define the nature of Postmodernism, so it becomes a retrospective; an account of a time that has passed. It only falls upon such academic classifications to exist, after enough literature exists to define the movement. Postmodernism is in full swing – or so they say – and in a decade’s time there will exist discourse of yet-unnamed movements occurring now. We the people are constantly looking to set constraints of periodization, and lay whatever mile-markers manageable Thus there exists a freedom of discussion, as to the comprehension of the contemporary literary space. What a lark.
Now all this is very well-to-do. Outlining a certain ‘freedom’ to discuss and define. What we seek to discuss, is the role of genre, in contemporary fiction. First, of course, one must speak to the phenomenon of genre. A handful of characteristics, a set of cornerstones, upon which to rest a work, or to define one by. Stylistic representations, translations and dilutions. The vanilla of Gothic Horror, sentimental, with its turrets, ravens, and perpetual thunderstorms. Men of harrowing intention and chilling gaze. Fashion abandons melodrama, to move to the explicit ‘Modern Horror’ – Cosmic Horror, Dark Romance, and gory hyper-intensive Splatterpunk. Genre has evolved with taste and experimentation, yet even with its evolution and the hybridity of new forms, its difficult for one to be satisfied with its being the sole qualifier.
Genre is a fickle thing. A useful measure in many regards, this is difficult to deny. Genre can serve to steer interest, assign flavour-names to books for when a certain part of one’s palette is whetted. Without genre, to wander around a library would certainly be more difficult. But such lineated definition of anything can serve to alter the nature of the defined. With genre categorizations, comes the fencing of clear pens, to which works may or may not belong. Pieces which work with intention to these spaces are discussed as works of ‘Genre Fiction’, a term sometimes hissed by literary academics.
Genre Fiction requires little discussion, as to definition. These glossed paperbacks line shelves and satisfy needs, and are by no measure depreciated as a result thereof. A queer minority would enjoy leafing through Ulysses on every holiday or Sunday afternoon. Serialized works of Stephen King, Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, and our trouble-child George Martin, each fit the bill. Crime, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, Romance, Science Fiction, all the block-letter signs of book shops.
The current prominence of genre is a far greater one than it has enjoyed before, and the future is blinding for Genre Fiction. The market of those looking for a read of formulaic satisfaction is growing, not only in literature, but similarly in film and television. There’s a grinning git somewhere turning a great crank on the machine of RomComs, and a board of chuckling executives bandying around outrageous ideas for fresh Reality Television. The issue really at hand, is that of other fiction being confused with, or eclipsed by, Genre Fiction. A work’s embodying a few aesthetics that also belong to a composition of Genre Fiction, may often lead to an immediate and holistic classification of it; the reading of a book by its cover. This is a sorry sentence for a work of individual style and application.
An apt example is that of the novel touched on during last weeks discussion, Slaugherhouse Five. It is both a work with elements of Science Fiction, and those of a War novel, but to classify it purely as either, is a gross misjudgment. For each phrase lugs heavy connotation. ‘Science Fiction’ immediately foregrounds all associations with the genre, the ‘woosh’ of doors, squealing of lasers, Area-51 and pale blue gimp-men with bulbous heads. We think of worn, tacky series’, heroes with bowl-cuts and cheap outfits, or plot-driven works, stumbling from climax to climax, because this is what we’ve been taught to do. Film, television, and written fiction, all share very similar terms of genre, the words are the same, and thus it is difficult to separate the semantics. In the case of science fiction, Star Trek is usually the front-runner of immediate association, and Slaughterhouse Five is certainly its own beast.
Similarly suitable, and with a cinematic adaptation on hand, is Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Certainly the piece is placed in time beyond ours, with well-advanced technology, and a society that is foreign to us. But for Androids to be ham-fisted through a simple siv, diluted to ‘a Sci-Fi novel’, perhaps does it an injustice. Perhaps this is idiosyncratic or pedantic, for any author of a work – be it however true to a genre – may grit their teeth at linear interpretation. The difficulty with typification, is the immediate constraints that are inevitability associated. The natural tendency of people is to crave an overriding thesis, a theoretical discourse by which to digest a work in advance. The importance of a work to be experienced as it is, without being suffocated by genre, intimidation to “understand” it, each infinitesimal reference, or find a grand between-the-lines design, is a great one. Fiction is written to be read by each in their own way, and asks for little else.
Works to just, read:
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick
The Handmaid’s Tail – Margaret Atwood
Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh
The War of the Worlds – H.G Wells
The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon