What Is Genre Anyway?

Cheryl Morgan makes the case for genre as a process rather than a category.

Many electrons have been spent around the blogosphere of late either trying to defend various forms of “genre” literature (science fiction, fantasy, crime, etc.), or lambasting it as utter rubbish. Few of these commentators, however, have seriously attempted to explain what they mean by “genre” or even what they mean by “science fiction”. Everyone knows, right?

A little examination, however, shows that no such agreement exists. Take science fiction, for example. Margaret Atwood has been known to explain that her books are rigorous extrapolations of known scientific fact, unlike science fiction, which is a pile of fanciful rubbish about talking squid in space. In a recent Guardian podcast Simon Ings explained that science fiction is bad because it is all rigorous scientific extrapolation, not proper story telling. They can’t both be right, can they?

Ask the man in the street what science fiction is and he’ll probably say something like Atwood. He’ll mention aliens, robots, spaceships and ray guns; he may add that it is set in the future. Clearly, however, this isn’t a sufficient definition. Dave Langford’s famous fanzine, Ansible, has a regular column called “As others see us”, which collects daft things people say about science fiction and its readers. Entries in the column frequently show authors and actors claiming that, despite the obvious trappings, their work is “not science fiction”. So science fiction is set in the future with spaceships and aliens, unless the person responsible for it wants it to be taken seriously. I can understand the desire not to be tarred, but as a definition this isn’t very useful.

Another common complaint leveled at science fiction and fantasy is that they are “not real”. Apparently far more skill is required to set a story in the real world than in an imaginary one. This is a bit odd, because the job of a writer is making things up. Making up imaginary worlds is hard, at least if you want to impress discerning science fiction fans. Then again, I know people who complain that the likes of Picasso and Dalì are bad painters because their works don’t look like anything real. “Why can’t they paint like Constable,” such people ask. It is an opinion, but it is not one you’d find expressed by serious art critics, so why do serious literary critics cleave so to the real?

There are, incidentally, many good reasons for setting fiction in an invented world. Guy Gavriel Kay, for example, says he won’t write historical novels because he can never really know what characters from history were like, so it would be wrong for him to make up characterizations for them. Juliet E. McKenna, who has a degree in classics from Oxford, told me in our recent interview that she won’t write historical fiction because, as an historian, she knows how little we really know about the past, and doesn’t want to write something that is dubious or inaccurate. With fantasy she can take an interpretation of history, and no one can complain that it is wrong.

Back with genre, however, Ed Docx comes closer than most in his recent Guardian denunciation of Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson. He says that genre is, “by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material.” At first sight that also seems odd. All forms of art have conventions. When a poet writes a sonnet she does so to test her ability against Shakespeare, not because the constrained form makes her job easier. Equally a composer choosing the symphonic form knows his work will be compared to Mozart and Beethoven. The point is to take the existing form and do new, exciting things with it.

However, this isn’t exactly what Docx means. What he’s thinking about are constraints on the plot and acceptable characterization. Take a romance novel, for example. Many romance readers know exactly what they want from a new book. The girl will meet a boy, they’ll hit it off really badly, things will happen, and they will fall in love and live happily ever after. It is a formula. Similar formulae apply to crime fiction, to thrillers, to Westerns, to quest fantasies, to ghost stories, and to tales of middle-aged English professors with unhappy marriages. Having a formula to follow can indeed make a book easier to write, and less interesting to read.

Now try applying this to science fiction. What is the standard formula of a science fiction novel? Alien invasion? Robot runs amok? Computer hackers fight evil corporations? There is actually a well-worn formula for a particular type of science fiction. Michael Crichton was a master of it. In such a book a new scientific development is created, it runs amok threatening disaster, but a brave scientist destroys it. There are echoes of Frankenstein here, so the idea has pedigree, but try fitting this pattern to any number of classic science fiction novels from the likes of, say, H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Iain M. Banks or William Gibson and you run into trouble. Indeed, one definition commonly advanced for “proper” science fiction is that it should leave the world changed. By this argument, Crichton’s novels are actually a form of horror.

What this does do is throw a bit of light on that classic “it’s not science fiction” argument. If your idea of science fiction is defined by formulaic plotting and stereotyped characters then just because you have used spaceships and aliens you don’t want people to think you can’t write. Unfortunately many literary critics have an tendency to assume that anything that contains spaceships and aliens must also have the aforementioned formulaic plot and stereotyped characters, hence the eagerness of Atwood et al to distinguish themselves from the despised herd. But just because some dogs have spots, it doesn’t follow that everything with spots is a dog.

Incidentally, the July 2010 issue of Science Fiction Studies has an article by John Rieder called “On Defining SF, or not: Genre Theory, SF and History,” which applies an historical perspective to examining how people identify SF. In it Rieder makes a number of propositions about SF, amongst which is: “attribution of the identity of sf to a text constitutes an active intervention in its distribution and reception.” That is, people identify works as SF, or indeed try to prevent them being identified as SF, because that identification affects how the works are regarded by the industry, the media and the reading public. In effect, identifying a work as SF, or not SF, can be a political action.

We are almost there. At this point I’d like to bring in William Gibson. During a reading in Bristol on his recent signing tour he commented that, “genre is what happens when a businessman says, ‘remember that book you read last week and really loved? I can give you something just like it.'”

Evaporating Genres - Gary K. Wolfe

That’s one of the pithiest formulations I have heard of the idea of genre as a process. This is by no means an uncommon idea in science fiction criticism. Professor Gary K. Wolfe, who is both a former Dean of Humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and a leading science fiction reviewer, has a new collection of essays out, Evaporating Genres (Wesleyan University Press) [Purchase], that presents the theory at length.

Wolfe characterizes fiction as a battleground disputed by the forces of innovation and ossification. On the one hand commercial interests and lazy writers seek to give the public “more like this”. We have all seen the advertising: “Comparable to Tolkien at his best”; “If you like Harry Potter you’ll love…”. On the other side are innovative and creative writers who want to take existing forms and stretch them, change them, explode them even. It is, if you like, a battle of commerce against art. And in the end art always wins, temporarily, because sooner or later someone comes up with a new idea that is so good it becomes the new fashion. Then the herd tries to copy it.

What is the point of all this? Basically it is a plea for people to think before labeling. If you see a story about talking animals, don’t immediately dismiss it as fantasy rubbish, it might be by a guy called Orwell. Or take, for example, the Generation Ship story that Alvaro Zinos-Amaro wrote about last issue. Many writers have tried their hand at such stories. Amongst them are Brian Aldiss, Philip K. Dick, Gene Wolfe and Toby Litt, all of whom are very fine writers in their own particular ways. Each one has challenged and refreshed the basic expectations of the form. This is the thing we call “The Conversation”: the way in which each successive generation of writers adapts and comments on what has gone before. Equally many lesser writers will have taken what these men have done and copied it, and as such their work becomes more genrefied.

So if you happen to see a book with a generation ship in it, don’t just point and say, “science fiction, must be rubbish”; ask yourself whether the writer has taken the form and stretched it, or just followed it slavishly. You can use the basic structure of the generation ship story to conduct a searching psychological examination of people confined together in a spaceship for their entire lives, or ask penetrating questions about the future of humanity. Or you can just write a simple, predictable adventure story. The quality of literature you produce will depend on the approach you take, and how well you handle it, not on whether or not the book has a spaceship in it.

You may also want to take a look at writers who make a habit of exploding genre formulae; the David Bowies of literature who refuse to be tied down to any particular form. China Miéville, for example, famously won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award, supposedly only for science fiction, and the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel, supposedly only for fantasy, with the same book (Perdido Street Station). There are writers such as Kelly Link, John Crowley, Karen Joy Fowler and Elizabeth Hand who often produce works that can easily be taken as realist unless you recognize the science fiction or fantasy concepts they have subtly woven into them. Look out for books described as “interstitial” or “slipstream” that make not fitting into genre boxes a matter of policy.

What’s more you can do this yourself. I recently had the pleasure of participating in a podcast with Gary K. Wolfe, leading critic John Clute, and Australian editor Jonathan Strahan. In it we talked about the idea of genres as a collection of coloured lenses through which a work can be viewed. Look at a book one way and it seems like it might be science fiction, but with another lens it is completely realist, or horror. Writers who are really good at making stuff up can produce works that can look equally good through several different such lenses. That, I submit, is art.