LevGrossman

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

What We Talk About When We Talk About Talking About Genre

The little lobe of my brain that serves as a Geiger counter for detecting blog posts theorizing about genre has been ticking with ever-increasing rapidity these days. It’s ticking so fast that it has crossed the threshold that unlocks another lobe of my brain, a top-secret lobe that contains a sealed black folder labeled RAGNAROK PROTOCOL that’s supposed to contain a blog post about genre.

Whoops. It’s empty.

The truth is I already said most of what I could think of to say about genre here, two years ago, in the Wall Street Journal of all places.

Interestingly, that piece turned out to be somewhat controversial, which was the last thing I expected, which shows you how little I know about genre, and for that matter, people. Some people who I really respect wrote some pretty sharp, pointy things about it. Basically the article was just my attempt to make the old literary-fiction-‘n’-genre-are-mergin’ argument, and ground it in a particular take on 20th century literary history. I just think that sometime in the early part of the 20th century social status, narrative, genre and shame all got woven together into a big tangled knot that we are only just now unraveling.

And it was the Modernists who did it. The Modernists, I say.

Enough people said I was wrong about this that I went and said the same thing, only shorter and testier, here a few days later. That oughta show’em!

In the intervening two years I haven’t gotten much past that, which probably says more about my low attention span and drastically declining neuroplasticity than it does about the soundness of my argument.

My only further reflections are these:

– Whatever’s going on, it’s time to draw to a close the essays in mainstream publications discovering that literary writers are using genre tropes. That’s been going on for a really long time now. It’s like when they (meaning we, since I work at the mainstreamest publication evar) discover that “comic books” can be “art.” Enough. It is done. We no longer need the weirding module.

— Part of the reason the debate over genre Rages On is probably because it’s so one-sided. You don’t hear a lot of  literary writers talking about what they think they’re doing and what genre means to them. (Or maybe you do and I just don’t follow the right people on Twitter). Which makes sense. Why would they?

(M. John Harrison comes to mind here: “The sooner literary fiction recognises & accepts its generic identity, the sooner it can get help.”)

— If there’s a note I wish were sounded less often, it’s the idea that genres are constraining because they come with conventions. Conventions aren’t a prison that genre writers are trying to escape. Yes, conventions can empty things of meaning — nobody likes being too ‘conventional’ in their writing — but they’re also how things mean in the first place. Codes are a convention. Language is a convention. You need conventions, because nothing works without them.

Plus if you didn’t have them, there wouldn’t be any rules to break, and if you’re not breaking rules, you’re not writing.

And anyway, as if literary fiction were somehow free of conventions! You can satisfy conventions, or you can frustrate them, but those are the only two options. There is no third path that leads to a Narnian literary utopia free of all conventions. Though the idea that there is is itself one of literary fiction’s cherished conventions…

Enough. I am vectoring toward curmudgeonliness.

:::ABORT RAGNAROK PROTOCOL:::

Tomorrow I’ll post tour dates.


10 comments on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Talking About Genre

  1. GMinNJ says:

    Interesting as always. Cannot wait for the new book.

  2. Ryan Britt says:

    Hey Lev! Here’s a weekly column I do over on Tor.com that I think is helping raise positive awareness on this topic!

    http://www.tor.com/features/series/genre-in-the-mainstream

  3. M says:

    i dont know what ragnarok protocol is, is it anything like the PRG game Ragnarok online? tiny 2D figurines living in medieval land and battling for better weapons and +1 points in the forums?

    i only read the blog entry, not the WSJ article, I’ll read that one after I comment.

    I really think people are making too big of a deal out of nothing, but it’s good and important to get excited about things that are not who gets voted off american idol.

    The people who want to keep “good” novels away from the general public are elitists. And the fact that these novels have to be difficult to be considered “good”, makes them even bigger of an elitist.

    im going to look up the definition of Modernist in my Bedford glossary and dictionary of literary terms now…

    okay i know what it means now. How can you really put conventions around something like writing when it’s so fluid, writing will become something that’s more and more free and will naturally take on new conventions with time. Especially now, people who are not trained in writing can write and publish.

    and i definitely disagree with comments that suggest mainstream things, whether movies, music or novels are “not good.”

    As in perhaps they don’t invoke too much thought or reason, that perhaps they are merely for consumption and entertainment. True but they also reflect the current state, no matter how much you think your novel is awesome and literary and praise-worthy if it’s not something that people will remember, it’ll never really amount to anything anyway. I think everyone should try and go mainstream, not everyone can do it, give your work the test of number of people rather than test of time. One’s Work will automatically sustain the test of time if it was widely received.

    the novels being written should always reflect the time period in which they’re published, as a mark of history if nothing else.

    i just wrote what i thought, i’m not even sure if i got the meaning right or not..

    but anyways! that’s a cool stock photo of a folder, *saves jpg*

  4. M says:

    dammit i should have read the WSJ article first

    first of all, what, they are separate?
    i never thought about it, but yeah they are aren’t they?
    i mostly read what i like, and even what i don’t like sometimes just for the sake of reading different things.

    books that i had hard times with: everything by a latin american author. EVERYTHING.

    how can one book possibly have so many time skips? cough, dom casmurro, cough.

    i started reading everything by hemingway lately, the last one that i finished was the torrents of spring, it was entertaining to a degree but also i was confused at times… then i found out he wrote it “bad” on purpose to be dropped from his contract…

    i never knew plot was a bad thing till now…

    but i stand corrected about what i said earlier, going mainstream is good, i want to become a writer because i want people to read what i wrote and enjoy it, and if they can feel a little bit better about themselves from my work then that’s a good thing. i do not want to challenge people’s minds and send them in a whirlwind of confusion and feel shame about themselves for not understanding what i had wrote.

    (also im not .. able to write difficult fiction)..

    what’s so good about being fluent in something so difficult anyway? it just makes your life really hard

    ignorance is bliss

    elitists i tell ya, elitists

  5. Melody says:

    I agree with a lot of the points you make. I love to read, but have never particularly liked “The Modernists”. I also don’t like simple books. So I’ve spent a lot of my reading life sampling genre and mass market books for stories that are both fun and thought provoking.

    Plus, I love the Twilight series and Harry Potter. And it makes me bristle when people disregard them, as if they have no merit whatsoever.

    Thanks for sharing your views about the postmodern novel. It gives me a better framework to explain why I read the things I read.

  6. David Olsen says:

    Totally agree with you, especially in the idea that in order to break the rules you need rules to begin with, which means, one needs to learn the rules.

    But keep in mind, we literary snobs denigrate convention, because we’re neophiles, always on the look out for something we haven’t seen before, and conventions, by their very definition, are old hat. If someone isn’t familiar with those tropes to begin with, they can still be quite powerful. Sure, everyone makes fun of the ending, “…and it was all a dream,” (and deservedly so), but when I first came across someone using that device when I was 8 years old, IT BLEW MY MIND! Concepts are still new to an individual if one hasn’t seen them before.

  7. Jeff says:

    The name of your post is now reason #18 why I have a shameless man-crush on you. Raymond Carver ftw

  8. amybillingham says:

    So, on Friday, I read this blog post, plus the WSJ article, plus the criticisms of said article, plus the rebuttal to aforementioned criticisms.
    While it certainly made me more aware of how much is lacking in my literary education, I think ultimately I got your point and basically agreed with it.

    Then, I went to see a movie called “Midnight in Paris”… didn’t know very much about it beforehand, but turns out it has much to do with authors and artists of the 1920s. Modernists everywhere!

    Weird coincidence, good movie. Had some interesting things to say about what it is to be a writer and/or artist. (Roger Ebert: “This film is sort of a daydream for American lit majors.”) It’s a bit of a genre-mixer, while we’re on the topic.

    : )
    amy

    ps
    TOUR DATES! TOUR DATES! TOUR DATES! TOUR DATES?

  9. Mr. Grossman;
    Entertaining post. The debate will rage for years, but my only real interest is in being able to identify what the genre codes actually mean in agent-speak. I recently pitched my current W-I-P novel as a literary/mystery novel. Another writer I know saw the pitch and submission — OK, OK I beta-ed it to her, and she said it didn’t read “like a mystery”. Right. It doesn’t read “like” a mystery, but there are elements of mystery worked into the plot as the MC discovers what happened to his sister. It’s a mystery to him.

    But that really does press the question how do I determine how to pitch my book? Are any agents taking any chances with non-formulaic work right now or should I just move towards full-time Indie-Author status? My reviews on Amazon of my previous novels indicate that I can write, I just don’t know what to call it!

  10. […] Grossman has entered the genre/mainstream fray with a short recap of an earlier essay. Tor’s got a blog which chronicles genre writing in the mainstream. The most recent post […]

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