Beating My Head on the Genre Wall


Perhaps you’ve heard of me. I’m the hot new thing. I’m that improbably gifted young fantasy writer with the edgy material and the glacier-blue eyes. I am “A Sense of Wonder” made flesh but still approachable, still very much like you. For a long time now the genre has needed me, someone truly groundbreaking, truth-telling, bridge-building, someone who combines the tweediness of Tolkien with the beard of–
You’re not falling for it, are you?
Let’s start again. Hello, I’m Robert. I’ve just published a book called The Red Wolf Conspiracy. Within it you’ll find a boy whose head erupts frequently with demonic bird-noises, and a rat who weeps in corners, and a sea-nymph who falls in love with a human she might otherwise eat. They’re not cool. They’re misfits and lonely, and that loneliness is one of the paths by which I found them.
I have a soft spot for misfits, having been one roughly since my diaper years. Oh, not in any tragic, soul-scarring way: my misfit status has always been more a disposition than a curse. Recently it has also becoming an esthetic preference. Misfits suffer (and cause) far more interesting disasters than those who fit snugly into a culture or a camp. But writing books full of misfits somehow hasn’t taught me to quit playing the part.
Case in point: genre. No definition of “fantasy” this side of Freud could exclude The Red Wolf Conspiracy. That fact makes me (say it, say it) a genre writer. And I hasten to declare that the fantasy community has welcomed me with open arms. I’m humbled by its decency, inspired by its intelligence and zeal. But do I rest easy in the communal embrace? Not yet. That’s just me. I’ve never joined any club without chafing at the bylaws.
Which brings me to my thought experiment. To paraphrase John Lennon:
Imagine there’s no genres;
it isn’t hard to do.?
No more romance or westerns,
And no spec fiction too.
Imagine all the novels?
living side by side–

Before I write another word: no, I don’t really pine for that day. There’s plenty to regret about the prejudice and posturing and celebration of keyword-studded garbage that comes with genres, but their existence does have benefits beyond marketing and exclusion. There’s that vibrant community, which “literary writers” (more on them in a moment) can only dream about. There’s true freedom of terrain. And sometimes, especially with SFF, there’s an intellectual gauntlet thrown down for reader and writer alike.

Yet despite these benefits I’d argue for a de-emphasis on genre. Books are neither better nor worse because they include elements of steampunk. They are not worthy of note because a vampire stalks their pages. They are not, conversely, worthy of contempt for such reasons, although we all know how often science fiction and fantasy have been dismissed with contempt. And worse than contempt: who among us has not seen that sudden, glassy-eyed unreachability, that withdrawal, stealing over a face? You write that stuff, do you? Well now. How very…fun.
Faced with such closed-mindedness, it’s no surprise that many in our community turn their backs on the world of fiction beyond the borders of the realm. For some, that’s well and good: the realm is large enough, and “snug” is a fine thing to feel. But for others such turning away is a sad mistake.
A great danger of approaching any novel through the genre door is that it tempts us to see the book first as an example of something, as a part of an aggregate, rather what it truly is: a unique creation, a novel. When we do that, we expect both too much and too little from the book. Too much, because the android or the ogre or the city under siege is instantly compared to every corresponding feature in the wider pantheon: the CGI droid, the ogre from Dreamworks, the cities burning in The Mammoth Book of Alien Invasions. Too little, because if a book contains a few favorites from our genre-checklist, we may feel obliged to appreciate that fact, even if in other respects our time with the book has been shallow, dreary, tedious and dry.
An opposite danger arises, too: that of excluding comparison, particularly with what goes by the title “literary.” The term is preposterous, of course: like a street gang that calls itself “The Human Beings” to the exclusion of all others. But like “science fiction” and “fantasy,” it does mean something. To fall back on another old-fashioned term, it means craftsmanship.
It’s a weird world that sweeps thoughtfulness, linguistic precision, sensitivity and what Updike calls the “human subtleties” into a category apart, but such is the territory claimed by literary fiction. Tragically, we SFF writers often concede that ground without a fight.
Yes, I’ve just confessed a large bias of my own. I can’t believe in your fighters or your elves unless you seduce me with the texture of their minds. I’ve tried. It doesn’t happen. It’s the misfit in me.
This seduction can be a deadly business. What does it feel like to kill another human being with a mace–feel like in the soul, not the biceps or the basal ganglia? What patterns of mind allow one to board an interstellar ship and lose everything, forever, in the world one departs? What sort of lies does a lycanthrope whisper to herself, in the minutes before the moon clears the trees? Many writers pose these questions. But a few surrender to them, desperately imagine them, drive them through their narratives like a stake. And aren’t those just the writers (Ishiguro, McCarthy, John Gardner, Orhan Pamuk), we tend to see as misfits in the SFF realm?
If you want to build the world’s finest sports car, you’d hardly go to a design school that avoids all mention of Lamborghini, Lotus and Ferrari. And if you’re an aspiring SFF writer (or a veteran who believes that we all need help keeping sharp) you should hope that the next Worldcon panels on writing technique mention Virginia Woolf and Julio Cort├ízar, E.M. Forster and Anton Chekhov–all of whom, by the way, wrote fantasy.
I say this having spent years on the other side of the wall, begging my English professors to read le Guin, daring my fellow MFA students to declare out loud what they whispered in private: that they, too, liked to sneak off with that stuff. To both communities, which I love equally and with reckless abandon, my plea is the same: don’t make me choose sides. Let the wall crumble a bit. Nobody will forget where it stands.