Monday, March 10, 2014

On transgressing genre boundaries and all that

[WARNING: Here be scare quotes. Also, here be some vagueness as to what I'm reacting against; this is mostly because the phenomenon is so widespread that to single out any one particular person for specific quotation would misrepresent the problem — and be unnecessarily mean to that person, on whose feet alone the problem cannot be laid.]

Whenever people get the glint of revolutionary fervor in their eyes and start talking about smashing the walls of "genre" or the walls between genre and "the mainstream," whatever that is, or self-righteously proudly declare themselves not "bound" by genre, or brag of being brave genre-transgressors, etc., etc., I get frustrated. It's the kind of frustration that arises not from direct "disagreement" (which I could simply voice and be done with) so much as a complicated set of fundamental differences between how I see things and how one would have to see them in order to say such things. In such a situation, the need to respond, indeed forcefully to disagree in many ways, feels overwhelmingly urgent, and yet it is difficult even to know where to begin, let alone how to proceed. The fear of being misunderstood (as some sort of "genre-enforcement police", for example) is large, and far from the only thing stopping my tongue. Hence: frustration and, usually, silence.

The word genre itself is fraught enough that I sometimes feel like I could, if I for some godforsaken reason wanted to, write whole books about my problems with it; more often, though, I feel myself struck mute in the face of it. It is a word that means nothing while simultaneously meaning everything, while at the same time also meaning a set of specific, but different, separate things: there is the sense in which the novel is a genre, or poetry or journalism or indeed literary criticism; then there is the sense that, within say poetry, lyric and epic are genres. But, though there is often talk about dissolving one or the other of these as a genre (to which I tend to be much more sympathetic), this is not the kind of talk I mean. No, in the kind of statements I'm talking about the word genre refers to writing, usually prose fiction writing, done in one or more of a specific list of modes that the person making the statement feels are in some way marginalized; usually there is a (spoken or unspoken) class element in that this genre writing tends to be (or at least to be seen as) commercial writing in a way that "mainstream" or "literary" writing is not (or at least is not so often seen as such). The people who issue these calls to genre-smashing almost always simultaneously mean genre to indicate specific types of (theoretically) marginalized writing: mystery, horror, fiction: these, whatever they may be, are all genres. The waters are further muddied by the fact that all of these are also names of marketing categories, which is another sense in which the term genre can be used; and it is seldom clear whether the people who are telling us to break down genre barriers are referring to these marketing categories explicitly, implicitly, or not at all.

There is a whole academic field of "genre studies" as well, which, whenever I try to read any of it, tires me in the way most academic writing does: namely, there is exactly the worst possible combination of "you must be this educated to enter" assumed knowledge on the one hand and elaborate, painstaking establishment of what everyone already knows (and what neither the writer nor any intended reader plans to dispute) on the other. Thus, if one doesn't already share the same knowledge and interpretation of the entire body of genre studies, and the same vocabulary, as is at this precise moment current in the academy,* along with a specific muzzy misreading of a received notion of a very limited section of certain thinkers' oeuvres,** one will be forever at sea; meanwhile, establishing yet again, in practically the same words every time, that The Fifties Were A Time Of Prosperity For Some But They Were Much More So A Time Of Great Paranoia, Repression, And Oppression (to name one example particularly common in my experience) will take up a good half of the thoroughly befootnoted essay — or, god help us, book-length study (for somehow, mysteriously, the amount of time that must be spent establishing such things seems always to scale up with the length of the critical work in question). And, lost somewhere in the shuffle, what actually happens in the encounter between reader and work is left forever unexamined.

*Including knowledge of specific disputes over this knowledge and interpretation and vocabulary; whatever one's position on these disputes, one must share the same knowledge and interpretation of them as is current in the academy. And if one has a different dispute, or a different sense of what is at stake in any of those already existant...well, that is simply unimaginable at this time.
**One must misunderstand Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in a specific way, for example, and betray no awareness that he ever wrote anything else; a particular misapprehension of Marx is essential; and so on.

But that's a digression (mostly there to establish that yes, I am aware of the existence of this body of work, as well as to vent a bit of frustration only semi-related to the frustration that is the major topic of this post). What we're dealing with here is the use of "genre" as a collective noun to mean all these different areas of writing, mystery, science fiction, etc., taken together, as well as its more specific use referring to one or another of these areas in particular. It is the walls between these areas, and the wall apparently enclosing them all against the putative mainstream, that we are told we should be breaking down. And this wall-smashing, we are meant to believe, is radical, "transgressive," daring, what-have-you; consequently the suggestion that maybe the walls serve some good or interesting purpose is by default conservative, even reactionary.

Now, I have often argued in the past (though I have yet to go into detail about it) against the uncritical description of science fiction as "a genre". I have no intention of walking back those objections now, though I will, alas, be postponing their thorough exploration once more. I don't think it's useful to talk about science fiction as a genre in anything but the marketing sense (in which many of the works claimed for sf by genre specialists, from Frankenstein to MaddAddam, are simply, factually, not sf), and though indeed this marketing plays a very important role in the shaping of what I think is more fruitfully understood as the "field" of science fiction (in which Frankenstein and MaddAddam and the rest come back into intriguingly contestable relevance) and should not be ignored, it is hardly the only thing to talk about.* But my antagonism toward the word genre, and my deeply-held belief that a field has no concrete boundaries, does not mean that I don't think science fiction is a thing, a particular thing, a thing the health and interest of which depend on its being understood as a thing different from other things.

*My "in anything but" here is something of an overstatement-in-the-interest-of-simplicity. I do think it can be interesting, if not necessarily wholly accurate, to think — as Samuel R. Delany, Rosalie Moore, myself and others have done — of sf as a genre at the level on which "genre" refers to distinctions such as those between novels and poems, but that is at the moment beside the point, and I only feel the need to mention it now because of the extreme blurriness of the term "genre" that I am in part complaining about!

I think one of the things that bother me about the kind of would-be radical statements I'm writing against is that they seem somehow to naturalize the very categories they supposedly seek to dissolve. One makes no decisions; one simply finds oneself "a genre writer", thus imprisoned within these walls. Or maybe one "is" a genre writer in some essential way unrelated to what one writes. In this scheme, genre in some senses becomes yet another axis upon which one can be oppressed, akin to race, gender, sexuality, or disability.* This notion is, or at least seems to me to be, implicitly present regardless of whether the person in question believes that some hallucinatory "genrism" is as severe a social and political problem as racism, misogyny and transmisogyny, homophobia, ableism, etc. (and yes, horrifyingly enough, many — though I think (and hope) far from most — do seem to think there is some kind of equivalence here).

*Which, lest the point be lost, are also constructed categories naturalized in dominant ideology, though the oppression people experience based on their relationship to them is entirely concrete.

With this as background, the claim to radicalism rests implicitly in the understanding of these genre walls as something imposed from above rather than something continuously generated from below. My stance is not that generation-from-below is the only thing going on; of course it isn't. Gatekeepers are, after all, A Thing. It's more that I think the implication that one's working within "genre" is only something imposed from without — the "rather than" — is simplistic and, well, wrong. In this connection I always think of an anecdote Gabriel Josipovici relates in his What Ever Happened to Modernism?:

I recently shared a platform with an eminent English novelist with a passion for art, who amused the audience by telling them that Mondrian felt he could not make any diagonal lines. 'I feel there are no limits', she said. 'Why should we not make diagonal lines if we want to?' This sounds like an admirable sentiment, a robust assertion of artistic independence. But if we look into the case of Mondrian, his denial is clearly not a kowtowing to the unspoken rules of society, but comes from some deep impulse within the artist himself.
The situation of the average sf writer is obviously not that of Mondrian (e.g., while there are numerous publishers saying "everyone, please send us your science fiction writings", there were presumably no galleries saying "everyone, please send us your pictures devoid of diagonals" when he started making them). But presumably the impulse that leads to the creation of these sf writings in the first place arises from within the writer — and while this impulse is of course shaped from without and to varying extents from above, for example by the existence of the sf publishers, so too was Mondrian's shaped in its way by his "without and above". Or perhaps the sf writer's position is more directly (though of course, again, not perfectly) analogous to that of composers like Milton Babbitt and Elisabeth Lutyens, who often found themselves needing to compose using the twelve-note method after Arnold Schoenberg had already invented it — and created a, shall we say, "market" for it.* The existence of the thing, the twelve-note method or sf or what have you (cubism also comes to mind, or, in all the arts after, roughly speaking, Marcel Duchamp and Gertrude Stein, conceptualism), creates at least in artists of a certain circle a need, both personal and social, to respond to it, whether by taking part in it or vehemently opposing it. And though one cannot always explain this need as a "choice" (for what, fundamentally speaking, is a choice?), a great part of it does arise from within.

*Indeed, I often associate the self-selected restriction of the sf writer to phenomena at least vaguely plausible under currently known science (with all the disclaimers that must accompany this — mistakes, deliberate distortions, long-held conventions like faster than light travel, etc.) with the statement of Adrian Leverkühn, the fictional composer who in Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus invents the twelve-note method, to the effect that the appeal of and indeed the need for the method is that with it all of the "work" has been done already when one sits down to compose — that it therefore frees one to compose.

And while obviously the wall-smashing impulse too arises from within, in response to what is without, under similar circumstances, I find ludicrous the implication that it is the only way to be true to one's own artistic impulses and needs, as I do the assertion that it is in some way uniquely "brave".

For in what sense is it "brave"? I could see the argument (though I by no means concede it; I would have to think about it more) that it once was, that perhaps when a novel like Delany's Dhalgren blurred the lines between sf, fantasy, and the literary, or when Ursula K. Le Guin began to move fluently between modes, or even when, heaven help us, Kingsley Amis started dipping his toe into the shallow end of the sf pool, or [you name it], this movement was a radical endeavor undertaken under some threat of real, concrete resistance. Perhaps. But now? From where I stand, blurred genre lines are nothing short of hegemonic. The big awards shove one another over in the rush to nominate the latest literary magical-realist horror mystery. The highest-paying (and most elite in-clubby) of the short sf venues gets a Nebula nomination for an atrocious piece of thought-free, poorly-written liberal racism that bears no marks of sf besides its ludicrous incorporation of an icon or two tangentially related to the field — and I strongly suspect that the reason it garnered this honor is that some portion of the voters found it exciting that it was not in any way sf. The sf magazines shout that they're only looking for literary stories. The ideology manufacturers at Random Penguin gleefully seize on the notion that literary works' including what might be seen as generic markers is "subversive", in the process helping to water down what was very nearly an important novel. And the rewards heaped upon the heads of established literary celebrities for viewing sf as a kind of oil-rich ground ripe for exploitation every time the all-consuming novel depletes its previous resources are neverending.

So that I may not be misunderstood, I'm not saying that it is automatically "bad" for any individual work to do these things,* to blur these lines. Not at all! Many works I rate very highly do it. But neither is it intrinsically good, and as a larger phenomenon it requires critical analysis. We must remember that literature is not innocent, that the novel in particular is a bourgeois, capitalist, and colonialist form — and that this colonialism is reflected in the ability of the novel to absorb anything and everything it comes in contact with, and in the faith of many of its practitioners (and readers) that of course it has every right to do so. And while the incorporation of "genre" elements into "literary" novels is far from the most dangerous expression of the novel's colonialism (I have not forgotten what I said earlier about the ludicrousness of "genrism"!), it nevertheless is an expression of it.

*Well, the liberal racism is automatically bad. But the rest of it.

Worse, perhaps, is the mirror image of this process: where people within sf buy into and valorize what they understand as "mainstream literary values". This is a problem of long standing, dating back at least to Damon Knight's assertion, by my lights rather wrong-headed, that sf can and should be judged by the same standards as any other literature. This is a huge topic, one probably best left for another time (indeed I've been working — actually been largely stalled — on a massive essay about it for nearly a year now), but for now I should say that the political aspect of the problem, at least, is this: that while the bulk of sf has always been politically questionable at best, its formal radicalism nevertheless opened up a space for a kind of political liveliness — and sometimes political radicalism — largely not available to the traditional novel; discarding sf's distinctiveness in search of some illusory literary virtue is, looked at this way, nothing short of a catastrophe.

Related to this is a sort of double movement implicit in the "breaking down genre walls is radical" stance, where it on the one hand reinvents the nonsensical and fictitious divide between form and content (and valorizes the latter while ignoring the former — or perhaps rather substitutes the latter for the former), while on the other it elides political and formal radicalism — which, when one considers a writer like T.S. Eliot, to name one particularly clear example, are obviously not the same thing at all. When we look at what the genre-abolitionist radicals really want, we tend to see that they don't want to change the way fiction goes about conducting itself (they still want to start their short stories with those hooky one-sentence opening paragraphs, say); as an example, the problems I found in my above-linked essay on Karen Joy Fowler's (intriguingly!) genre-defying We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves are entirely formal, are all a result of its adhering too much to the traditional form of the novel. Rather, what these would-be radicals* want is merely to change what these ordinary fictions are "about." It is difficult to see what is radical or daring about this. On the other hand, works like Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To or Thomas M. Disch's Camp Concentration, both of which place themselves firmly and unquestionably within sf in the terms allowed by discussion only of so-called "content", are immensely singular departures from the formal norms of both sf and the traditional novel.

*A group I do not intend to lump Fowler specifically into.

And these examples too help us to see better the dangers in eliding formal and political radicalism. Russ's novel, it seems to me, is inarguably radical in both terms, and is politically so not just in the etymological sense but also in the sense in which "radical" usually indicates a political stance on, for lack of a better term, the far left. Disch, however, particularly in Camp Concentration, strikes me almost as a sort of Ezra Pound of sf: a dedicated artistic radical whose politics are a fascinating, and disturbing, idiosyncratic mixture of dangerously reactionary claptrap and truly radical insight. And while I'm at it, it is worth pointing out that the American sf of the so-called "golden age" was in fact extremely radical, formally speaking (in ways that are now usually overlooked), and yet the overwhelming majority of it was, politically, horrifically reactionary (in ways that are now mostly well-understood, at least in the circles I move in).

So where does this leave us? Well, I can only speak for myself. None of my own fiction has as yet been published — and perhaps none of it ever will be, whether because it's no good or because it's not what anyone wants to publish — so it is impossible for anyone (least of all myself) to judge what I do with all this; and at any rate perhaps I'm nothing but an ideologue. But for me, I feel that how we write is the key issue; that what we write depends on it, not in some hierarchy between form and content in which form takes the lead, but rather in the sense that they are the same thing; that merely taking on some of the received notions of artistic virtue from the deeply compromised world of the bourgeois novel has never done anyone any good; and that while formal radicalism by no means ensures political radicalism, it is nevertheless necessary to it. I feel that radicalism does in fact consist in going to the roots, and that going to the roots requires knowing and feeling the tradition in which one works, the history of one's field, or perhaps knowing and feeling the impossibility of feeling it. I feel that the tradition, the field to which one belongs (and/or to which one painfully does not belong) is a calling — that it is shaped by external factors and individual need. I am committed to both formal and (despite strong doubts about the political utility of literature) political radicalism, wherever my understanding of them might at any moment lead me — and I am committed to sf. There was a time when I sought to deny my being called to sf; for four years I wrote nothing but garbage that I could not bring myself to care about, and for almost twice as many years afterward I could bring myself to write nothing — could hardly even bring myself to read anything. I am still recovering from that catastrophe. Though I may at times (ok, often) hate it, though it regularly infuriates me, though it may very well in the end defeat me, I belong to sf. And sf, though its edges bleed into other things and can never be defined, is a thing different from anything else, as it should be.


Ethan Robinson said...

I belatedly realize that I didn't even get into another issue I had wanted to address: that of class. When we do in fact consider "genre" as a commercial concept, why on earth would we want to extend more solidarity to people from a more privileged literary class than to people from a less privileged one? Etc... This point is perhaps a bit vague as expressed here, but I wanted at least to note down the beginnings of the thought.

Erin Horakova said...

This is a really compelling account of the problems of disagreeing at a paradigm level, and of the actual process of that, which is of course difficult to speak of because it is, as you say, such a strangely tongue-tying disconnect.

there is exactly the worst possible combination of "you must be this educated to enter" assumed knowledge on the one hand and elaborate, painstaking establishment of what everyone already knows (and what neither the writer nor any intended reader plans to dispute) on the other. Not QUITE on-topic, but again it makes me think to the need to treat and teach academic writing AS WRITING.

And if one has a different dispute, or a different sense of what is at stake in any of those already existant...well, that is simply unimaginable at this time. I might consider this slightly differently, because I think you are 'supposed' to introduce these different concerns/angles, but like, a piece is not supposed to address that potentiality in and of itself, and you are supposed to branch off in a way that is in conversation with where the field is at (which, pros and cons), and it has this time-scale and politics.

for somehow, mysteriously, the amount of time that must be spent establishing such things seems always to scale up with the length of the critical work in question ahah

and yes, horrifyingly enough, many — though I think (and hope) far from most — do seem to think there is some kind of equivalence here ew. Is there room for--an axis of irritating disadvantage that is explicitly not equal to this?

I think the implication that one's working within "genre" is only something imposed from without — the "rather than" — is simplistic and, well, wrong good point.

for what, fundamentally speaking, is a choice? o snap (no, fair)

every time the all-consuming novel depletes its previous resources are neverending. It's interesting the other day that you were talking about me thinking more in terms of media--idk actually, I think maybe that's not incompatible with/part of me thinking more in terms of novel, and you thinking more in terms of short fiction? If that makes any sense? I do see your point but also I don't know that I always feel the novel--actually you might enjoy Bakhtin on this, I'll try and remember the name of the specific piece, but he has a way of describing what you see as parasitic and hegemonizing as polyphonic strength that does really appeal to me, and I tend to read media texts 'novelistically', and 'novel' is my default writing form. I mean--to what extent is it useful to talk about the novel as colonial as opposed to other forms? I feel like you could make that argument about the modern anglophonic practice of any genre, and like--yes that is its historical origin story, but is it kind of sophistry at this point? And is believing it buying into the Crusoe Was The First Novelist argument that we know isn't true bc Prince Genji, some key Roman satires, lots of other Forms of Novel that it doesn't make sense to un-novel unless you want to tell a quite particular Origin Story?

are all a result of its adhering too much to the traditional form of the novel. but how do you want them to innovate without that being another example of the novel eating and incorporating that which is not the novel?

Jo Lindsay Walton said...

Came via Jonathan's New Weird piece, hadn't seen this before! Interested in the big VanderMeer anth in relation to this. Intro frames it as discarding mostly-illusory genre/literary distinction (includes Alfred Jarry) & tries to lightly disarray anglophone centrism, but felt curiously conspicuously okay with the idea of a deep sf/fantasy distinction. Hints at a Big Book of Fantasy one day. I guess that might be consistent with this post? To the extent that a sfantasy pseudo-blur, whose fundamental big evil binary is always back next week for another exciting episode of facile overthrow, is hegemonic at the mo, perhaps these biiiig retrospective omnibuses are incapable of doing the same thing, because that would risk going too far and actually murdering the big evil binary and cancelling the show?