Keith Snyder
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"What is genre?" -or- "No, you're all wrong."

Come to think of it, the second part of this entry's title could be applied to everything I write here. Or in my books.

Or to my careen, for that matter.

The recent conversations about Michael Chabon writing a detective novel (yes, Ruth, that's exactly what it is) didn't exactly get me thinking about genre again. More that glancing that way, I glanced some other way next, and saw the answer to what I've been trying, intermittently, between things that actually matter in the slightest, to figure out.
With The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon has finally made the only use of genre fiction that a talented writer should: Rather than forcing his own extraordinarily capacious imagination into its stuffy confines, he makes the genre--more precisely, genres--expand to take him in
What is this genre of which you Ruth people speak?

Wikipedia says:
A genre [ˈʒã:rə], (French: "kind" or "sort") is a loose set of criteria for a category of literary composition; the term is also used for any other form of art or utterance.

In all art forms, genres are vague categories with no fixed boundaries. Genres are formed by sets of conventions, and many works cross into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining these conventions. The scope of the word "genre" is usually confined to art and culture, particularly literature. In genre studies the concept of genre is not compared to originality. Rather, all works are recognized as either reflecting on or participating in the conventions of genre.

One thing I think is right about that is the part about conventions. What I think is wrong is the part about categories. There are no categories until somebody who doesn't know how not to think in those terms gets involved. Too often, that's the writer--but even when a writer manages not to think about it, publishers and critics do.

But at the outset, when it's just a writer who doesn't think about categories, staring at a laptop that doesn't happen to be running AOL, Entourage, iChat, or Breakout at the moment, there's only the presence or absence of a cliché.

Yeah, cliché. Let's use the language of the anti-genreist. Let them win that battle, since they've already lost the war. Cliché. The boozing loner P.I. is a cliché.*

That's what genre is: a bunch of clichés. If it's got a boozing P.I. loner as the main character, and the plot is about solving a murder, it's mystery. Whatever else you do with it, that's what the category people will call it. Other clichés can also add up to "mystery," but this is the example I'm using.

A genre is a bunch of clichés. If it's got inventive prose, unusual insight, leaves you saying "Goddamn, that was great," and you can't tell how the writer does it, it's literature. Other clichés can also add up to "literature," but this is the example I'm using.

Oh, should I not have said "cliché" there? Are those merely "aspects of?"

My mistake.

A boozing P.I. loner can be one aspect of a mystery novel. If it's absent, but other aspects commonly associated with mystery are present, it may still be a mystery novel.

Inventive prose can be one aspect of literature. If it's absent, but other aspects commonly associated with literature are present, it may still be literature.

These things just aren't mutually exclusive, no matter how dearly an unimaginative and fearful person desires it. No matter how fiercely they believe they're fighting for the truth, or against the degradation of the holy, they're really fighting for the preservation of insular thinking. Any critic who starts a review of a detective novel by taking a shot at genre fiction is messed up on two levels. The obvious one is what are you doing reviewing a detective novel?

The less-obvious one is wow, what a fearful person. What defensiveness.


Fer chrissakes, yes.

Is it literature?

Oh my stars, indeed.

Is there the slightest contradiction here?

Only if you're unable to let go of the banister.

Only if you're afraid of art. Art is--and must be--whatever somebody insists it isn't and can't be. The best artistic manifesto I've come across in... well, maybe ever!... is an animated movie about a rat who wants to be a chef.

It's not that Ruth Franklin's review was completely stupid. As Ursula K. Le Guin said, in the footnote to her perfect riposte, it is:
quite thoughtful, generally positive, and not dismissive of his longing to destroy phony divisions between "genre" and "literature."

It's just that to someone with a grudge over her eyes, everything is grudge-colored. She can't even say it's a great book. She has to defend her insecurities before she can even wade into grudging praise.

We all know people who take underhanded shots at us even as they praise, and maybe say (and maybe even believe) they didn't. When we get old enough to see more clearly, we can see that what they're defending is their own insecurity. They don't want to give up their assumptions, or do the difficult work of assuming they're wrong. They'd rather lay landmines around that weakness and call it a strength.

When we get old enough, we can stop being tongue-tied in response. We can stop letting them frame the issue. We can frame our own:

That was bad behavior, and you did it because you're afraid.

I need to write at least 250 words today, and I'm starting to get the little tickle I've been hoping for since the boys started speaking in sentences and my most recent freelance contract ended, the tickle that says "250... let's start bumping that to 500." It's the same tickle that says "5 miles... let's go for 10," and then "10, let's do 40."

So naturally I'm blogging about genre instead.

There's a hard, concise little blog entry in here. I'm not going to get out all my tools and grind and polish it for exhibition. If I did that, I'd use up the rest of the day, and I wouldn't make any progress on something that matters. So you get this with clumps of crud still stuck onto it, and probably some pieces missing. But here it is, the thing I just pried out and brushed off and want to show you:

Genre is a collection of clichés, or archetypes, or tropes, or conventions, or whatever you want.

If you've got nothing but a collection of those conventions, you don't have a book worth reading. Some cover songs really didn't need to happen.

But Leo Kottke covering Sweet Emotion and World Turning are better than the originals. So is Thomas Dolby covering I Scare Myself. So is the new Battlestar Galactica.

Whether it's a cover tune or an original, we're all using the conventions of the twelve-tone scale and the English language.

Unless you're writing a term paper, the only question worth anything is:

Is it great?

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