Genre and Its Discontents

From Writer Unboxed:

All writing is a form of storytelling, so if you are puritanical about genre, this is the point where you should clutch your pearls and look away. The stark grocery list stuck to the refrigerator door is the skeleton outline of its author’s desire. It promises a plot (a trip to the store); characters (the list maker, the hero who treks to the store, store clerks and cashiers and inattentive customers); conflict (what if there are no vine-ripe, organic, locally sourced heirloom tomatoes?); setting (pristine kitchen, packed parking lot, labyrinthine rows of cans and jars); and any number of themes and symbols (the Siren song of the cookie aisle, empty shelves, and banks of crisp, glistening greens). Can you understand now how the desire for that perfect Tinga de Pollo lies tacit in the stark outline scribbled on a scrap of paper and stuck with a magnet to the refrigerator door?

Organize the list, add to it a series of imperatives (chop, toss, stir, drizzle), and it becomes a recipe, another tacit story about a cook and what and whom she loves. Insert the recipe, along with a few other favorites, into a story of two young, star-crossed lovers, and it becomes the novel, Like Water for Chocolate, the recipes reinforcing aspects of Laura Esquivel’s story: the role of women in a patriarchal family, the expression of love (familial and erotic) through cooking. Squint and the novel becomes part sociological treatise (a story about Mexican society at the end of the nineteenth century). Squint again and it is a historical narrative (a story about the Mexican Revolution). Esquivel’s novel is a fable, an epic, another example of magical realism, the critics sputtered. They want desperately to classify it, which is a little like killing something in order to possess it.

Historians are novelists who feel a near religious devotion to the factual elements of the stories they tell, confessing their slightest detour into the realm of inference as if they committed a deadly sin. Naomi Oreskes and Erick Conway are both historians of science, yet the confounding problem of how to communicate the rapidly accelerating pace of climate change turns them into iconoclasts.

Genres are useful as long as you are willing to shatter the icons you worship. Consider Oreskes and Conway’s opening sentence, its clauses perfectly balanced, encapsulating the full arc of their story in a manner reminiscent of Dickens: “Science fiction writers construct an imaginary future; historians attempt to reconstruct the past.”

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

6 thoughts on “Genre and Its Discontents”

  1. Science Fiction writers don’t construct imaginary futures.
    First, because some stories are set in the present or the past. Alternate history is a thing. It has even spilled over to history, in the form of counterfactuals.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counterfactual_history

    Second, because the best SF is about *something* and that something is always about the present. Heinlein broke the genre into WHAT IF, IF ONLY, IF THIS GOES ON, and THE LITTLE TAILOR. In more academic terns, SPECULATION, WISH FULLFILLMENT, EXTRAPOLATION, and THE HERO’S JOURNEY. All routed in the present.

    Even the space opera, SF adventure, and fantasy breeds are driven by present day interests and trends. The genre isn’t just about imaginary futures.

    It is simplistic to “encapsulate” it that way.

    • Felix, your post makes me ask the question, what or where do you think Cordwainer Smith’s work lies?

      The author created the Instrumentality of mankind, and arguably (at least I would) reinvented SF, as in he wrote SF as if he’d never read SF, thereby creating his own version of the genre.

      Curious what your take might be?

      • One of the great masters.
        First off, I put him in the “lyrical style” camp with Bradbury and Ellison. (As opposed to Asimov’s clinical style.) Great and imaginative.

        Instrumentality (of which we got way too little) is to me a speculative project. As in: What might human society evolve into into tbe far, far distant future. Explored in slices of life rather than a single grand novel like DUNE. (Love Dune. Do not love the sequels. Of Herbert my absolute favorite is UNDER PRESSURE, just ahead of WHIPPING STAR.)

        My favorite Instrumentality piece is THE BALLAD OF LOST C’MELL. (Although SCANNERS LIVE IN VAIN is close.) It makes my point pretty strongly, no? Set in a far future society its main subject isn’t technology or even the society itself but human rights. Very appropriate for a story published in 1962. And still relevant today when we’re putting pig organs into humans. I expect it’ll be relevant for a few centuries more.

        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ballad_of_Lost_C%27Mell

        Layers upon layers.

          • Lyrical is hard to do well in any genre.
            For an idea genre like SF that is exceptional. He was just getting started when he died and several of his contemporaries made it to their 70’s and 80’s. We missed out on a couple decades of his work.

  2. Genres are useful as long as you are willing to shatter the icons you worship.

    If all writing is a story, then genres are useful for conveying a general idea of the story. Perhaps weak minds worship them, and perhaps the truly fragile will be shattered. OK.

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