Wednesday, February 24, 2010

What's in Genre

The easy answer to the title of this post is: many things. But I suppose that's a bit vague. Of course, those of you who are writers of literature, and not genre, will immediately know that genre is Classically defined as the traditional major types of writing: Satire, Epic, Tragedy, Comedy, and Lyric. After a few centuries of debate, short fiction and novels were added to the definition of genre.

For those of you who are genre fans today, you might be thinking genre is: Science Fiction, Mystery, Romance, Horror, Westerns, and countless other variations. Well, that's true as well. Basically, genre has been and is still defined as "types" of writing. This means the modern fans of genre can delight in knowing that classic literature was genre. And even the Great Bard Shakespeare wrote genre.

This might lead you to ask: Then what is "literary fiction"? The fast answer is: genre. However, most literary fiction today borrows from the forms of the above mentioned genres. And if you're a writer or reader of literary fiction, you've probably, and most dutifully, read all of the essential philosophical texts of aesthetics starting from Plato and at least going to Eagleton. If not, then it would make enjoying and understanding literature a bit of a gamble.

Now to be more specific about modern genre, it is really a subclass of "Romance" (one of the major literary types of writing). For example, SF was dubbed "Science Romance," and contemporary Horror is pretty much Gothic Romance. Mind you, the word Romance here means "imagination." It comes from the great Romantic literary movement where writers believed imagination transcended life. The popular novel Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley was one of these works.

And today's "literary" writing is basically a mode of fiction that attempts to avoid form and structure, such as the forms found in Westerns, Horror, SF, etc. This means a skilled work of "literature" uses the elements of genre - supernatural, murders, madness - but does its best not to look like a "novel" (see above, it is one of the types of genre). But I'll not venture farther in that direction for there be monsters there.

Back to the topic: What's in Genre. Again, a simple answer is "many things." A more confusing answer is "theme." Many readers and writers will argue that most genre books have no theme. I suppose this isn't far off the mark. However, as the forms of genre we have today are structured and usually tightly defined, it is very difficult for a work of SF not to come with a ready-made theme. If you think about it, the common two are "Science will save humanity" and "Science will destroy humanity." Whether or not the author plans it, writing a story about a "fail" in science or a "win" in science, one of those themes is most likely embedded. And then the reader brings his or her own themes, plus culture adds a few to the mix as do contemporary world events.

Yes, this means that even "Zombie" novels have themes. Naturally, I'm using that example because of my recent novel. Since it's release, I've had a number of generous letters/emails asking about the themes readers found in the novel. And without revealing too much, the novel is really SF/Horror - so I could say it comes packed with a few "auto-themes." For most readers of Horror fiction, the mixture of SF is often a surprise (see Pamela K. Kinney's review at Innsmouth Press). And for fans of SF, many things were telegraphed to them as they expected the SF "form" to follow a given path. In my case, I did intend various themes, and many others came from the aforementioned areas.

Obviously, I can't list every theme of every genre - they do vary and can be altered by the writer. The reader also reshapes them as well based on personal experiences. But if you stop to think about it, I'd bet you can come up with a consistent number of themes from your favorite genres (including Classical literary genres). Quite often, it is the theme of a genre that attracts a reader to return to it - be the themes hidden or not. And after all of this, if you're wondering what function a theme has, then I'd offer up: Themes repeat in a work of fiction in order to transmit a message to the reader; these messages are often insightful, meaningful, and emotional. While a theme should be under the surface of a text, it is often the factor can make a book bring about new perspectives, and on occasion, with some novels, themes have changed cultural views. They are very powerful aspects of fiction, be they reader or writer created.


Anonymous said...

I haven't read PALLID LIGHT yet (sorry) but I just read the IFP review of the novel. Seeing the protagonist's name "Rand," I immediately wondered: Is there a connection to Ayn Rand in the story?

Steve Buchheit said...

To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a white whale is just an albino cetacean.

Rick said...

Thanks, William. This helped me understand this topic much more easily than if I had chose to read the 30 texts of literary theory.

Stewart Sternberg said...

You know how obsessed I am with this topic. I think all literature is genre, sometimes the term is an arbitrary phrase thrown around for marketing purposes, sometimes its something uttered by elitists to pacify ego, and sometimes its a linguist's attempt to define the utterance and meaning between one transmitting an idea via an accepted convention and one receiving it.

By the way, my copy of Pallid Light will be arriving tomorrow via Amazon. I'm expecting you to autograph it when we next see one another.