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Why Genre Will Prevail, in Peace and Freedom from Fear, and in True Health, through the Purity and Essence of Its Natural Fluids, God Bless You All

re: John M. recently quoting something that Paul wrote at his blog, and re: Roxane’s recent post and the resulting epic thread regarding writing and its worth, I’d like to pick a bit more at the bones of genre fiction.

I love genre, because genres are basically conventions. They’re expectations that both authors and readers (and editors, and sales people) bring to a text—suggestions as to what should be inside, and how it should be arranged. And I dearly love conventions, because they’re the very stuff of communication, and of artistic structure—whether we’re obeying them, or departing from them.

I’ve never really understood what some people mean when they talk about “exploding genres” and “writing between genres,” and so forth, because I myself can think of very little writing that is pure genre. Most literature that I read—even the more conventional things—already exist between multiple genres.

Consider The Lord of the Rings.

On the one hand, it’s a “pure” example of contemporary fantasy fiction. Right? Hell, it’s the cornerstone of contemporary fantasy fiction. And it definitely is fantasy fiction:

Sorrowfully, they cast loose the funeral boat: there Boromir lay, restful, peaceful, gliding upon the bosom of the flowing water.The stream took him while they held their own boat back with their paddles. He floated by them, and slowly his boat departed, waning to a dark spot against the golden light; and then suddenly it vanished. Rauros roared on unchanging. The River had taken Boromir son of Denethor, and he was not seen again in Minas Tirith, standing as he used to stand upon the White Tower in the morning. But in Gondor in after-days it long was said that the elven-boat rode the falls and the foaming pool, and bore him down through Osgiliath, and past the many mouths of Anduin, out into the Great Sea at night under the stars. (The Two Towers, Book V, Chapter 1, “The Departure of Boromir”)

But when we look even more closely, we find that Tolkien’s writing contains traces of other genres. It’s contemporary fantasy, to be sure, but it’s also heavily inspired by Norse mythology, Old English and Middle English literature, German Romanticism, and Victorian children’s literature. Tolkien synthesized these various interests to craft a new kind of fantasy literature that differs from, say, fairy tales.

As Paul wrote:

“Throughout the history of literature, writers have plundered modes, approaches, styles, forms, genres […] practically every work of fiction you can name has borrowed liberally from history, biography, science, travel, philosophy, other fictions, and so on (and conversely, every work of history, biography, philosophy and such has borrowed liberally from other fictions and the rest). In other words, if interstitial fiction exists, then it is indistinguishable from fiction as a whole.”

And if we look closer, we can find places in The Lord of the Rings where Tolkien didn’t completely blend those disparate genres into a homogeneous fantasy paste. There’s more than one spot where one genre sticks out more than the others, like an undissolved lump of brown sugar waiting inside a cookie. As we read, we find the different genres receding and dominating, their conventions stepping forward at different times to control different aspects of the fiction.

For example, a friend of mine delights in pointing out the following section in Chapter 3 of Book I of the first book, The Fellowship of the Rings:

Just over the top of the hill they [the hobbits] came on the patch of fir-wood. Leaving the road they went into the deep resin-scented darkness of the trees. Soon they had a merry crackle of flame at the foot of a large fir-tree and they sat round it for a while, until they began to nod. Then, each in an angle of the great tree’s roots, they curled up in their cloaks and blankets, and were soon fast asleep. They set no watch; even Frodo feared no danger yet, for they were still in the heart of the Shire. A few creatures came and looked at them when the fire had died away. A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.

“Hobbits!” he thought. “Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.” He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it.

This is the only place in the entire Lord of the Rings epic where the POV switches to a passing, talking fox. My friend argued that this was a trace of an earlier draft of the book, when The Fellowship of the Ring was still The Hobbit Part 2.

(As is widely known, when Tolkien found that he had no interest in writing The Hobbit sequel that his publisher wanted, and was instead writing The Lord of the Rings, he went back and revised even The Hobbit. The later, darker tale that he found himself really wanting to tell altered its more childlike forebear, which became a prequel—just as The Lord of the Rings later became a prequel to The Silmarillion.) (Or so I’ve heard. I’m afraid I haven’t quite finished The Silmarillion.)

Bakhtin tells us that all novels are shaggy monsters—some more than others, to be sure. But all bear traces of their construction, and obey influences from competing literary conventions that may prove difficult to reconcile. All writing inhabits a history, usually multiple histories, and it finds its place(s) within those histories as best as it is able.

Tolkien had other influences as well, some of which came later. Today, we read certain sections of LOTR biographically, looking at it through the lens J.R.R.’s experiences in WWII. Peter Jackson’s film adaptations (and thereby the conventions of 2000s Hollywood cinema) have influenced how many people read (or don’t read) the books. Before that, various sections were appropriated by the hippies; it’s hard to read the Tom Bombadil sections, and some of the Gandalf parts, and a tremendous amount of the hobbit/Shire/pipe-weed stuff, as anything other than 60s psychedelia.

Now, if you’re still with me, a few words about “high” and “low” art in regards to genre. As I mentioned in my first post at this site, T.S. Eliot stole lines from Sherlock Holmes stories while writing the inspiration for the musical Cats—deal with it, lit snobs. As Jeremy M. Davies then pointed out, more Holmes snuck into Murder in the Cathedral. Wittgenstein, around the same time, was sneaking out of Cambridge to watch bad Western flicks. It’s not just postmodernists like Pynchon and Acker who find joy—and inspiration—in popular art.

Or vice versa. Allow me to point out one of my favorite parts of The Lord of the Rings. It was originally pointed out to me in grad school by my above-mentioned friend (hi, friend!) and by my Milton professor.

You’ll recall that in Book VI of Paradise Lost, Raphael relates to Adam what happened when Satan led his followers against God. Both sides, being immortal, found their wounds closing up as soon as they were formed (just like Wolverine’s healing factor!). Yet all of the combatants felt pain, and the thought of endless painful battle put everyone into a funk.

That night, the opposing sides made their camps, and Satan knew he needed to devise some edge:

Deep under ground, materials dark and crude,
Of spiritous and fierie spume, till toucht
With Heav’ns ray, and temperd they shoot forth [ 480 ] So beauteous, op’ning to the ambient light.
These in thir dark Nativitie the Deep
Shall yield us pregnant with infernal flame,
Which into hallow Engins long and round
Thick-rammd, at th’ other bore with touch of fire [ 485 ] Dilated and infuriate shall send forth
From far with thundring noise among our foes
Such implements of mischief as shall dash
To pieces, and orewhelm whatever stands
Adverse, that they shall fear we have disarmd [ 490 ] The Thunderer of his only dreaded bolt.

And so, foreshadowing their imminent fall:

Forthwith from Councel to the work they flew,
None arguing stood, innumerable hands
Were ready, in a moment up they turnd
Wide the Celestial soile, and saw beneath [ 510 ] Th’ originals of Nature in thir crude
Conception; Sulphurous and Nitrous Foame
They found, they mingl’d, and with suttle Art,
Concocted and adusted they reduc’d
To blackest grain, and into store convey’d: [ 515 ] Part hidd’n veins diggd up (nor hath this Earth
Entrails unlike) of Mineral and Stone,
Whereof to found thir Engins and thir Balls
Of missive ruin; part incentive reed
Provide, pernicious with one touch to fire. [ 520 ]

And the next day, when the battle resumed:

From those deep throated Engins belcht, whose roar
Emboweld with outragious noise the Air,
And all her entrails tore, disgorging foule
Thir devilish glut, chaind Thunderbolts and Hail
Of Iron Globes, which on the Victor Host [ 590 ] Level’d, with such impetuous furie smote,
That whom they hit, none on thir feet might stand,
Though standing else as Rocks, but down they fell

The battle turns truly desparate then; both sides even begin throwing mountains at one another. (It’s like The Thing battling The Hulk!)

Tolkien, a tremendous Milton fan, pays homage to this in Book V, Chapter 7 of The Two Towers, “Helm’s Deep.” The plot, briefly: the good guys are holed up in a fortress that’s under seige, but that has never fallen:

‘Nevertheless day will bring hope to me,’ said Aragorn. ‘Is it not said that no foe has ever taken the Hornburg, if men defended it?’

‘So the minstrels say,’ said Éomer.

‘Then let us defend it, and hope!’ said Aragorn.

And at first they successfully hold off the bad guys (Saruman’s forces). But then:

Even as they spoke there came a blare of trumpets. Then there was a crash of flame and smoke. The waters of the Deeping Stream poured out hissing and foaming: they were choked no longer, a gaping hole was blasted in the wall. A host of dark shapes poured in.

‘Devilry of Saruman!’ cried Aragorn. ‘They have crept in the calvert again, while we talked, and they have lit the fire of Orthanc beneath our feet. Elendil, Elendil!’ he shouted, as he leapt down into the breach; but even as he did so a hundred ladders were raised against the battlements. Over the wall and under the wall the last assault came sweeping like a dark wave upon a hill of sand. The defense was swept away.

Two pages later, Aragorn reports:

‘[T]he Orcs have brought a devilry from Orthanc […] They have a blasting fire, and with it they took the Wall.’

Devilry indeed. Saruman has copied Satan’s solution: to dig into the earth, and to devise gunpowder.

…Ultimately, it does him no good, because just as God sent forth the Messiah in his Chariot to defeat Satan, the chief good guys ride forth in their own Glorie, their “count’nance too severe to be beheld”:

And with that shout the king came. His horse was white as snow, golden was his shield, and his spear was long. At his right hand was Aragorn, Elendil’s heir, behind him rode the lords of the Houise of Eorl the Young. Light sprang in the sky. Night departed.

‘Forth Eorlingas!’ With a great cry and a great noise they charged. Down from the gates they roared, over the causeway they swept, and they drove through the hosts of Isengard as a wind among grass.

The orcs, we’re told, “cast themselves on their faces and covered their ears with their claws.” No doubt, like Satan’s followers,

they astonisht all resistance lost,
All courage; down thir idle weapons drop’d;
O’re Shields and Helmes, and helmed heads he rode [ 840 ] Of Thrones and mighty Seraphim prostrate,
That wisht the Mountains now might be again
Thrown on them as a shelter from his ire.

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

26 thoughts on “Why Genre Will Prevail, in Peace and Freedom from Fear, and in True Health, through the Purity and Essence of Its Natural Fluids, God Bless You All

  1. May I excerpt large bits of this and splatter them on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog (with links back and attribution of course) where I am permitted to sneak up guest posts until the 5th?

  2. That passage from Fellowship is exactly the one I cite when talking to people about how you can trace in that first volume the evolution of Lord of the Rings from a whimsical children’s tale to the mythological saga that it ends up as. It’s the most incongruous passage, but there are similar, if less obvious, moments throughout Fellowship, especially before they arrive at Rivendell.

  3. Yes, genre is a set of conventions. But what makes genre difficult is that nobody knows what the conventions are. We recognise a work of fantasy or crime fiction or sf when we read it, but we’ll never agree on what the defining characteristics are. So Lord of the Rings is pure fantasy, but it’s also a lot of other things besides. And as you say, it was changing even while it was being written. Which is why I am fascinated by genre and don’t believe in it all at the same time.

    But it is the fact that it doesn’t rigidly adhere to genre conventions that makes it interesting, isn’t it? The more authors try to smooth out the edges, make their work all one pure genre, the less readable it is. It’s the rough edges, the lumpy bits, that we relish in a novel.

    1. It’s like pornography, then.

      Although I do think we can make lists of conventions typical to each genre. Those lists will be fuzzy, and imprecise, and longer than we initially think, and branch off quickly into all sorts of subgenres, but they’re still useful. Of course no single work will contain all of them. (That’s a fun exercise: write something that includes every single genre cliche. Alan Moore has a great time doing this—and getting away with it.)

      I tend to find most interesting work that engages with its own conventions—genre conventions and otherwise. Which even pure genre pieces do. And even naive writers know this: hence the preponderance of twist endings in writing workshops. Even the least talented writer knows that to simply repeat the tropes of an existing piece is little more than an exercise. (We even call those things genre exercises.)

      People who enjoy genres often want some mixture of familiarity and surprise.

        1. Thanks so much for that, Paul. It’s excellent.

          I really like criticism that tries taking an idea to its logical conclusion, to expose its limits. What a great idea, to look for the original works in a genre! And how obvious, once one actually tries to do that, that one will never find them.

          Real life is so much fuzzier than we often pretend it is. I guess we need to approach it that way, but we need to remain on guard to how limiting our categories can be, no matter how useful they can also be. (They are useful precisely because they limit; their strength and weakness is exactly the same thing.)

  4. “I’ve never really understood what some people mean when they talk about “exploding genres” and “writing between genres,” and so forth…”

    People mean: please don’t dismiss this author/me out of hand for using genre elements!

    You’re absolutely right to question claims to novelty made by “slipstream” authors or champions, but I wonder whether it wouldn’t be more appropriate to surmise that, were Tolkien writing today, he would have likely been called a cross-genre or slipstream author.

    1. “People mean: please don’t dismiss this author/me out of hand for using genre elements!”

      I think there’s a lot of truth in this. Genre is often a marketing category. So, too, are terms like “speculative” and “interfiction”—they’re ways of re-branding something.

      It’s hard to know how Tolkien, were he new today, would be received, since his work created the current fantasy industry. Certainly there are endless clones of his books out there, and they’re all regarded as fantasy.

      But that is to say: the fantasy genre changed after Tolkien, to become more like the hybrid thing that he’d written: “high fantasy.” And later on, when metalheads claimed things like Tolkien, we got used to the idea of high fantasy and heavy metal headbanging hand in hand together (their devil signs interlocked?). So now that, too, is a genre cliché:


      I don’t think Tolkien quite envisioned that. (He probably was thinking more of Wagner.) The genres are continuously evolving.

      J.K. Rowling’s the biggest fantasy author since Tolkien, and her work is certainly hybrid. She combined elements of the boarding school novel with fairy tales and mythology, and some high fantasy. Plus other pieces pulled from other young adult novels, like soap-opera romance. But the books themselves are structured like mysteries (rather Byzantine mysteries, at that). I don’t think the slipstream folk have claimed her, but I consider her cross-genre.

      And now the genre has reshaped itself around her (or a new genre has been formed), and now there are scores of authors writing “Rowling-esque” fantasy series. Just as hundreds have followed after Tolkien, and more recently after Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations.

      The road goes ever ever on….

    2. While I think this is 100% true, I also think these terms have a specific meaning in-genre. If you hang out on the Escape Pod boards, for instance, you’ll find a lot of people who are extremely interested in promoting narrow definitions of genre from within fandom. Anything that threatens these narrow categorizations is treated with suspicion or anger. Within genre, labels like “slipstream” can be a way of trying to warn people that the content they’re about to partake of is not straight-out-of-the-bottle hard science fiction, or whatever it is people are on about.

      My friend Deb Coates writes rather beautiful stories that she calls rural fantasy, several of which have run in Asimovs; letters to the editor have accused her of ruining the magazine by diluting its contents with its work.

      1. This strikes me as people using genre for marketing purposes, to either attract or dissuade readers.

        The first time I started reading Narnia, I stopped on the first page, because it opened in London during the Blitz, and that “wasn’t fantasy” to me. And all I wanted when I was a kid was fantasy. Which I defined very, very narrowly.

        I like to think that people outgrow that. (Including the high literature genre folk.)

  5. Doesn’t convention necessitate rough edges the second a writer engages a narrative?
    “Lumpy bits” come from talented authors of “genre” fiction because they communicate with culture and custom. Mass-market genre fiction is appealing to our (as in present, active, social) communities, and therefore its conversations will be the focus of more discourse in the future than the present. Is there a potential divide between “genre” as mass marketed fiction and “genre” as socially relevant, or is that mess too self consuming and present? (maybe a tired line of thought)
    How about “literary” fiction. Isn’t there a system of evaluation (as Paul noted there isn’t for genre), which seems dictated regularly by so-and-sos and who-be-thats? There is at least more of a drive to define “literary” fiction, maybe out of fear of crossing streams. Can we say that Genre is intuitive then? Does this make present literary fiction unnecessarily vain and stuffy?

    1. Hi Ryan,

      I’m not sure I agree that only talented authors create those “lumpy bits.” Or maybe talent is a very broad thing (I tend to think that). I’ve read a lot of fanfiction, which are often produced by “untalented” writers, and they collide genres like nobody’s business. And often produce pretty bizarre results!

      There’s this Super Mario story I simply adore, “Seven Days” by GuyInGreen, which is an absurdist apocalyptic retelling of the Mario Bros. games. With all sorts of pop culture references. It doesn’t seem to be online anymore, but I have a copy I’ll email to anyone who wants it.

      It’s a rather naive story—real outsider writing—but it’s all the more interesting because of that. And it doesn’t fit any recognizable writing (other than maybe the juvenile urge to wantonly destroy).

      Frank Miller on Todd McFarlane: “[T]here’s a moment when you’re fourteen years old and you take your penknife out and you carve a swastika on your desk at school—Todd McFarlane owns that mind!” (Eisner/Miller, page 132)

      So I think that there are lots of different ways to get in between genres. And that between genres we find other genres, other conventions, other cliches. But also new ground.

      “Literary fiction” is what I’d call a super-genre that pretends, a la Derrida and Foucault, to not be a genre at all. It calls other things genres to subordinate them, and to deny its own genre elements. Which is what the ruling power usually does: it calls itself nothing (other than normal or correct), and calls everything else something.

      Of course many “literary fiction” folk realize this, and most of them are themselves in love with genre. How many writers watch “Mad Men”? Or “The Sopranos”? And look at the success of…well simply hundreds of genre-influenced writers. Rikki Ducornet, Angela Carter, Brian Evenson, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme, Carol De Chellis Hill, Mary Caponegro, Kathy Acker, Ann Quin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino … I could go on and on and on. In fact, it’s difficult to think of “literary fiction” that doesn’t draw upon genres like fantasy, sci-fi, westerns, mysteries, romance, etc.

      (I’ve arrived at a similar argument here to the one the Cahiers du cinéma folk made about Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford: genre doesn’t preclude genius.)


      1. “There’s this Super Mario story I simply adore, “Seven Days” by GuyInGreen, which is an absurdist apocalyptic retelling of the Mario Bros. games. With all sorts of pop culture references. It doesn’t seem to be online anymore, but I have a copy I’ll email to anyone who wants it.”

        Yes, please. My first name dot my last name at gmail dot com.

        ‘“Literary fiction” is what I’d call a super-genre that pretends, a la Derrida and Foucault, to not be a genre at all. It calls other things genres to subordinate them, and to deny its own genre elements. Which is what the ruling power usually does: it calls itself nothing (other than normal or correct), and calls everything else something.”

        Absolutely. I had, for some reason, not really made the connection with how power was working here — I was looking at being unmarked as a position of privilege, but not as an exercise of power, when it is both of course.

      2. “Literary fiction” is what I’d call a super-genre that pretends, a la Derrida and Foucault, to not be a genre at all. It calls other things genres to subordinate them, and to deny its own genre elements. Which is what the ruling power usually does: it calls itself nothing (other than normal or correct), and calls everything else something.

        Of course many “literary fiction” folk realize this, and most of them are themselves in love with genre. How many writers watch “Mad Men”? Or “The Sopranos”? And look at the success of…well simply hundreds of genre-influenced writers. Rikki Ducornet, Angela Carter, Brian Evenson, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme, Carol De Chellis Hill, Mary Caponegro, Kathy Acker, Ann Quin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino … I could go on and on and on. In fact, it’s difficult to think of “literary fiction” that doesn’t draw upon genres like fantasy, sci-fi, westerns, mysteries, romance, etc.

        Careful there. Sounds like you are not simply making a case that genre will prevail but that the concept of “literary fiction” doesn’t even exist.

        The way ive come to think about the difference between genre and literary has to do with where a reader prefers the contrivance of a particular fiction to be. I see people who prefer genre as being immune to the contrivance of plot to the point that it isn’t considered contrivance, but simply the story, and most things in the story tend to be there to support the plot. I see people who prefer literary fiction as being too aware of plot contrivance and prefering the contrivance to rest either in the language or somewhere else. Regardless, its all preference, there should be no us against them mentality. In genre, plot tends to dictate who the characters are and what they do. In literary, characters tend to drive the plot. In genre, it feels like the situation is an idea the author had. In literary, it often feels more like an author developed characters and then let them decide their own situation. These are just general feelings I get from the bulk of fiction ive read. Nothing is absolute. these days i dont even really prefer either, im mostly interested in language driven fiction that functions more the way poetry does. which isnt to say i dont occasionally enjoy something genre or literary. but in general im not interested in characters or plots, theyve kind of all been exhausted. ive found that words are lighter and funner to juggle with when they are striped of their communicative function. preference!

        1. Hi darby,

          Literary fiction very much exists as a genre. We have lists of canonical books in the schools. We have “fiction” sections in bookstores, as opposed to science-fiction sections, or romance sections. We have readers who won’t read anything found on those literary fiction shelves, and other readers who won’t read anything not on them.

          So it exists. But my point is twofold:

          1. It often pretends not to be a genre. It’s simply “fiction.” It’s what you learn to write in MFA programs (which do not teach fantasy or sci-fi etc.). It’s what you find in The New Yorker (which does not publish fantasy or sci-fi, etc.). These points have been made many times by many people; I don’t think I’m saying anything new here.

          2. When you look more closely at “literary fiction,” you see that a lot of what gets included replies directly to other genres, or could even be classified as other genres. Stanislaw Lem was writing in direct response to other science fiction writers, and was originally called “just” science-fiction. So was Kurt Vonnegut. Same deal with Angela Carter. Donald Barthelme and Kathy Acker and Thomas Pynchon draw heavily on other genres to create more collagist works. So it’s silly to pretend (as many readers and journals and MFA programs do) that “literary fiction” is airtight, excluding the other genres. Rather, as Rachel points out, what literary fiction does is pretend as though the things it likes are not actual examples of other genres. (Lem and Vonnegut and Carter are no longer science-fiction writers. Neither is Jules Verne. Poe didn’t write horror. …This kind of thing happens all the time, and I think a lot of people really do think this way! And I think that’s nuts.)

          Genre is real. It’s a useful analysis tool. It can be useful to look at, say, Darren Aronofsky’s films and see how The Fountain uses conventions from sci-fi, and The Wrestler uses conventions from sports movies, and Requiem for a Dream uses conventions from drug/urban crime movies. But useful is as useful does.

          I tend to like work in all genres, so I never think about it in “us vs. them” terms. My point is precisely that I don’t understand how people think that way.

          As for your other point, I don’t really agree that characters drive the plot in literary fiction, whereas genre work is more situation-based. The idea of characters driving anything is something of a fallacy. Characters are word collections; they have no agency. They do whatever their author tells them to do. Sometimes they put pressure on the writing, serving as constraints (“My character would never do that, so the work should go in this direction”), but they’re also just as likely to do whatever the author thinks is best. Regardless of genre, or high or low.

          To paraphrase Shklovsky, asking Lear why he goes mad is like asking a chess knight why it moves two spaces forward, then one space over.

          Do characters drive the plot in a Barthelme novel or story? In Kathy Acker? In Pynchon? What about in more conceptual writing, like Oulipo novels? Do the characters drive the plot in Harry Mathews’s Cigarettes? In Jeremy M. Davies’s Rose Alley?

          Well, those are “experimental” works. What about realism? (Which is supposedly some kind of baseline, although I myself don’t think of it that way—it’s another genre, to me.) But I don’t think characters even “drive the plot” in, say, a Raymond Carver story. Look at “Fat,” for example. It’s very situation-based. And that false epiphany at the end—where does that come from? From the narrator? Carver could have had her think anything there. He chose to have her “think” that—to write that she thought that. (And the epiphany, and its companion the false epiphany, have been conventions of the realist genre since at least Joyce.)

          Realist writing is often very contrived, very convention-bound. It can be as cliched and as hackneyed as any work of sci-fi or fantasy or romance. Sometimes that’s even the point of it. Last year I saw and disliked the Polish WWII film Katyn because it adhered too strongly to the genre conventions of the contemporary WWII film (which were established largely by Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan). But I also really enjoyed Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, precisely because of the way it played with its genre conventions, foregrounding them and for the most part obeying them—but in a very playful way.

          I also don’t agree that characters and plots are used up; I think there are always ways to refresh them. All art is eternally being refreshed. Although certainly it can not feel that way sometimes.

          Here are a few recent books that I think do new things with plots and characters—that is to day, they make heavy use of plots and characters (they aren’t abstract, language-based works), and they do things that to me feel new or fresh:
          2009 Death in Spring, Mercè Rodoreda (1984, translated by Martha Tennant)
          2009 I Go to Some Hollow, Amina Cain
          2009 The Illustrated Version of Things, Affinity Konar
          2008 Fog & Car, Eugene Lim
          2007 Ulrich Haarburste’s Novel of Roy Orbison in Clingfilm, Ulrich Haarburste
          2007 Like Blood in Water, Yuriy Tarnawsky
          2002 L.C., Susan Daitch
          2001 Requiem, Curtis White
          2001 Europeana, Patrik Ourednik

          And some movies:
          2009 Visage (Face), Tsai Ming-Liang
          2007 Ne touchez pas la hache (The Duchess of Langeais), Jacques Rivette*
          2006 INLAND EMPIRE, David Lynch
          2006 Juventude Em Marcha (Colossal Youth), Pedro Costa
          2006 Sang sattawat (Syndromes and a Century), Apichatpong Weersethakul
          2006 Belle toujours, Manoel de Oliveira*
          2004 2046, Wong Kar-wai*
          2004 Innocence, Lucile Hadzihalilovic*
          2004 La Niña Santa (The Holy Girl), Lucretia Martel
          2003 Gerry, Gus Van Sant*
          2003 Le Monde Vivant, Eugene Green
          2003 Talaye Sorgh (Crimson Gold), Jafar Panahi
          2001 Kairo (Pulse), Kyoshi Kurosawa
          2001 Pisutoru opera (Pistol Opera), Seijun Suzuki*
          2001 Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away), Hayao Miyazaki

          * = a film based on an earlier work or works—which, perversely, is often a great way to make something new!

          …Although of course others may not agree with me about these works. Maybe they’ve seen it all before! What we find new is of course partly due to what we already know.


  6. literary fiction can be thought of as a kind of lump or default genre, or a for-lack-of-any-more-concretely-defining-category genre, thats fine. where i get antsy is the idea that literary is pretending to be a genre. that idea promulgates the us vs. them mentality. i dont think any advocate of literary fiction declares it to be absolutely separate from any particular genre. you keep citing examples of literary that draws from more particular genres, but in my mind that doesnt make it that genre. something influenced by something doesn’t lend its definition along with said influence. no one denies literary doesn’t take genre elements, its impossible not to, but what makes something a work of literary fiction for me is what is at the root of it, whats its intention.

    by driving, i mean it more vaguely, not absolutely. nothing can be absolutely anything in this discussion. barthelme’s characters *seem* to drive situations (or if not, they seem to be driven by a kind of logic that it is difficult to comprehend an author contrived (for me atleast (preference!))), but of course barthelme’s characters and situations are written by barthelme, not the characters. this is what i mean by contrivance existing in different places and in either obvious or subtle ways. so i do think there is something that makes a work *feel* more like literary fiction and something that makes a work *feel* more like it belongs to a more specific genre, but maybe isnt’ so definable I think, as much as ive tried and am exhausted from.

      1. I’ve had some writers and professors tell me that it isn’t. (See Rachel’s post over at Jeff VanderMeer’s blog for other examples.) And I think many people approach it that way. Personally, I disagree with them, and I think there’s a lot of value in approaching it as genre, and in identifying its conventions. It doesn’t make the writing any less good.

        Paul’s essay “On the Origins of Genre” (the one he linked to above) is pretty excellent on all of this:

        A genre does not emerge, entire and fully armed, from the body of literature. A better analogy might be evolution by means of natural selection. There is an inchoate mass of story, each individual writer struggling with each individual story to produce something that will succeed, that will sell, or will please an editor, or will please a reader, or will make a particular point, or will work in a formal experimental sense, or, more likely, that will do several or all of these and perhaps more besides. In order to do this they might use ideas or themes or settings picked up from other writers, or which are a reaction against those of other writers; they might distort something old and familiar or invent something entirely new; they might take bits and pieces from a dozen different sources and recombine them in a novel way or regard them from a novel perspective. The exact details of this evolutionary process need not concern us, but eventually enough writers will be producing work that is sufficiently similar for us to start recognising patterns.

        Once we have this identifiable pattern, and we have given a name to it (let us, for the sake of argument, call it ‘science fiction’), some people will work strictly within the pattern, others will deliberately avoid the pattern, still others will occupy a vague hinterland part in and part out of the pattern, while there will be yet more who cross the borders working within or outwith the pattern as the inspiration takes them. Yet none of them, even those working strictly within its boundaries, will replicate the pattern precisely in every instance. Were they to do so, they would be writing the same book; as long as writers are writing different books they will be in a constant process of taking different things from and adding different things to the pattern. The pattern, the genre, is hence in a state of constant flux.

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