Genre Matters, If Only a Little

From time to time, I get a little riled up when it comes to issues of genre. I am, as you can tell, a genre writer. I am also, for the most part, a genre reader. Sci-fi and fantasy is what I like and I’ve got no problem admitting it. Nor do I have a problem with folks who don’t like it. Different strokes and all that.

However, it rubs me the wrong way when people use genre labels as a sign of inferiority. Particularly, it makes me grumpy when people see something that, in spite of all the genre trappings, is so elevated and wonderful that it cannot, under any circumstances, actually be a part of the genre itself. This all flared up back in March with the publication of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.

Ishiguro is the Man Booker Prize winning author of (among other things) The Remains of the Day. He is “Literary” with a capital L. However, first with Never Let Me Go and now with his latest he’s come to play in what folks would generally recognize as the lands of science fiction and fantasy, respectively. But he really wishes they weren’t (I addressed this at my old blog after watching the film version of Never Let Me Go).

Ursula K. Le Guin fired the first shot, responding on an interview Ishiguro did with the New York Times. Here’s how she describes The Buried Giant:

[it] takes place in a non-historic just-post-Arthurian England. Everybody there has lost most of their longterm memory, due to the influence of the breath of a dragon named Querig.

Ogres and other monsters roam the land, but Querig just sleeps and exhales forgetfulness, until a pair of elderly Britons with the singularly unBriton names of Beatrice and Axl arrive with the knight Gawain and a poisoned goat to watch a Saxon named Wistan kill Gawain and then slice the head off the sleeping dragon.

Sounds pretty fantastic, right?

Ishiguro then says:

Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?

They probably will, Le Guin argues, with good reason and with no need of being ashamed. Yet Ishiguro, it seems, “takes the word for an insult.” More recently, in an interview with Neil Gaiman, Ishiguro expressed surprised at such a reaction, asking “why are people so preoccupied?” and wondering if genre labels were just something created by the publishing industry.

He’s certainly right that genres make things easier for the sellers of books – which includes authors, by the way. But they also make things easier for readers. If I read Book X and it falls into Genre 1, then maybe I might like to check out other things that fall into Genre 1, right? Sure, the genre definitions get fuzzy along the boundaries (go see any of the “what is progressive rock?” debates on the Web for proof!), but some guidance is better than none.

Admittedly, some genre signposts don’t tell you very much. Gaiman makes this point:

I think that there’s a huge difference between, for example, a novel with spies in it and a spy novel; or a novel with cowboys in it and a cowboy novel.

Can’t argue with that. The Big Lebowski isn’t a “cowboy movie” just because there’s a cowboy in it, after all. But it doesn’t really do much to tell you what it’s about. Likewise, a story with a detective as a main character could be lots of different things: mystery, police procedural, domestic drama, comedy, etc. But those two genres do have one thing in common – their stories exist in the real world.

Science fiction, fantasy, and (to a lesser extent) horror stories don’t take place in our world. That’s what makes them “speculative,” after all. Stories told in the real world have to confine to our world – if a key scene requires a character to get from one side of town to the other in 10 minutes she can’t just close her eyes, mumble some Latin, and teleport herself. But in the speculative genres anything is possible. The writer has to develop her world and its rules, but isn’t constrained by how the real world operates. It’s a Rubicon kind of thing – once you cross it, you can’t uncross it.

But genre has nothing to do with quality. There’s good science fiction and bad (cue Sturgeon), good fantasy and bad, good literary fiction and bad (keeping in mind the highly subjective nature of “good” or “bad”). If there’s a stigma about genre fiction it’s largely because writers like Ishiguro (and, at earlier times, Margaret Atwood) and his critics insist that his work is too good to be labeled as such.

That’s my great objection. I don’t care that Ishiguro or anyone else wants to come play with some of the trappings of genre fiction while not buying wholly into the genre’s tropes. It’s perfectly OK to come into our sandbox and play by yourself. That doesn’t obscure that you are, in fact, in the sandbox with us. Don’t insult our intelligence by arguing otherwise.


5 thoughts on “Genre Matters, If Only a Little

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