Lois Tilton July 31st, 2006
So much is it disrespected that people outside genre will go to great lengths to disassociate themselves from it, so much that Ansible regularly features the disclaimers of various Literary Personages: “My work isn’t science fiction, it’s [perfect description of science fiction].”
Those of us within genre tend to object that the various Literary Personages are just being fatheads. If science fiction includes fiction set in the future, then any literature set in the future must by definition be science fiction â€“ right? But this, as simple as it might seem to us, isn’t at all what the Literary Personages mean when they declare: “My work isn’t science fiction.” And it is no use insisting, as we often do, that the Literary Personages are only displaying their ignorance of actual science fiction, that they don’t understand science fiction is exactly what they are doing when they write a work of realistic fiction set in the future, without, say, any talking squids. Because it is not the subject matter of the work they are referring to. What they are actually saying is: “My work isn’t crap.” And the unspoken premise is quite clear: because science fiction is crap. Because genre fiction is crap. No one respects it.
The genres even disrespect themselves, renaming themselves, attempting to distance themselves from the genre labels. Science fiction is SF, it’s Speculative Fiction â€“ but never “sci-fi,” which is the term we reserve for crap. Fantasy keeps adopting trendy new labels, trying them on for fit: magic realism, or fabulism, or slipstream fiction â€“ anything but That Genre Crap. So we have “genre romance” vs Jane Austen; we have “genre fantasy” vs Italo Calvino. One is crap, the other is genius, or maybe “literature.”
It seems absurd, though, to talk about “genre fantasy.” If fantasy is a genre, then wouldn’t that just mean “fantasy fantasy?” And isn’t the notion of a non-genre fantasy simply contradictory? But the term “genre” has come to mean something entirely different from a story’s subject matter. A story’s subject matter may fall under the heading of fantasy, but now it must be further categorized as genre or non-genre fantasy. “Genre” is what Jane Austen doesn’t write. Genre is not-literary. And in the eyes of many, genre is crap.
What exactly does “genre” mean in this sense? Just what is it that distinguishes the genre from the non-genre story when their subject matter may be exactly the same? This is the sort of question that seems to call for Damon Knight’s ostensive formulation: Genre is what we mean when we point to it.
But I would like to argue first for a change of terms, from “genre” to “generic.” This, I believe, would be more clear, less susceptible to confusion. Not to mention that “genre” is a noun, not an adjective. Instead of “genre fantasy,” for example, I propose that we speak of “generic fantasy.”
So, to return to the question: what is meant when people talk about generic genre fiction? The usage of generic for drugs may serve as an example. Drug companies first develop and patent an original formula. Later, when the patent has expired, generic copies can be made, more or less following this formula. In the same way, a generic work of fiction can be said to follow, more or less, a formula. That is, every genre has accumulated a collection of characteristic tropes: plots, settings, characters that are typical of that genre. The most simple, and most formulaic, example is the romance plot structure: girl gets boy. A work that is written to conform with this formula is a generic romance, created within the characteristic boundaries established by the works that have been previously been written in the genre. Generic fiction, in other words, is imitative, not original. This doesn’t mean that a genre is a static concept. Genre tropes evolve. Romance, for example, has gone from allowing explicit description of sex between the characters to the point where this is generally expected of them.
So if we say that Jane Austen did not write generic romance, we mean by this that she was not following a formula already established for romantic novels of manners. Her work was instrumental in creating this formula, which others after her have then followed, but when she wrote, her work was original. However, if we were to take Pride and Prejudice today and package it as a paperback regency romance, would readers who have never heard of Austen be able to distinguish it from any other generic romance? Is there any quality inherent in Austen’s text that we could call “non-generic”? My answer has to be: No. Its only real distinction is its originality. But its plot fits well within the romance formula. It addresses no issues that are not typically addressed in romance novels. It is an exceptionally engaging, well-written romance, with memorable characters and witty dialogue, but there is really nothing in it that would place it in a class distinct from all the generic romances. It is only literary history that makes us say Austen’s work is not generic romance.
So, if Austen’s romantic novels can’t be distinguished by any intrinsic qualities from any generic romance, must we then call them crap? Oh, no! the Literary Personage will cry. Austen’s stuff is good! But what does that mean? That it isn’t really generic, after all?
If it is not, then we must demand what, exactly, is non-generic about it? What are the non-generic qualities of this work that override the obvious qualities that make it generic? And the Literary Personage can not answer here: “Because it’s good.” Because that would be begging the question: Can generic works not be good?
Or does it mean that some generic works, the best, may in fact be good, but the rest are crap? This would contradict the original claim of the Literary Personage that generic works are crap just because they are part of a genre. Genre means a difference in kind, not in quality. So if there are standards of quality for judging fiction, there is no reason they can’t be applied to generic fiction just as well as non-generic, on an equal basis.
The Literary Personage can’t have it both ways. Either generic works are crap because they are generic, which means all of them are, even Jane Austen’s works. Or some generic works are crap and some are not â€“ which means that “genre is crap” is no more than a generalization, no more than what Sturgeon’s Law has always declared.
This, at least, is how I have come to see the matter. After considering many different attempts to articulate the distinction between generic and non-generic fiction, I have to conclude that while they may offer some insight into the nature of genre writing, there is no absolute criterion by which all fiction can be unequivocally divided into generic and not-generic, regardless of subject matter. It is a false dichotomy.
I believe it would be much better to say that some works are more generic than others. That genres should be conceived as sets defined by the genre formula. That is, for each genre and subgenre, there is a work which we might call a “type specimen.” Often, this is the seminal work in the genre, the one perhaps that brought it into being, the one which has inspired most of the imitations â€“ which most of the subsequent works are imitating. The Lord of the Rings, to take the most obvious example, is the type specimen for epic fantasy. This type specimen should be thought of as occupying the center point of the set, with the other works in that genre surrounding it, more or less in a circle. The closer a work is to the center, the more elements it has in common with the type specimen, the more generic it is. Other works occupy a position closer or further from the center and can be thought of as more or less generic. Moreover, while the type specimen may occupy the center of a genre, every other work in it exerts a gravitational pull, so that elements not present at all in the type specimen may still have a great influence on this collective definition. Further from the center, the set grows more diffuse, its boundaries indistinct. We finally reach a point where it is not clear whether a work belongs within a given genre or not. Many sets overlap; works within that overlapping region may be said to belong to more than one genre.
According to this schema, subject matter is one but not the sole defining criterion of a genre. For example, McCaffrey’s Pern series is, by subject matter, science fiction. It takes place on another planet, supposedly in the future after space flight has been invented. Yet many readers persist in identifying it as fantasy. There are the dragons. This is a fantasy trope, regardless of the fact that McCaffrey insists that “dragon” is just the name for an alien species. But if a thing called a dragon looks like a dragon, walks like a dragon, flames like a dragon, quacks like a dragon . . . it’s fantasy. There is also the hierarchical society on Pern, which many readers identify as “medieval” — another trope central to many subgenres of fantasy. These elements place the Pern books within the fantasy genre and within the science fiction genre to which it belongs by the strict definition of subject matter, as well as a number of other sciencefictional tropes present. The answer is: it’s both; it belongs in both sets. [Particularly if, like me, you include most science fiction as a subset of fantasy.]
So if we take a work by a Literary Personage, a novel set in the future, say, Maggie Inwood’s The Chambermaid’s Tale, it appears from its subject matter to be a near-future religious dystopia, a common sort of Cautionary Tale in science fiction, as is the feminist theme. Well within the set of science fiction.
But no, the author interrupts vehemently, No, No, No, Not, Not, Not! My novel is a novel, it’s not science fiction! Science fiction is crap! My novel isn’t crap! We show her the schema, meticulously charted, with her novel located in proximity to the well-acknowledged, well-regarded science fiction work of Joanna Russ, among others. No, no, no! Not, not, not! I don’t want my novel called science fiction!
Our author, it seems, cares not a whit for our schema, for the set of defining sciencefictional tropes, for any of it. The Literary Personage wants nothing to do with genre. She does not want her novel to be called science fiction. It becomes clear to us that it isn’t the substance of genre that concerns her at all, but rather the appearance. She doesn’t really care whether science fiction or any other genre is crap in fact, but for the fact that people may think her work is crap if it carries a genre label. Genre don’t get no respect, and she doesn’t want to get no respect, neither.
As for the reasons genre don’t get no respect, I shall consider this question at a later time.